I'll soon be saying, "Hello from Newark."
That's right, I'm flying from Newark, NJ, to Newark, CA. I guess Newark is such a beautiful name it had to be used twice. Will it soon replace "Madison" as the most popular girl's name? Pundits say yes. Or as one famous star I once worked with said about herself, "Pundents"… which is a combination of someone in-the-know and a beautiful brooch. Anyhoo, I'm sitting on the plane…and I do mean sitting. We've all boarded the plane, but we're now delayed because of thunderstorms . Do I dare haul out, "Wow! Those people down there look like ants. Wait a minute, they are ants!" I dare not.
This week began at my old summer stock from yesteryear, Surflight Summer Theater on Long Beach Island in Beach Haven, NJ. I hosted a fundraiser for the theatre and arrived Monday afternoon. I first worked there when I was a sophomore in college, and I told the intern who picked me up that I hadn't been back since 1989. He made me feel "great" by informing me that 1989 was the year he was born. Silence from me. And internal crying. And external phoning for botox.
No performers from my time there performed, but Kelly Briggs (who later on did Les Miz and Cats) remembered how hard it was to do a different show ever week (14 shows in 14 weeks!). And, children's theatre shows on certain afternoons. He remembered playing the Scarecrow in their version of The Wizard of Oz and having some kids yell out, "If you didn't have a brain you wouldn't be able to walk or speak." Like I've always said, certain children should never be educated.
I told the audience about some of the antics that happened while I was at Surflight. Most involved my friend, Jason Little. During 42nd Street, they needed more people in the opening number to tap, so of course I jumped at the chance to get out of the pit and strut my (limited) stuff. Jason played Andy Lee, the choreographer. After the opening, I always left the stage as one of the dancers who was cut. Jason felt there should be some motivation for cutting me and decided that Andy Lee was a big anti-Semite. I always wore a Jewish star that I got for graduation underneath my costume so after the last note of the opening number, while the audience was clapping, Jason would point to the star, point to my nose and then give me a "get the hell out of here" point to the wings. At my Wednesday Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show, I interviewed Marya Grandy, the fabulous beltress who's getting ready to come on the Rosie Family Cruise. Before we started talking Broadway, I had to ask her about her childhood because her father played Gopher on TV's "The Love Boat"! I asked her if she ever met any of the famous guest stars and she said that one day she was introduced to the woman playing her dad's mother on the show…Ethel Merman! Even at that age, Marya was a Broadway fan so she was totally intimidated meeting Ethel, who was sitting in a make-up chair. Marya's dad took her hand and said, "Marya…this is Ethel Merman who's playing my mom." Marya shyly said, "Hello, Ms. Merman" and Ethel looked at her and bellowed, "Call me Grandma!"
OK, I'm finally now in California. The thunderstorm took so long to arrive we sat on the runway for three hours. To help us pass the time, they kindly showed the film but, passive/aggressively, it was "Pink Panther 2." Why make us suffer while we're already suffering? All in all, I was on the plane for eight hours and then had a delicious 45-minute drive to Newark. In the morning, I taught a master class for four hours and then, immediately following, did my tech rehearsal. If anyone's making a bootleg video of my show tonight, I hope they put Vaseline on the lens.
Thursday I interviewed Mitch Jarvis, who's starring in Rock of Ages and is the guy who "came on" to Liza Minnelli in the audience during the Tony Awards. Turns out, he worked at The Gallery Players in Brooklyn where I did Torch Song Trilogy. He played the lead in The Full Monty there, so, of course, I asked how they did the final nude scene. Usually when the guys do the final strip, the lights on the back of the stage are brought up super-bright so the audience is temporarily blinded. At The Gallery Players, they didn't have backlighting, but they did bring the lights up…in front! So they were even more lit. He also did it at another theatre where they side-lit it, so all the guys onstage were hidden in bright light streaming in from the sides at the final moment of nudity and you couldn't see anything. But because he was in the middle, all the lights converged on him, and he wound up being the only naked guy fully visible to the audience. Hmm…after the second story I began to think that he had a lot of excuses as to why he just "happened" to be totally naked to various audiences. Methinks the nude lady doth protest too much. Uh-oh. I'm on the plane going back to New York right now, and there are two nuns sitting right behind me. Are they allowed to read the word "nude"? More importantly, do they prefer Mary Martin's Maria to Julie Andrews'? If they say Mary Martin, get ready for a holy war.
Back to Mitch Jarvis. He didn't get an audition for Rock of Ages at first because they were looking for a "Jack Black type" who was in his forties and overweight. He's much younger and thinner, but his friend, who was the reader for the auditions, finally recommended him to the casting director. Mitch went in to audition and that night the director ran into his reader-friend at a bar. She asked him if he'd call Mitch and when Mitch picked up, she got on the cell phone and told him that he got the part! Hmph... when I get a phone call from someone in a bar, it's usually not an offer to star in a new musical but a slurred "Sheth? I wanted to tell ya I didn't mean what I said junior year…" followed by the sound of throwing up.
On Tony Award night, Mitch said that the backstage was like a Fellini movie. "It was like a bunch of eighties rockers in one area, with a group of 1930's gangsters, tons of hippies, all these fairy tale characters… Oh, here comes Elton John. There's Dolly Parton!"
I also interviewed Chandra Wilson, who's playing Mama Morton in Chicago. She has always worked as an actress since she was at NYU, but a lot of it wasn't well-paying, so she decided she needed something steady. She got a night-time computer job that she was eventually promoted at and was able to do from her apartment. Of course, when she was cast in "Grey's Anatomy," she quit. Actually, no. She literally kept her "day job" for the first two seasons of "Grey's Anatomy"! "You never know…" she said. What's crazier is that initially her role was written for a white, short and blonde woman. Her agent (and mine, PS) Richard Fischer got her an appointment for the role even though she was nothing like the description, and her audition was put on tape. Even though she wasn't what they were looking for, she was flown to L.A. for a final round. She found out that her only other competition was one other actress and the feedback was that the other actress walked in and "took control of the room" like the character. So, when Chandra went in for the network, she did her version of taking control of the room. After she auditioned, she was perfunctorily thanked and walked down the stairs to get to her car. Well, as she was walking, she heard the network people praising and profusely thanking the other woman who auditioned. Chandra was annoyed overhearing it because they didn't even wait until she was out of the building to heap praise on her competition. Cut to, she got the part (!) and learned the show-biz lesson about auditioning that I wrote about in my novel, "Broadway Nights": Amount of thanking and "great job-ing" is equal to the amount of flat-out rejection and no-way Jose-ing (T/G.J. = R/N.W.J.). The craziest part is that Chandra's competition was…Kristin Chenoweth! I guess if you want white, short and blonde, she's your go-to.
OK, everyone. This week I begin rehearsals for the Rosie Cruise and then on Friday, I'm hightailing it to Sag Harbor to play Betty Buckley's Broadway By Request show that we recently did at Feinstein's. Come on July 4 to celebrate independence day or come on July 3 to celebrate Betty's birthday! Tickets at http://www.baystreet.org/music. 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.