ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hey, Old Friends

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hey, Old Friends A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Emily Skinner
Emily Skinner

That's right, I just started another Playbill column and this one recaps the British reality show "I'd Do Anything," which chronicles the search for a Nancy and three Olivers (they're splitting the performances) for the new West End production of Oliver! [Editor's note: To read Seth's first "I'd Do Anything" recap, click here.] Ah! It's like old home week: the uncomfortable group performances, the self-seriousness of the judges…it's good to be back. Now, time for the reality show I live every day — "My Life." I only wrote that to see how it felt to be as annoying as those people who put in their bios "She recently starred in (fill in the blank) but her favorite role is mother to three-year-old Zack." Or, "His wife is actress (fill in the blank) and their most recent production together is baby Dakota." I get it. You're wittily using theatre talk to describe your home life. How about mixing the creativity with a little more honesty: Rochelle's "half hour call" in the morning is at 7:30 to get her "co-star," Henry, off to school where he is "starring" in fourth grade as well as "swinging" the role of mini-husband and confidante as Rochelle breaks boundaries constantly and tells him too many details about her fears and neuroses.

Last Monday I went to a concert of music by Leonard Bernstein and lyrics by Alan Jay Lerner. You may not know, but in 1976, they wrote the show 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, which was a musical about many of the different presidents who lived in the White House and the staff that served them. The show was a Bicentennial bomb (seven performances only…I guess seven's not always a lucky number) but then had its script thrown out and combined a chunk of the songs to form The White House Cantata. The show was performed by some great soloists and the Collegiate Chorale. Then, I hosted a post-performance discussion with some original cast members and the original co-director/choreographer, George Faison. Beth Fowler recalled how she was offered an audition for the original show to be in the chorus and understudy the First Lady. Her agent told her that she absolutely should not audition because she had already been featured as one of the Liebeslieders in A Little Night Music, and it would be a step back for her career. But she felt that she had to audition because (as she recalled, all a-flutter) "Leonard Bernstein wants my voice." She said that she remembers talking to Patricia Routledge (who played The First Lady), who told her that when she first read the script, she thought it needed a lot of work but … "Leonard Bernstein wants my voice." Original cast member Jack Witham talked about meeting Beth Fowler during rehearsal, asking her out…and they've been married ever since. I guess the seven performances paid off for some people! And by "some," I mean two.

I asked George Faison the biggest problem he had with Bernstein, and he said that they once had a note session at The Watergate with Bernstein in a silk dressing gown eating from a sumptuous buffet of truffles and lobster…as they discussed writing for the common man. I understand what George was saying, but it's not like Bernstein came from such opulence. He certainly understood what it was like to not be rich, and as they say in The Producers, when 'ya got it, spend it. Oh, wait, that's actually what they said to the audience. "Inner circle" tickets. Anybody? Or should I say, anybody without a hedge fund?

Nobody.

Back to the Cantata, Emily Pulley gave a great rendition of "Duet for One" where she portrayed the outgoing First Lady (Julia Grant) as well as the incoming one (Lucy Hayes) at the Hayes inauguration. Beth Fowler recalled the final performance of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue where Patricia Routledge got such an ovation that she finally did the whole song again! After the talkback, I ran into Alice Playten and, like I always do, brought up Henry, Sweet, Henry. She told me that on opening night, the audience wanted her to sing "Nobody Steps on Kafritz" again….but she employed ye olde adage, "Always leave 'em wanting more." If you've never seen Alice do this number (she got a Tony nom. for it), you must visit www.bluegobo.com and watch her on the "Ed Sullivan Show"…brilliant! On Sirius Radio, I interviewed my old friend Emily Skinner. I've known Emily ever since she graduated Carnegie-Mellon and reminded her that I coached her for her audition for the nineties revival of Grease. She then promptly reminded me that she didn't get the part. Touché. She told me that she grew up in Virginia and was so hyper as a child that she was actually hospitalized! They wanted to leave her back in school and not enter first grade, but her teacher gave her another option. Emily was told she could have ten minutes every day where she could entertain the class and after that she had to be good in class. Emily took the option, doing mini-plays, singing songs and lip-synching Jackson Five albums, and she was able to avoid being left back! I'm jealous. I want a delicious captive audience ten minutes a day. Must I go back to kindergarten? Wait a minute, I just remembered, I started first grade at five years old…I skipped kindergarten! That's why I'm still desperately searching for the audience I never had. After 20 years of therapy, it just took one interview with Emily Skinner to pick up on the reason for my neediness. Brava!

Like me, Emily grew up listening to the Annie album. I asked her who she was obsessed with, assuming it was a toss up between Andrea McArdle, Laurie Beechman and the girl who played Duffy ("Who cares what they're wearing on Main Street or Saville Row"). Turns out, it was Dorothy Loudon! I forgot that Emily's been obsessed with being a character actress her whole life.

Emily's first big break was doing A Christmas Carol at Madison Square Garden, which was her last ingénue role. The good news was she didn't have to worry about remembering her character name (it was "Emily"); the bad news was they had 15 performances a week! Wowza. In one week they more than doubled all the performances of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Then she got cast in Jekyll and Hyde as Linda Eder's understudy. Thus follows a story I'm totally obsessed with. During previews Linda Eder, who normally has vocal chords of steel, lost her voice but the understudies hadn't been rehearsed yet. Emily didn't know any of the stage fighting and didn't want a "new life" as someone with a sword stuck in her arse (British pronunciation). Plus, the stage was constantly filled with London fog, and she was terrified of falling into the pit…even with all those synthesizers there to break her fall. They told her not to worry and that she didn't have to go on. Hmm…sounds good so far. Instead, they asked Linda Eder to act all the scenes and when it came time to sing, Linda had to star onstage and move her mouth while Emily sang into a mic backstage! Seriously! It wasn't that devastating since, thankfully, it was only a rehearsal with a few friends in the house. Oh, I'm sorry…it was an actual performance with a full paying audience! The thing is, I've never run into anybody who actually saw that performance, and I have a terrifying suspicion that the producers wanted the story never to be told so they had everyone killed on their way out of the theatre. Any survivors? Email me!

Emily got her first starring role on Broadway as Daisy Hilton in Side Show, the story of real-life conjoined twins, Daisy and Violet Hilton. I was the assistant music director on the first reading of Side Show, but then it was called The Songs of the Siamese Twins, and by the time the title was changed, I was unceremoniously replaced. Emily remembers auditioning with Alice and saying, "We sound great together!" Again I say, if you've never seen them do the show, get thee to www.bluegobo.com…phenomenal! I literally thought they had costumes that were connected to each other. I was shocked that all they did was just stand, hip-to-hip. Emily said a man once approached her at the stage door with a knowing smile and said, "I saw the Velcro". Ah…there's nothing more annoying than a know-it-all know nothing.

The most devastating thing that happened was at the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. Do you remember the year when it was so windy that a balloon was knocked down and hit a woman on the head? Well, Emily and Alice were doing a number from Side Show that same year, and the wind came up in the middle of it and literally blew them apart! It was only for a few seconds, but I remember Alice telling me that it was one of the worst days of her life. Perhaps that's a little dramatic, but that's why she's an actress, folks! Emily said that she loved having Alice next to her the whole show because having someone so close to her meant she always felt supported and not vulnerable. She said that during the workshop, where they rehearsed eight hours a day for six weeks, she would have dreams at night and wake up feeling the bed next to her for Alice. I've done the same thing, but I wasn't doing Side Show, and I was feeling for my ex-boyfriend who dumped me unceremoniously in 1989.

One of my other favorite Broadway debacles (besides the Linda Eder lip-synching craziness) happened during Side Show. Emily and Alice were doing the show at night but also getting up crazily early to do morning shows. I was working on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" at the time, and I remember Emily and Alice singing "Who Will Love Me As I Am" and right after that, Emily burst a blood vessel on her vocal chords! She had to take off a few shows to repair it, and her understudy, the fabulous Lauren Kennedy, went on for her. Emily was back, and she and Alice were finishing "Leave Me Alone" — usually at the end of the song, they back up until they're behind the set, do a 20-second costume change and are then revealed inside a sarcophagus for the Vaudeville Egyptian Number. Well, this was Wednesday night and during the crazy quick change, Emily couldn't get her costume on. She thought, "Could I literally have gained this much weight in two days?" and then she saw her dresser's face go white. Turns out, the dresser had laid out Lauren's costume…and Lauren is a size zero! The music onstage now had started doubling, and the dancing boys started to repeat their dance steps because the sarcophagus wasn't opening. The dresser went running up to Emily's dressing room (of course, three flights up) and Alice helped out…by laughing hysterically. Finally, the dresser came back (the boys were now on their tenth repeat), Emily got into her costume and she and Alice entered the sarcophagus. Then they realized…they got into the sarcophagus on the wrong side! It's like they had gotten the operation to separate conjoined twins, and then got sewn back together on opposite sides. Alice screamed, "There's no way I'm reversing this choreography!" and they got out of the sarcophagus, changed sides and it opened…to reveal ten chorus boys, wildly panting with a glazed look of "What the hell happened!?!??!?!!"

The show closed in the winter after 100 performances...but months later they found out it was nominated for Best Musical! But what about them? Would they compete against each other for Best Actress? No, the Tony committee solved that and nominated them as one nomination for "Best Actress." They sang "I Will Never Leave You" and sounded amazing! That was the same year I wrote the opening number starring Rosie O'Donnell (and of course, featuring my faves: Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and Jennifer Holliday), so I got to be in the audience at Radio City and see Emily and Alice re-create their brilliance. Thrilling! Now they tour all over the place doing concerts separately and together and, if you haven't, you must get all of their CDs and give a special listen to Emily's version of "Sleepy Man" on their newest CD ("Raw at Town Hall") and both of them doing "Little Me" on their first one, "Duets." "Sleepy Man" is so beautiful and romantic and I listen to "Little Me" at the gym all the time and it puts me in the best mood.

Okay, people. This is my final week preparing for my big Actors Fund Benefit, "Seth's Broadway 101," which is next Monday, April 14 (go to actorsfund.org for tix). I'm filming rehearsals and posting them on my website (www.sethrudetsky.com), and you must see the great rehearsal I had with Jonathan Groff. I made him re-create the crazy yoga pose he did in Bikram Yoga that gave him a charley horse. It had nothing to do with rehearsal, but I knew seeing his body in that position would be something that Spring Awakening fans would cut school/SATs/major surgery to watch. Just know as you watch it that Jonathan usually takes class and does that pose…shirtless.

And…my site just crashed. All right everyone, talk to you next week….right before my big show!

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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.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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