ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Audra & Norm and the Beauty of Porgy and Bess

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Audra & Norm and the Beauty of Porgy and Bess A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Sharon Wheatley
Sharon Wheatley

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Ah! Delicious Fall weather. We lit our first fire this weekend in the fireplace. And by "fire" I mean Duraflame fake log that essentially gives off no heat but looks pretty and is crazily expensive. Anyhoo, this week began with my signature vertigo that I get every six months. Kristin Chenoweth gets it, too, but she has a Tony and Emmy to keep her company while the room is spinning. I only have a Bistro and a Playbill Leading Man Award. Crickets. Regardless, the vertigo may have been brought on by taking an eight-hour international flight and only drinking one half cup of water. It was probably exacerbated by my then doing an intense cardio workout to try to lose all the weight I gained during my two week European trip (in one trip to the gym). Thankfully, I was functional on Sunday during the Broadway Flea Market but felt myself fading throughout the day. The good news is, not only did I sell tons of stuff from my booth, but BC/EFA auctioned off a chance to co-host with me on Sirius/XM and it went for $4,000! And then I went home and pretty much couldn't function. I had to cancel my appearance in the fundraiser for the Weston Theater on Monday night but I was able to feature it on "Seth Speaks." I've now started a new segment called "Charity Chorner" (a la annoying store names like "Kandy Korner" where both words are spelled wrong) and I had Sharon Wheatley on the show. She spearheaded the whole campaign; if you want to donate to help rebuild the theatre following its recent flooding by Hurricane Irene, go to http://www.facebook.com/westonplayhouse. Sharon is an actress I've known for years and she wrote a great book a few years ago called "Til the Fat Girl Sings." It's about her childhood — growing up overweight yet wanting to perform. She was told repeatedly that she was too big to ever "make it," yet she's now done four Broadway shows! One of the people who told her it wouldn't happen was her father who not only told her she had to be thin to be an actress but, for some reason, kept telling her she had to look like Geena Davis. To this day, Sharon has no idea why Geena was the go-to body he kept referencing. After her book came out, it was optioned by Rosie O'Donnell to become a TV series. Sharon now realizes she should have known it would perhaps not work out because the day the contracts were signed was also the day that Rosie and Elizabeth Hasselback had their famous split-screen argument on The View, which led to Rosie leaving the show. Regardless, the book is now an ebook as well, and Sharon has started writing a blog about being a mother of two while pursuing theatre. She essentially wants to be the Broadway version of Erma Bombeck. Each column ends with a cliffhanger, so be prepared to be frustrated until the next installment. 

Elaine Paige and Seth as "Evita and Che."
photo by Robb Johnston

My main guest on "Seth Speaks" was West End star Elaine Paige. I wish I had a million more hours with her because her career has been amazing. She originated the roles of Evita, Grizabella and Florence in Chess! As many people know, the original Grizabella was Judi Dench, who had to leave the show right before previews because she injured herself. And saved us from hearing a monologue version of "Memory." At that point, Elaine had finished Evita and didn't know what her next gig would be. She told me that she was driving home, listening to the radio and the deejay played a short instrumental version of "Memory" that Andrew Lloyd Webber had sent to the station. Elaine thought the melody was incredibly beautiful and since the deejay promised a longer version was coming up, she hightailed it to her house to record it. As she approached her front door, a black cat suddenly appeared! She was excited because she had been told by her mother that a black cat crossing your path is good luck. (Remember: In Britain, people drive on the opposite side of the road. They also think Blood Pudding tastes good. Everything is reversed.) She took the cat into her house and taped the song off of the radio. That night, she went to bed listening to the song over and over again with her headphones in her Walkman. P.S., I still call my Ipod a Walkman. P.P.S. And I call my Walkman a Victrola. Anyhoo, the next day she got a call from Andrew Lloyd Webber, who asked her if she'd step into the show at the last minute. He explained that it wasn't a very big part, just a feature, but it had a great song. She tentatively/excitedly asked, "Is the song 'Memory'?" Of course, she immediately said yes when he told her it was. Elaine remembers showing up at rehearsal and the dancers asking her in hushed tones, "What are you doing here? We're playing dancing cats. This show is going to bomb!" Cut to: one of the longest-running shows ever. In the late '80s, she went to see Patti LuPone in Anything Goes and really wanted to play the role on the West End. She didn't know how to guarantee it until she decided she'd produce it herself! Brava! She also discovered John Barrowman and gave him the role of Billy after Howard McGillin left. Watch her sassy version of "Blow, Gabriel Blow."

Right now, Elaine is playing Carlotta in Broadway's Follies, and she told me that recently, all the lights went completely out in the middle of her big number, "I'm Still Here." Since she's old-school, she kept going and when she got to the big final notes, the lights literally came up on the word "He-e-e-e-re!" Brava timing!

At the beginning of the week, I saw a show at the Triad called Awesomer and Awesomer and it was so great! Phoebe Kreutz writes folk-joke songs (a genre I never heard of but when you hear the music, you'll understand the name) and Alan Muraoka helped take her solo songs and turn them into an evening of various solos, duets and group numbers. Alan's direction was amazing and each number was so well-staged and acted. Here's a song that Ann Harada sang, which was, not surprisingly, hilarious. 

Juli, James and Seth with Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis

On Thursday, James and Juli and I hiked it up to Boston to see Porgy and Bess. I've known Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis for 20 years, and I was so excited to see them play title roles in a musical. James asked me if they'd ever done a show opposite each other and I told him absolutely not. It was definitely the first time. Then I remembered that they both starred in The Actors Fund production of Dreamgirls that I put together and conducted. Yay short-term memory. P.S., here's a little clip

Both Audra and Norm were fantastic. I don't know the show very well, except for the medley I sang in High School Chorus. Yes, it was a 99 percent Jewish school and yes we sang "Bess, You Is My Woman Now." Regardless, the music is so beautiful and all the singing in the show is unbelievable. Every person sounds amazing, including David Alan Grier who is perfect as Sportin' Life. Josh Henry (the Tony-nominated star of The Scottsboro Boys) gets many chances to show off his gorgeous voice and his crazily blinding smile. I was mortified that I recently had my teeth whitened and mine look like pieces of coal next to his. As for Audra, first of all, she comes on looking stunning and then immediately pulls a Caissie Levy. What do I mean by that? Remember how I said that Caissie's first note in Ghost is crazily high? Well, Audra walks on, looks beautiful and then within ten seconds has to hit a high B! She can't pull the ol' Ethel Merman warm up. (Apparently when Ethel Merman was asked if she warms up before a show, she responded, "What do you think the first number's for?"). Norm was also fabulous and moving as Porgy but I got a complete anxiety attack watching him walk around with his legs so twisted. He said that he does non-stop stretching backstage so he doesn't injure himself. I'm so happy he finally has a show where he can show off the voice I've been obsessed with since the late '80s when we did Joseph…. He ends Act Two singing such a beautiful phrase that I immediately started crying when he hit the last note. I can't take it! The two of them have amazing chemistry and it's the kind of show I could see over and over again on Broadway. If someone will fund me the ticket price. Also, for you people clamoring for a recording, I spotted someone from Nonesuch records there! I was about to say I've never worked for them and then remembered they recorded my concert of Dreamgirls. After the show, we all went out and I wanted to take a pic but Audra had post-show wig hair with a crazy do-rag on top. I told her that we would all wear one in solidarity. Norm refused, but his out of control white beard adds its own crazy.

Afterwards, I immediately asked for fun onstage mishap stories. Audra said that recently her garters snapped in the opening scene and her sassy panties fell down her legs! She knew she had to get them off because the scene ends with Porgy beckoning to her as she slowly crosses the stage. It would have been too hilarious for her to make the long, slow walk across the stage with her panties around her ankles (!), so while the scene was happening, she got them off. But then she didn't know what to do with them! Finally, she decided to throw them offstage quickly. Unfortunately, she threw it right into the male quick-change area. So, as the ensemble men were putting on their next costume, they were suddenly and angrily accosted by a pair of flying panties. If I had a dime for every time that's happened to me…

OK, everyone. This week I'm actually spending the whole week in NYC! And you can be in my "Seth Speaks" studio audience taping this Wednesday at 5 PM by going here. And if you listen to the show this coming Sunday at 5 PM on Sirius/XM Stars 107, I'm going to have a re-living of my fave things from my youth. My guests will be Bonnie Franklin from Applause and "One Day at a Time" and Carole Demas from Grease and "The Magic Garden." Yay second childhood. And now, peace out!

(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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