ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Critics Are Always Right (This Time)

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Critics Are Always Right (This Time) A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Paul Castree
Paul Castree Photo by Ben Strothmann

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Well, I vowed I wouldn't look at any reviews, but I was reading Newsday (you can take the boy out of Long Island…) and as I turned a page I saw a picture from the Northport, Long Island, production of Lend Me a Tenor and the headline, "John W. Engeman Theater Has Its First Big Hit," so of course I had to read it. And by "read it" I mean scan to find my name.

The whole show got a great review and my particular shout out was: "Seth Rudetsky as the bellhop delivers champagne with bubbly impertinence." Yes! I knew my impertinence would pay off one day. Take that, former AP English teacher, Mrs. Jaffe! Senior year in High School I somehow manipulated myself into AP English even though, as Mrs. Jaffe later publicly informed me, "they warned me not to put you in this class!"

I was consistently busted for whispering in class, using Cliff's Notes as well as the aforementioned impertinence and finally one day she pointed to me in the middle of class and let loose with, "Seth…you're useless, you're fruitless and what's more, I don't like you." I was mortified…yet, her prose made an impression. First of all, the ingenious (if false) rhyme scheme (useless = fruitless) and then the shocking ending (what's more I don't like you). It was like a hostile haiku.

Thursday Jan. 17 was our opening, and I forgot to write that my friend Marco (who is the show runner for "Ugly Betty") emailed to wish me luck. I was waiting for the flowers I assumed I'd get from him since he sent me an enormous bouquet when I opened in The Ritz but then I noticed there was a PS at the end of the letter: "For Broadway you get roses, for Long Island…a warm email." Hmm…his honesty was not refreshing. My BF James, his daughter Juli and I wanted to see "The Golden Compass" on Monday afternoon but because it was a holiday, the afternoon showing was sold out! I'm completely obsessed with that book series and I don't know who was more devastated; me or seven-year-old Juli. Let's just say that her crying was on the outside but mine was on the inside and much, much more intense. We were on 42nd Street so we wound up going to Ripley's Believe It Or Not Museum and, believe it or not, we all had a great time! There were so many cool things there for adults and children. Of course, Juli asked us, "What's this?" while we were walking through some exhibit about the human body as she repeatedly pushed a button that inflated a t-shirt to give it an enormous rack. James and I looked at each other, speechless, until I came up with an amazing answer: "I don't know." I'm sure that satisfied her curiosity.

This week at SIRIUS radio, I interviewed one of my best friends, Paul Castree who's currently playing Gerald the Herald amongst other roles in Young Frankenstein. I first met Paul when he was an understudy in Forever Plaid and I was the music director. I summed him up as a super-nerd the first day I met him because he was wearing a button-down sweater (my judgments are quick, decisive and moronic) and I wound up totally snubbing him for a week. I then realized how hilarious and talented he was and we became friends. Finally, I decided to apologize to him for completely ignoring him for the first week we worked together and the amazing double-triple-whammy bust on me is that he never noticed my week-long snub! I assumed he spent the beginning of his run lamenting, "Why isn't that hilarious music director honoring me with his glance?" and instead he was thinking, "What's my harmony?," "What're my lines?" and "I notice in my peripheral vision that there is a man playing the piano."

Paul has my favorite First Audition in New York Story. He was living in Rockford, IL, (where he had gone to high school with Marin Mazzie, Jodi Benson and Joe Mantello!) and had just finished working at Opryland. Tim Schultheis (now an amazing photographer who did my 8x10!) was living in New York and told Paul that, according to Back Stage, the Bye Bye Birdie tour with Tommy Tune was looking for "tenors with Midwestern looks." (Paul has a crazy high voice and bright orange hair). New York City? Paul said it was like someone saying "there are some great rocks on the moon Come get them!" Nevertheless, after much pressing, Tim convinced Paul to fly to New York for the open call. Two days later, at 8 AM, Paul showed up at Equity in his "audition" outfit, which (unfortunately) consisted of jeans, high top sneakers and a multi-colored shirt he got at K mart.

Stuart Howard was casting and asked all the non-Equity people who were auditioning to come into the room and line up. It wasn't for a firing squad, but close to it. He pointed at a few of them and asked them to stay…and the rest got a "thank you very much." Paul didn't even know there was such a thing as "typing" people and was so thankful that he dodged that bullet. It would have been really fun to fly across the country for $650 (that was a huge amount of money in the early '90s) to be at an audition for ten seconds and get thank-you-very-muched.

They asked the men to dance and, afterward, Paul was asked to stay and sing! He showed the pianist his song ("Magic Changes" from Grease) and the pianist shook his head and told him that the casting people didn't want anything from Grease. Paul was devastated because he had nothing else in his book, but decided to mask his devastation with blank-faced confidence. "That's what I've prepared and that's what I'll be singing." He wasn't sure if he was going to get his 16 bars thrown back in his face, but instead it momentarily stunned the pianist and Paul used that opportunity to walk center and nod politely. The pianist started playing, Paul sang and he was then asked to read! Yes! The only goal Paul had set for himself was to be able to sing at a real New York audition, and he'd reached it. Everything else was now delicious icing on the cake.

Stuart Howard asked him to read for the role of Hugo Peabody. Paul worked on it in the lobby and came back in and gave it the reading of his life. He was selling it to the back row. One minute into his high-energy read, Stuart put up his hand and said "Stop! Paul…this isn't children's theatre." Ouch. I guess his version of high-energy had the essence of "Milady! The moat is being crossed by a fire-breathing dragon! Everybody…clap if you're scared of dragons! I can't hear you!"

Anyway, Paul toned it down and was then asked to hang around. A whole bunch of other guys came in and lined up for Stuart. They were all dressed in New York dance outfits: black pants, black shirts and black dance shoes. Stuart announced that they all should come back that evening for a call-back at the Uris Theatre with Tommy Tune. He then looked at the guys in their various hip audition outfits and lambasted them. "Didn't you read the breakdown? We want guys with Midwestern looks! I want you all to go home, clean yourself up, change your outfits and come back looking like him!" He then pointed at Paul. That's right! His K mart shirt paid off!

Paul found his way to the Uris (now the Gershwin), which, incidentally, was where he saw his first Broadway show (Sweeney Todd) when he was in high school. And now he had returned, but this time he was backstage…auditioning for a multiple Tony Award-winner! Paul waited backstage while the ladies lined up onstage. Paul assumed that all Broadway call-backs happened on a Broadway stage. He didn't find out until later that normally they happen in a little rehearsal room and they pretty much only happen on a Broadway stage in Lifetime movies about Broadway.

The ladies each had to do a tap combination while Tommy Tune stood in the audience at their foot level and critiqued their tapping. Wow. That's intense. He'd watch them and say "Um…you missed a sound on the second flap," and make them do it again. All the ladies danced and sang and then Paul saw a few come backstage and get their bags. Suddenly the remaining ladies onstage began screaming and hugging each other. "What's going on," Paul asked one who was running by him in a tizzy. "We just found out we got the gig! We're going on tour! I have to call my Mom!" Paul was in shock. He thought today was the first of many auditions. Turns out it was the day of the final call-back. He would find out by the end of the day whether he got it or not!

Next, a bunch of guys went out to the stage and pretty much the same thing happened. Some guys left and the others celebrated getting the gig. Soon, the only ones remaining were Paul and two other guys. They talked amongst themselves and after weighing rumor and innuendo, decided that the two roles left open were Hugo understudy and Harvey Johnson. That meant that two of them were going to get a gig! Paul felt pretty good about his chances...two out of three! All three of them came out onstage and had to read for Hugo then sing, "Hello Mr. Hankle, this is Harvey Johnson…" and crack their voice on the high note. After they sang, they awkwardly stood there while and Tommy Tune, Stuart Howard, Gene Saks (director) and the Weisslers (producers) discussed them in the audience. Paul felt incredibly awkward. He tried to look pleasant and not aware that he was on display. Sort of a combination of fun-to-work-with and eager for the job, but not immature/unfocused and/or needy and desperate. In other words, more subtext went into his standing there than into his actual reading of the scene. Finally, Stuart Howard slowly approached from the back of the audience. This was it. One of them was going to be sent backstage and the other two would get the gig. Stuart looked at them all and said…. "Thank you very much."

What?

They had "decided" backstage that two of them would get the gig, and all of them being sent home was not in the equation. No one onstage budged. Finally Stuart said, more pointedly, "Thank you! We'll be in touch." AKA, we won't be in touch. All three started walking off the stage in a depression. Paul couldn't believe how close he had come just to have it all end so depressingly. They were all walking slowly and Paul was the last one to exit. Right when he got to the wings and was about to walk backstage, he heard Stuart stage whisper, "Paul!" Paul looked over his shoulder. Stuart beckoned him back onstage. Paul walked back in a state of shock. What now? Some fatherly advice? A question about the origin of his K mart shirt? Finally, Paul got center stage. Stuart looked at him squarely and said, "Paul. We'd like to give you your Equity card and have you go out on tour with Tommy Tune to understudy Hugo Peabody and play the role of Harvey Johnson." Paul was so overjoyed yet emotionally and physically exhausted that he immediately collapsed his body into a compact, tight ball. He said he didn't explode…he imploded. He did the tour (with Ann Reinking as Rose, Susan Egan as Kim, Marilyn Cooper as Mae and Marc Kudisch as Birdie) and met one of his best friends, Jessica Stone who played Ursula. Can you imagine? Flying in from the Midwest for your first New York open call and by the end of the day having your whole life changed! How thrilling is that? And, P.S., how terrifying for the ladies to have Tommy Tune watch your feet while your tap. It's like singing in front of Barbara Cook as she stares at your larynx. Paul also said that for every amazing story about getting a gig, there's the parallel story for someone else. Later on Paul worked with one of the three guys who stood on that stage with him. His version was: "I went to call back after call back. Finally, at the final one, this red-headed kid from the Midwest appeared out of nowhere and got the gig!" The good news, he's gone on to be the brilliant choreographer of the upcoming In the HeightsAndy Blankenbuehler!

Also this week I got a call from my agent who told me that I had an audition for a Sandra Bullock movie…to play a flight attendant. I've decided that I'd had it going in for the unfunny/stereotypical gay role and asked if the word "flamboyant" was in the character description. That's always the code word for gay and it means the character comes on, throws a few sassy quips and saunters off. I don't know why that's the majority of gay characters that are written for TV/films. Don't gay people have any personality traits besides bitchy asides?

Anyhoo, she checked out the traits and "flamboyant" was nowhere to be found. I was thrilled and agreed to audition. That night, I got the script emailed to me and boastfully told James the story about how I set a professional boundary. I opened up the email in front of him and proudly read the character description. "Listen to this, James. The role is 'Flight Attendant.' The description is, A middle-aged — What the?!?!?!?!?!!" I went into a state of shock and James remarked that perhaps "flamboyant" would have been preferable. Not cool.

And finally, last Sunday night I saw the Actors Fund performance of Xanadu. An Actors Fund Special Performance means that it's an added show to the regular schedule, and the actors, front-of-house and orchestra work for free. The ticket sales go toward the fund, which, contrary to its title, is not just for actors! It's for anyone in the entertainment business: ushers, musicians, make up artists, filmmakers, opera singers, stage hands etc. It's always worth it to see a special performance because the audience is made up of Broadway folk. I loved seeing Wicked while seated behind Bebe Neuwirth! And it was so fun to watch Xanadu down the aisle from A Chorus Line's Grant Turner because he's Australian. So every time Kerry Butler said "Sonny Malone" as "Sonny Mali-i-ine" or "I have to go" as "I have to giiiiii," I kept waiting to see if he loved it or was outraged. (He was laughing up a storm). Cheyenne sounded fantastic and I was so impressed with how Jackie Hoffman and Mary Testa kept their humor so fresh. Sometimes when I watch a show, I see comic moments that were obviously thought out in rehearsal, done eight times a week for months and are now as stale as the cake I was forced to eat at Debra Fleishman's Bat Mitvah. Jackie and Mary made it seem like everything was being made up in the moment.

Speaking of which, Jackie did one of her signature ad-libs in the middle of the show referencing the Actors Fund special performance and, of course, herself. She turned to an onstage audience members and asked: "Nine shows in one week? Can you imagine? I hardly have the strength to do my own show at Joe's Pub on February 4th, 11th, 25th and March 10th!"

All right everyone, my West Coast best friend Jack Plotnick is visiting all week so I have to hightail it to delicious brunch. Go see a Broadway show!

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The B.T. McNicholl-directed production of Lend Me a Tenor continues through Feb. 17 at The Engeman Theater, 250 Main Street in Northport, Long Island. For tickets call (631) 261-2900 or visit www.engemantheater.com.

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(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.")

The cast of <i>Xanadu</i>.
The cast of Xanadu. Photo by Paul Kolnik