ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Brava, Betty Buckley

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Brava, Betty Buckley A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley.
Tony Award winner Betty Buckley.

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Hello from the flight from Dallas — where I worked with Betty Buckley on three hit concert dates at Lyric Stage — to New York. The "good" news is, I'm in a middle seat. James is across the aisle from me sitting with his sister Danielle and Juli. Danielle's flying up to New York because she's coming on the Rosie cruise for the first time. It's been very weird for me, being in Texas the week before the cruise. Usually, this week is filled with non-stop rehearsals getting ready for the cruise. The rehearsals are still happening, but I'm not there like I usually am, supervising/getting in everyone's way.

Let me start at the beginning of last week. One of the things I forgot to mention about seeing [title of show] last Saturday night is that I stopped by the merchandising table on the way out. They have so much fun stuff…mugs and t-shirts, etc. The woman running the booth told me that the maximum she's ever sold in one night has been $500, but on the first preview of [title of show] she sold $3,000! And then I spied that they were selling my first book, "The Q Guide to Broadway." I smiled humbly, held up the stack of books and magnanimously asked her if I should autograph them. I then got the amazing ego-boosting response I got in that San Francisco bookstore: A shrug and a "If you want…" Wow and ouch.

Anyhoo. (PS, I got a hostile email from a reader asking me to stop writing "anyhoo." Hmm...how about you stop writing hostile emails?) James and I flew into Dallas last Sunday (after our amazing three-and-a-half hours of sleep) and we spent his birthday afternoon with his daughter, mom and sister at the Aquarium. Then we drove to Betty's ranch in Ft. Worth. Betty's assistant Cathy let us use her house the whole time we were there and cooked all of our meals for us. In exchange, I broke her garbage disposal. How was I supposed to know you're not supposed to throw cherry pits and egg shells into a disposal? One night Betty and Cathy went to see a concert in Ft. Worth, so James and I went out to dinner at a real small-town Texas Mesquite-grill restaurant. James said that maybe someone there would recognize me from the Legally Blonde reality show, and I bet him that no one would. Cut to, he asked the waitress if she watched the Legally Blonde reality show on MTV, and she enthusiastically said she did. He smiled triumphantly. So he was was right! Then James pointed to me and said to the waitress, "Look, it's Seth!" Silence. Then I said, "Remember? I'm the vocal coach." Staring. "Um…I play the piano and teach the girls the music every week." Blinking. No recognition. So, I guess we were both right. Yay?

Betty and I had three days to put together her all-Broadway request show at Lyric Stage. For years, her fans and producers from concert venues have been asking for an all-Broadway show, but she's always included jazz as a large part of the show. She admitted that she sometimes has a contrary nature and attributed it to growing up with her mother wanting her to be Julie Andrews, yet she was wanting to be Janis Joplin. Regardless, she finally decided to give the people what they want and put together a show with songs and stories from her many years on Broadway. Betty and I spent hours each day in her music room going through songs and picking arrangements. Every time we'd get into an argument about how a song should go, Betty would laugh and say she wanted us to do that during the show. The biggest disagreement we had was which version of "Memory" to do. She wanted to do her re-arrangement of the song, which she calls "Space Memory" and begins with a few weird, mysterious chords. I wanted it Broadway-style and demanded we begin with the signature "Memory" vamp that we all know from the cast album. Finally, we agreed to compromise: I put some "Betty chords" in the middle, but got to begin it with the vamp I grew up on (Dum dum dum, dum dum). When Betty first heard it, she was in shock. It had been so long since she sang it with that intro. After we went through all of her songs, we worked with the director, Richard Jay-Alexander, but did it on the phone because he's in pre-production for the Hollywood Bowl Les Miz concert. He said that the audience should be allowed to make requests and write down questions for her and also came up with the idea of me starting the second act of the show with some of my signature deconstructions. Yay!

We teched the show at the Lyric Stage on Wednesday afternoon and didn't really know how it was gonna go over. Well, first of all, we found out that all three shows were completely sold out with a long wait list! Brava! I suggested that we do it Spring Awakening-style, so the theatre brought extra chairs and put them on the stage! It was great having the audience so close — except the time the show began, I started playing the intro to "As If We Never Said Goodbye," and someone's cell phone onstage went off! And, he didn't hear it! Betty finally had to gently ask him to turn it off. Oy. But, even though we didn't quite know what the show was gonna be, it coalesced and was fantastic! Betty did a full two acts of singing for three nights and sounded amazing! Plus, her stories were fascinating and hilarious…and filled with non-stop busts on herself. Someone asked what the funniest moment was that she ever had onstage and she proceeded to tell the following. One night during Cats she had a cold and a runny nose. She was crouched down and preparing to rise up to do "Touch Me-e-e-e-e-e!" Well, when she rose up and reached towards the audience, she began the reach from her nose and, unfortunately, a long string of mucous came from her nose and reached all the way out towards the tip of her finger! And it refused to break! So while she was singing "Touch me-e-e-e! It's so easy to leave me," it stayed right in the spotlight, glimmering. The cats crowding around Grizabella during that song are supposed to be repulsed by her, and that night, no acting on their part was required.

It was an all-Broadway request show and the one rule was that it had to be from a show she'd done and it had to be a song she sang. Nonetheless, people requested songs like "Music of the Night" and "All That Jazz." She also got a request for "I Dreamed a Dream" from Les Miz, which was requested as "I Had a Dream. Mama Fantine? Our favorite request was "Jubilation T. Cornpone" from Li'l Abner. Betty didn't know it, but I did, so I played the piano part while Betty made the woman who requested it sing it! All in all, Betty sang songs from 1776, Promises, Promises, Pippin, I'm Getting My Act Together…, Sunset Boulevard, A Little Night Music, Carrie, the movie "Tender Mercies" (because she got so many requests for it) and of course, Cats. I didn't know that Judi Dench was the original Grizabella in London. I wondered how she sang "Memory" since I don't remember her being able to belt an E flat in "Notes on a Scandal," but turns out when Judi did the show, "Memory" didn't exist. She left Cats because of an injury, Elaine Paige took over, and that's when they added the song. I think if Judi had sung it, the whole show would have been a memory.

I deconstructed footage of Betty performing in the Miss America Pageant. That's right, the Miss America Pageant. As a teenager, she wanted nothing to do with pageants because it went against her feminism (she was a charter subscriber to Ms. Magazine), but her parents pushed her to do it, and she wanted the scholarship money. She said that all throughout her childhood, her father was vehemently opposed to her being an actress (her mother had to sneak her out of the house for dance classes) because he grew up in South Dakota, and the only "actresses" he knew were dance hall hostesses who sometimes segued into becoming ladies of the evening . But though he was opposed to her acting, he was completely supportive of her being in pageants. I call that ironic. Betty called it hypocritical. Nonetheless, Betty was crowned Miss Ft. Worth, but did not win the role of Miss Texas. That honor went to the girl who stood next to her and was 6-foot-4-inches in her heels. Betty sang, but this girl did a dramatic reading of "Gone With The Wind" as her talent. Betty knew she lost when she saw the girl end her monologue by literally eating a turnip. Nonetheless, Betty was invited to perform on the national telecast of The Miss America Pageant, representing all of the local pageant girls who don't get to go on to compete in Miss America. Or, as Betty put it, representing losers everywhere. I found video footage of Betty singing on the 1972 pageant and deconstructed her terrible lack of lip-synching skills. She said that she's never been good at being able to match how she sang something. During the filming of "Tender Mercies," they had to film the scene where she sang "Over You" over and over again because she kept clanking. In the Miss America pageant, she finally decided that if she kept her mouth wide open a lot, it would make her look like she's singing. It actually just made her look crazy. On top of that, I showed the part that featured the one time she should have kept her mouth open (the extended last note of the song), she closed it early! So you hear her high belted note ringing out, yet see her mouth clamped shut. Hi-larious!

We're planning on doing the show on Broadway, but want to upgrade to a full orchestra! It's so thrilling to hear Betty sing and watch her inhabit all of those character she's played…and visualize mucous in a single line, glimmering in the spotlight.

Around two months ago, I saw the BC/EFA benefit of Pamela's First Musical and thought Carolee Carmello was so good that I wanted to have her on the Rosie Cruise. I've worked with her on so many benefits, and she's such a great person. I told James I was gonna call her and, of course, completely forgot. Cut to, around ten days ago. My cell phone rang a little before 7 PM, and it was James saying that he was at Starbucks in the West 40's and Carolee was on her way out. I told him to grab her ASAP. I then heard through the phone, "Excuse me? Carolee? I'm Seth Rudetsky's partner, and he's on the phone for you." She got on and I asked her if she wanted to come on the Rosie cruise that was leaving in less than two weeks. Of course, the first thing she said dryly was, "OK, who dropped out?" Sassy. I told her that I'd been planning to call her and forgot. I knew that it was probably too late for her to ask Mamma Mia! for a vacation, but wanted her to know that I wanted her there. Well, she asked for some time off, and they gave it to her! She can't come the whole week, but she's gonna get on the cruise, do the all-Barbra show on Sunday and the Diva show on Wednesday and get off in Bar Harbor, Maine, on Thursday to fly back for the show that night! Yay! Plus, when I was going through my cell phone contacts, I saw the Daphne Rubin-Vega name and remembered that she had a toddler who I knew would love the cruise. I asked her to come and sing and, unfortunately, she said it was too last minute and she couldn't do it. She called me back two hours later and said that her husband told her she had to do it, so she's coming, too! We're ending the week with a concert version of Chicago, and I made her "Lipschitz" in "The Cell Block Tango" and she'll be in the diva show, too!

The exciting news is that my book, "Broadway Nights," has finally been released on Audible.com. James and I listened to it driving around Texas and I love it! Except: I recorded the book all the way through, and then had the other performers record their stuff, so when I first read it, I assumed the usher character was going to be a man. He has a hostile face-off with the leading character's nanny (played by the brilliantly funny Andrea Martin). Then I decided to cast my mom as the usher, but they left all of my original dialogue. So you constantly hear me say things like, "The usher glared. He said —" then you hear my Mom's voice. My mother is referred to as a man at least six times. I haven't gotten any e-mails complaining about it, so either no one cares, or my mother is well on her way to becoming Bea Arthur's stand-by. Speaking of Bea Arthur, I just remembered a hilarious moment in the "Golden Girls" spin-off, "Golden Palace," which starred Estelle Getty but didn't have Bea Arthur (as her daughter, Dorothy Zbornak). Estelle is washing dishes in the restaurant, and a husky male waiter who had been fired, approaches her from behind and says in a deep but apologetic voice to her back, "I wanna come back." Estelle perks her head up and says, "Dorothy?" Brava basso profundo joke! For my audible book (with voices by Kristen Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff, Richard Kind and Mr. Sally Rudetsky), go to Audible.com/BroadwayNights.

Finally, I forgot to tell you that when I was interviewing Laura Benanti last week we were talking about audience behavior at Broadway shows. She said that she was told at Gypsy to constantly be on the lookout for people videotaping the show. She told me she responded, overwhelmed, with, "Really? Can't I just act?" Well, one day the whole cast noticed someone texting non-stop…in the front row! Patti LuPone was mind boggled someone would pay so much for a ticket, but spend the time texting. Well, Patti demanded that the person be thrown out for Act Two! I asked Laura if the person could have insisted on staying, and she said Patti wouldn't have gone on again. Brava!!!!!

OK, people. We're getting closer to landing. Soon, I'll be writing to you from the high seas to tell you all about the Broadway-filled Rosie cruise! Peace out!

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(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.)

James Wellesly, Betty Buckley and Seth Rudetsky backstage after the final performance of Lyric Stage's <i>Broadway By Request.</i>
James Wellesly, Betty Buckley and Seth Rudetsky backstage after the final performance of Lyric Stage's Broadway By Request.
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