ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Interiors by Andrea Martin; Leslie Uggams Explains "June Is Bustin' Out All Over"

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Interiors by Andrea Martin; Leslie Uggams Explains "June Is Bustin' Out All Over"
 
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Andrea Martin
Andrea Martin

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Happy unofficial start of summer! First of all, if you reading this on Tuesday, May 29, then set ye olde DVRs because I'm on "Watch What Happens LIVE" tonight at 11 PM on Bravo. I'll be promoting my new TV network and my book! If you're too lazy to tape or watch the show, then simply buy my book, and then sign up for my network at SethTV.com. Done and done.

I'm writing this surrounded by stacks of books, boxes and a general mess. No, I'm not moving again (I've literally moved three times in the last three years), I'm actually in the process of redecorating. Well, I'm not actually redecorating. I'm not allowed to. The only person allowed to make decisions is Andrea Martin. Not joking. If you don't know, James and I are not the stereotypical gay guys with amazing taste. Quite the opposite. We buy clothes every few years (I still wear the shirt Betty Buckley bought me 15 years ago) and we decorate like we're still in college. Remember the old "I can use these milk crates to hold my books" style we all had freshman year? The only thing that's changed for me from those days is that my jeans have an added elastic waistband. Andrea, on the other hand, has a stunning apartment in New York and a beautiful house in Toronto that feels so inviting as soon as you walk in. Everything is placed just right and appears casual yet perfect. She's always told me she could help my place look nice but we've both always faded out on the follow through. Cut to: She came over on Tuesday to have a "look around" at 12:30 in the afternoon. She didn't leave that day 'til 5:30. Suddenly, things I had bought with pride for the apartment were going into the trash. Actual conversation:

Me: Can I keep the carpet?
Andrea: No, dear.

Then on Friday, James rented a Zipcar and we drove to Ikea. She was supposed to meet us at 10 in the morning after she had a training session at the gym. She told us that she was incredibly anxious/excited the night before, and when she woke up she went right to the gym at 9 AM, paid her trainer for the session and left for our apartment at 9:01 AM. She didn't leave til 9 PM! Twelve hours of bossiness. She was in a rage that we put our TV on the wall and said we hadto get a small table for it instead. Ikea's prices are so cheap and we easily found one for $20! While we were waiting on line to check out she told me seriously that I can't keep going to secondhand furniture stores and buying crappy things. She looked at me earnestly and said, "You've come to the point in your life where you deserve nice things. Nice, well-made, high-quality objects." Then she pointed to the box on the conveyor belt. "Like this $20 table made of particle board." Busted.

James after constructing Ikea shelves/desk

I went to do my radio show for a little while and when I came back, she and James had already taken three furniture pieces to Housing Works. Then she insisted that the two of them put together the new table we got for the living room and I said I'd take down all the books in the bedroom so it could be painted. After 15 minutes, I heard her and James muttering about me and then, in what was supposed to be a lighthearted voice, Andrea called out, "How's it going in there, sweetie?" So transparent. I completely busted her for attempting a casual check-in when the simmering subtext was, "What the hell is taking you so long to empty a bookshelf?" She owned up to it immediately. But, P.S., still wanted to know what the hell was taking me so long.

After spending Friday's day and night with us, she bid us goodbye for two weeks; she had a trip planned and was leaving the next morning from JFK. Cut to: At 9:30 AM Saturday she was at our apartment, lugging her suitcases and begging to buy us some lamps before she had to go to the airport. She found something amazing at Jonathan Adler. But before she left she told me and James that we are forbidden from buying anything for our apartment until she gets back. The only thing she will allow us to purchase are (no more than) four placemats for our new table. And even that she reluctantly granted us. I have to say, though, that it already looks so much better. Turns out, if an apartment gets no sun because it's on the garden level, you shouldn't fill your living room with dark furniture that absorbs the smattering of light you get.

Leslie Uggams
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

This week at Seth's Broadway Chatterbox I had the amazing Leslie Uggams as a guest. Firstly, I told her how amazed I was when I was in the pit of Thoroughly Modern Mille when she played Muzzie and I heard how high she was belting. She told me that her voice got higher as she got older. What the —? She began singing at a very young age, touring around with people like Louis Armstrong and Ella Fitzgerald! At the time, she was going to the Professional Children's School which was all the way downtown from where she lived in Washington Heights. I asked how she got there every day, and she shrugged and said she took the subway. By herself. Starting at age eight! She stopped performing when she entered her awkward teenage years but one day she was watching "Name That Tune" and decided to enter a contest where viewers could send a list of songs and if a contestant could guess each one, the viewer could team up with the contestant on the show. Well, she sent a list, they read Leslie's song choices, the contestant got them all right and they called and asked Leslie to join the show. She was just a teenager but she knew a lot of pop songs and her partner knew a lot of classical/legit ones so they were a great team and kept winning. The first week, the host asked Leslie what she did in her free time and she said she was a singer. He then asked her to sing something, which she did. Suddenly, the network got a ton of fan letters. From then on, she was asked to sing every week. Mitch Miller had been trying to get his show "Sing Along With Mitch" on the air for years, but no network was interested. Finally, it was picked up. Because he heard Leslie on "Name That Tune," he asked her to be the singer on his show. When it finally aired, it was a hit but the South wouldn't carry it because it featured a black singer. The network was losing money from all those Southern networks and they asked Mitch to cut Leslie. He said no. Then they asked if he'd give her a week off. No. Then they asked him to just have her sing one song (so her segment could be removed in the Southern broadcast) and he still said no. I asked her if she felt stressed knowing that the network wanted her off the show and she told me that Mitch kept it from her and her family! It wasn't until way later that she knew how strong he was in the face of all that pressure. It's doubly amazing because it took him four years to get the show on TV and yet he was still willing to stand up to the network.

Finally, the show was such a hit that the South couldn't take being left out so they started airing it! The fabulousness of the show trumped their racism. Brava! Here's a clip of young Leslie doing one of her numbers on the TV show

 

Uggams on "Roots."

Even though she studied acting and dance her whole childhood, she didn't do her first musical until she was in her early 20s. She played the lead in The Boyfriend in Berkeley, CA. This was in the '60s and it was a big coup because the role was played on Broadway by Julie Andrews…and, FYI, Julie isn't black. This version of The Boyfriend wasn't done in the Pearl Bailey all-black-cast style, they just cast Leslie and kept the rest of the cast as is, including giving her white parents! Then Hallelujah, Baby!, a new musical by Jule Styne, Comden and Green and Arthur Laurents, was about to come to Broadway, but its star, Lena Horne, had a falling out with Arthur Laurents. Leslie got the part, her first on Broadway…and won the Tony Award! Here she is, performing on the Tonys

I asked her about "Roots," the miniseries from the 1970s. She auditioned to play Kizzy but they wanted to screen-test her to see if she could play the character at 80 years old. The makeup people didn't know what to do because Leslie didn't have any wrinkles. Poor thing. They put tons of latex on her face and she wound up looking like a mummy for the screen test. She knew she didn't get it, and she told her husband/manager that she bombed. He got on the horn and tracked down the makeup guy who did "The Autobiography of Miss Jane Pittman." He told Leslie to come over to his house, where he tried out some makeup, the "Roots" people let her screen test again and she got the part…and they hired the makeup guy for the entire series! The network didn't have a lot of hope in the success of the miniseries and thought no one would be interested enough to watch it over a few weeks (like all miniseries ran back in those days) so they aired all the episodes over one week to get them all over with. Turns out, the ratings went through the roof and the network was hailed for its brilliant idea (which was simply done to get the show out of the way). As a matter of fact, Leslie was in Vegas when it started airing and on the third night, Ann-Margret called her and said she had to change the time of her show because there was no audience when "Roots" was on!

Finally, I had to ask Leslie about…"June Is Bustin' Out All Over." If you don't know, it's a clip famous within Broadway circles because she sings a string of wrong lyrics, relentlessly. I finally got the story; Leslie said that she was hired to sing in a live TV concert on the White House Lawn. All the lyrics were on cue cards so she could read them. Unfortunately, it rained the night before the concert and the morning of. When the song started, everything was fine…until the cue card man slipped in the wet grass…and never got up again! Leslie said she had no choice but to keep going and "fake it." And that she did. Making up crazy words, nonsense syllable and only solidly landing the phrase "just because it's June!" She was horrified, but after the concert she ran into the conductor. He didn't say anything. Her husband didn't say anything. Her friends didn't say anything. She thought, "OMG! I got away with it!" Until a few years later, a friend came up to her and said, "Do you know you're in every gay bar in America?" She said, "Doing what?" He said, "Singing 'June is Bustin' Out All Over.'" If you've never seen the classic video, here's an amazing version with subtitles. 

OK, everyone: Speaking of June, on Sunday, June 3 I'll be performing in Kansas City! Get tix and info here. Peace out! (Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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