ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: "Broadway Nights" and a West End Star

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: "Broadway Nights" and a West End Star A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Seth Rudetsky in Lend Me a Tenor
Seth Rudetsky in Lend Me a Tenor

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Shh! I'm sitting backstage at The John W. Engeman Theater.

It's about to be "places" (or "beginners" as they call it in London…or shall I say, as they call it "across the pond" for full pretentiousness). I'm sitting in my bellhop outfit and I just finished warming up. That's right, I do a vocal warm-up every night because my first entrance consists of me barging into a hotel room and singing part of an aria from Figaro. It ends on a high A, and even though I'm not even belting it, I got so nervous during the final dress rehearsals, that my A came out sounding like a dry wind in the Sahara — replete with sand particles. Anyhoo, I've found that if I run it onstage before half hour, it comes out fine. Also, it's a cappella, so I think in some of the run-throughs I was starting the first pitch too high and wound up belting Idina's last note in "Defying Gravity." Now I use a pitch pipe right before I go on so I have the note in my head.

This whole week has been exhausting! On Monday I traveled to Long Island to rehearse in the afternoon for Lend Me a Tenor, and then left halfway through rehearsals to take a train back to the city to go to the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble for a reading/signing of my novel, "Broadway Nights." The great news is the reading was packed, and I'd love to think it was because I have such a loyal fan base/household name recognition, but I have a sneaking suspicion it was because I had a slew of Broadway folk performing with me. Speaking of which, when I first sent out an invite to my email list, I advertised that Cheyenne Jackson would be playing the part of my best friend. Ten minutes later I got an email from a guy who meant to forward it his friend, but pushed "reply" instead. It said, "Hey! Do you want to see Seth at Barnes and Noble? Do you think Cheyenne will show up?" I sent back a sassy reply saying, "I got your email by accident…and yes, Cheyenne is showing!!" Cut to Sunday, Cheyenne emailed me saying that he suddenly has to do a publicity event for Xanadu that he can't get out of, and it conflicts with the reading. I begged and pleaded with him to work it out somehow. He was devastated that he was letting me down, but I explained that it wasn't about letting me down; it was because my reply to that email was so sassy and certain. Why did I have to be as brazen as the architect of the "unsinkable" Titanic? Well, Cheyenne was able to arrange a car to take him from the event to Barnes and Noble, so he did show up! I asked if the email writer was in the audience and got severe silence in response. Maybe the email should have read, "Do you want to see Seth at Barnes and Noble? Do you think I will show up?"

Anyhoo, the event went great! I read the lead character, Stephen, who's a piano sub on Broadway, desperate to conduct his first Broadway show. Kristine Zbornik (about to be in A Catered Affair) played my psycho governess, Mrs. Remick. Kristine and I worked together in the nineties doing a weekly variety show we put together called "Saturdays at Rose's Turn." She does a character named Anita Lomax, who's an aging, alcoholic singer, and my favorite sketch we'd do was when Anita would be raging about her latest audition. SETH: How'd your Sunset Boulevard audition go?
ANITA: It stank! They had their minds made up way before I fell in the orchestra pit. (Laughs derisively.) It's all prejudice, you know. I mean, think about it; a man's graying at the temples, he's sexy. I drink a case of vodka, I'm an alcoholic! You do the math!
SETH: I'm sorry…
ANITA: (snorts). Andrew, Lloyd and Webber. Who the hell are they anyway? Three guys trying to make a buck, they stink!

I also had Christine Ebersole who played my narcissistic opera-singing mother who's always on tour. She got a huge laugh at her line-reading of the section where she's talking to a 13-year-old me and reveals that she and my Dad are getting divorced: "Now, I know this is a big shock for you, as it is for me, Stephen. If there's anything you want to discuss, anything at all (she takes my hands in hers)… Mommy will be back in two-and-a-half weeks."

Denis O'Hare was fantastic as the horrible agent, Ronald. Right now, I have a student named Sam Heldt from my alma mater, Oberlin, doing his winter term project as my intern. When I asked him to find Denis in the Barnes and Noble café and ask him to meet me for a script change, Sam went into a state of star shock (immobile and slack-jawed). It was adorable. I remember how star struck I was when I was in college and I met the bass player from Carrie. I was like "Wait a minute, wait a minute…you were actually in the orchestra pit when Betty Buckley sang. Oh. My. God."

Speaking of Sam, I took him to my Chatterbox, and we ran into Xanadu's Jackie Hoffman. When she heard that Sam was my intern, she looked at him and asked, "So, Seth is taking you 'under his wing'?" Then, she lowered her glasses and voice: "Do I need to contact the authorities?"

Of course, Cheyenne was great and after we read his chapter, I asked him to sing one of his signature audition songs. He sang "The Proposal" from Titanic, which he sang for his Radames understudy Aida audition. I love how there are so many Broadway stars that began as understudies. Did you know that Lillias White was the understudy for the gym teacher in the mega-flop Carrie? She told me that people would say, "We hope you get to go on!" and she'd say "Um…that's OK! Trust me."

When I got to Barnes and Noble, I bought all the participants gift cards. The man who rang me up said that he was going to leave his station and come to my reading because his idol would be there…Andrea McArdle. I love that there are people like me all over the city!

David Bedella in Jerry Springer
photo by Catherine Ashmore

After the reading, I had dinner with David Bedella, who's in town to play the devil in Jerry Springer: The Opera at Carnegie Hall. We dated back in the nineties, and both remembered how the movie "Hook" ruined our relationship. We had gone to see it with my college friend Tim, and Tim and I spent the whole time making fun of Julia Roberts' inappropriate close-ups….which culminated with her for some reason, standing in a full evening gown ("Tinkerbell…you look beautiful"). David was raging that we were talking throughout the whole movie, and I was raging that he liked it, and that was the beginning of the end.

I asked him to give me a full catch-up of the last decade-and-a-half. He had gone to Nashville in the mid-nineties to start a country music career (!) and right when he got there, he got a job offer to understudy on Broadway. His partner convinced him to take it since it had always been his dream. But, as the old adage says, be careful what you wish for…and by "wish," I mean dream. And by "for," I mean "of." He said it wound up being a debilitating experience because he was constantly reminded he was an understudy because he wasn't good enough to have a role. Ouch! By the end of the run, he doubted his own talent. His partner, who had recently finished divinity school, got an offer to go to London and asked David if he would move with him. Since David had such a bad experience on Broadway, he said yes. In England partners of clergy get citizenship, and they give those rights to gay partners…as opposed to the U.S. David had so many negative feelings about his performing skills that he started working at a hair salon! He had always cut his friends hair, so he knew he had a flair for it. He agreed to work as an apprentice at an upscale hair salon (making appointments, getting coffee) even though it would take four years (!) to become a full time hair cutter. Well, one day his boss started yelling at him in front of the whole salon because of a mistake he didn't make. He quit and decided to start auditioning again.

He went to an open call the tour of Miss Saigon, and while he was there, he realized that he could completely reinvent himself. No one knew who he was or knew any of his history. He decided he would walk into the audition like he was a star. He usually is super friendly at auditions to show how easy he would be to work with, but instead he decided not to even think about being "nice" and just knocked his performance to the back wall like he was playing Radio City Music Hall! Normally, he makes eye contact with the auditioners, but this time he decided to play his song to the "balcony." After he sang, there wasn't applause. There was silence, and then they thanked him. Ouchy wowy. He was devastated as he left the room and while he was on the way out, someone ran out of the audition room, "Is David Bedella still here?" Yes! They told him that they were calling him back to sing for Cameron Mackintosh. They asked him to learn a certain part in Miss Saigon from the CD. The role didn't have a first name and David didn't know the score to Miss Saigon, so he thought it was probably like the Factory Girl in Les Miz ("And what have we here little innocent sister…") In other words, a great little 32-bar feature. He asked if he would be able to recognize what role it was when he listened to the CD and the casting person said, dry British-style, "Darling, it's the lead." The only thing missing was the casting person peering over his pince-nez. The role was the Engineer, and David immediately set out to get an agent before the call back because if he got the gig, he'd need someone to negotiate. He asked around for the newest, hungriest agent and found a young guy who had just left a big agency. The guy was working out of his apartment, but when he met David he rattled off a list of clients he had…and they were essentially all the leading roles on the West End. David had his new "I'm a star" attitude, and the agent said that he's never signed anybody without hearing them first, but was so impressed with David that he would take a chance. David sang for Cameron Mackintosh, and lo and behold, got the offer for The Engineer! But….the man who had played the Engineer before would start out the tour in London…and then David would take over. In other words, the other guy would do the "important" cities, and then David would take on the lesser ones. David thought about what he went through on Broadway…and how he wanted to re-invent himself….and told his agent to tell the powers that be that, with all due respect, he was not an understudy or replacement, and he forced himself to wait for a role that would be his That's right, he turned down the job!

He wound up doing a review that toured to Australia and when he got back, was offered an audition for the Devil in Jerry Springer. He was not a fan of the TV show in America, and decided to turn down the audition. Finally, his agent convinced him that the show was gonna be fabulous, and David tried out. He got offered the part, wound up starring on the West End for two years… and won the Olivier Award! So, from now on fellow actors, go into auditions acting like you're a star. And, then turn down a role after you're offered it. And, eventually, you'll win an Olivier…or wind up getting a terrible, terrible reputation.

And, finally, Lend Me a Tenor has been going great. Right before our first performance, we blocked the bows, and as some of you know, bowing is one of the few things in life where you don't want to be the one to go first. That's right, I have the first bow (aka the smallest part). But I decided to do it David Bedella-style, and through the whole bow, act like I'm a star. Unfortunately, the audience hasn't picked up on it yet.

When we first began performances, we had some technical difficulties, and in the scene where Jim Poulos is supposed to get a wake-up phone call, the phone didn't ring. So, as he was lying there "asleep," he decided to ad lib, "My internal clock says that it's time to wake up." Unfortunately, he got nervous and blurted out, "My biological clock says that it's time to wake up." That's right. I'm sure some people in the audience were like, "Huh? My biological says I'm almost 40 and better have a baby soon." Then, of course, while he was pretending to have a phone conversation, the phone finally rang. Yes, that old vaudeville chestnut we're all too young to have ever seen, actually happened. The good news, the audiences are loving the show, and I think the cast and our director is so super-talented.

That's it for me…it's time for my "I'm a star/Really? We beg to differ" bow. 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." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com. His first novel is titled "Broadway Nights.")

Celia Tackaberry, Doug Stender and Seth Rudetsky in the Engemen Theater production of <i>Lend Me a Tenor</i>
Celia Tackaberry, Doug Stender and Seth Rudetsky in the Engemen Theater production of Lend Me a Tenor