ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chita, Chamberlin and "Chad"

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chita, Chamberlin and "Chad" A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky
Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky

This week started out with a benefit for Theatreworks/USA (which does touring children's theatre) at The Rainbow Room. First of all, do you remember around a year ago, when they coined the expression "Top of the Rock" to mean the top of 30 Rockefeller Plaza and acted like it was a term that had been around forever . . . and then somehow manipulated train conductors into announcing it when they got to midtown stations? I was like, "What the . . .?'' when I started hearing "50th Street! Radio City Music Hall and Top of the Rock. Watch your step." Top of what rock? You can't come up with a new branding term and announce it like it's been around forever. Similarly, how long does something have to be around before it's no longer new I remember seeing Annie posters in late 1982 that still had the subheading "A New Musical." New? Andrea McArdle was in AARP by then.

Anyhoo, this was a swanky fundraiser that Kevin Chamberlin hosted and where Michael Mayer was honored. Years ago, Michael directed Hansel and Gretel for them… and now he's a Tony Award winner! Michael said that when he was first an actor, he used to try out for Theatreworks, and in keeping with their tradition for excellence, he never got a callback. John Gallagher Jr. made a great speech about Michael where he talked about getting his audition for Spring Awakening and being so excited when he heard it was gonna be directed by Michael…even though he had never seen one of his shows. John then told the audience what a great director Michael was…admitting that the only Michael Mayer-directed show he's now seen is Spring Awakening. By the way, John never considered himself a musical theater singer. He was shocked when he got a callback for Spring Awakening. He told me that when he showed up at Lincoln Center (where the callbacks were), he saw a ton of singer-types, which put him into a panic, so he fled! He called his agents to tell them forget it, and they convinced him that he had to go back. Cut to — he got the part and won the Tony! I wonder if there've been other people who've left auditions before they were seen, who if they stayed, would have won a Tony. Or an Outer Critics.

This reminds me of a good friend of mine. Let's call him "Chad." He had an audition for Ragtime when it was coming to Broadway and, even though he'd mainly worked as a singer first and dancer second, he had to go to a dance call. Graciela Daniele was teaching the combination, and it involved some classical ballet steps. "Chad" had danced in shows, but only jazz. He had no ballet training and decided he should leave. As he was leaving, the casting director told him to stay because the artistic staff liked him. "Chad" was flattered but knew he would look super-awkward doing a ballet combination. The casting director told him that everyone's dancing could be at a different level and to stay and just do his best. "Chad" went back, and as he was learning the combo, he saw a guy in front of him who looked awful. "Chad" thought, "Oh, no! That's what I look like! I can't take the humiliation!" and he ran past the casting director and out of the audition. Months later he went to see the show on Broadway and (a) he loved it so much that he was devastated he wasn't in it, and (b) the guy who looked awful was! "Chad" was so mad at himself for not staying. And by the way, I'm not Chad. I'm constantly showing up, thinking I look great on a combination and then being told to clear out ASAP (see my Hershey Park audition circa the eighties).

The gala ended with me and Kevin Chamberlin singing a really cute duet by Joe Iconis called "Plants Make Wonderful Pets" from the show The Plant That Ate Dirty Stocks. It was so fun singing with Kevin. I felt like Roger Bart in Triumph of Love. Or Anthony Blair Hall in Seussical (later replaced by Aaron Carter). Anybody? Nobody.

Thursday I had Broadway legend Chita Rivera at the Chatterbox. She told me that it was the 50th anniversary of West Side Story. "Why didn't anyone tell me?" she asked. "I've been living the life of a 35-year-old woman!" And, she ain't joking. She looks amazing. I was talking to a stagehand who did Spider Woman with Chita when she was in her sixties. The show was on tour and the green room had windows that showed the bottom of people's legs, à la Laverne and Shirley's apartment. All the stagehands were standing around and cruising the bottom halves of the women who were walking by. They saw a pair of legs walk by that made them all start shouting dirty things and in walked Chita, attached to said gams! And she's still got 'em! When she mentioned the West Side anniversary, I told her how odd it was to me that day-to-day Broadway was the same 50 years ago. "You know," I said, "half-hour call, understudy rehearsal, eight show a week — " and she interrupted with, "And we actually did eight shows a week." Ouch. She has a point. When I did Grease in '94, there literally was a big congratulatory note on the call board when the whole cast actually had a performance with no understudies on.

Then we got into West Side Story. I complimented her on belting the D on "…and put that in!" in "America" and contrasted it with Tatiana Troyanos' version on the operatic recording in the eighties. Let's just say if Tatiana's tones were a mode of transportation, they would be a covered wagon.

I asked about the rumor that "America" used to have the male dancers in it. Chita said that Peter Gennaro (Jerome Robbins' assistant) did the Latin dances, and he first choreographed "America" with the Sharks. They presented it to Robbins, and the next day the men were out. Chita liked it better that way because there was a sassy power to having all women. I was talking about the choreography at the end of the number. and she started telling me about a bump she had on her forehead back then that she couldn't explain. Turns out, when she would leap and touch her foot to the back of her head, she was actually bringing her foot so far forward, it was hitting her forehead! Who has that kind of stretch?

As for the West Side Story movie, after she accepted that she lost the role of Anita, she said that she didn't mind seeing Rita sing her song or dance her dances. But it was torture for her to watch her wear the purple dress. That was her dress! She was taught how to use the under-colors. You let the audience think it's just a purple dress and then once in a while, give 'em a flash so they think, "Did I just see some colors underneath that skirt?"

We then segued to Bye, Bye Birdie.The creative team was interested in her for the role of Rosie, and she told her agent that she would listen to the score, be polite and then her agent would say, "We'll think about it." It was the "play it cool" approach, so there'd be room to negotiate. Well, as soon as she heard the first act, she jumped and said, "I have to do this musical!" And by "cool," she meant "obsessed," By the way, so many great Chita stories are in the brilliant book "Supporting Player" by Richard Seff. He was her agent (and Ethel Merman's and Rex Harrison's and introduced Kander to Ebb etc…). It's an amazing read!

She also said Paul Lynde was hilarious. Mean sometimes, but hilarious. He played Mr. MacAfee and originally only had 13 lines. "But then Gower put that kid in front of him (the son, Randolph MacAfee), and the ad libs started flowing! Lee Adams just started adding them to the script!" She loved working with Dick Van Dyke so much, and they just did an Actors Fund benefit out in L.A. They did the song "Rosie," and Chita got tears in her eyes talking about how she told him how lucky they are to have done what they love to do...and to still be doing it so many years later. On that note, she said that when she and Shirley MacLaine did a benefit together recently, they began by looking at each other across the stage and screaming with glee, "We're alive!!!!"

She mentioned doing some choreography with her back to the audience and, when I balked at a star turning upstage, she said that was an incredibly powerful position. She would come up the elevator at the beginning of "All That Jazz" in Chicago with her back to the house and then slowly turn around. She said she remembers doing it one night and when she turned, two guys in the front row freaked out yelling, "Oh, my God! That's Chita Rivera!"

After more than 50 years in the business, of course, she's finally retiring. NOT AT ALL!! Her next project is at The Signature Theater, starring in Kander and Ebb's The Visit. Brava, theatre royalty!

Seth in the front row.

Now, let's discuss my lack of professionalism. One night at The Ritz last week, Patrick Kerr walked by me onstage and whispered "You're in the audience." Huh? I had to remain onstage for a while in a group scene so I couldn't question him, but then Brooks Ashmanskas whispered, "You're in the first row." There were a bunch of cute guys in the center front seats, but I couldn't figure out who was supposed to be me. The dark-haired muscle guy? The geeky, but super-hot hunk? How flattering! Then Brooks softly said, "Front row, house right, last seat." I looked past the cute Chelsea boys and let my eyes settle on an older white-haired woman, dressed completely in black with orthopedic shoes aka the opening outfit I wear as the aging Italian Grandmother. She captured my look so completely we could have toured in Side Show. I was at first mortified and then thought it was hilarious and did my signature turn-upstage-to-laugh routine. And, if my stage manager is reading this, I did that new move because my character thought of something very funny at that moment. I guess "Sheldon" thinks that seeing a man threatened by a mob hit man with a gun is a laugh riot. Note to self: Investigate how many times you need to be written up before you can be fired. Finally, on Sunday night, my boyfriend James and his seven-year old daughter Juli and I saw The Drowsy Chaperone. Bob Saget is the new Man in Chair, and he was great! During the first scene he talks of the plot of The Drowsy Chaperone and mentions a "gay wedding." Juli looked at us excited and said, "Gay wedding?!" Then Bob Saget explained what "gay" meant in the twenties. Later on, during the song where Janet sings "I Put a Monkey On a Pedestal," Julie asked me what a pedestal was. I told James that I love that she doesn't know what a pedestal is, but she knows what a gay wedding is! We're raising her with an open mind! Okay, this week is a salon for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, Lea Michele, John Gallagher, Jr. and Jonathan Groff on my TV Chatterbox show (Channel 56, Tuesdays at 12:30 PM), and I'm also going with Juli's class to the Bronx Zoo. 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.")

Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox.
Chita Rivera and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox.