ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Avenue Q to Alaska

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Avenue Q to Alaska A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Seth Rudetsky and Lauren Graham
Seth Rudetsky and Lauren Graham Photo by Robb Johnston

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Greetings from 32,000 feet in the air!

No, I'm not in the crappy "press seats" I got for The 39 Steps (yes, like my mother, there's no time limit on the things I'm annoyed about) — I'm flying to Seattle. I'm about to go on my ninth (!) Rosie Cruise, and it leaves from Washington State because we're going to Alaska! But before the in-flight "meal" (aka tap water), let's talk Broadway.

This week I saw the first night of Avenue Q with the final cast. The first thing I noticed were manymore black people in the audience than I've seen at most musicals. The sad fact is that many blacks don't come to Broadway unless it's a specific "black" show or has a star well-liked by the African-American community. I remember playing piano for Kiss of the Spider Woman, and when Vanessa Williams took over the title role, the whole make-up of the audience changed. And the reverse is also true. I was once hired by a so-called "black" show to write a radio commercial that would appeal to a white audience. PS, it was rejected. Why are shows marginalized as "white," "black," "gay" etc. and not just "good" and "bad"?

Speaking of bad, it's "fun" to write this column during turbulence. I'm soon going to be marginalized as the passenger who threw up. OK, back to the audience. I found out afterwards that it was Danielle K. Thomas' Broadway debut (she plays Gary Coleman) and she brought more than 50 (!) people to the show!!! When she entered, the audience cheer was deafening. My friend Anika Larsen was making her debut as Kate Monster (she had done the national tour), and she was fantastic. After the show, she revealed that they updated the show that afternoon! The mix tape that Princeton makes for her is now a mix CD! She had to make all these subtle changes, like calling it just a mix instead of a mix-tape, and instead of saying side two, she says disc two. Ann Harada came back to play the role of Christmas Eve, which she originated. She was just performing in 9 to 5 and had typical actors panic right before she went on in Avenue Q. As soon "It Sucks to Be Me" began, she was running around backstage desperately asking people what her second line was. Of course, she got onstage and was perfect. (FYI, it's "I hearing you correctly?") She's so funny and blank-faced in that role. Afterwards we went out to eat and she introduced us to her "butler and maid" who are living with her…aka, her parents. I told Anika that I loved her Jennifer Holliday "Hey" that she did at end of the number she does as Lucy T. Slut, and she said I was the only person who ever noticed! I still got it…when it comes to references from 1982. On Tuesday night, James and I saw Next to Normal. J. Robert Spencer was out of the show that night, and we were disappointed but then excited to see that his understudy is Michael Berry, whom I've known since 1993 when he had to hit the scary high A every night during Les Miz (We'll be the-e-e-e-e-re!"). Michael was great as the husband and, of course, I loved Alice Ripley. Her humor is so weird and quirky, and I was so impressed that she found so many moments to make funny. But I now think I must have sounded bizarre when I chatted with her after the show, and the first thing I said to her about her take as a suicidal manic/depressive was "You were so funny!!!"

On Wednesday, I had Andy Karl from 9 to 5 at my Chatterbox. He told me that he just got finished doing a reading of a new Hall and Oates jukebox musical. Of course, it's about "Sara"….who's "gone." Seriously. I tried to find out if her "kiss was on his list," but he wasn't able to answer ("no can do"). Then I had Mary Bond Davis, who was the original Motormouth in Hairspray. She grew up in L.A. and told us that she was in seventh grade math class with Michael Jackson! She remembers being in gym class and seeing Randy and Tito pick him up one day, and she and the other girls screamed their heads off. The only famous person I had in junior high school was Barbar Brass, who was the cousin to Stacy Brass who was the swing in Annie. Anyone? Well, I was impressed.

Mary recalled her first big musical audition for Ain't Misbehavin'when she was still non-union. She waited all day, and when she was finally allowed in to sing, an Equity person suddenly showed up and Mary had to sit down again. Finally, she sang, and then they asked her to dance. She remembered impressing them with her squats. Not because she could do them, she explained, but because she could get back up again. They finally told her they would call her at the beginning of the week. On Sunday she asked her mother what constituted the beginning of the week, Sunday or Monday. Of course, as I was listening to Mary I thought, "How naïve. No one gets a business call on a Sunday." Cut to: They called her that Sunday. What the-? Who gets a theatre job offer on a Sunday? I will not accept one unless it's literally for the show Tell Me On Sunday.

Okay, before I talk about my Chatterbox, let me tell you that a few years ago I was playing "Don't Cry for Me Argentina" on my Sirius/XM radio show, and I made a comment about not understanding the lyric, "Although she's dressed up to the nines, at sixes and sevens with you." I assumed it meant that Evita was dressed well but the crowd watching her was dressed a few notches below her…aka at sixes and sevens. The next day I got a call on my cell phone from a girl who nervously stammered that she was a friend of Sam Pancake, who's a super-talented actor who's friends with my friend, Jack Plotnick. She explained that "at sixes and sevens" is a British expression, and it means "at odds" But, as she was telling me, we kept getting cut off because I was getting on the subway and then in an elevator, so the whole explanation took an exhausting 30 minutes. Well, a year later I was at the baby showed of Jessie Stone and Chris Fitzgerald, and I met the girl who called me…Lauren Graham! Huh? Why did she have to say she was a friend of a friend? Why not just say who she was? And, how did she get my cell phone number? And, why does she know odd British expressions? And, speaking of which, when Nancy enters Fagin's den in Oliver!, why does she say "Plummy and slam"? Is that another British expression that will take an uninteresting 30 minutes to explain?

Regardless, Lauren Graham was my Chatterbox guest and is so smart and funny. She grew up doing theatre and singing and told us that she was the high school prom song singer. Of course, looking back, she realizes how inappropriate their theme song, "We've Got Tonight," was for teenagers. She sang, "We've got tonight. Who needs tomorrow? and then added, "Um, actually, you do."

She did lots of theatre as a kid. Her big coup was playing Dolly in her high school production of Hello, Dolly! To this day, she thinks it's her dad's favorite performance of hers. He's constantly bragging to people about how she "got a standing ovation every show." She then reminds him that there were three performances.

Lauren went to college in New York and got her Equity card in summer stock. Of course, summer stock-style, she had the character track, and at age 20 was playing a theatre producer who was 50. In one scene, she was supposed to get stabbed in the back while facing the audience and then sit there, dead, with her eyes open throughout the rest of the scene. Throughout the entire run, she was never able to keep her eyes totally open, and every time she'd finally allow herself a quick blink, there'd be a devastatingly huge laugh from the audience. The Kalamazoo Gazette wrote that Lauren got killed at the end of Act One…and "one wishes it happened sooner." Well, at least she got mentioned.

She hardly got any work after getting her MFA and remembers often asking her commercial agent to borrow $20. Finally, he got her a job as a mascot that walked around a sports arena because it paid well for one day. She mainly got the gig because she was tall and told us that being inside the claustrophobic costume made you slowly go crazy, so there would always be two people switching off. In other words you'd spend a few hours sweating profusely in the suit and then give that sweat-infused outfit to someone else to sweat into. Her job was mainly posing for pictures, and every time she posed with someone for a photo, she put on a big smile. She then realized after a few hours that she was completely ensconced in an enormous animal costume and no one could see her face. AKA, the "slowly going crazy" had begun.

She got an MFA in theatre and moved to L.A. Lauren told us about an audition where she had to play a lawyer in a new TV show and, because she didn't get much information beforehand, she thought it was a drama. Unfortunately, after the audition, she found out it was a sitcom! Fortunately, because she was theatrically trained to play to the back row, she thinks her broad acting made it look like she was doing a comedic performance, and she got the TV show! She described it as a legal comedy where there's an uptight lawyer who plays by the rules and then her, who shows up to court trials in jeans and a leather jacket. Rita Moreno was the hard-boiled judge, and during one scene Rita yelled out, "Stop whining!"…and that line wasn't in the script! Ouch on getting a note from a fellow actor…but when it's from a Oscar/Tony/Grammy/Emmy winner, I guess you should take it. Lauren did, and said that Rita was right.

She said she learned so much from doing Guys and Dolls because she feels it's a special skill to do a show for an audience that doesn't love it. It's one thing to do Billy Elliot, where the crowd is throwing so much love at the stage, but Lauren said it's very different when you're onstage and know that lots of people read the New York Times review and are assuming the show is not good. Once she finally let a lot of her baggage go ("Who do I think I am? I'm from television. I'm playing a role many other actresses would love and I don't deserve to be here") and just played the show without trying to win over the audience, she feels her performance got so much better. I can't wait for her next Broadway show. She has a sassy belt and a great sense of humor. And, apparently, my cell phone number. All right, I've already done the opening Broadway Belters show on the cruise as well as Cheyenne Jackson's act. Details on these, plus the upcoming cruise shows coming soon! Go to www.SethRudetsky.com for some video footage!

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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.

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