ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Enter Laughing, Exit Exhausted (But Exhilarated)

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Enter Laughing, Exit Exhausted (But Exhilarated) Hello, everyone. Pardon me if I yawn up a storm as I type this. I played my last Betty Buckley Broadway By Request show on Saturday, and it was fabulous. It also went L-A-T-E!

Betty took a lot more requests in honor of it being the last show, and I got out of Feinstein's at 1 AM. And, because Daylight Savings Time began that night, it was actually 2 AM. PS, since when do we "spring" ahead before the aforementioned spring has even begun! When did that madness start!?!? I had to drag myself out of bed on Sunday morning to go to Sirius to meet Doug and Jenn Smith, who were the high bidders on the Actors Fund auction to co-host my radio show with me. It's the third year they've won, and I love doing the show with them. They live in Austin but come to New York and see tons of show at least once a year. They saw Betty's show on Saturday night and Jenn said that when she was young, she wanted to be on Broadway and was constantly listening to "Mem'ry" and trying to belt the D flat to the E flat ("Touch me! It's so easy…") along with Betty. Jenn thought that you had to be able to sing that if you wanted to be on Broadway, so she finally concluded she could never be on Broadway. It wasn't until she got older that she realized that it was actually very unique that Betty could sing that and not everyone on Broadway can do it. I told Jenn that if she had grown up listening to Lauren Bacall, she'd probably be on Broadway today.

Betty had some special guests during her show throughout the week. First was Louise Quick who was Bob Fosse's assistant during Pippin. She came up onstage and danced the "Manson Trio" from Pippin and the audience went crazy. My mom was there that night, and she was blown away by it. My mom said that a lot of times you see supposed Fosse-style dancing and it almost seems a caricature of his style. But, she said, when you see what it really was, you then understand why people called him a genius. I agree. It's not just about "hitting all the marks" and executing it perfectly. Even though Fosse choreography was very precise, there was still freedom within it that seems to be lacking in some re-creations. I think, perhaps if you saw my rendition of "Steam Heat," which I danced at age 15, you would understand…why I have no right to comment on dancing.

Then, one night at Betty's show, Ann Hampton Callaway was spotted sitting in one of the front tables. Ann is a brilliant singer/composer who was Tony-nominated for her performance in Swing! Betty called her up and asked her to do one of her improv songs. If you've never seen this, you can't imagine how amazing it is. Ann takes phrases and words form the audience and then makes up a song featuring them. She decided to do a song about the show so she asked the audience to describe how they felt seeing Betty. People offered words like "tingling" and "diva." James Lapine was there and added "gobsmacked," and I, of course, put in "she's still got it!" Betty herself added the phrases "Ann Hampton Callaway is my friend" and "Seth Rudetsky's on the ball." Ann wrote it all down and wrote a fabulous song using the words and phrases and making it all rhyme. Seriously. After the show, I told her that I hear new music all the time and her off-the-cuff improv is a million times better than some stuff composers work on for years. I begged her to write an actual musical and she seemed intrigued. Ann, if you're reading this, get to it! If you don't know her work, go to AnnHamptonCallaway.com and enjoy.

At the Saturday 8 PM show, Alan Campbell, who played Joe opposite Betty's Norma Desmond in Broadway's Sunset Boulevard, was called onstage. Alan remembered one show where someone had a heart attack during Act One and was in the aisle being tended by his wife. The ushers were creeping down the aisle shining the flashlights low because they were too scared to interrupt the show! Betty saw what was happening, and she was the only one not scared to stop the show. She broke character and asked for the house lights to be brought up so the paramedics could come. They took the man to the hospital and the show resumed. Then, during Betty's curtain call, she announced that he survived! Of course, the audience went crazy. Alan also fondly remembered when his wife, Lauren Kennedy, left the show. Lauren was the first ensemble member to leave and Alan said that during "As If We Never Said Goodbye," Betty turned away from the audience and played the end of the song to Lauren! It was Lauren's first Broadway show, and she has never forgotten how special that moment was. Although I wonder if the audience thought, "Hmm…what is the special relationship Norma has with that blonde script supervisor character standing third girl from the left? Ah…perhaps Norma sees her younger self and is trying to warn the lass not to make the choices Norma has made… for it will only end in betrayal and murder. Yes! That must be it. Brilliant foreshadowing. Leave it to Betty Buckley to bring out a subtext no one has thought of before. BRAVA!!" Alan followed that story by telling us that throughout the show, his character is constantly trying to get away from Norma so he never got to sing Betty a love song. He turned to Betty who was sitting in the audience and sang an over-the-top rendition of "Only You" that was fantastic!

The last show featured Howard McGillin, who's currently playing The Phantom on Broadway. He recalled doing Drood with Betty and told us about how, at the end of the show, the audience would vote on who was the killer. Each actor had his or her own song to sing, which would explain how and why they murdered Drood and, of course, every actor always wanted the chance to sing an extra song on Broadway, so there would be some competition between the actors to be chosen. Late in the run, Loretta Switt took over the role of Princess Puffer and thought that she wasn't getting voted the murderer because she wasn't in the big banquet scene during Act One. So, she decided to stand outside the window of the dining room set during the meal when everyone sang "No Good Can Come From Bad." She stood in back of the window making menacing faces, but soon realized that there wasn't a light cue in back of the dining room window so the audience couldn't see her…and therefore not vote her the killer. At the next performance, she showed up again…but this time held a flashlight underneath her chin. Problem solved! And she still wasn't voted the killer. Howard ended by singing "A Man Could Go Quite Mad," which was thrilling for me because I spent my last two years in college listening to him sing it on my walkman…and there I was, playing it for him. So cool!

I began the week at Feinstein's playing for the massively sold-out Cheyenne Jackson show. He is the whole package, people. So good looking, really funny and a great set o' pipes. He told the audience that people get his name wrong often and he's been called things like "Chad," "Cherokee" and recently, bizarrely, "Albuquerque." I also ended the week playing his show: In the audience last night was Broadway's head gypsy, Harvey Evans, with one of his best friends, Barbara Cook. Cheyenne kept slipping in-and-out of PG-13 language and at one point, went further and let the F-word slip. I played a little of "Til There Was You" to remind him who was in the audience and he was mortified. He apologized and said he would refrain from saying the F word in front of Barbara Cook. Everyone laughed and suddenly we heard a voice call out from the audience, with the signature Barbara Cook placement.

"Cheyenne!"
"Yes, Miss Cook?" he said, tentatively.
"Don't worry. F**k is fine."
Wow! Marian the Librarian dropped the F bomb! And the audience went crazy.

At my Wednesday Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show, I had the lovely Nina Hennessey, who's about to do her act at The Metropolitan Room on March 16 (www.metropolitanroom.com). Nina is one of those rare people who can dance and sing at the same level. She was a ballet dancer in The Washington Ballet and a singer in Les Miz! You usually never see a Les Miz alum at a dance call, and most ballet dancers subscribe to this equation: the thinness of their body = the thinness of their voice. Nina was also in Cats for a few years, but I was mystified when she told me her role: The Opera Cat. Then I remembered taking a delicious nap halfway through Cats and remembered that it was prefaced by someone singing soprano. I quickly moved on to my next guest: John Treacy Egan. John originated the role of the chef ("Les Poissons") in The Little Mermaid and he has a great voice (go to www.JohnTreacyEgan.com for some samples…especially his crazy high Jekyll and Hyde solos). What I find inspiring about his career is that he went to an open call for The Producers. That means that you don't have an audition through an agent. You just show up, sign up and sing 16 bars. He did just that, got called back and fast forward: He was the final Max Bialystock on Broadway! So, for all of you struggling actors: Don't think you have to have an agent to get a big, fat lead on Broadway! Speaking of agents, I asked Will Chase to do my Chatterbox, and he couldn't because "my agents are amazing and I have two TV show auditions today!" Hmm. We have the same agents. And my day was wide open.

Last week at the Chatterbox, I had three cast members from the Off-Broadway hit, Enter Laughing, directed by Stuart Ross, which was just extended at the York Theatre Company. First, I had TV couple, Michael Tucker and Jill Eikenberry. Michael told me that he went to school with Steven Bochco, and one day Steven called and asked Jill and Michael to make a guest appearance on "Hill Street Blues," which Steven had created. They had to fly themselves out to California (!), but they did it because they thought it would be fun. Little did they know, it was actually their audition for "L.A. Law." Steven called them back after their appearance and said that he was writing a new TV show and wanted to create roles for them. Jill took the call and told him…"No, thank you." (What the-!?!?) She said that she was a theatre actress and wasn't interested in doing a long-running series. Steven then asked her if she would mind if he based the character on her, and she graciously agreed. Once he finished writing the pilot, he sent the script to her as a courtesy and, after she read it, she couldn't resist the role… and Michael and Jill were on the show for eight years! Their favorite episode is the "Venus Butterfly" where Michael talks to a man in jail who has multiple wives. Michael asks the man why none of the wives is angry at him for betraying them and he tells Michael of his special technique: The Venus Butterfly. Later on, we see Michael and Jill in bed after he uses the technique on her. She asks right away if they can do it again and he agrees… by calling room service. It's all left very mysterious on the show, but both Jill and Michael admitted that they know what is and since they've been married for 35 years, it must be working!

Michael told me that he saw Gypsy on Broadway with Ethel Merman (!) but an understudy was on. Of course, I had to know who. I started rattling them off: Alice Playten replaced Baby Louise; Anita Gillette understudied Dainty June; Merle Louise, the original Beggar Woman in Sweeney Todd, was bumped up to June during the run, etc. but Michael couldn't remember. I moved on and started talking to my final guest, Josh Grisetti, who's gotten great reviews for playing the lead in Enter Laughing. He told me that he grew up singing in church and he was Baptist. I was so excited and asked him if was hauling out some sassy gospel when he was a kid, and he said that white Baptist is very different and started demonstrating. Oy. I asked him if the word "nerd" meant anything to him and he said, "Um…the person who was just listing all of the understudies in the original Gypsy is calling me a nerd??" Touche!! For tix to Enter Laughing, go to yorktheatre.org.

Okay, I'm running to a tech rehearsal of my mini-version of Broadway 101 that I'm doing tonight with Andrea Burns, Andrea McArdle, Norm Lewis and Lillias White at Cipriani's. It's a benefit for the National Foundation for Facial Reconstruction, and you can check out the info at NFFR.org. Then, I'm hightailing it to New Orleans to do my deconstruction show and a master class (details at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/). Peace out!!!

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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" 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.)

Seth (doing "The Venus Butterfly"), Josh Grisetti, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker at <i>The Chatterbox</i>
Seth (doing "The Venus Butterfly"), Josh Grisetti, Jill Eikenberry and Michael Tucker at The Chatterbox Photo by Robb Johnston