Onstage and Backstage: The Recording Studio Secrets of Making “Broadway for Orlando”

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage and Backstage: The Recording Studio Secrets of Making “Broadway for Orlando” This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth spills how parts were assigned, solos were sung, tracks were pieced together and more for the “Broadway for Orlando” recording.

And now Part Two of the making of “Broadway For Orlando.”

So! We’re still on Monday when James got the idea to do a “We Are The World” version of “What The World Needs Now” with all Broadway people. Before I even woke up, he got on the horn with the LGBT Community Center here in New York and connected with Glendda Testone, the executive director. She told us that the NY Community Center could be the fiscal sponsor in order to channel the funds to Orlando. James then formed an LLC called “Broadway For Orlando” that could accept the money. Speaking of money, and this is a very important point, we met Terry DeCarlo and his husband Bill on Saturday. They told us that the Center is getting non-stop requests for money: Many of the victims are still in the hospital and have no health insurance. Also, the ones in the hospital and the ones who are still recovering can’t work and, therefore, can’t pay their rent or even buy food. One victim was released from the hospital but came home to his apartment with no roomates because both had been murdered. He still had to pay his rent. Some great organizations are raising lots of money, but the processing takes a long time and most of the funds won’t be available for eight weeks. They’ve been relying on giving out gift cards, but they’re running out and they need money now! Therefore, if you wanna donate, you can help by downloading the single, gifting it to friends or buying the CD. We’re also asking businesses to buy the CD in bulk and give to their employees. And you can also find a link here where you can donate more. It will go right to them immediately!

OK. So by the end of Monday we had all the business stuff worked out and we had lots of “Yes” responses for singers. I had no time to meet with Marc Shaiman to work on the vocal arrangement (which I was panicked about doing) because I spent the whole day in an email frenzy. I didn’t just send one email and CC a bunch of singers, I sent personal emails/texts to each person. So now it’s Tuesday, and I thought I would have time to talk through an arrangement with Marc over the phone, but I had to go to Philadelphia to do a show with Kelli O’Hara. On a side note, in the middle of the show, Kelli brought up her friend Kaytie O’Hara (no relation!). Kaytie and Kelli met in New York and became friends, but Kaytie had to move back to Philly to get treatment for bone cancer that was found in her face. She got surgery and was cancer free and then, horrifically, it came back. She got more surgery which really changed the shape of her face, but she can get reconstructive surgery soon. Kelli brought her onstage to sing and she has such a great voice!!!! Someone bootlegged the performance and here it is. Brava!

By the time I got back to NYC Tuesday night it was midnight. I had sent a recording to Marc Shaiman that afternoon with some vocal arrangement ideas, and he was so positive about them. I began to feel confident we could get them done quickly, but when? I remembered that the studio wasn’t big enough for the full orchestra and the singers, so we were going to record the orchestra in the morning and the singers starting at 4 PM. I knew I’d have time between recording sessions to do the arrangement. Phew. So, Wednesday morning came and we recorded the orchestral tracks. Cam Moncur did such a great orchestration! The orchestra and Steve Marzullo, who conducted, were so happy to be there.

When it was over, I was hoping to meet Marc, but he wrote me an email saying he had to be at Charlie and The Chocolate Factory rehearsal and was devastated he couldn’t be there. On Monday I had felt so desperate to have him at the session to do everything. I was terrified of facing a room of Broadway stars who were thinking “We came here because we trusted you, but this is a nightmare! What’s our harmony line? YOU DON’T KNOW WHAT YOU’RE DOING!” but by Wednesday Marc had given me the confidence I could get it done without him. It was very much like the final scene of any afterschool special where the mentor says “Don’t you see? You’ve always been able to do it. You just needed someone to give you the confidence.”

Lin-Manuel Miranda at “Broadway for Orlando”
Lin-Manuel Miranda at “Broadway for Orlando”

So, that afternoon I wrote out the harmonies and Marzullo gave me the OK that they would sound good. Then I had to look at the final list of people who were coming: So many! And some were amazing singers and some were character actors and some were people who sang but didn’t consider themselves singers. Ah! How could they all be on the same recording! James told me that one of the cool things about “We Are The World” were all the different types of voices on it. Delicious! It calmed me down, and I started to assign various solos and duets. James said one of the things he loved about the original video is seeing people sing in a group who aren’t normally together so I put one section with Lin-Manuel Miranda, Rosie O’Donnell, Marissa Jaret Winkor and Matthew Broderick. For another one, I wanted to do a tip o’ the hat to Broadway icons so I teamed up Len Cariou, Tommy Tune, Joel Grey and Chita Rivera!

At 4PM people started arriving. I taught them their solos and they immediately went into the recording booth and sang them about four times so we had a few takes we could choose from. Many people showed up not knowing they were going to be filmed hence Andrea Martin emailing me a few days later and writing “I just watched the video and I cried…because I was wearing no makeup!” Andrea and Sean Hayes had to sing in harmony (a third apart) and were in separate recording booths. Sean is so hilarious reenacting how difficult it was for him to retain his harmony. I was in his isolation booth and right before each take he would ask me to sing his first note. He’d sing it back and the second it was in his head, Andrea in the other booth would sing her first note! She was on the melody and had no need to keep singing her first note, but she kept doing it on a loop and always right at the moment when Sean would finally have his note. It was relentless and hilarious. Here’s a video where Sean and I reenact it. (Fast forward to the 14-minute mark!)

Other celebs showed up not knowing they were going to have a solo. Sarah Jessica Parker was completely shocked when I started teaching hers. First of all why?! She starred in Annie! Also, I couldn’t understand why she was so miffed, since I had specifically sent her a recording in advance with me singing the solo I picked out for her. Of course, after busting her I went home that night and saw the most annoying thing on my phone; the so-called “Outbox.” It’s basically mail that, for some reason, has never been sent. That’s right, you push send and you find out later on the email never sent, and you were never notified. It’s just sitting comfortable in your “Outbox.” So, yes, there in the outbox was the email for Sarah with the recording I made of her solo; her “I had no idea you wanted me to sing a solo” was completely real. By the way, I think most people don’t have the “Outbox” problem because it’s specific only to AOL users and basically only me and Marissa Jaret Winokur still use AOL. #OldSchool. Or simply #Old.

I’d say the quickest perfection of a solo was Audra (McDonalad) who did hers in two takes. Of course, the first one was exactly right, but we got a second one in the can just in case.

When Stokes (a.k.a. Brian Stokes Mitchell) started his section “Lord, we don’t need another mountain. There are mountains and hillsides enough to cross.” I told him that James and I were first confused about the lyrics…was it an anti-environment song? How bizarre! Then I told him that James researched it and found out Hal David meant that we had been given so many wonderful things….we have so many beautiful mountains and rivers and meadows. But the one thing we weren’t given enough of was love. Stokes then told me he also wondered what they meant and did his own analysis. He thought it referred to the fact that all of these things were barriers…mountains must be climbed to get to the other side, oceans must be crossed…in other words we had barriers to keep us apart, but we needed love to bring us close. I was so impressed with his “I’m an actor, let me dissect the lyrics” homework that I told him to use whatever worked for him!

Next, I told Billy Porter the lyrics I wanted him to sing. He sang the notes back exactly as written, and I sang him a more fun version. He reeled back with sass and asked “You’re gonna show me the riff?” Busted! And of course, he then added the most delicious riff. It’s actually my favorite phrase of the whole song. Literally can’t stop singing it. If you haven’t seen my Billy riffs obsession, watch this ASAP.

When Idina Menzel and Kristen Bell told me they were going to record together in L.A. (with Wayne Brady joining them), I told Kristen to open the song with “What the world needs now is love, sweet love” and Idina to sing “No, not just for some, but for everyone….” They recorded it and told me they were going to send the film of it. Then, I showed Michael Moritz (amazing producer) my solo divisions and he told me he was nervous about starting with Idina and Kristen. Why? Because he knew it was going to be a music video and he was nervous the video quality could be totally different from the rest. He didn’t want the video to being clunky which would make people not watch anymore. Ah! But I already had them record their solos! Wait a minute! That phrase repeated throughout the song! Even though they were singing the part that happens in the first part of the song, I could get two other singers (which wound up being Sara Bareilles and Audra MacDonald) to sing the opening and then use Kristen and Idina in the second part. The old switcheroo!

Finally it was 5:30 PM, and James said we had to do the group singing. Avatar Studios (which donated everything!) had told us we couldn’t fit everyone into the same studio, but suddenly they were all there! The celebs had all been in the other rooms where tons of food had been donated. (I never left the studio but I heard it was delicious sushi, pizza, Shmackery’s etc.)

Uh-oh…I was suddenly doing what I feared: teaching the vocal arrangement to a room full of Broadway stars…but I felt confident. Thank you Marc Shaiman who kept calmly saying over the past two days, “You don’t need me. You do this all the time.” The only hard part was I didn’t have a piano! The piano was in another part of the studio that was totally buried. I had to teach everyone their parts
a. with no sheet music (because I didn’t write it down) and
b. a cappella because of the no piano.

Thankfully, everyone picked it up in five seconds and it sounded great! My favorite harmony part (and favorite dishy moment) is when the women sing “Whoa!” during the modulation. I sang them the top soprano line by playing the notes (B-D-A), then the alto line (G-B-D) then I sang the lower alto (D-G-B!). Suddenly Carole King yelled out “E-G-B”? And I thought, “Poor thing can’t hear that well.” I kindly said, “No, dear…D-G B” and then she kindly, but firmly said, “But you’re singing an E.” Turns out, the person who can’t hear that well is me, and the person with perfect pitch is Carole King!

Carole King and James
Carole King and James

Speaking of Carole King, she was the celeb James was most excited/moved to meet. He had, psychic-style, been listening to Tapestry for the entire week before the recording session, having no idea he would have a chance to meet her. He brought the album to the session and asked her to sign it. She told him, “It’s been a while since I’ve been here.” He thought she meant Avatar studios. She told him she meant any studio. She doesn’t record anymore so it was the first time in many years. She then told him how right it was that we were doing this and called him a mensch! I love this photo of them hugging!

When we finished the harmony it was around 6:30 PM and I went back to recording the solos. So many people had shows to get to and we had no real schedule. Matthew Broderick and Sean Hayes were both late for their half hour call! Of course, Matthew was late because it took so long to get to his solo…I recorded Sean’s part around 4:15 so I think he was late for his show because he was having a great time chatting with everybody!

When I did Lin-Manuel’s solo he kept asking if he could be the Bob Dylan of the recording a la Dylan’s ‘singing’ for “We Are The World.” Lin kept speaking “What the world…needs now” with no rhythm or pitch a la Dylan and we actually considered adding it for comic effect. We opted out.
The end of the original version of the song is a repeated vamp that’s sung very sweetly. Well, that morning at the gym I was talking to Roldan Lopez, one of the trainers who works there (who is also one of the best massage therapists around). I mentioned the recording I was about to do and who was on it and as I was exiting he said, “Nothing brings the gay community together more than a belted F.” I agreed…but then wondered where the belted F’s were going to be. I remembered my Actors Fund recording of Hair and there was a beltfest at the end of “Let The Sunshine In” featuring Orfeh, Darius DeHaas, Billy Porter and Brandi Chavonne Massey.

I decided “What the World Needs Now Is Love” should end the same way! But later that day when I listened to the playback of the orchestra recording, I realized it had been orchestrated to be like I first requested: very mellow. Oh no! The orchestra had left. Then Michael Moritz and I found a section of the song after the modulation that was orchestrated and played very forte and the engineer was able to delete the mellow measures and copy and paste those sassy measures on a loop at the end of the song. Delish! So to get those belted notes I got a fabulous quartet of ladies: Orfeh, Lillias White, Keala Settle and Carmen Cusak. And P.S. They weren’t belted F’s—it was in D major so they were belted F sharps!

After the recording, Keala wrote to me to say how meaningful it was to her in the studio; after she did her crazy high riffing section, she came out of the recording booth and saw Lillias who had been listening. Lillias praised her and warned “I’m going to throw both my shoes at you!” (P.S. Shoes are thrown at people who sing amazingly.) Keala flipped out because when she was young she listened obsessively to the Hercules soundtrack and told me she learned to riff like that from listening to Lillias! How amazing to be praised by the teacher!

As we were wrapping up the day, I saw Michael Unger (who recently directed You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown at the York Theater) and asked about his wife, Janet Metz, who I’ve been obsessed with since I saw her play Cordelia in Falsettoland.

I thought “Argh! I should have asked Janet to be here!” Then I realized there was one part at the end of the bridge where I wanted a belter, and I had forgotten to record it! I told Michael I was in heed, he called Janet and she arrived in a taxi 15 minutes later. So the very last thing recorded was Janet singing “Til the end of time” and going up a fourth!

The next day James, Steve Marzullo and I went to Michael Croiter’s Yellow Sound Lab studio to pick the takes for the recording. It was so fun to find the best ones. The hardest parts were the riffs at the end. Those ladies all had entered the isolation booth separately and sang for all those measures. It wasn’t like I said Orfeh do the first four measures, then Keala give me something etc. There was non-stop singing, so if they were all played at the same time, it would sound crazy. We knew we had to dilute them down. Croiter got a great idea: He played each belter all the way through and highlighted what riffs I liked best and muted the rest. Then we went eight measures phrase-by-phrase. Sometimes, there was good riff that happened later that we were able to move to an earlier part of the section. It was like a jigsaw puzzle, but it wound up coming out great! I love how you hear Lillias at the very end during the fade-out going “love, love, love, love…”

There’s much more, and stay tuned for it in next week’s column!

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