ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Back on Bass

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Back on Bass
 
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Bassist Conrad Korsch
Bassist Conrad Korsch

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Greetings from Atlanta. Or, as the natives call it "Hotlanta." Or as I'm calling it this weekend "Coldlanta." And, quite frankly, after the enormous dinner I had at the Mall's Chinese restaurant, "Mylanta." That's right, I'm now a Borscht Belt comedian. Nu? Anyhoo (anyhu?) I'm here at the National Junior Theater Festival ( summer-stars.com/id15.html). One of the sponsors of the event is Music Theater International, who presented some of their new "junior" shows (hour-long versions of musicals for elementary and middle schools). Suwanee Performing Arts Inc. and Dekalb School of the Arts teamed up and did Fame Jr., and they tore it up. [AUDIO-LEFT] I was so impressed that all the guys had crazily high extensions. PS, remember when one could write about someone's extension and it would be assumed it was their leg. Now, due to its new-found popularity, I feel that I have to clarify that I don't mean hair extensions. Damn you, Kristin Chenoweth.

The one thing during the weekend I was having a mini-breakdown about happened during the presentation: A few different people got introduced, and the host would bring them onstage not with "let's give it up for…" or "let's hear it for…" but instead, "let's give a standing ovation for…." Three times!!! I had just ingested six deep fried dumplings and an enormous ginger fish platter (with brown rice). I couldn't get out of my seat once let alone three times.

At my Sirius/XM Live On Broadway show I interviewed one of my old pit musician buddies from Grease. Conrad Korsch not only plays bass but sings and composes and now has his own CD and is doing his release party at Joe's Pub on Jan. 24. (Go to ConradKorsch.com for details.) We were telling pit bass players stories back and forth. I remembered something that happened when I sat in the pit for A Chorus Line. The show was about to begin and the bass player, who had been playing the show for years, realized he had forgotten his bow! He literally walked to the coat rack outside the pit in the Shubert Theatre, got a wire hanger, bent it into a straight line and used the hanger as a bow! (Insert unfunny Joan Crawford Mommy Dearest joke here).

Caitlin Carter sits on Korsch's bass in Swing!
photo by Joan Marcus

Conrad talked about being the onstage bass player during Swing!. There was a number where he came center stage, and sexy Caitlin Carter would sing and dance with him while he played the bass and she would actually sit on the bass. As the months went on, Conrad started to hear straining noises coming from the bass because it was not used to being handled that way. He told the crew that he was nervous about the bass cracking, but no one took him seriously. He and the other musicians started taking bets as to when it would break, and Conrad decided that for maximum awkwardness it would probably happen on a night when he had a sub playing for him. Cut to a few weeks later, Conrad took off the show for another gig and it ended early so he was able to come and watch Swing! from the audience for the first time. When the big number came, Caitlin sat on the bass (which was being played by a sub) and, as Conrad predicted, it literally imploded. The horrible part is, they still had to finish the number. The bass sub had pretended it was normal for a bass to be several pieces of wood and strings that he had to try to hold together, and Caitlin had to deal with the body image issues that come up when one is in front of Broadway audience, sits on something…and breaks it.

Stephanie Umoh and Quentin Earl Darrington
photo by Joan Marcus

I also chatted with Quentin Earl Darrington and Stephanie Umoh, who played Coalhouse and Sarah in the short-lived but fabulous Ragtime revival. Even though the run was short, there were still enough performances for mess-ups. Stephanie told me that she completely screwed up the lyrics to her first big number ("Your Daddy's Son"), but she wasn't horribly mortified about it…until she found out that in the audience that night was…the original Sarah, Audra McDonald! Hmm…maybe Audra thought they re-wrote the lyrics since the time she played the part. Then Quentin told us about the scene at the end of Act Two where he's barricaded himself in the Morgan Library and Booker T. Washington comes in to negotiate. Instead of the measured lines he was supposed to say when he calmly and succinctly tells Booker T. Washington that he will not leave, he forgot his lines and started improvising. Unfortunately, he didn't quite get the tone and style of the early 1900's. Quentin said he started sassing with, "You come in here…all telling me what to do and stuff…listen, I ain't leaving…." The devastating thing is that it happened right after Booker T. said his line, commenting on how they're both "educated men"…and even more devastating is the fact that it happened the same night Audra was in the audience!

At my Chatterbox, I interviewed three originals from Forbidden Broadway: Gerard Alessandrini (who wrote and starred in it), Nora Mae Lyng (who was his co-star) and Fred Barton (the brilliant music director). A new book has just come out detailing the whole history of the show including all of the amazing lyrics. I was literally "laughing out loud" on the subway reading it. The success of that show is so the opposite of the calculated method that some corporations use when they green-light a Broadway show. You can just imagine them in their boardroom saying, "How can we make money? Let's take a title everyone knows… and add music.." Ka-ching. Forbidden Broadway came about because Gerard was always writing funny parody lyrics to Broadway songs. He would call his friends' answering machines and leave messages singing them.

Wendee Winters, Nora Mae Lyng, Gerard Alessandrini and Bill Carmichael in 1982

He wasn't getting a lot of work as an actor, so he decided to do an evening of the parodies. He had worked with Nora Mae Lyng in a "terrible" show in Florida and wanted to highlight her incredible talent. They did it for their friends and then performed it at the open mic at Palsson's Supper Club (now The Triad). The owners of Palsson's heard it, asked them to do a run of evenings, and eventually they added two more performers. Gerard says that the whole reason the show was successful was because of the feud between Rex Reed and Lauren Bacall. Right after John Lennon was shot in front of the Dakota, Rex Reed was interviewed on the news and said something to the effect of how nerve-wracking it was having people know where you live. He mentioned some of the celebrities who lived there and were worried, including Lauren Bacall. She then went on the news and said it was nerve-wracking living in the Dakota because idiots like Rex Reed told the world who lived there! Thus, the feud began. Well, there was a number in Forbidden Broadway that slammed Ms. Bacall. It was a parody of a song from Woman of the Year (which she was starring in at the time). Normally the lyric was "I'm one of the girls, who's one of the boys," but Gerard changed it to "I'm one of the girls who sings like a boy…" and the last line of the phrase was "I sing like a man because that's what I am." Essentially, the song was about her being a drag queen. My favorite lyric is about her song choices, "Kander and Ebb had a ballad or two…originally written for Len Cariou." Apparently, Lauren had forbade the cast from seeing Forbidden Broadway so, of course, they all did. Word got back to Rex Reed about how mean/funny the song was, and he came to the show. He seemed to have loved it, but he didn't write a review. Suddenly, though, tons of stars started showing up. On the same night, Mary Martin, Carol Channing and George Burns all showed up! Finally, Rex spoke to Gerard and said he was going to write a fantastic review, but first he wanted all of his star friends to come see it before it was impossible to get in! And thus began the show that ran from the early 80's til last year.

Fred Barton

That show completely changed their lives. Fred (whose incredible piano playing can be heard on the first CD) remembered being 14 years old and waking up crying because he had a dream where Ethel Merman came to his town, climbed the stairs to his house and listened to him play the piano. He was crying when he woke because he thought, "Ethel Merman will never climb the stairs to my house and listen to me play the piano." And less than ten years later, he was onstage playing Forbidden Broadway and Ethel was there in the audience, listening to him play the piano! His dream came true. I've always been completely obsessed with Nora's unbelievable high belt and comic chops. Here are two deconstructions that feature Nora's brava-ness and Gerard's hilarity: sethrudetsky.com/blog/?s=comedy&submit=Search

And, finally, here's the big event of last weekend. And by "big" I mean "traumatic." Lin-Manuel Miranda invited me to his birthday party, and I was psyched to go…until it was time to go. It was Saturday night at 10 PM, and I was feeling way too lazy to get on a subway and go anywhere, and James had literally fallen asleep already. He woke up and we hemmed and hawed ‘til we decided that it would be fun and it was worth putting on a cute outfit and sassing out our hair. We then got on the A train and took it to mid-town. When we started looking for the address I realized the party was in a club. UGH! Even when I was the age when I was supposed to go to clubs, I hated them. Plus, there was a line to get in. I asked the security/bouncer guy if it was the line for Lin's party, and he told me to get in line. Rude. We waited in the FREEZING-ness until we got to the front where we were carded. That's right. Normally people think I look 70, but when it's below zero, apparently I look 18. The guard then said, "You're the guy looking for Link's party, right?" Link? Was I in a live version of Hairspray? I corrected him with a pointed "Lin." He shrugged and said there were a lot of parties and we should just walk in. I glared and we entered. Of course, it was crazily noisy and filled with people who looked like they should be starring in 13. We searched but couldn't find the area with Lin's party. I was looking for some kind of visual signpost that would indicate where it was… like a group of people doing intricate Broadway break-dancing, a gaggle of high belters or the long black hair of Karen Olivo. I finally became panicked we were in the wrong club and maybe were actually at a party for someone named Link. I quickly looked up the Evite on my Blackberry. The good news is we were in the right club. The bad news? We were a week early. We fled the club…careful to use a different door so that I wouldn't have to see the bouncer I glared at. I then sent this text to Lin: It's fun to not read an invitation thoroughly and show up at a loud club with people half my age for a party you're having next week. Lin sent back: Funniest text ever. Hmph. At least the night ended with some praise. Peace out, everyone!

* 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 contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.

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