ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Henchmen Aren't Forgotten

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Henchmen Aren't Forgotten
 
Wah. With only two months since The Ritz closed, I'm now dealing with the closing of another show.
Raul Esparza
Raul Esparza

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Wah. With only two months since The Ritz closed, I'm now dealing with the closing of another show.

Yes, Lend Me a Tenor played its last performance Feb. 17. And, I'm still dealing with the final episode of "Crowned: The Mother of All Pageants" and the imminent ending of "Project Runway." So much loss. I feel like Sally Field in the "Steel Magnolias" cemetery scene.

Anyhoo, last Sunday night I saw the Actors Fund performance of Young Frankenstein. First of all, it was delicious to hear an overture with a big, fat orchestra. The Hilton Theatre has a relatively large orchestra minimum (the size of the orchestra corresponds to the size of the theatre), but Mel Brooks wanted more strings (lots of the show is underscored like those old, gothic Hollywood movies), so the orchestra is actually over the minimum! Brava! That whole cast is so talented it's mind-boggling. First, I must give a shout out to Megan Mullally's high belt. She certainly didn't get to belt that high when she was playing Marty in Grease! I played in the pit for that show, and I'll never forget the story that circulated around the cast for years about the performance when one of Megan's understudies went on. In the opening scene, Marty takes out a pair of glasses and Frenchie comments, "Hey, Marty! Are those new glasses?" Marty responds, "Yeah! Do they make me look smarter?" And then Frenchie sasses her with, "Nah. We can still see your face." Well, Megan's understudy forgot to pre-set the glasses in her pocket and spread the word surreptitiously. Jessie Stone (who was playing Frenchie) whispered not to worry, she'd handle it. The big moment came and Jessie said, trying to save the day, "Hey, Marty! I hear you're going to get new glasses!" We all expected to hear, "Yeah! Do you think they'll make me look smarter?" to which Jessie would reply, "Nah! We'll still be able to see your face." Instead, the understudy replied with a terse, "No." Silence.

Silence. Finally, Heather Stokes, who was playing Jan, said the next line she could think of. Unfortunately, it was a line from three pages later, which, more unfortunately, was dangerously near the cue line for "Summer Nights". Before anyone knew it, the cue was said, "Summer Nights" began…and Sonny hadn't even made his entrance yet! Carlos Lopez (Sonny) was forced to slink on during the opening vamp, the show continued...and a legend was born. We decided to turn the understudy's acting method into a whole school to counteract the "Yes, and" approach to improv. "Hey! Do you see the six-foot monster coming towards us?"
"No."
Curtain.

Back to Young Frankenstein. Andrea Martin was fan-tas-tic as Frau Blucher. Just opening the door to the castle and glaring, she got an enormous laugh. I've been obsessed with her ever since my friends and I would gather on Friday nights to watch her on "SCTV," and I feel that she's literally a comic genius. And, she's so great in her big number, which is all centered around a chair à la "Mein Herr." I still remember trying to re-create that choreography when I was a kid, but it was before VCRs, so I had to base it on what I remembered from seeing it once on TV. AKA, sit and sing on a chair, but (here's the amazing part) turn the chair around. Cool! I must say I'm jealous that Andrea gets to do it on Broadway eight times a week. I've been practicing those moves since third grade. While watching Young Frankenstein, I was also obsessed with this weird comic thing I noticed Sutton doing. Not only her brilliant singing/comedy/high kicks, but both times that she gave the monster a shot in the butt, she would run around blowing on the spot of the "injection." Why would that make it feel better? Is it hot? I thought it was hilarious.

And, it was great to finally see Chris Fitzgerald get to play a big comic role. I remember him auditioning to play The Cat in The Hat in Broadway's Seussical years ago… and not getting it! If anyone can give me an answer as to why that happened, use your superior brain power to find a cure for cancer. And, finally, brava to Roger Bart, whom I first realized was a great comedian when I saw him in Triumph of Love singing "Henchmen are Forgotten." PS, that song is so great. Why doesn't anyone sing it? In other words, why is "Henchmen are Forgotten" forgotten? I'm actually replaying my first interview with Roger Bart and Kevin Chamberlin on my public access Chatterbox TV show this week (Feb. 18 at 12:30 in the afternoon…channel 56 or go to mnn.org to watch it) and they sing "Henchmen…" Roger belts a great B flat at the end!

This week on Sirius Radio I interviewed Raúl Esparza. Turns out he first wanted to be a lawyer (!) but then got into NYU's Tisch School of the Arts and got his acting degree. He wasn't the best student (a lot of not showing up for class) and was told by his acting teacher that, with his terrible attendance, how dare he think he can do a Pinter monologue?! Raúl told me that when he was in rehearsal recently for The Homecoming (by Pinter), he remembered being busted and finally felt vindicated. After he graduated, he got two simultaneous offers: Randy Newman's musical Faust (starring Sherie Rene Scott) and a play at Chicago's Steppenwolf. He chose to move to Chicago and lived there for years, doing just straight plays. Naturally, I skipped over that part of his life and segued to his stint in the national tour of Evita. At first, his family forbad (the past tense of forbid) him from playing Che because they actually knew him and said he was crazy. Not Mandy Patinkin, the real Che! Raul's family is from Cuba, and his grandfather had always told them that Che was a decidedly not great guy. So, Raúl decided to not play him as a hero. He said that because Che is the narrator, the audience automatically trusts him, but what if the show ends and they think that nobody on the stage is trustworthy? I was looking at him slightly askew, and he admitted that the text of Evita didn't support his interpretation, but he still loved doing the show…and it got great reviews, so I guess brava on the re-interpretation! Because of those good reviews, he felt like he could actually come to New York, which had always terrified him. The first Broadway musical he got was The Rocky Horror Show, where he played Riff Raff. The audiences were always yelling and throwing things (like a movie audience), but director Chris Ashley decided that only Tom Hewitt, who played Dr. Frank N Furter, could respond. Besides the loud, rude comments, the cast had to deal with rice raining down on them, pieces of toast being pelted at them, and water pistols being constantly fired. I assume it was "fun" to constantly worry about being electrocuted (body mic + non-stop water = unintentional perm/death). The best part was that he grew incredibly close to that cast and told me that whenever they run into each other on the street, they always go and have a drink…or pieces of toast.

While he was doing Rocky Horror, he auditioned for tick, tick . . . BOOM! but wasn't particularly interested in doing it. He thought it was just going to be a literal biography, and he wasn't looking forward to switching his Broadway production contract money for Off-Broadway wages. When he went to the audition, he did a monologue as Jonathan Larson and, in the middle, looked up to see Jonathan's parents looking back at him with tears in their eyes. He was so moved that he could be playing an actual real person. He got home that night and listened to a CD of Jonathan singing music that would be in the show. Halfway through he had to stop because he was crying and then decided that he didn't care about the money or the cache of Broadway; he knew he had to do the show because it spoke to him. He felt the theme of the show was it's easy to stay an artist when you get praise, but what do you do when everybody tells you that you suck? He said tick, tick . . . BOOM! is about weathering on no matter how bad things get…and being able to say, "This is who I am and who I'm meant to be." I think a lot of people forget that when Jonathan Larson died, Rent was nothing but a little Off-Broadway show about to open at a relatively small theatre. He always had all that talent inside of him that allowed him to write Rent, but he never knew in his lifetime how successful his work would eventually become. Like in tick, tick . . . BOOM!, he really was able to weather on without ever getting the recognition and praise most artists need.

Raúl was then set to play Zangara in the revival of Assassins, which was going to play the Music Box Theatre. However, after September 11th the show was canceled because of the theme. Unfortunately, Raúl had already quit tick, tick . . . BOOM!, so he had no gig. Out of the blue, The Roundabout called and offered him the role of the Emcee in Cabaret. He had seen it months before and coveted the role but never thought he'd ever get it. He loved doing it and felt that whole experience was about conquering fear and constantly growing. Sam Mendes, who directed it, told him that if he gave the same performance two nights in a row, he was failing himself. He needed to keep changing and re-inventing it. The hardest and scariest part for him was that, as the Emcee, he had to constantly improv with the audience. He eventually grew to love it…especially when he got to sass audience members who put their drinks onstage. If he had trained at the Grease school, he would have tried. . .

"Do you see that big Nazi coming this way?"
"No."
Curtain.

We then spoke about him playing Philip Sallon in Taboo. He said that the real Philip came to see the show on Broadway and afterwards Raúl asked him what he thought. Philip said, "Hmm…do you want me to be honest?" Raúl said yes. (Mind you, that Philip was still dressed in his "going to the theatre outfit": A Vivienne Westwood white pants suit, Vivienne Westwood brooch and an afro made out of shaving cream. Seriously). Philip shook his head, and afro, and said, "Frankly, darling….I'm not that camp." Interesting.

I dared to ask Raúl about the famous fight he had with Rosie O'Donnell during Taboo. He said that the rehearsal period was a very stressful time; the show was in the gossip columns a lot, Rosie was being sued by her former magazine, and he felt there wasn't a strong director taking control. During one rehearsal, it was apparent that Raúl was having a hard time making a quick change. Rosie asked him to exit the scene earlier so he'd have more time to change. Raúl said that he needed to be in the scene because his character needed the information being said onstage and wanted the costume change cut. The argument escalated until Rosie said that another actor could play his role just as well, and Raúl said that she was right! He stormed off the stage and out of the theatre. Unfortunately, for those of you that think he had an incredibly sassy exit, please now visualize the outfit that he was storming off in: Henry the VIII balloon pants, a cape, a crown and orb, scepter and elf shoes. So, first of all, (this was also confirmed by Jen Cody who was standing onstage with him at the time) his "storming off" was greatly de-sassified by his elfin shoes. Plus, right before he got offstage, his crown fell off. Everyone in the theatre was stunned by Raúl's departure and froze in silence — silence that was only broken by his dresser scurrying onstage, picking up said crown and scurrying off. Charles Busch immediately tracked Raul down and, over lunch with Polly Bergen(!), they both convinced Raúl to get back to work ASAP. Raúl said that he and Rosie get along great now, and he thinks she was an excellent producer. He wishes she'd do another show because he feels she had amazing ideas that helped bring Broadway into the twenty-first century.

Finally, we discussed Company, and he informed me that he gets annoyed by the people who always say Bobby can't be acted because all the action happens around him. He feels that there's a lot to be done in observation. The audience is watching a character grow by how he reacts to the situations around him. He explained it by saying that sometimes during a conversation, the one not speaking is the more interesting one. I was about to agree, but realized that I usually speak non-stop during conversations, so I wound up feeling insulted. Not cool. He admitted he was terrified playing the piano during "Being Alive" and was so nervous the first time, that his over-sweated hands kept slipping off the piano! I had that problem once, but it wasn't a piano my hands kept slipping off of. 'Nuff said.

Sondheim saw that first, nerve-wracking performance and afterwards asked Raúl if he could look up while he was singing at the piano. Raúl flat out said no. "I can act, sing, do the correct lyrics or play the piano…but I can't do all at the same time!" Raul thought Sondheim would hate what they did with the show, but he loved it. He told Raúl that the show is about accepting exactly who you are, and the moment you do that, you become an adult. I guess that's why I'm a kid at heart?

The interview ended with Raúl saying that he's going to be doing a new musical, but when I asked him for any information, he was more silent than the Taboo cast after he stormed offstage in his elf shoes. (P.S., he also sang a song that got cut from Company, "Multitude of Amys," and I played for him. You can hear the whole interview Feb. 20 at 5 PM on Broadway's Best at Sirius.com.)

I'm psyched because on Feb. 21 my great friend Jason Little is doing a show at the Zipper Theater (www.zippertheater.com/shows). Jason came to see Lend Me a Tenor last week, and we were reminiscing about what a terror he was when we were both working at the Surflight Summer Theater. It was one-week stock (you rehearse for a week while doing a different show at night…a brand-new show each week for three months), and people were constantly messing up their lines. Jason was playing Andy Lee in 42nd Street, and at the end of Act One, chorus girl Peggy Sawyer bumps into Dorothy Brock, causing her to fall. Dorothy is supposed to point to Peggy Sawyer and say, "She did it! Sawyer broke my leg!" and the curtain falls. Well, our Dorothy Brock was under-rehearsed and right after she fell to the ground she pointed and said, "She did it! Brock broke my leg!" Silence. We all hoped the audience wouldn't notice Dorothy Brock calling someone else her own name. Then Jason loudly said, "Who?" Curtain. It was hilarious. Another time, Act Two of Show Boat began, and the guy playing Ravenal was at the ice cream place next door, getting a scoop. The ladies playing Magnolia and Parthy were stuck onstage waiting for him to appear, and instead of Jason running outside and getting him, he instead ran to the men's dressing room and breathlessly informed everybody, "Ravenal's still getting ice cream, Magnolia and Parthy are stuck onstage waiting for him…and they're ad-libbing! Come on!" Everyone ran to the wings to crouch down and watch Parthy repeat over and over again, "Um…He's just a river rat, that Ravenal. Yes, he is. A river rat." While Magnolia kept up a constant and low energy, "Oh, Mother. Mother, stop." It was the one time it would have been appropriate to ad lib:

"Do you see Ravenal coming?"
"No."

P.S., the brilliant Mary Birdsong who worked at that ice cream place next door to the theatre is now playing Velma Von Tussle in Hairspray…and opening for Jason at the Zipper! We've known each other for all these years…and still can't stop telling the same stories.

All right. I'm off to mourn the loss of Lend Me a Tenor and try to get another gig…one that allows me nights off for the new season of "Top Model" and "Top Chef." Best of both worlds. 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." 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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