Onstage & Backstage: What Were Stephen Sondheim’s Notes for Vanessa Williams?

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: What Were Stephen Sondheim’s Notes for Vanessa Williams?
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth prepares for a Rent-themed surprise at Disaster! and plays a concert with Vanessa Williams, who reveals details from her Into the Woods days!
Vanessa Williams and Seth Rudetsky
Vanessa Williams and Seth Rudetsky

Remember when Rent was the new, hot musical? Back then, when the show first opened on Broadway, my friend Traci Lyn Thomas had an audition to cover Maureen. I remember her giving me the sheet music they sent for the audition. It was “Take Me For What I Am” and it was a photocopy. It was really hard to read, and whoever copied it didn’t quite place the pages correctly because I remember seeing the lyric “What to do with my im- “ and then the rest was blurred. We had no idea what the lyric was. Im-? Im- what? There are references in the show to Carmina Burana. Was Im- the beginning of Imogene Coca? There was no cast album yet to listen to for reference, and we certainly couldn’t hear the song on Broadway to learn what the word was because it was impossible to get tickets. So frustrating!

P.S. The end of the story is: the word is “impromptu,” but I think Traci Lyn didn’t find out until she literally got to the audition and, spoiler alert, she wasn’t cast. Anyhoo, I bring this up because it’s now been twenty years since then yet the amazing part is, there are people who are still completely obsessed with that show. I want to give a heads up for the minions of “Rent-heads” to come see Disaster! on Thursday night at 7 PM for a delicious surprise! Trust me! DisasterMusical.com

Wednesday night <i>Rent </i>surprise
Thursday night Rent surprise

OK, we’re finally changing our Disaster! schedule and adding Wednesday matinees starting next week. This coming week is our last Sunday night show. Since we opened, we’ve been having Tuesdays off and last Tuesday I had a gig at the Parker Playhouse in Ft. Lauderdale, FL. Imagine how much “fun” this moment was for me; I woke up early Tuesday and hightailed it to the airport. Right before I got out of the cab and went into JFK, I remembered that my birthday was February 28th. Why was that significant on March 22? Because it was also the day my driver’s license expired! AH! That was the only form of picture ID I had on me. I have a passport, but didn’t bring it with me. Would they accept the so-called “leisure pass” I used to get into the North Woodmere pool in the 1970s? (See photo. Answer: No).

Seth Rudetsky‘s Leisure Pass
Seth Rudetsky‘s Leisure Pass

As I was entering the airport I had a full anxiety attack; How was I going to get past security? Would James have to take an emergency Uber to the airport with my passport? Could I “sweet talk” the TSA agent? Would I luck out and get a SiriusXM fan who would look the other way at my faulty ID? Well, I walked up to the agent, showed my license…and was waved through! Note to everybody: Turns out, you get up to a year after your license expires before you’re denied access! FYI, knowing my adult A.D.D., I’m not getting mine renewed for another 364 days.

Thankfully, I got to Florida and the show with Vanessa Williams was great. It’s the kind of show I do where I interview the celeb between songs and Vanessa is so much fun to talk to…you can tell she’s a real theatre person. I mean that in the sense the she’s very no-frills, open and honest and “one of the gang.” And yet, I asked her why she’s so good at playing harsh divas like Willehmena Slater on Ugly Betty. She said she loves to hear stories about crazy celebrity behavior so she can use them for background. One of her favorites was about a famous singer who was sitting and eating. What’s so diva-ish about that? Well, she wasn’t using any of her appendages to do the eating. That’s right, she was being fed by her assistant! After she told us that, we launched into “Peel Me A Grape,” one of my fave songs. If you don’t know it, here’s a video of Blossom Dearie singing it in NYC. I love how great her playing piano is and how young and girlish her voice is…at 75 years old!

If you recognize the sound of her voice and you’re over 40, it’s because she’s the same singer who performed “Figure Eight” for Schoolhouse Rock. Watch!

Vanessa talked about working with Sondheim on Into the Woods and how he and James Lapine were revising the script for the 2002 revival. For this version, they added the Baker and his wife arguing, which allowed The Witch to pick up their baby. This suddenly gave her all the power as she sang “The Last Midnight.” Vanessa remembers that Sondheim would fax ideas throughout the rehearsal period, and she’d hear James Lapine read them out loud. One day she remembers Lapine reading “…and The Witch reaches her bloody hand out and smothers the baby to death.” Immediately Lapine shook his head, saying “Stephen, NO.” But Vanessa was frantically thinking “I’ll do it! I’ll do anything you want, Mr. Sondheim.”

Speaking of Sondheim, I asked if she ever got notes from “the master” and she remembers during Sondheim On Sondheim she sang “Good Thing Going” and he told her that on the lyric “…and only moments, no more because we knew…” she should pronounce “knew” with a liquid U. Who knew? Or should I say, who kn-eue? My favorite liquid U is Linda Lavin’s amazing rendition of “You’ve Got Possibilites” where she puts a liquid U in the word “suit.” Watch!

Last Wednesday matinee, my friend, Larry Rogowsky, interviewed audience members, and Jack and I collected the footage and cut it into a one minute commercial. I cannot stop watching it. I’m most obsessed with “I like disco.” I want it to be my ringtone. Everyone is so fun! Watch!

Last week I interviewed two of the lady stars from On Your Feet! on Seth Speaks, and this week I was visited by two of the male stars! Not at my radio show, but backstage at Disaster! Carlos Gonzales and Henry Gainza go to different Broadway shows and deliver a big pot of Café Bustelo coffee. I’ve never heard of shows doing that for each other, but I’m so glad they started the tradition. They met me by the stage door, and then we all went up to Adam Pascal’s dressing room and Adam, Jennifer Simard, Roger Bart and I all had some of the delicious coffee on Saturday night before the show. I filmed the whole thing on Facebook and you can see me and Roger Bart laughing up a storm about two things:

A. That matinee, I cracked on my “Sky High” high note. It happens near the beginning of the song, and Roger Bart and I could not look at each other for the rest of the number without laughing. The very last beat of the song is supposed to be Roger and me, face-to-face, starting each other down. Well, we were face-to-face….but I was looking completely downstage and his eyes were completely upstage. We knew if even glanced at each other, it would have been the end. Of our careers.

B. We also recreate a moment that would happen all the time when Roger was doing a TV series years ago with a guest star who had a slight wandering eye. The director would say “Um..you’re supposed to be looking at camera three,” and the actor would defiantly say, “I am looking camera three!” with one eye looking left and one looking right. I can’t tell you how many times Roger does that for me backstage and each time I laugh.

You can watch the coffee delivery and Roger’s antics here:

Coffee delivery to DISASTER from ON YOUR FEET

Posted by Seth Rudetsky on Saturday, March 26, 2016

And now I say to thee (in honor of The Crucible opening), peace out!

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