ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Audra McDonald Gets "Foreword" and Bonnie Franklin Tied Up

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Audra McDonald Gets "Foreword" and Bonnie Franklin Tied Up
 
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Seth Rudetsky
Seth Rudetsky Lauren Kennedy

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Spring cleaning! And by "spring" I mean "fall." This week we re-signed our lease, and the landlord had our downstairs painted. Instead of boring white, James and I wanted some fun colors. Unfortunately, we have terrible taste. Andrea Martin has an amazing eye, and her New York apartment and Toronto house are both beautifully decorated. So, I texted her and asked for some advice about what colors we should choose. She, of course, suggested that we get various samples and paint each one on the wall to pick which one looks best. Apparently, she didn't know that I have a combination of Adult ADD mixed with an insatiable desire for immediate gratification. In other words, the time for trying various samples was completely past. By the time I was at the Janovic Plaza, the painter was standing in my apartment, impatiently waiting to begin. Andrea suggested various tasteful, muted colors. James and I took her suggestion under advisement… and picked out blue and yellow instead. I thought perhaps Andrea would see the colors we chose and give me a major thumbs up. Instead, the text I received from her said: "Easter Egg time." I was a nervous wreck to see what it would look like, but now that it's painted it looks great. And, it's like we're living inside an Easter egg basket.

Besides the painting, this week was also exciting because my novel, "Broadway Nights," has been re-published by a new publisher. Vantage Press re-released the book, and my editor, Joe Pittman, asked me to write a sassy new intro. He also suggested I ask one of my friends to write a new foreword. Since the book is about Broadway, he wanted one of my Broadway friends. I decided to ask Audra McDonald, even though I knew she's always super busy. She said yes right away and then I didn't hear anything from her for weeks. The day it was due, I wrote to her, and she sent me back a document with the comment "This is probably bad." It was very Kelly Clarkson on "American Idol." Every time Kelly would sound amazing, she'd pretend to be shocked that the judges lauded her. Or she'd belt a crazy F and then haul out the ol' "I have laryngitis." Watch my deconstruction of one of her "laryngitis" performances.

Audra McDonald
photo by Michael Wilson

Anyway, Audra's version of a bad forward is so great. It's super-sweet and yet hilariously slightly hostile. Here's a section of it:

It's July of 2010 and I am at a lovely resort in Ixtapa Mexico performing for wonderful LGBT families and friends as a part of R family vacations entertainment. I am in the middle of singing "I Could Have Danced All Night" when the Entertainment coordinator/Music Director/ pianist decided to modulate an already high song even higher forcing me to sing a note (d-flat) I had not yet ever sung in public. I hit the note, finished the song… and flipped him off. (YouTube it). Flashback 17 years to Paul Recital Hall at the Juilliard School of music…I am performing in my senior recital singing "Can't Help Lovin' That Man" as an encore. I get to the end of the bridge headed to the final "A" section when the pianist/ new friend/ music director (of the sassy part of my classical recital) decides to modulate to a new key forcing me to belt a note I had not yet ever belted in the hallowed halls of Juilliard. I belted the note, finished the song, and flipped him off. (You can't YouTube it as I own the only copy of the video and doubt that I will ever upload it.) The pianist at each of these 2 events in my musical life (and hundreds more in the 21 years I have known him) was Seth Rudetsky. In his own funny, audacious, skilled (transposing on-site mid-performance, folks!) and annoying way he pushed me out of my comfort zone in to new uncharted territory and was the first to greet me with applause and "Brava's" on the other side. He made me better. He makes everything he is a part of better. He does all of this because of his deep and passionate love of musical theater and every aspect that it encompasses. There is no one I know who is more obsessed with, knowledgeable about or more dedicated to musical theater than Seth Rudetsky. It is quite literally in his blood. It's not enough that he has already established himself as an incredible pianist (with serious classical chops), accompanist, vocal coach, stand up comedian, comedy writer, producer and musical director. It's so much more than that. He's carved out a unique niche in the world of musical theater for himself. He has made the world of musical theater a better, richer, and much funnier place. If there were a Student body president of Musical Theater then Broadway Seth Rudetsky would be it. How sweet is that? Besides the flipping me off part…twice. You can get the new and improved "Broadway Nights" right here! And, one of my fave writers, Michael Musto, did a column about the new foreword. I always love his hilarious call-backs, so spot how the end of the column is a bust on the brouhaha surrounding Porgy and Bess being re-named The Gershwins' Porgy and Bess.

Seth and Bonnie Franklin
photo by Robb Johnston

This week I also did a great Seth Speaks with the star from one of my fave 1970's sitcoms, Bonnie Franklin. I, of course, first asked her about Applause, which is the Broadway show that put her on the map. She played a chorus gypsy named Bonnie ('natch) who sings the title song. I immediately asked her is Lauren Bacall a nachtmare to work with. First off, Bonnie called her "Betty," which is her real name, and then she said that Betty got along great with her leading man, Len Cariou, and when she gets along great with her leading man, she's happy. Bonnie added a lot of subtext when she said that Len and Betty "got along," and I got the message. Bonnie said that "Applause" was the only song that didn't change from the first out-of-town try-out 'til the opening on Broadway. Everything else in the show kept changing, including casting a new Eve Harrington (the fabulous Penny Fuller). And the number always brought down the house. In terms of Betty being a kind leading lady, Bonnie said that if it had been a Merman show, Bonnie would have been fired (because La Merm didn't like other ladies in her shows getting big applause), but Betty had no qualms about "Applause" stopping the show. Although, speaking of Bette, years later Bonnie ran into Bette Davis in LA and asked her if she'd seen Applause. Turns out, Bette had seen it, and she hated it! She said that the theme of the story is about aging, yet Lauren Bacall always looked stunning throughout the whole show. Maybe so, but she made up for it by taking every song down the octave. If you don't believe, watch this shocking deconstruction. And, watch Bonnie do her big number on the Tony Awards. Side note: the waiter with the mustache is Sammy Williams, who went on to win a Tony Award as Paul in A Chorus Line; one of the other waiters is Nick Dante, who the role of Paul is based on (and who co-wrote the book of A Chorus Line), and the woman talking at the beginning is Mitzi Hamilton, whom the role of Val is based on!

I asked Bonnie about other musicals she'd done, and she said that one of her favorite roles was Peter Pan. She told us why she thinks women love playing the role—because it's a very sexual experience. Huh? How is it sexual? She's dressed like a boy for the whole show! Turns out, Bonnie said that the harness is tied tightly to your body and every time you fly….there's fabulous "stimulation" involved. I didn't need any more details and filed it away under "Why Mary Martin is always smiling in Peter Pan photos."

Bonnie was nominated for a Tony Award for Applause and then went to LA to meet with the Mary Tyler Moore people and Norman Lear. She and Norman hit it off and after their meeting, he brought her in to read. After several call-backs and a final audition for the network executives, she got the lead in "One Day At A Time." Just kidding. She met with him and was then offered the lead. Bonnie said it was a different time back then, and you didn't have to first get past the casting director before you got to the director/producer. Turns out, "One Day At A Time" was based on the real-life mother of Meredith Baxter-Birney. Since the character who Ann Romano was based on only had one child, that's how they did the pilot of the show, which didn't work. They then went back and changed things, including adding another kid …and the show ran for ten years! When Mackenzie Phillips was first cast, Bonnie thought she was wrong for her daughter because she was too old. Bonnie was only 31 when the show began, and Mackenzie was 15! But then Bonnie saw that they both had prominent mouths and decided she looked like she could be her daughter so the age thing didn't matter. I was doing some math and realized that Mackenzie was a teenager back in 1974, yet when I was playing piano for Grease in 1996, she played the role of Rizzo. A high school student. 22 years later. Anybody? The magic of Broadway.

This weekend, I hightail it to Ithaca to do Rhapsody in Seth and then go to Drexel University in Philly, then Pittsburgh and then Chicago. Come see my show or take a master class! Info at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/. And now, I have to go rehearse Rhapsody in Seth because the show is an hour and a half of me talking non-stop. AKA, my dream come true!

  (Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can be contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.)

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