ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Aziza, Breaker, Russell and Strouse

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Aziza, Breaker, Russell and Strouse
 
One week ago tonight was the premiere of the reality show with the longest title in history: "Legally Blonde the Musical: The Search for Elle Woods."
de'Adre Aziza in Passing Strange.
de'Adre Aziza in Passing Strange. Photo by Carol Rosegg

Or, as internet message boards probably refer to it, according to the new, annoying trend: LBTMTSFEW. Please stop making up show-title codes that are more complicated and annoying than Sudoku.

There was a little premiere party thrown for the producer, Amanda Brown Lipitz, at the W Hotel. It was great to see Amanda finally get to see her show on TV. Yes, reality shows are headaches, but I still say brava to Amanda for bringing Broadway to MTV. And, unlike other musical theatre reality shows (here and in Britain), the contestants don't spend each week singing pop songs. You'll only see the Elle candidates auditioning with material from the show — plus, of course, a healthy smattering of the requisite reality-show backstage bitchery. It's hilarious how the editors take something that's not a big deal (this week one of the girls says "too many cooks in the kitchen") and make it scandalous by putting in a close-up of someone looking mildly shocked and then adding the sound of a timpani. Something bland becomes an immediate nail-biter.

During the premiere, within ten minutes of the show being on, my cell phone started ringing. It was Jen Cody. I picked up. "Oh My God. I have to watch every week now. I have so much material." I guess she meant material to bust me on...and I say brava! Bring it! As a matter of fact, I did a whole deconstruction on the first episode, ending with the mortifying close up of me talking to the girls while I was standing in a pageant girl bevel. http://remotecontrol.mtv.com/category/shows/legally-blonde/. PS, let it buffer first before you watch it, or else all of my comedy is interrupted right on the punch lines, not unlike what happens to me in restaurants. Seriously, whenever I'm out and I'm telling a story, it's always, "And then Laura Bell Bundy looked down and said, 'Legally Blonde? More like Legally-" "More water, sir?" Constantly! And always on the punch line, never on the set up. Anyhoo, I'm very excited for the next episodes, although, full disclosure, I'm not on tonight's episode because it's all about acting, and anybody who saw The Ritz knows I have no right to be on an episode dedicated to that.

On Wednesday I went to a matinee with my mom. I informed her that it was the same theatre where she first took me to see Hair when I was a toddler. I pointed out the seats I remembered sitting in (house left) and felt so moved being in the same theatre where I saw my first show. My mom was mind boggled that I remembered so much, but I reminded her that I've always had a flawless memory…especially for something that meant so much to me. It wasn't until around five minutes later that I realized we were sitting in the Belasco, and Hair played at the Biltmore. I decided to not tell my mother who was sitting with a wistful smile, tinged with yesteryear. Anyhoo, the thing I loved the most about Passing Strange is that my mother loved it. She's 76! Brava on reaching across the generations. As I was leaving the theatre, I heard the tale end of a conversation between the woman in back of me and her friend:

"I loved what the guy on stage said."
"Which one?"
"The black one."
(Knowingly) "O-o-o-o-oh." Huh? All the guys in the show are black. At this point, I still can't figure out which woman is the bigger idiot.

On Thursday I interviewed two of the Passing Strange stars, who I thought were fantastic: de'Adre Aziza and Daniel Breaker. Just for symmetry, he told me to call him de'aniel Breaker. They are both super nice, talented and funny. De'Adre told me that after college, she was working as an intern at The Public and wanted to start auditioning for shows at The Public, but they said she couldn't do both, so she quit. Years later, they finally called her in for the reading of Passing Strange. She told me that it was her first reading, first workshop, first out-of-town show and first Broadway show! And, I added, her first Tony nomination! Brava! They were so cute talking about their Tony nominations. Daniel said his parents didn't really know when the Tony nominations happened, so it was a lot of phone calls for days, "Hey, it's us. Were you nominated?" Then the night before the nominations, he couldn't get to sleep 'til 5 AM … and then woke up at 7! Because the Tony nominations were released online first, he read it there…but thought it was a mistake. I thought that was very sweet. De'Adre took her son to school around 7:30 and was too tired to stay up. She got up at 11 and read on Playbill.com that the show got a ton of nominations. She didn't think of herself, though. Then she saw her name, and à la Daniel, kept thinking it was a mistake. She finally called her mother who broke down crying on the phone while at work. Unfortunately, her mom is a teacher, so her students were probably a little traumatized seeing their teacher sobbing on the phone…but that's what school psychiatrists are for.

Friday night, James (BF) and I saw Sunday in the Park With George or as cockney Dot pronounces it, Soonday in the Park With George. I am so obsessed with Jenna Russell. She has so many great comic moments, but they totally seem in the moment and not pre-planned. And, it was so great to see my old Ritz friend David Turner in the role of the German servant and my buddy Anne L. Nathan as the Nurse. They still got it! Backstage, I asked Jenna to regale me and James with another Les Miz story, and she said that in London the Eponine dressing room had a window that was on the exact same level as the top of a double-decker bus. Jenna said that the Eponine would put on her end-of-show death makeup early and have nothing to do. So, she'd stand at the window with her death mask on and when a bus would go by, she'd stare blank-faced, hold out her index finger and slowly do the "come with me" motion. Can you imagine how terrifying it was to be on a fun sightseeing tour and suddenly see a specter beckoning you to the netherworld? Wearing a mic pack?

This week on Sirius radio I interviewed Broadway composer Charles Strouse. As he described his childhood, I kept piping up and saying it was exactly like mine, but upon further reflection, realized they were polar opposites. He's from the cool Upper West Side, I'm from a town on Long Island I couldn't wait to get the hell out of. As a child, he went to PS 87 with Mike Nichols (although they didn't know each other…but ironically, Mike wound up being the big producer of Annie years later), I went to Hewlett High School with a theatre teacher who banned me from doing plays my senior year and said to my face that I'd never make it in theatre. Charles graduated high school early and went to the Eastman School of music when he was just 15. I also graduated early, but only by one year (not impressive), and, yes, I also went to a prestigious music conservatory (Oberlin) but while he was spending his time composing serious music (a la Hindemith, Bartok), I was having unrequited crushes and failing my music history midterm as soon as I got there. Hence, his many Tony Awards, hence my many nights watching from home.

After he graduated, he made money by accompanying singers and dance classes. Eventually he got a gig playing rehearsals for a show called Saratoga, and the stage manager said that he had an idea for a musical. The idea was about a new phenomenon called…teenagers. They went through five book writers (!) and eventually came up with the Elvis Presley character. The first song Charles wrote was one of my favorites, "An English Teacher." I asked him about the phrase at the beginning: "Albert, Albert, A-a-a-albert!" He said that phrase stems from his classical training. He feels a straight-up pop composer wouldn't necessarily think to put four notes on the same syllable (See "The Glory of the Lord" from The Messiah…which has thirty notes on the first syllable of the word, "glory"). I love Chita Rivera on that song, but turns out the role was not written for her. Rose was not supposed to Hispanic. All of the jokes originally were about her being Polish, and the role was written for Carol Haney! If you don't know, she's the original Gladys from The Pajama Game who did the film, and the one who broke her leg allowing Shirley MacLaine to go on. Unfortunately, Carol started having vocal problems and couldn't do it, so Charles recommended Chita, whom he had worked with on Shoestring Revue (her audition for director Gower Champion is detailed in Richard Seff's amazing book, "Supporting Player"). They kept all the songs they wrote for Carol and added one for Chita, "Spanish Rose" (which you can see her do on the Ed Sullivan Show if you go to Bluegobo.com).

I asked Charles about something that's always driven me crazy. Now, you all should know that I think Hair is a brilliant show and every song in it is phenomenal. But…I get annoyed when people say Hair was the first rock musical. Bye Bye Birdie was the first rock musical! It was the first show to have used actual rock music ("One Last Kiss," "Sincere") and an electric guitar. Charles thinks that because the show satirizes rock music, people don't credit it with being groundbreaking (my word). What's funny is that he said they couldn't get any backers for it because of the new-fangled score. The music was just too modern. Think about it, they started writing it in the mid-fifties when rock literally first began. It's like writing a musical in the style of (insert latest music trend here…I faded out on pop radio so long ago the last trend I know about is a young upstart named Tiffany).

Dick Van Dyke was not originally thought of for the lead role of Albert Peterson. They wanted Jack Lemmon or Steve Lawrence. It was Chita's agent again, Richard Seff, who was also Dick Van Dyke's agent, and kept pushing for them to see him again, even though the creative team thought he wasn't quite right. Then, when Dick finally got the role, his big number, "Put on a Happy Face," was bombing. Charles immediately set out to write a new song. But Marge Champion, who was married to the director (Gower), thought that the staging of the number wasn't right. It originally took place at the Ed Sullivan show while they were setting the lights, and she thought of the idea of setting it in Grand Central and making it about two young girls who were depressed. Sometimes, the wives have the great ideas. Other times, they have to do a concession speech while the husband looks on with a ruddy complexion.

Of course, I had to obsess about Annie. Martin Charnin asked Charles to write it because Charles had written It's a Bird . . . It's a Plane . . . It's Superman, and this was another musical based on a comic. Charles thought the idea was awful but liked Martin and Thomas Meehan, who was writing the book, so he went along with it. Charles said that when it began, the concept was for Annie to be played by…Bernadette Peters! All I can say is "what the-?" The first song he wrote was "It's a Hard Knock Life," which was also the only song in that show that had the lyrics come first. Charles said that the fun of writing a musical is not knowing what's gonna work and what isn't. There was a scene where Annie meets Sandy the dog for the first time and then Annie gets thrown back in the orphanage. There was a clever scene change with a sliding panel, but it needed time to get set up, so Charles wrote a song to cover it. When the change happened for the first time, the audience cheered, and Charles went to the back of the house to tell Martin that they really loved that clever scene change. He didn't realize until months later that the audience was actually loving the song he wrote to cover the change, "Tomorrow"! All these stories and more can be read in his memoir, "Put on A Happy Face," coming out July 1.

First of all, I read through my last column and decided I couldn't get certain line readings across, despite my use of italics and underlines, so I read it out loud and put it on a podcast you can listen to on my site (sww.SethRudetsky.com). Secondly, this week is bi-zay! Tonight (Monday) the amazing Marty Vidnovic (one of the best male Broadway voices ever!) is at the Metropolitan Room (212 306-0440), as well as the one-year anniversary fundraiser at the Vineyard Theater for the Jaradoa Theater Company that my friend Anika Larsen is one of the founders of. And, I'm finally wrapping up my "Broadway Nights" audio book. And, it's all leading up to the Tonys!!!! I cannot wait to see all those performances! As Patti LuPone ad-libbed at the end of the Tony opening number I wrote in 1998, "Go, Tony!!!"

* (Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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