ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Tenor, a Soprano and a Mermaid

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Tenor, a Soprano and a Mermaid A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole

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I began rehearsals last week for Lend Me a Tenor, so naturally I'm already in tech.

Huh?!?!

I feel like I'm in one-week summer stock again (where you rehearse and perform a different show each week), but the difference is when I did one-week stock, I was the music director in the pit and had the luxury of reading music. Now I'm one of the poor actors onstage desperately trying to remember my lines, my blocking, and which facial expression I'm using out of my signature mugs.

We have to drive to the theatre (it's in Northport), and last night we spent the entire van ride home telling each other about onstage memorization failures. It seems that there are two types of memory washouts. One is not knowing the role well enough (which I'm experiencing at the moment) and the other is from doing the role over and over, being on automatic pilot and getting thrown. Jim Poulos, who plays the lead in Tenor, took over for Anthony Rapp in Rent and told us that around two years into his run, he came onstage at the beginning of the show, set up his tripod and began his opening speech. Halfway through he got lost and kept trying to regain his place. Terrifying. Finally he said, "Excuse me," walked off stage with the tripod, came back on, re-set it up, started the whole show over and did the speech perfectly. He knew he'd only get it right if he began the whole thing again. Not surprisingly, he also gave his notice that week! When James (boyfriend) and I were visiting Betty Buckley in Texas, she told us about playing Catherine in Pippin. Her first entrance happens in Act Two. She runs onstage and says to the audience something like: "I knew that I shouldn't have stopped on the side of the road when I saw Pippin, but I did when I saw the curve of his foot." Betty said that one night after she was in the show for more than two years, she ran out and suddenly she felt everything around her slow down. She was first silent for a very long time. Very long. Then she elongated every word "I-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-i….kne-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-e-ew…….tha-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-at— etc" Betty said that the conductor was giving her the lines from the pit and the stage manager was screaming them from offstage. But she was in a state of peace, just enjoying the lights onstage and having no sense of time. Suddenly, she snapped out of it, realized she was on a Broadway stage and did the rest of the speech in around three seconds. Betty explained the reason for what happened with a very Eastern interpretation. She believes that if you repeat the same action over and over again for a period of time, you can go into a completely meditative type trance, and doing that same speech eight times a week for two-and-a-half years did it! I guess if your subconscious mistakes the stage of the Imperial Theater for an Ashram, an awkward Second Act can ensue. Suffice it to say, she pulled a Jim Poulos and gave notice that night.

Anyhoo, the show is going great, and the John W. Engeman Theater is so nice! As soon as we walked in, the lobby reminded me of a Country Inn hotel, and all I wanted to do is move in. Where's the bellhop? Oh, wait, I play him. Ironic. Then we had that exciting moment of walking into the theatre for the first time and seeing the set. It's always so fun to go from rickety-rackety rehearsal room to full set, and this time did not disappoint. I think the set is fantastic! And I'm not just saying that because Court Watson, the set designer, was the only one in the audience during tech rehearsal laughing at every thing I did. Although, it didn't hurt.

The actors are all so good, but I feel horrible for Neal Benari because his character, Tito Mirelli, the great opera star, passes out in the middle of Act One and therefore Neal has to spend the second half of the act (a) totally immobile, (b) under a hot blanket with hot lights beating while dressed in full costume. Oy, the sweat! Why do the South Beach Diet when you can be in Lend Me a Tenor? Two pounds a night, five on two-show days. Come see the show! (www.johnwenegemantheater.com)

I went to see The Little Mermaid last week with James and Juli (his seven-year-old daughter). That cast is ta-len-ted! First of all, as most of you know, I'm obsessed with high notes, and Little Mermaid features both Tituss Burgess and Eddie Korbich, two men with the ranges of Elphaba. It's the only Broadway show I know where two different songs end on high E flats...with a man singing them! Tituss also takes half the song up the octave during "Under the Sea," which should be retitled "Over the Staff Line." Who could possibly replace him? Mariah? Bravi!

Speaking of high notes, I also loved seeing my friend Tyler Maynard, who was the tenor in Altar Boyz> now playing one of the eels, à la Amy Sedaris in "Strangers with Candy" ...aka, slightly cross-eyed and bucktoothed. Also, I was very pleased to see my old buddy from The Producers, John Treacy Egan, who was amazing as the chef singing "Les Poissons," which I think is French for well-placed high notes with vibrato.

I, of course, thought Sherie Rene Scott was hilarious. One of the reviews seemed to have an issue with her sometimes sounding like she had five different accents (British, Borscht Belt, Sophie Tucker, etc…) and I thought, "Exactly. That's what makes it funny." It's like writing, "She sang low and high notes…and some notes that were held." Right. It's called a song.

I was devastated though that Norm Lewis didn't have his own song. He's my favorite male Broadway singer and being in the audience was like a different version of the expression "You can look…but you cannot touch"; i.e., "You can look… but you cannot listen." Frustrating! But he sounded amazing on what he got to sing…and hopefully from now on he'll make the bold choice of always walking around shirtless. When 'ya got it, flaunt it.

I had the pleasure of interviewing Judy Kuhn again, this time for my Sirius radio show, and we talked about her first rehearsal for Les Miz. Apparently, what went down is something John Caird does all the time and calls the "trial by fire." Each actor has to do an imitation of a cartoon character they loved as a child. They then have to act out scenes as those characters. Apparently, the theory is, if you totally humiliate yourself on the first day of rehearsal in front of everybody else, then your inhibitions will be gone. Really? I was humiliated in front of everyone in high school and retained all of my inhibitions. And then some.

Also, I got an email asking why Judy did Sunset Boulevard in L.A. but didn't take it to Broadway. She told me that the reason is now 13 years old. Yes, she got pregnant right before the Broadway run and told me that the role of Betty would have been much different if she had played it seven months pregnant. I guess Sunset Boulevard would have had to have a rewritten plot featuring Betty as an unwed mother or Joe Gillis as a chubby chaser.

On Thursday, I interviewed Christine Ebersole at the Chatterbox. First of all, she grew her hair out, The Ritz-style, and it looks great! We started the show with Scott Frankel (composer of Grey Gardens) at the piano. Normally, I save the song for the end, but he graciously agreed to show up and play if he could leave in time to see the opening of Little Mermaid. Yes, I usually play for the guests, but I wanted Christine to sing "Around the World," and the piano part is tendonitis-inducing. Scott told me that it's based on Chopin's Revolutionary Etude, which is a tip o' the hat to Little Edie's first song in Act Two, "The Revolutionary Costume of the Day." Of course, Christine sounded amazing on it, and it was thrilling for me to be on the side of the stage as she sang it and watch her face, which is so open and seems to have such an enormous well of emotion underneath it. I asked Christine how she first learned of Grey Gardens, and she said that she had free time while living in L.A. and rented five DVDs. "Grey Gardens" was the first and only one she wound up watching. She said she was so riveted that her friend she was living with would essentially slide food into the room through a slot à la prison. Then her agent called and said that she was offered a Terrence McNally play at Sundance to workshop, but she told him that she couldn't possibly uproot her life and go to Sundance, even though it was for the fabulous Terrence McNally. Then her agent called back and said that another show wanted her for Sundance…Grey Gardens. Her obsession kicked in, she immediately booked a flight and spent a week at Sundance creating Little Edie/avoiding Terrence McNally.

Christine's from the Midwest, moved to N.Y. in her very early twenties and immediately started waitressing. Christine Andreas (note different last name) was playing the maid in Angel Street on Broadway (the play that's the basis for Gaslight) and got cast as Eliza in the My Fair Lady revival. Christine tried out, got the gig and told her restaurant "Ta, ta! I'm going to Broadway! See 'ya around!" Angel Street closed unceremoniously, and three weeks later Christine was back at the restaurant, begging to get her job back.

Then she went in for On the Twentieth Century because right after the show opened, Madeline Kahn left and Judy Kaye, her understudy, got the role. Christine said that there were a ton of women waiting to audition along with her. She walked in, sang and Hal Prince ran to the stage and said, "Kid, can you learn the part in four days?" She said 'Sure!,' and he hired her. She felt terrible leaving the audition area and walking through the slew of women waiting to get in and audition because she knew there wasn't a job available anymore! She played the maid and went on for the lead around eight times but said that her voice wasn't yet up to snuff. She would see conductor Paul Gemignani raising his eyebrows in the pit trying to get her up to the high notes. But, she said, even though she was a bit of a vocal clunkstress, she got all her laughs. Brava! Actually, half a brava. Bra.

After Twentieth Century, she got an audition for the role of Laurie in the Oklahoma! revival. Everyone thought of her as a soprano because of her role in Twentieth Century, but she really wanted to be Ado Annie, aka, get the laughs. She asked if they would consider her for that role instead — she auditioned and got it! That cast was stupendous. Laurence Guittard was Curly, Harry Groener was Will Parker, Martin Vidnovic was Jud and, the lady who gave Christine her first break, Christine Andreas, was Laurie.

Christine did the show for around a year, and right after she gave her notice, she was asked to audition to replace the woman playing Guenevere opposite Richard Burton in a big tour of Camelot. At her audition Richard Burton came up on stage to read with her. She said it was one of those things where she was shaking hands and politely saying, "Nice to meet you," while inside she was screaming, "It's Richard BURTO-O-O-O-O-ON!!!!!!!!!!!"

A la On the Twentieth Century, she had to learn the part in less than a week, but instead of it being the role of the maid (and then understudying a lead), it was the actual leading lady with tons of dialogue and songs. She did her final show of Oklahoma! on a Sunday matinee and then flew up to Canada on Monday. She was looking forward to finally getting to do her one run-through on Thursday night, but unfortunately Richard Burton came up to her before and said, "These lights are killing me. You don't mind if I skip the run-through, do you?" That's right, her only time doing the whole show from start to finish with her co-star would be opening night! And, because the woman she replaced was short and she's tall, the first time she got to wear her costumes was also opening night. She said that in the middle of "The Lusty Month of May," she suddenly heard a devil voice in one ear saying, "You have absolutely no idea what you're supposed to do next, do you? Mwa-ha-ha-ha-ha-ha!" In the other ear she heard, "Be here now. Be here now." Both voices fought it out, and obviously the good voice won because right at the point that Christine had to sing, the correct words came out.

She said that most of 1981 is a blur because she had three major things happen that are on the high-stress list: She got divorced, she moved and she got a new job ("Saturday Night Live"). All in one week!!!!! People thought she got "SNL" because she was related to producer Dick Ebersol, but she is not. Note the difference in last name spelling.

In the speech she made when she won the Tony Award for Grey Gardens, she said that she was told in L.A. that her career was over. I asked for elaboration on that devastating comment. She recalled that in the late nineties, she asked her agent why she wasn't getting any auditions, and he laughed condescendingly and simply said, "Christine, you're 45." Yay. Three neutral words that, when said with excitement, can add joy to a birthday party, but when said with derision can make you want to quit the business…and life.

Then she was driving to see a producer who, ten years earlier, had handed her a script and asked her to star on a TV show with Rosie O'Donnell. Only now she wasn't being handed anything. She was auditioning for him for a part on "Ally McBeal"…that had six lines. She got it but was shocked when she was in the courtroom scene and Lucy Liu said to the judge, while pointing at Christine, "You let that old lady speak." Because Christine hadn't read anything in the script but her own part, she looked over her shoulder thinking that Lucy must be pointing at someone else. She wasn't. Then she looked at the cast and saw how skinny they were. Then she looked at the stand-ins and saw they were skinnier! Christine went to her dressing room, which normally was the dressing room of Dyan Cannon. She looked in the mirror and thought, "This is the mirror that Dyan Cannon looks in." She started pulling up her cheeks to see how she'd look with a face-lift. Suddenly she thought, "I am defining myself through things that I have no control over. My age and how my body looks." But she knew that she still had her talent, and if anything, it had gotten even better. She looked at herself again and thought, "I gotta get outta here (meaning L.A.)!" She decided to hightail it back to NY… and two years later won the Tony Award for 42nd Street! And now she has another Tony Award to add to her collection. And if the funding comes through, she just might get a delicious Olivier Award! Finally, let me just say that my mother had yet another traumatic audition. If you don't know, a few years ago, my agent met my mom and decided that she'd be great for commercials. Also, if you don't know, she's 75 years old and has no (zero) acting experience. Yet, she's managed to parlay that into numerous auditions that always end in disaster(s). She's regaled me with so many debacles that I've asked her to just write them all down and blog them on my website. And, please don't think that she's the victim of the disasters Most of the problems at the auditions stem from stubbornness and hubris. She proudly told me that she refused to say DQ instead of Dairy Queen at a recent audition because "no one my age would call it DQ." And, at a deodorant audition, she was asked to pretend to drive on a parkway but spent the whole time that the camera was rolling, checking and re-checking the side-view mirror. When the director cut her off and exasperatedly asked her what she was doing, she explained that "my friends who don't drive as well as I do, always do that before entering a parkway." He asked her to just get on the parkway and wave on the car in back of her. She got on the parkway, but thought it would be funny, instead of doing what the director said, to do a Queen Elizabeth wave to the car behind her. It wasn't. Shockingly, she didn't get the gig. Anyhoo, I thought the stories were so hilarious that she is now a weekly contributor to my website (www.sethrudetsky.com).

And don't forget! If you're in Jan. 14, come to Barnes and Noble at 7 PM. I'm doing a free reading/signing of my novel "Broadway Nights" with Christine Ebersole, Cheyenne Jackson, Kristine Zbornik, Denis O'Hare and Andrea McArdle. And, when I write next week, I'll be able to tell you about the opening of Lend Me a Tenor! Uh-oh. I'd better learn my lines.