ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Between Texas and England

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Between Texas and England A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Betty Buckley in Cats, 1982
Betty Buckley in Cats, 1982 Photo by Martha Swope

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What time is it? Anybody? I'm on a plane to England and my computer says 1:20 AM, but the sun is outside my window. I, of course, thought I'd have a delicious sleep on the long flight across the sea so I'd be refreshed when we landed, but that idea went flying out the window when I sat down and discovered that each seat had individual TV screens! With tons of movies and TV shows to chose from!!! How could I possibly go to sleep when instead I could watch old Friends episodes I could easily tape any day of the week on my television and Hitchcock's Dial M For Murder I could just as easily Netflix? I had to seize this once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. By the time I decided to turn off my personal screen, I tossed and turned in my coach seat for an hour and soon the lights came on and they started serving breakfast. And by "breakfast," I mean the vegan breakfast I ordered and ignored while salivating over James' croissant.

Let's start at the beginning. I began the week by playing the third concert of Betty Buckley's Broadway By Request in Fort Worth. Each concert was fantastic and Betty not only sounded great, she also had so many funny moments. Of course, people always request "Memory" and she always saves it for the end. Right before she got to the song someone yelled out "Sing anything from Cats!" Betty said, "Actually…I only know one song from it." Her honesty was refreshing. Then someone from the audience wrote a question on the request slip asking her if she ever joked around onstage and she revealed that she always pulled pranks on final performances. During the opening number of Cats she always stood between Hector Mercado and Terrance Mann. On the night of her final performance Hector and Terrance kept looking up at the ceiling during the number because apparently there was a major leak. They then found out after the show that the "leak" was actually Betty secretly squirting them with water guns she had hidden in her leg warmers! PS, I love that her leg warmers were roomy enough to hide water guns. I'm going to start a trend: on nights I go out on the town and don't feel like carrying a bag, I'm going to carry my wallet, keys, water bottle, iPod, etc., in my leg warmers. They're back in style, aren't they? They're not? All right, I'll carry all of that in my acid-washed jeans.

Back to Cats. On her last night in the show, Betty made her first entrance as Grizabella holding a stuffed beaver from FAO Schwartz. She wasn't cradling it in her arms, it was literally hanging out of her mouth. She was at first going to buy a stuffed mouse but it didn't look like a mouse next to a human-sized cat. Betty said that the stuffed beaver had the best human-to-cat size ratio. After she entered, she stood with the stuffed beaver between her teeth and told us that the little "kitten" who normally approaches and paws the air in front of her was so confused as to what he was seeing that he just froze "mid-air/mid-claw." She had tipped off Anna McNeely that she'd be bringing something onstage and that Anna should let her establish it and then take it. Betty said once the laughter in the audience started to spread from left to right, Anna moved in front of the frozen kitten and snatched the beaver/mouse out of her mouth. Betty was laughing so hard describing to us how it essentially looked like Grizabella had entered right after killing a mouse. Brava! I'll have to ask her if she ever re-purposed that bit. It could have easily worked for Norma Desmond's first entrance as well.

And speaking of Betty, we're doing Broadway By Request again on Aug. 22 in Waco, TX. I'll let you fill in the requisite jokes. Details about that show and her late August Fort Worth dates at www.BettyBuckley.com.

Klea Blackhurst
Aubrey Reuben

On Wednesday, I interviewed the fabulous Klea Blackhurst at my Sirius/XM "Live on Broadway" show. Klea is performing her brilliant tribute to Ethel Merman, Everything the Traffic Will Allow, on Saturdays at 5 PM at the Snapple Theater. Her show is full of amazing Ethel Merman lore that's incredibly researched mixed with tons of Merman's well-known and not as well-known hits sung with Klea's brassy voice. Go to KleaBlackhurst.com for tickets and watch her incredible version of "Blow Gabriel Blow" from the Rosie cruise, (including actual Ethel Merman scat singing) at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/. We were comparing Merman stories and I told her one of my favorites. Don Pippin (Tony Award-winning music director of Oliver!, Mame, A Chorus Line) told me that he was conducting Woman of the Year starring Lauren Bacall. If you've ever heard Ms. Bacall sing, you'll know that she has a very distinctive singing voice. Essentially, take her speaking voice, add no vibrato to it, and there it is. Well, cut to one performance when Don noticed Ethel Merman sitting a few rows behind the orchestra pit. The show started and Lauren Bacall entered in a glamorous outfit. Don said that she stepped downstage, started singing and after just two measures Merman exclaimed, "JE-SUS CHRIST!" Of course, in keeping with Merman's signature vocal chops, even though she was in the audience, the comment sounded like it was mic'd. Back to last week. For two days I did some work with the great Broadway Artists Alliance. They always have talented kids and great teachers. I interviewed Greg Jbara from Billy Elliot and he told the kids one of the most valuable lessons he learned from stars like Jerry Lewis (with whom he worked in Damn Yankees) and Julie Andrews (with whom he worked in Victor/Victoria) is to learn everybody's name. Cast, crew, etc. Actually, I remember when I first subbed keyboard on Putting It Together, Julie Andrews' dresser came to the orchestra area after the show and asked me to come to her dressing room. I was ready to get fired British-style ("Mate…you're sacked!") but instead Julie welcomed me in (while putting on her stockings!) and said that she noticed me during the bows and wanted to be properly introduced. I thought that was so cool and, dare I say it, classy. Ew. I hate that expression because it always sounds so un-classy. AKA "Unlimited breadsticks? This Olive Garden is so classy!"

Greg Jbara said that he also believes in trying to appear as much like the role he's trying out for. I've heard this from many actors. They feel you should go to the audition dressed like the character because it makes it much easier for the director to visualize you in the role. Of course, the subtext is, many people in the business have no imagination and sometimes you have to present what you want them to see because they won't figure it out themselves. When Greg went in for Billy Flynn in Chicago, he had just played the slightly dumb, lower class bodyguard in Victor/Victoria so he felt he had to counteract that image by showing up in a full tuxedo. And, when he went in for the role of the Dad in Billy Elliot, he gained 30 pounds! Just for the audition! He had already gained 10 for a film and he just kept piling it on. Wow. When do I get to audition?

On to England. We arrived at 7:30 in the AM and got driven from Manchester to Liverpool. We checked in and went to sleep by 10 in the morning and then woke up at 2 in the afternoon. And we have not adjusted since. Last night we went to bed at midnight and four hours later we were all completely awake. The clock read 4 AM as James was checking e-mail, I was on Facebook and Juli was watching her "Facts Of Life" DVD. None of us could fall back to sleep so we just stayed awake and I showed up for my first day of filming. The show is called "School Musical" and it's a British reality show that follows a High School putting on Grease and the series ends with the kids performing their production in a theatre on the West End. I'm the Broadway expert" who comes to give them tips on how to add some "razzamatazz." PS, I asked them if I could not say that word and replace it with "sassafrass."

Annoyingly, when I auditioned, I told them the story about how when I did Grease, the guy playing Doody was out and, even though I was just the pianist, I went on for him! Of course, it got translated that I played Doody on Broadway. Excellent. It was fun to have to keep telling everyone I ran into: a.) No, it wasn't Broadway. It was a summer stock theatre in suburban Connecticut, and b.) it's not true that I "must have an amazing voice" since I sang "Magic Changes." Quite frankly, I didn't even sing the song. The night I went on, they gave it to Kenickie. I essentially read some lines and danced the hand jive. Comments A and B were usually followed by silence and British staring. That means staring with an essence of fish 'n' chips. Speaking of which, let's discuss the food. At breakfast, they offered white and black pudding. James wanted to eat what the natives do so he ladled it onto his plate. Mmm…could it be white and dark chocolate pudding for breakfast? Get me some dual citizenship ASAP. Well, better stop fantasizing because first of all, it's not actually pudding, it's hard round circles. Since when are hard round circles considered pudding? I guess then I can say that because I walked around all day in shoes that were too tight, I now have pudding on my heels. Second of all, we were told that the white "pudding" is some kind of vegetarian something and the black "pudding" is made up of the innards of a pig. What could be more delicious than the various innards of a pig all in a uniform dark color? I'm sure it's black for a very good reason having nothing to do the black plague.

OK, I'm signing off and announcing that I have some of my guests lined up for Seth's Broadway 101. The first show on Aug. 16 is going to feature Andrea McArdle as the "belter" and Natascia Diaz demonstrating the onstage quick change. They both did the original version of the show and I'm so excited they're doing it again! More guests as they are confirmed…and/or return my e-mails. Tickets at www.SethRudetsky.com. Pip pip, cheerio and someone mail me something to eat ASAP, care of Queen Elizabeth. *

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.sethrudetsky.com.