ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Broadway 101, Deconstructing and the Chatterbox

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Broadway 101, Deconstructing and the Chatterbox A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
John Tartaglia and Lynda Carter
John Tartaglia and Lynda Carter Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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I'm on an airplane leaving the city of New Orleans, where I just spent four days of debauchery.

And by "debauchery" I mean teaching master classes, doing my show and eating meals with my mother. Yes, I've reclaimed the word "debauchery" and made it nerdy. I was invited down here by A.J. Allegra, a young NYU graduate currently teaching musical theatre acting at the local arts high school (for info on their amazing programs, go to Nocca.com). First of all, the high school (funded by the state) is beautiful and has state-of-the-art everything. How come I grew up on Long Island, which is a lot closer to Broadway than Louisiana, and we didn't have an arts high school? We did, however, have a Bullying High School. That was fun. Also, the teachers all have to maintain professional credits throughout the year to stay on the staff, so all the kids are being taught by people who are working in their respective fields. A.J. arranged for me to do master classes with all of the musical theatre students and to do my show Deconstructing: The Good, The Bad and the Headache-y at a sassy club called Le Chat Noir. Everything in New Orleans is very last minute, and my show wasn't announced until last week! I was in a panic that the audience would consist of my mom, the spot operator and a (one) waitress, but it was totally sold out! The night we arrived, A.J. met us at the airport, and I asked if we could get some food. The closest place to get food was at the Harrah's casino near the hotel. OK. First of all, smoking is still allowed in bars in New Orleans and that place was smokier than the Phantom's lair and/or the "No Good Deed" scene from Wicked. Secondly, we waited in line to get in, and the security guard asked A.J. for his ID to see if he was old enough to drink. Naturally, I got my driver's license ready to flash, but the security guard could not have cared less and immediately waved me in…alongside my mother. I was ignored with the subtext of "no need to check your birth date…you and that woman you're with are obviously both in the same age range." Devastating.

Seth Rudetsky and the students of Nocca
photo by A.J. Allegra

The week began for me at Cipriani's, where I put up a mini-version of Seth's Broadway 101 to benefit the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction (NFFR.org), which helps kids get surgery for facial differences. PS, they're not getting surgery to look better, it's literally because often they can't eat or breathe. Lillias White garnered an immediate standing ovation after she sang "Don't Rain On My Parade" and afterwards told me that she felt this was the most important charity I've ever done a fundraiser for. Lillias has done so many benefits for me. The first was in 1996 when she ran over to Don't Tell Mama to sing the Fight Scene from Dreamgirls right after she had a tech rehearsal for The Life. That's what gave me the idea for the Actors Fund Dreamgirls concert. She's a brilliant performer and has some hilarious stories. Once, when she was playing the uptight secretary in How to Succeed (who finally lets loose in Act Two), she was relaxing, totally nude (!), in her dressing room. Suddenly, she heard her cue for a quick crossover! The scene was supposed to be her leaving work in her coat, and as she passes the elevators, she runs into Matthew Broderick. So, she shot up, pulled the coat around her naked body, ran onstage and did the scene. Hopefully, that coat was dry cleaned before the understudy had to wear it. Wednesday was an exciting day at my Sirius XM Live on Broadway show. If you saw [title of show], you may remember that at the beginning of the show Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell talk about how their show is about the writing of their show and anything they say can be the dialogue. So Jeff wonders that if he says "Wonder Woman for President" it can get in the show, and Hunter says yes. Then Jeff pauses and says, "Wonder Woman for President." That line was based on the fact that Jeff grew up obsessed with "Wonder Woman" and Lynda Carter. As a matter of fact, both he and Hunter went to the Museum of Broadcasting so they'd be able to watch Lynda Carter's variety show from the seventies. That's dedication. Cut to, Lynda Carter has a new CD called "At Last" and is doing her act around the country, so she was booked on my show. (On a side note, if you buy a CD at www.LyndaCartersings.com and buy the CD, she'll send it to you hot off the presses and autographed.) Well, I knew I had to rock Jeff's world by introducing him to her. I emailed his co-star, Hunter, and we arranged it all. He told Jeff that they were booked on my show to talk about whether or not [title of show] would come back to Broadway before the Tony Awards. The problem was that I wanted to surprise Jeff, but we had to announce Lynda Carter's name at the beginning of the show. So, Hunter told Jeff that they had to wait outside on the street until I texted him that I was ready. It literally made no sense, but Jeff bought it for some reason. I started the show, Hunter got the signal to come in, and I immediately called them onstage. I mentioned to the audience that Jeff was a mega-fan of Lynda Carter and turned offstage and brought her out. Jeff's mouth fell open, hands flew to his face and he started freaking out. Oh, wait. I mean he stared blankly and nodded politely to Lynda Carter. Seriously! I've seen more facial animation on Paula Abdul's forehead. I was mortified. Was Jeff not a fan of Lynda Carter? Did I get her mixed-up with the Bionic Woman? I did the interview with all three of them and then brought Jeff and Hunter up for game-show segment and confronted Jeff on his re-creation of the stoic-ness Mary Tyler Moore displayed during "Ordinary People." Turns out, he was completely freaked out, but he was in, what Susan Blackwell from [title of show] calls, his "emotional closet." He assured me and the audience that in three days he'd be sitting in his apartment, crying hysterically. Phew. Read his take on it at www.titleofshow.com. Then I interviewed John Tartaglia from Shrek the Musical and found out that they're filming a new commercial this week. I love Broadway commercials, although it's often hard to tell what the show is about from tiny snippets. I remember in the Evita commercial they combined the part of the show where Che sings at Evita's funeral and a part of "Don't Cry for Me Argentina." The lyrics don't go together in the show and my memory is that I thought the show was about Evita being the un-dead.

CHE: (singing) You were supposed to have been immortal. That's all they wanted…not much to ask for.
EVITA: (singing/glaring) I kept my promise, don't keep your distance.

You kept your promise? Huh. You know what, I actually am going to keep my distance because you're a terrifying poltergeist. Go into the light…there is peace in the light!

At the Chatterbox, I interviewed one of Broadway's most prolific conductors, Paul Gemignani. Paul told me that he was a classical percussionist and conductor and one weekend, in his twenties, he visited New York City. He had a friend in Cabaret on Broadway and went to see the show. He met the conductor, Hal Hastings….and within minutes was offered the national tour as the associate conductor. I'll say it for you: What the-? In my day, you left your resumes at stage doors and got ignored. Then you clawed your way into a subbing position and eventually became an assistant conductor. Then you entered AARP. How dare he show up at the stage door and get a gig? Yes, I was a resentful interviewer. I glared, and he continued. He then got to conduct the national tour of Zorba with John Raitt and Chita Rivera. He remembered that one day, he and Chita were out to lunch in San Francisco and saw a man on the wharf dressed up as Frankenstein. She walked up and hired him to perform at her daughter Lisa Mordente's birthday party. Paul thought it was odd because he knew that Latins were often afraid of monsters/spirits, but he assumed that the Rivera/Mordente family was different. Cut to the birthday party: The monster showed up to entertain and immediately Lisa and Chita screamed…and locked themselves in the bathroom.

While he was touring with Zorba, he got a call from Hal Hastings, who said that Paul needed to leave the tour to come to New York and work as the drummer/associate conductor on Follies. Paul was loving touring and also didn't want to go back to just drumming, so he said no. Hastings said that he must do Follies and told him if he didn't leave the tour willingly, he would fire him! Begrudgingly, Paul joined up with Follies, and thus began his long collaboration with Stephen Sondheim. He was only the assistant, but wasn't afraid of offering suggestions like, "Have you thought about inverting that chord?" or "How about putting a crack through the face on the poster?" (PS, the second one is a lie), which made the creative team respect him. He also said that there weren't the strict union rules of today and after they'd rehearse 'til 6, it was understood that he'd pack up his drums and go uptown with Michael Bennett and Graciela Daniele to another studio and rehearse 'til midnight! PS, I've never heard of anything more fun! Can you imagine hanging out with all these creative geniuses 'til all hours?

Paul loved Ethel Shutta, who sang "Broadway Baby," but she was known to be a bit tipsy during performances. While she was singing "Broadway Baby," the stage management team would search her dressing room and environs to find her stash, but they never did. Finally, after the show closed, the stage crew started loading out the scenery, and…hidden all over the set were empty booze bottles. She was just a Broadway bA.A.by?

Right after A Little Night Musicopened, Hal Hastings passed away suddenly, and Hal Prince asked Paul to take over. Paul thought Hal meant to take over conducting Night Music, but he actually asked Paul to take over the position of music director of all things Hal Prince! In those days, it was like the Hollywood studio system and Hal Prince had an office where there was a stage manager, music director, etc. who did all of his shows. Paul remembers his first performance at A Little Night Music. He was standing backstage, and he heard a voice sing-songing his name. "Gemignani-i-i-i-i" came from Hermione Gingold's dressing room. He walked in and was confronted by Hermione standing center in stockings and her wig...and no top! Paul fled and found out that it was her idea of a "joke." From then on, every time he was standing in that area he'd hear her sing-song his name but he'd refuse to walk in.

He also talked about auditioning Evitas all over the country and remembered a girl coming in with dark, curly hair who was wrong for the role but, he felt, right for the revival of West Side Story. He told her to fly to NYC because they were auditioning that day. She wound up becoming the understudy to Maria and her name is… Mary Elizabeth Mastrantonio! Excellent talent scouting, Gemignani! At the same audition, Derin Altay came in to sing for the mistress. As she was walking out, she turned around and inquired whether or not they were also auditioning for the role of Evita. They asked her if she could belt an F and she said yes…even though she was a soprano who had never belted before. She auditioned, managed to belt the F, got the role out of town….and took over on Broadway after Patti LuPone! Paul was conducting in the pit and they had crazy romantic chemistry…but they were married to other people. Then, a few years ago, he was in Toronto where she was performing, and he called her up. He found out they were both single… and they got married! Twenty years after they did Evita! Hmm…I conducted Grease in 1994. Will I get a phone call in 2014 from Rosie O'Donnell asking for my hand in marriage? We shall see. We can put a new spin on the term "gay marriage." And follow it with the term "quickie divorce."

The most exciting news is Paul said that The Roundabout Theatre is planning a revival of Merrily We Roll Along, which is one my favorite Sondheim scores. Paul said the problem is that the show has the characters age from old to young, and it's always difficult to decide whether to cast everyone young, like the age at the end of the show or older, like the age they begin. Perhaps they can use the cardboard cut-outs that Hugh Jackman stuck his head through in the Oscar opening number when he was trying to represent Brad Pitt's aging in the "Benjamin Button" film. Perhaps it will then also run as long as that Oscar telecast (one night). OK, everyone. This Thursday I travel to Orlando with James and Juli. We're going to hit Sea World together on Friday and then on Saturday I'm doing a master class during the day. And then, on Saturday night, I'm doing my Deconstructing show. To sign up for the master class or to get tickets to the show, go to http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/. And, if you come to the show hoping to meet James and Juli, let me just say that they had an option of getting tickets to Disneyworld for Saturday or of coming to the show and hearing the same jokes I do around the apartment every day. AKA, if you want to meet them, get thee to the "It's A Small World" ride. Peace out! *

(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.)

Derin Altay, Seth Rudetsky and Paul Gemignani
Derin Altay, Seth Rudetsky and Paul Gemignani Photo by Robb Johnston