ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Charles Strouse, Road Show and Gypsy of the Year

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Charles Strouse, Road Show and Gypsy of the Year A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Seth Rudetsky and Charles Strouse
Seth Rudetsky and Charles Strouse

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Today (Dec. 8) and tomorrow (Dec. 9) is Gypsy of the Year and I'm so excited to be hosting. I went to my first Gypsy of the Year back in 1992 when I was conducting Pageant and James Raitt (the vocal arranger and original music director of Pageant and Forever Plaid) wrote an amazing version of "Memory" featuring the guys from Plaid and the ladies from Pageant.Here's a version I found online http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4v4TpceKDh4. It's not from the Gypsy of the Year performance, but you can still appreciate James' brilliant arrangement. I love how Grizabella is spoken of in the third person and how James added all these amazing asides ("Mem'ry…She can smile at the old days…she was beautiful then…pretty kitty).

Gypsy of the Year is such a fun variety show, but the main purpose of it is to celebrate all the fundraising that's happened over the last six weeks for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. It's appropriate that I started this column talking about James because he's one of many incredible people we've lost to AIDS. James was 41 when he died and besides the world losing a very giving man (who I can never fully repay for giving me my start in the NY theatre scene), I'm overwhelmed when I think how much amazing music we'll never hear because he never got a chance to create it. The fundraising period may be over, but if you want to keep helping BC/EFA, hightail it to their website where they have phenomenal gifts for your theatre-loving friends. Tons of DVD's, ornaments, CDs and autobiographies signed by Broadway stars and both "The Q Guide To Broadway" and "Broadway Nights" signed by me. P.S., I thought it would be so fun and exciting, sitting in their office and signing my books. One hour and two tendonitis flare-ups later, it went from "fun and exciting" to "do you have an intern who can forge my name?" Regardless, it's all at BCEFA.org, so get thee!

Wednesday afternoon, I interviewed Charles Strouse, Freddie Gershon and Andrea MacArdle at my Sirius/XM "Live on Broadway Show." Charles was there talking about his new book "Put On A Happy Face" which I am loving. There are so many great stories about Broadway! And I love that he worked as a jingle writer in the '70s. He was supposed to produce a jingle for a new drink called Razzle Root Beer. After they recorded the jingle, the advertising agency found out that they couldn't use the word "Razzle" because it infringed upon a copyright. There was an awkward silence in the recording studio…and suddenly Charles suggested they change the name of the drink to Ramblin' root beer. They gave him the O.K., he re-recorded the jingle with the singers who were still there, substituted "ramblin'" for "razzle" and the root beer became a big seller. I totally remember that root beer and I just looked up one of the commercials on youtube and it features all different New York scenes…including a shot of Sarah Jessica Parker as Annie! Subliminal advertising??? Brava! Watch it at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aHcoO1-FKVc. I told Charles that I loved his book and casually mentioned that "Broadway Nights" is in its third printing and he said that his book was as well. I then realized that his was just published and mine came out a year ago so my subtle bragging turned into shamed silence. I asked Charles for a story about a particular temperamental star he worked with (e-mail me for deets) and he said that he started teaching her a song from the score, but it was too high for her. He started to transpose it and she said that she wanted to sing it in the key he originally wrote it. He explained that he wrote it in that key for his own voice, so he could sing it at backers auditions. She said that there must have been a musical reason he chose that key…it must have "meant something." He assured her it didn't and he had no problem transposing it so it was more comfortable for her. The conversation went back and forth like that until she threw a chair at him. Anybody? I love how the physical violence had such a lofty reason: (as the chair is being thrown) "I demand that you stay true to your artistic vision!!!"

Freddie Gershon is the CEO of Music Theater International which licenses Annie and was there to present Charles with a book filled with letters from little girls around the world who've written about how important Annie is to them. I did a casual flip through the book to see if I was one of the little girls, but didn't see my signature bad handwriting. Freddie talked about licensing the show down South but then getting all the material back in the mail a week later. He called the principal of the school to see why it was returned. The principal said that Annie was Satanic. Huh? Freddie asked what was Satanic about it (besides the E flat that Star-to-Be has to sustain which obviously requires a deal with the devil) and the principal says that the script mentions…Hells Kitchen!!! Freddie explained the misunderstanding:

FREDDIE: Hells Kitchen? Satanic? Hells Kitchen is the name of a neighborhood in New York City.
PRINCIPAL: I rest my case.

Speaking of Laurie Beechman (the original Star-to-Be), there's a new website that was just launched dedicated to her and I'm obsessed! She does an amazing live version of her "NYC" solo that I can't stop listening to. Go to www.LaurieBeechman.com and enjoy!

After the interview, I met my Mom and my friend Tim and we saw the matinee of Forbidden Broadway. This has to be the best one I've ever seen. Hilarious. The cast was fantastic. I don't know how Michael West is able to do Harvey Fierstein's voice without inflicting permanent vocal damage and Gina Kreiezmar does the best Patti LuPone imitation I've ever seen. Christina Bianco does so many imitations perfectly and I'm mind-boggled that during her Chenoweth imitation she sings the end of "Glitter and Be Gay" and hits the high E flat full-out! The very last part of the show is a take off on Sunday in the Park With George but instead of it being about George as a painter, it's about Sondheim as a composer. Cutie James Donegan did a great Sondheim and the last moment, he stands onstage, surrounded by classic Sondheim characters. It was such a theatrical moment and it made me realize all of the great roles Sondheim has given to theatre. I got so moved thinking about all the possibilities theatre has to offer and I literally started crying in the audience. Right after the show, I saw James Donegan coming out of the theatre and I told him how great I thought he was. He smiled… and then looked at me strangely like I was acting weird. I didn't know what was up and finally asked if I knew him, because I'm notorious for not recognizing people. Well, typical for me; not only do I know him, but turns out, he's dating a good friend of mine and was literally at my last birthday party! Let me just say for the record, it's not because I meet so many people that I forget what they look like, I literally have a hard time recognizing people's faces. It's not quite at the level of the guy who had a profile in the New York Times Magazine because he couldn't recognize himself in the mirror, but it's close! Here are two examples of my annoyingness. When I was first watching "Friends," I was outraged that Matt LeBlanc and Matthew Perry were on the show because I thought they literally looked like twins. That lasted a year. Then when I saw "L.A. Confidential" I couldn't understand why one character was really nice and then really mean. I had no idea how I was supposed to feel about him? Was he a horrible person? An amazing person? It wasn't until near the end of the movie did I realize that I thought Guy Pierce and Russell Crowe were the same person!!!! So, if I meet you for the twentieth time, don't be mad if I introduce myself like you're a stranger. It's because I literally don't recognize you. And if I re-tell a story you've heard me tell a million times, it's not because I don't recognize you, it's because I only have a dozen stories and I refuse to get new material.

P.S., on a Sondheim tangent, I was on the phone with my Mom while I was walking my dog and she told me that the only song she likes from "Sunday in the Park With George" is "Tell Me On a Sunday." I explained that "Tell Me On a Sunday" is by Andrew Lloyd Webber and from Song and Dance. She paused…and then asked what show "Never on a Sunday" is from. And I'm out.

Still speaking of Sondheim, James and I went to see Road Show on Saturday night. A few hours before the show, I took Juli ice-skating in Bryant Park and her babysitter met us there. I told her how long Juli could continue to ice skate for, where to get Juli dinner, what time her bedtime was and then I went downtown to meet James. At 7:59, James and I sat in our seats in The Public Theater and he casually asked me if I gave the babysitter the keys to the apartment. I had not. And the show began. During the first Sondheim-ian chord, I hid my phone underneath my Playbill and awkwardly texted the babysitter to get the keys from my friend Jack Plotnick who was visiting. Thus followed the most uncomfortable hour and 40 minutes where we were watching the show, but inwardly panicking that the babysitter and Juli would be locked out of the apartment when we returned. Well, not to worry, it all worked out…if by "worked out" you mean James and I having a huge fight in the subway on the way home, me shutting down emotionally and Juli having a major tantrum with the babysitter leading me to pay her double for the night. But it was great to see my friends Aisha deHaas, Anne Nathan and Kristine Zbornik in the show. They all had great featured parts. Especially in the song "Tell Me On a Sunday." "Never On A Sunday"? "Sunday is Funday at Carvel"?

Finally, I saw Speed-the-Plow and thought the actors were all great. Elisabeth Moss was a great foil to both men and I'm obsessed with Jeremy Piven's vaudevillian physicality. Plus Raul Esparza had so many sassy, dry zingers that I want to see him do Company again but this time play Joanne.

O.K., I have to go get ready for Gypsy of the Year and by "get ready" I mean not prepare and instead obsessively watch the In the Heights video Lin-Manuel Miranda made where he made a dream come true for ten-year-old boy. The kid was a super-fan of the show and his Mom told Lin-Manuel that they were coming on a Saturday. The whole cast stayed after the matinee and performed the whole finale onstage…and Lin had the kid play and sing his part…and he was amazing! I can't help but weep when I watch it…it's so moving! I put it on my site (www.SethRudetsky.com) and now I have to go watch yet again. 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.)

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