ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Four Renters and a Dreamgirl

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Four Renters and a Dreamgirl Sunday marked the beginning of the fall theatre season with "Broadway on Broadway" or, as I called it after sitting in the direct sun for two hours, "Melanoma on Broadway." What a show! The belting: fierce, the UVBs: fiercer.
Cheyenne Jackson at
Cheyenne Jackson at "Broadway on Broadway" Photo by Aubrey Reuben

My favorite performances were by Cheyenne Jackson who, as usual, sounded amazing and the cast of [title of show], who re-orchestrated their songs for the event! Normally, the whole show is accompanied by Larry Pressgrove, who sits on stage with a keyboard, but for this event they utilized the orchestra that was there, and it sounded so exciting!

This week at the Chatterbox I had some members from the final cast of Rent. Renèe Elise Goldsberry, who played Mimi; Tracy McDowell, who played Mark's mom; Gwen Stewart, the original "Seasons of Love" soloist; and Eden Espinosa, who played Maureen. I told them how excited I was to see the film version of the final performance (that's coming out really soon), and I asked them how terrified they were knowing that every note they sang was being filmed. Turns out, there was more than one performance filmed! They filmed a full run-through at the end of August with the cameras in total close-up (no audience), then they did a full performance with an invited-only audience where they stopped and started to get different camera angles. So, on that final night, there was no pressure to sing perfectly for the cameras… only for my glaring/judgmental face. Actually, Renee said she did feel pressure because both Daphne Rubin-Vega (the original Broadway Mimi), and Rosario Dawson (the film Mimi), were in the audience. Wowza! All that was missing was Maria Callas (the opera Mimi). Renèe talked about how she never gets depressed when she doesn't get a role. She's one of those "it's meant to be" people — whereas I'm one of those "I can't let go of my past resentments" people. Try to guess who it's more fun to hang out with? She said that she was doing a role on "One Life to Live," and after she'd been on for a while, her character went blind. Tip o' the hat to Mary Ingalls? You decide. Anyhoo, Renèe said that the writers got sick of her doing dialogue while "looking off in the distance," so they brought on a doctor character to restore her vision. He happened to be played by director Michael Greif's partner, and he told Renèe that Michael was a big fan of hers and would love to work with her one day. She revealed to us that she's "musical theatre illiterate," so she had no idea that Michael was the Rent director. All she knew was that he was a big, respected director so she hauled out the ol' "It would be such an honor etc.." A short time later she got a call offering her Mimi! However, she couldn't do it because of schedule conflicts and, here's where the "it's meant to be" part comes, by the time she could do it, it was for the final company, so she got to be in the film!

Tracy tried for Rent a lot but never got it. She finally gave up on ever doing the show. One day, Tracy's friend was going to a Rent open call and asked her to come along. Tracy reluctantly agreed…and got cast! And, her friend didn't. Yet another example of the "Leroy/Leroy's friend" phenomenon from the film "Fame." Please! Don't ask anybody to come along on your auditions because they'll get the gig, and you'll wind up storming down the stairs, cursing.

Rent was the first Broadway show Eden ever saw, and she tried out for Maureen over and over again when she first got to New York, but she never got it. Her only feedback was "Stop sounding like the CD." When she had yet another call back and heard it was going to be the same casting person from Bernie Telsey's office (who no longer works there), she stopped going. Years went by, and then a few months ago, out-of-the-blue, she got an offer to play the role. And, when you see the film, you'll hear that she vocally makes the role her own! And, PS, when you see the film, don't try to copy any of her riffs unless you want to put your trachea in traction.

I asked Gwen about her initial audition, and she said that she was cast after the workshop had begun rehearsals because the woman playing that part got a cold and couldn't sing it. Of course, that woman just thought she was quitting a rickety-rackety downtown workshop. I'm sure that today she's totally at peace for leaving that Tony Award and Pulitzer Prize-winning show — as long as she takes her double dose of Paxil. Gwen said that she was allowed to do anything in her "Seasons of Love" solo and came up with the high C herself. I asked her if she's regretted having to do it eight times a week and the other cast members piped up to say that she's never missed it. Brava! I asked the ladies about any particularly memorable auditions, and Renée remembered her Lion King audition for Nala. It was scheduled for September 12, 2001, in Los Angeles. That morning she was at home, devastated, (day after 9/11) and her agent called to confirm her audition! She was like, "Surely you're joking," and she had no idea how the casting people got to L.A. from New York. Well, she said, even though all their planes were grounded on the way to L.A., they found other ways of getting there and were determined to have the auditions. Renèe showed up and sang "Shadowlands." After she sang, they asked her to step out of her shoes (to ground herself?) and to sing it again, but this time they wanted her to really dig deep emotionally. She reminded me and the audience that the lyrics are "Shadowland, the leaves have fallen. This shadowed land that was our home. The river's dry, the ground is broken. . ." She remembers that she walked over to the table and said, "Are you kidding me? You want me to dig deeper emotionally? Today? I can do that, but we will all wind up on the floor, sobbing!" There was a slight pause, and they asked her to step outside. I asked her if she had to go in and sing again and she said, "No. Five minutes later that casting director stepped into the hallway and told me the news. I guess I shamed them into giving me the part!"

We talked a little about her appearance in "Broadway Under the Stars," a live concert in Central Park that was televised. They asked her to sing, and she was so excited that she said she'd do anything…and then they gave her Sondheim's "The Miller's Son." She was like, "What the-!?!?!?" She couldn't believe how many words there were and how fast it was. Right before she had to perform, she decided there was no way she could memorize it. She had a full panic attack, and (she was mortified to admit) she decided to call the producers and say she had been in a car accident! Before she hauled out that ol' chestnut, they told her that there would be a tele-prompter. Phew! Of course, once she was up there, she didn't need it, she just wanted the security. Watch how brilliantly she sang it: www.SethRudetsky.com.

At Sirius, I got to interview one of the best singers on Broadway, Tony Award winner Lillias White. What a voice and what a spirit! We had an amazing afternoon. When she arrived, she told me that she was vocally exhausted because she was up the night before doing her gig at The Triad and singing 'til 2 AM. She needed to rest her voice so she couldn't sing on my radio show. Cut to: by the end of the hour, she tore through "Home," "Keepin' Out of Mischief" and the fight scene from Dreamgirls! The interview will be rebroadcast this Tuesday at 5 PM ET on Sirius.com.

Lillias toured the country as the understudy for Dorothy in The Wiz and eventually took over the role. Then she toured the country as an understudy in Ain't Misbehavin', but this time it was different…she was pregnant! But she didn't want anyone in the cast to know because she didn't want to be replaced. She went on for the Charlaine part one day when the director was in the audience, and after the show he told her that she did a great job…but she needed to lose 15 pounds. She agreed with a vague smile… and the costume people kept letting her costumes out. Finally, the doctor told her she had to stop doing the crazy high kicks and squats that were in the show. She told the cast she was pregnant (they were like, "We knew something was up") and left the show. When her daughter was a year old, she got the role of Joice Heth, the "oldest living woman" in Barnum. Lillias said that when Jim Dale went on vacation, Tony Orlando was the vacation fill-in for the role of Barnum. I was waiting for some heavy-duty dishing, but Lillias said that he was amazing. He was "so saucy, so sexy and so strong!" Who knew? Attention Weisslers: Surely there's an opening for a Billy Flynn somewhere that Orlando can fill! Lillias said that the show was on closing notice for ten weeks! Every Tuesday there'd be a closing notice backstage, and then it was taken down. Finally, they knew for sure it was going to be the last week. Lillias was doing the song "Join the Circus" like she always did, but this time, her heel got caught on the stage. She fell on her face onstage and literally heard the audience gasp. She got back up immediately and didn't feel any pain. However, when she went to raise her arms above her head, one of them wouldn't lift. Turns out, she fractured her elbow, and her understudy had to go on for the last week of the show. The crazy part is, her understudy was Mary Testa! White? Black? Who cares. Can you belt?!

After that, she did Dreamgirls, and her amazing audition for Michael Bennett was recounted in the Playbill column I did this summer. (http://www5.playbill.com/celebritybuzz/article/119690.html/pg2)

In 1997, I did a benefit for the Gay/Lesbian Synagogue (Beth Simchat Torah) at Don't Tell Mama. It was a salute to gay Jewish composers, and I featured David Friedman and Henry Krieger's music. Well, the last minute, my Effie couldn't do it, so I called Lillias, who I didn't know very well, to see if she'd fill in. She said she'd come over right after her tech rehearsal for The Life. Well, she showed up and sang the end of Act One fight scene into "And I Am Telling You," and I was so freaked out by how amazing she sounded that I told her I had to do a concert of Dreamgirls with her playing Effie and a full orchestra. I knew that Audra McDonald had always wanted to be Deena, so I got her on board and shopped the idea around. After some rejection, I went to The Actors Fund, and they immediately said yes. They also suggested I get Heather Headley to play Lorrell so we could have three Tony winners in the leading roles. Cut to four years later, it happened on Broadway, and we made a CD, and the concert raised almost $1,000,000 for The Actors Fund! Go to my website to see me deconstruct the Effies of Jennifer Holliday, Jennifer Hudson and Lillias.

Finally, Lillias recounted one of my favorite stories about the business. She was in rehearsal for a musical called Rock 'N Roll! The First 5,000 Years. The female understudy in the show decided to quit during rehearsals because she wanted to go into pop music. Lillias was mind-boggled and said, "Why would you quit a Broadway show to go into the uncertain world of pop? Stay on Broadway, make money and then later on, you can pursue pop." But Lillias' words went unheeded. Cut to: the show ran for one week and the understudy's name was… Madonna!

You must see Lillias live! She's performing on Mondays at 9:30 PM for the rest of this month at The Triad on 72nd Street. Call (212) 868-4444 for reservations or visit www.smarttix.com. And, you must watch me deconstruct her brilliant rendition of "Brotherhood of Man" at www.SethRudetsky.com. She's phenomenal! Also, while you're there, check out David Turner's video. We did The Ritz together (he was Tiger), and I just posted his video which is "The Golden Girls Election 2008." It's Blanche, Dorothy, Rose, and Sofia saying the words of McCain, Sarah Palin, Hillary, Bush with special guest star Barack Obama. I told him I couldn't believe how much work he put into it, and he said it was a pleasure because it combined his two greatest passions: politics and mugging. Brava! Finally, if you're midtown this week, come see me, on Broadway between 46th and 47th at the Times Square Information Center. The name is awkward, but I'll be doing live interviews with Broadway stars all week from noon to 1 PM! Today is [title of show], tomorrow is Avenue Q, Wednesday is Cheyenne Jackson, Thursday is Bebe Neuwirth and Friday is Derek Keeling and Ashley Spencer from Grease. Every day from noon to 1 PM will be a full interview plus embarrassing video footage plus everyone promised they'd sing! Hopefully, no one will have to pretend they were in a car wreck. See 'ya next week!

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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.)

The cast of <i>[title of show]</i> at "Broadway on Broadway"
The cast of [title of show] at "Broadway on Broadway"