ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Divine Sisters and Plaids

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Divine Sisters and Plaids A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Charles Busch and Julie Halston in The Divine Sister
Charles Busch and Julie Halston in The Divine Sister Photo by David Rodgers

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This week was chock-full of fun celebrity encounters. On Wednesday, I had Charles Busch and Julie Halston on my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show. I had just gone with my mom to see their newest show, The Divine Sister, and we both loved it. It's a spoof of all Hollywood nun movies, including references to "The Trouble With Angels," "The Sound of Music" and even "The DaVinci Code."

Charles and Julie began their professional relationship in the early eighties by forming a theatre company and performing broad, campy comedies every weekend. The group was filled with "misfit" actors as Charles called them: [AUDIO-LEFT]actors who couldn't get work anywhere because they were so different and special. Eventually their show, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, transferred to the Provincetown Playhouse and became one of the longest-running Off-Broadway plays ever. Charles remarked that The Divine Sister is his attempt to go back to their early days when they performed just for the fun of it and weren't worried about transferring or reviews. They decided to produce this new play themselves with no expectations; they also didn't invite any critics. They're playing at the Theater for the New City, a little, old theatre in the East Village or, as Julie said in the interview, "We began our performing career in what was, let's face it, a crack den. And, now… we're back in one again!" Charles had told me a few months ago that he felt it was ludicrous for him to continue playing the ingénue role because he's getting older. He therefore wrote himself the role of the Mother Superior. However, the show takes place in 1966, and at one point, it's mentioned that the Mother Superior was born in 1927. So, I busted him for the fact that his version of writing himself a grande aging role is playing someone who's 39!

Charles and Julie have been great friends ever since the early eighties, but they told me that there was a rough spot between them in the nineties. The bad part is, they didn't speak for five years. The good part is, it led Charles to write a hit show. As he tells, "We did a show called You Should Be So Lucky where I played a role that was quite daring for me, (pause for effect), a man." All the reviews ignored him and praised her. He got incredibly jealous of her, and Julie then admitted that she became "very obnoxious." This led to their rift. While Charles was stewing, he thought to himself, "I'll show her! I'll write another play that features the same type of loud, Upper West Side woman, but this time I'll get someone really famous like Linda Lavin to play the role!" And that's how he wrote his Tony-nominated revenge piece: The Tale Of The Allergist's Wife. The good news is they're closer now than ever, and their current show is hilarious. One of my favorite lines in the show is uttered by Charles, as Mother Superior. Since it takes place in the sixties, one of the nuns is speaking of all the civil rights that are beginning to happen. Charles then determinedly says to her with a smile, "We're living in a time of great social change, and we must do everything in our power…to stop it."

Each week at the Sirius/XM show we have a segment called the "Showtune Showdown," which is a Broadway trivia game. We bring up two audience contestants, and whomever I'm interviewing is also a contestant. Charles told me he's been mortified since the last time he did my show because he lost. He said that he knows tons of Broadway information, but it's not about the recent Broadway. I'm obsessed with his sense of time because he said, "When we last played, you weren't asking questions about old Broadway, but about a slew of new shows…like Baby." OK, for those of you that don't know, Baby was part of the 1983 Broadway season. I guess that is recent…compared to Show Boat. I had two birthday parties to go to last Saturday, and I met each birthday boy through Forever Plaid. My friend Michael Klimzak was cast in the non-Equity tour of the show around 15 years ago, and I taught the cast the harmonies before they left town. We've stayed friends since then, and he always has amazing stories about his family. My favorites are when they involve phenomenal co-dependence and a healthy dose of guilt because those are the two main ingredients in all of my relationships. Example: One time Michael was on the phone with his sister and they were discussing Thanksgiving. Apparently, his mom always made a special gravy that she assumed everybody loved. His sister told his mom to stop making the gravy because she didn't like it. His mom was outraged and proclaimed, "Well, Michael loves it!" His sister informed her that Michael also didn't like the gravy and told her to get on the phone with Michael so he could say it directly to her. When his mom was handed the phone, the first thing she said to Michael in a timid voice was, "You don't love me anymore?" And, thus, intimacy issues were cemented.

The other birthday party was for Drew Gercai, who's not only been in Forever Plaid all over the place but has also directed it many times. I saw Jeff Blumenkrantz there and asked if he's composing because I think his stuff is great. (See http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/?s=Jeff&submit=Search). Jeff told me that he thinks he's going to be working on the music for Karen. If you haven't heard about that project, it's literally going to be a musical starring Megan Mullally, all about her "Will and Grace" character, Karen Walker!

Back to Drew, the birthday boy. My favorite Drew Geraci story involves the original La Cage aux Folles for which he was a swing. He was on for a Cagelle one night and had gotten into full drag. Just as he was about to enter the stage, his fellow Cagelle, David Engel, stopped him in a panic. "Drew!" he intently whispered. "You have no lips!" Translation: Drew had gotten into full costume, wig and make-up but somehow had forgotten to put on any lipstick. So there was essentially a crazy pale, non-descript circular space in his overly made-up face. Their big dance number was about to begin, so there was absolutely no time to go back to the dressing room to apply emergency lipstick. Drew completely froze in fear, so David led the way. He grabbed Drew's face with both of his hands and did a bizarre version of a kiss. The way Drew describes it is: David put the left side of his lips against Drew's right side and "steam rolled" his lipstick'd mouth straight across Drew's. Apparently, David had enough lipstick on to transfer an ample amount of lipstick to Drew's lips. And, David steamrolled in just the right way as to make the lipstick on Drew's mouth look perfectly applied. They then ran out from the wings and did their number. The crazy part is, they have no idea how it worked. They tried to re-create the moment for the cast time and time again, and the lipstick never transferred correctly. It always came out three inches above Drew's lips or completely smeared or half on one side and empty on the other, and thus, the lipstick miracle of La Cage aux Folles.

Seth Rudetky and Bobby Steggert
photo by Aubrey Reuben

I also interviewed Nancy Anderson and Bobby Steggert at my Sirius/XM show because they're both starring in Yank at the York Theater. I, of course, asked Bobby about any past onstage mishaps, and he said that he was performing in high school in a play that featured both students and teachers. During one performance, he wound up hitting one of the teachers, Mrs. Luck, in the nose. She began gushing blood, and the show was canceled while she was rushed to the hospital. I pointed out the fact that it was ironic the injured lady's name was Mrs. Luck… and received a smattering of laughs. Hmm. Perhaps my joke was too "on the nose." And now, an even smaller smattering… fading out to silence. Both he and Nancy had teachers whom I call "Mr. Carp" teachers, AKA totally unsupportive and undermining. One told Bobby that his voice would never be strong enough to do musical theatre, and another one told Nancy to not sing at all but instead, "Focus on the clarinet." Where were these teachers when Lauren Bacall was considering doing a musical?

Since Bobby also played Younger Brother in the recent Ragtime revival, we talked about its untimely closing. The devastating thing he said was that the producers were willing to keep the show running (!), but the theatre made them leave because they had another show that wanted to come in. So, Ragtime had to close to make way for The Orphan's Home Cycle to open at the Neil Simon…but then it wound up going to another theatre! So, now, the Neil Simon is empty. Wah! The other sad news is, there is no full cast album. But, the good news is there's going to be a Flaherty/Ahrens compilation CD coming out, and the new cast of Ragtime is going to record four songs for it!

Listen to this one: While I was at the gym, my trainer told me about his friend who lives in Queens in an area where all the backyards are connected. One day, his big bulldog ran up to him with a dead rabbit in its mouth. His friend realized that it was the rabbit that lived next door in an outdoor cage. He was mortified that his dog killed it but didn't want to admit it, so he just put the poor dead rabbit back in its cage. The next day his neighbor complained to him, "Do you know what some idiot did? They dug up my dead rabbit and then put it back in its cage!" I thought the story had an amazing beginning, middle and end…AKA, it seemed too delicious to be true. And all it took was one Google to find the proof of its Urban Legend-ness - http://www.snopes.com/horrors/gruesome/haredry.asp.

OK, everyone…this Friday I fly to Red Deer, Canada for my show and master class…so as I bundle up I also say, peace out!

* Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.

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