ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Freeman, Burgess and Hitting the Heights

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Freeman, Burgess and Hitting the Heights
 
I'm writing this from backstage at the Ossining High School. Why?
Tituss Burgess
Tituss Burgess

Ossining matters. No, seriously, that's the name of the organization: Ossining Matters. It raises money for the town of Ossining's school district, and I'm here playing a fundraising concert with Kerry Butler. She's so much fun to play piano for because she's super-nice, super-funny, always sounds great, and I get to sing a duet from Bat Boy with her! I love that show so much. I saw it four times...tying with In the Heights, which I saw for the fourth time last week. I feel like that show is my child. I went to see the workshop around two years ago because my good friend Andrea Burns was in it. I loved it! After the show, I saw the producers Kevin McCollum and Jeff Seller in the lobby and told him that he'd better bring it to Broadway (PS, not offering any actual money of my own. I'm like one of those people who say "Our government stinks!" but doesn't vote on election day because there's a "Saved By the Bell" marathon on TV Land.) Then I saw the Off-Broadway run twice last year and finally, last Friday night, I got to see it on Broadway! As soon as the opening song began, I literally had tears in my eyes because I was so happy and proud of everybody in it. Watching the show made me feel like I did when I was a kid obsessed with Broadway. Lin-Manuel Miranda wrote the show and also stars in it, and I was so impressed by his performance because, two years later, it's still so natural, real and not pushed. I was also loving watching him because I knew he was living his dream. He started writing this show in college, and now it's on Broadway!!

What I love about In the Heights is that there are lots of shows that have really talented casts, but sometimes they're doing material that doesn't fully show them off. In the Heights not only has an amazing cast, but they're all given material that makes them look amazing. And, the ensemble is given choreography by Andy Blankenbuehler that is so creative but doesn't take me, as an audience member, out of the moment. A lot of times I see something on Broadway that's innovative, but I feel a sense of "Aren't we amazing," and I start thinking about the choreographer making it up thinking "I'm so cool," and the cast learning it for the first time high-fiving each other saying, "Nobody's ever seen this before," and the stage manager giving notes about it so it remains the amazing moment everyone's talking about. . . and by the time I finish my timeline, it's intermission.

In summation, long live In the Heights.

This week I interviewed Jonathan Freeman on my Sirius radio show. First of all, the coolest thing is that when he was a kid, he was obsessed with Disney villains and always wanted to be one… and he wound up origination the role of Jafar in the movie "Aladdin"! And, when I was a kid I always wanted to be a Broadway star and when I became an adult I...got to meet some.

Jonathan did a lot of performing as a child when he lived in Cleveland but never the cute kid parts because, he told me, "When I was 10, I was 40." He said that the character he's playing now in The Little Mermaid is the exact same one he played in Snow White when he was ten! The only difference is the name. Now: Grimsby, then: Sir Casper Cupcake. Which reminds me of when I interviewed Bebe Neuwirth. She told me that when she turned 40, she said, "Finally. I'm the age I was always meant to be." In college Jonathan was told he wouldn't work much until he got older because he was such a character actor, but he ignored that and "starved himself" so he could stay really skinny and play juveniles. He did George Washington Slept Here with Jimmy Coco, Marilyn Cooper and Dodie Goodman. Talk about people who needed to turn 40! And, speaking of which, as I was writing this, I Googled Dodie Goodman. She played Miss Lynch for a while when I did Grease! in the nineties, and I just saw that she was born in 1915! Zoinks! I hope I'm sassy enough to get a gig when I'm 80… Brava, Dodie!

I asked Jonathan who started out with him in New York, and he said he became friends with Nathan Lane because they were always auditioning for commercials at the same time. Those were the days when big celebrities didn't do commercials, so Jonathan remembers auditioning for five a day. He and Nathan did a commercial together where they played soldiers and Nathan has Sara Lee cake sent to him from home. Yet, the last shot was Jonathan eating the cake. Jonathan asked why him and not Nathan and was told "You have a cake-eating face." Is that a special skill? "Good with children, driver's license, cake-eating face, easily plays 40-years-old."

His first Broadway musical was Platinum, which I saw when I was kid. First of all, I just IBDB'd it and discovered that it ran for one month. I can't believe my school happened to get tickets within that little window of time…and I don't understand who in my school chose it. It seems a bit mature for Long Island young'uns. Although, this was the late seventies when there weren't Broadway shows created specifically for school groups, so probably the choices were Platinum, Oh! Calcutta! and The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas. No matter what, I was bound to go home with several boundaries broken. I remembered that there was a hot-tub scene, and Jonathan said that it was a Lucite hot tub and while Richard Cox was in it, Jonathan and other cast members would go downstairs, stand underneath it and tap and wave at him while Richard was playing the scene. I'm not saying that Jonathan's unprofessionalism closed the show, but need I remind you again how long it ran.

The first time I remember seeing Jonathan on Broadway was in She Loves Me. It was a small featured role (the Headwaiter) so naturally he had six call backs. What!?! The final one was a work session, which, incidentally was the first time he had heard that phrase. Let's think about all the new annoying Broadway phrases that have cropped up since the eighties: a. "Track," as in "whose track are you covering?" Remember when they were called roles?; b. "Jukebox musical." Remember when they were called revues?; c. "American Airlines Theater," etc. Remember it wasn't awkward to say the name of a theatre?

Anyhoo, Jonathan got the gig, and during rehearsals they wanted him to not only do the role, but to be in some group numbers later on. He felt that doing ensemble in other numbers would diminish the impact of the restaurant scene because even if they costume him differently, some of the audience would recognize him and wonder if it was supposed to be the waiter coming on again to shop in the parfumerie, etc. Apparently he was right because his 20 minutes onstage earned him a Tony nomination! He remembered that when Marilyn Cooper won the Tony for Woman of the Year someone said, "Wow. Aren't you only onstage for thirteen minutes?" and she said, "Twelve."

Brava!

Jonathan told me about his audition for "Aladdin." What's bizarre about animation auditions is that when you walk in the room, everyone auditioning you has their eyes covered because they don't want the way you look to influence them. He said that what helped his audition was that he asked for a drawing of Jafar before he came in, and that's how he found his voice. His initial contract only offered him around four days, so if Disney didn't like him, they could can him asap. Ouch. "You got the gig! And by 'getting the gig,' I mean we're offering you a contract shorter than the run of Platinum."

We then talked about the revival of 42nd Street, and he said that he doesn't like the term "revival" and wants to instead call it a "new production." I glared, and he reminded me that no one says that they're doing a revival of Hamlet. Hmph. Hamlet is from the 1600's. If 42nd Street is revived in the year 2588, I'll then allow it to be called a "new production."

Jonathan was telling me about his audition for The Little Mermaid, and I was outraged that he even had to audition and he told me a. he was, also and b. he's the oldest person, not only amongst the actors, but in all aspects of the production! He said he's older than the cast, the director and the producer. And Dodie Goodman.

Speaking of The Little Mermaid, I had Tituss Burgess (who plays the crab) on the Chatterbox this week. He said he first came to New York in the late nineties and stayed with a friend in Queens. Unfortunately, he got on the N train, instead of the R and exited at the wrong stop in Queens. He didn't have a cell phone, was too scared to ask anybody for directions and didn't write down the address of where the person lived! He said he decided to walk up and down different streets in Queens until he recognized the apartment building. I had to conduct the interview from 30th Street and Queens Army Plaza where he's still walking. Actually, he shockingly found it by 3 AM in the morning. His first Broadway gig was in Good Vibrations. I asked him about the out-of-town tryout. He said "Out of town? We were in Poughkeepsie." Doesn't that sound like an old Vaudeville punchline? After the Poughkeepsie run but before Broadway, he got cast in the La Jolla production of Jersey Boys. He said he was originally supposed to be Bob Crewe, but then they wanted to keep it historically accurate and keep the character white. I asked Tituss about the crazy high note he does in "Oh, What a Night," and he said that in rehearsal for that number he was on the side of the stage with the rest of the cast, and he was pretending to smoke a cigarette. Des McAnuff walked over, and Tituss thought he was in trouble. Des said, "Wouldn't it be funny if Tituss came onstage and offered up a joint?" The music director, Ron Melrose, asked if Tituss could sing something sassy while he did it, and that's how Tituss got his solo. Hmph. Whenever I joke around offstage, I always get a stern look from the ASM and then hear a loud "focus up" from the stage manager. Where's my high solo? Come to think of it, where's my high range? I think my money note has topped at middle C.

Tituss left Jersey Boys after just a few weeks in La Jolla to do Good Vibrations, and I asked if the producers had a fit. Turns out, they were the same producers! Speaking of GV, does anyone remember the beach ball finale? They hit them all over the stage and into the audience. I remember writing the Easter Bonnet Competition opening a few years ago, and there was a section in rhyme, talking about new shows: "Good Vibrations is such fun!/You'll have a ball, or be hit by one."

When he tried out for The Little Mermaid, Tituss sang Under the Sea fairly straight, but on the first day of rehearsal they had a read-thru. It was the whole cast, the producers, the music team, Alan Menken, etc… The cast was about to read through the script and were told that they could sing if they knew the song. Tituss decided that he wanted to use that moment to show everybody how he wanted to sing the song, aka, with some added notes and sass. It's sung in a low key in the movie, and there are a lot of camera cuts that sass everything up. Tituss felt that since there's no camera to cut away to shots, he could add that same excitement with his interpretation. He sang it, reworking some melodies and taking other things up the octave. When he finished he was nervous he'd be busted for changing that way it's always been done, but everybody applauded and now it's one of those be careful what you wish for because every night he's a nervous wreck before the number because it's so difficult to sing. What's easy in a read-thru ain't so easy eight times a week!

I've been doing the Legally Blonde reality show this whole week and am still under a gag order from MTV, but I will tell you some of the devastating things that have happened during the filming. First, as a preface, James (BF) was talking to his daughter Juli about "Project Runway" and was concerned about her seeing how skinny the models were. He asked her if she wanted to grow up to be thin and she said, "No." Ah. Our work is done. Then she continued. "I want to be like you and Seth." Ouch. Our workout is beginning.

At the beginning of the week, I was working with the Legally Blonde girls who are all super-young. I made some joke about having a lot of experience on Broadway. "Believe me, a lot happens by the time you're 60." One of them looked at me and said sweetly, "Aw! You're not 60." As in, "Don't say you're 60 until you get there…in three years." Then, I was talking to Bernie Telsey who suddenly stared at me, casting director-style and said "Hmm….have you ever been in for Hairspray." I thought to myself, "Well, I'm a little long in the tooth for one of the 'nicest kids in town,' but I can still shake it." He interrupted my reverie with a cold glass of water entitled "…for the role of Wilbur." What the-! According to Wikipedia, Dick Latessa was 73 when he played the part! Well, at least Bernie doesn't think I'm 60. He thinks I have the maturity of a 73-year-old. Perhaps Dodie Goodman and I could do The Gin Game.

Finally, I've been busy getting Broadway 101 together. This is the show I did last year for The Actors Fund, and I'm hauling it up again on April 14, but this time we're going to do two performances in one night. Why not? We're there already, and we can raise so much more money! It's me with a full orchestra, ensemble and stars describing what's amazing about Broadway. There's a part of the show where I teach the audience what belting is (with the help of Andrea McArdle) and what head voice is (with the help of Laura Benanti). I say that when a song gets too high, a singer has to go into their head voice. But I also say that when a phrase gets too high, singers can also, unfortunately, take the option of speaking it. I demonstrated that with a clip of Cher singing West Side Story. And by singing, I mean talking. Has anyone ever seen that? Devastating. Anyhoo, this year Laura Benanti has to do a press event on April 14, so she's being replaced by In the Heights star Andrea Burns. It's so funny how she has two totally different performing personas: Those that know her from In the Heights think that she's a belting spitfire. Those that know her from her many West Side Story's think she's a sweet soprano. It's like the movie "The Mirror Has Two Faces." And, by "mirror" I mean "actress," and by "faces" I mean "vocal ranges"…and by "movie," I mean two hours of Streisand self-indulgent headachiness.

I also had to replace Raul Esparza because he's working on a reading during April, so I got cutie Jonathan Groff to do the show! I thought he was great in Spring Awakening … even though my spring awakening apparently was 60 some-odd years ago. Go to ActorsFund.org for Broadway 101 tix. Peace out everybody, and I'll write next week…after the AARP convention.

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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.")

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