ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jackie, Norm, Chris, Julia . . . and Boxes

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jackie, Norm, Chris, Julia . . . and Boxes
 
It's so fun to pack.
Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis Photo by Peter Hurley

That's right, I'm starting my column with a lie.

We officially move into our new apartment this week, and although the end result will be delicious, the lead-up is a headache. When James suggested we start getting cardboard boxes, I insisted that we buy them from a box store. I told him that cardboard boxes taken off the street can have roaches in them, and I don't want to bring that into our new place. I trotted off to my neighborhood store and spent around $100 on not that many boxes. I was a little taken aback by dropping so much cash on what's essentially an empty box. A few days later I saw some empty boxes in front of The Body Shop. I decided they can't possible have roaches because it's a cosmetic store, so I snatched them off of the street and brought them home. Then I went and bought more boxes, shelling out more buckage. After checking my receipt I'd finally had it. Suffice it to say, I've gotten so poor from this move that I went from not even looking at discarded boxes on the street for fear that a roach will jump into my eye to roaming my neighborhood at all hours of the day, snatching up boxes that have obviously been filled with food and awkwardly hauling them, five at a time, to my apartment. I've decided that investing in a roach motel is cheaper than funneling money into the cardboard box racket that's making millionaires out of the makers of 16 x 12.5 x 10 boxes.

Okay, on to Broadway. Monday night I played two performances of Jackie Hoffman's holiday show at Joe's Pub. She busted herself for the pathetic-ness of doing a holiday show a week into January, and quite frankly, she's topping herself by doing the same show tonight (Jan. 12) at 7:30! Her new CD, recorded when she was in Xanadu, is a live performance of a "Best of" show. She says, "I've spent the last ten months playing a muse…and I can't think of an idea for a new show." Brava bust on herself! In her current show she talks about the film "What Happens in Vegas," which was the film I was cast in but had to turn down because I was doing The Ritz while it was filming. PS, It sounds more exciting than it was. Essentially, I couldn't say three lines in a film because I had to say three lines in a play. Anyhoo, she actually filmed four scenes opposite the two stars, Ashton Kutcher and Cameron Diaz, and was then replaced…by Queen Latifah! After that, Xanadutold her she wasn't selling tickets, and they were taking her out of the show for six weeks and replacing her with…Whoopi Goldberg! She questioned the audience last Monday; "Queen Latifah, Whoopi Goldberg…Do you see a pattern here? Next it will be Welcome to Joe's Pub featuring Jackie Hoffman…played by Harriet Tubman!" Come see us tonight at 7:30 at Joe's Pub!

Wednesday I did my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show and had Alysha Umphress as my first guest. She sings every Friday night in The After Party at the Laurie Beechman Room and the last time I wrote about her, I mentioned her amazing version of "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood." I just found it online and put it on my website (SethRudetsky.com). Take a gander at her smooth, jazzy riffs (something I never thought would be said in conjunction with a Camelot song). Plus, I'm loving listening to her CD as I pack. Go to www.Alyshaumphress.com and buy it ASAP . After Alysha, I chatted with Norm Lewis, who I've always lauded as my favorite male singer. Turns out, he didn't go right into singing after high school. He grew up in Orlando, and in college he was a business major and then worked in an advertising firm! I can never understand how some people can have so much talent and not pursue show business. When you have a gift like that, how can you not use it? Whenever I ask, people respond by saying that Broadway is unsteady and unreliable. That's crazy! Why, look how many long-running shows are still going strong, night after n-. Oh. Hmm…does the Orlando school of business take personal checks?

Anyhoo, Norm would get his artistic fix by singing in local talent contests based on "Star Search." For you young folks, that's "American Idol" without the mean parts. And it featured something that we in the eighties called "Spokesmodels." Anybody? Nobody. Norm won and got offered a job on a cruise ship. He asked his boss whether he should leave his job, and she told him that he "didn't want to be 80 years old saying Could Woulda Shoulda." So he took that gig and then moved to New York. His first theatre job up here was in a half Equity, half non-Equity production of Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat music directed by…me! During the run, I remember telling my friend Jason (who played Benjamin) that Norm was crazily talented. I still agree… 20 years later! And I mean actually 20 years (it was 1989) as opposed to my mother's version of twenty years (10-12 years… My mother feels that any number can be exaggerated up or down for effect.) Actually, like my mother, I've been saying I've known certain friends for 20 years when it's been much less time than that, but now I'm finally old enough to have friends I've known that long. I guess that feels good. Or devastating…I can't decide. Wait, I just decided. I need to take a "look in the mirror while pulling my face up" break. Okay, I'm back. I asked Norm about the "heelies" that the cast of The Little Mermaid wears so they can wheel around to create the illusion of swimming. He said that they're around two inches off the floor, and it was decided that his character (King Triton) would wear them very sparingly because no matter how masculine you are, if you're wearing two-inch heels, there's the essence of estrogen in the air. Norm then sang two songs ("Rain" from Once on This Island and "This Is the Moment"), and the audience went crazy. You can hear the interview on my Sirius/XM show this Friday at 7 PM EST. And you can get Norm's CD from his brand-new website, www.NormLewis.com. He's gonna be singing stuff from his CD on Jan. 28 at the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble at 6 PM, and I'll be playing for him…and deconstructing!

On Thursday I had the hi-larious Chris Sieber at my Chatterbox. I've actually known him for twenty-one years! He went to AMDA with my college friend Tim, and I met him back in '88. Chris grew up in a farming community in the Midwest and wanted to come to New York to study theatre, but his parents wouldn't pay for it. After high school, he worked for a year at a car wash (like the seventies song) and saved up $5,000, which he thought would last him a few years. Not surprisingly, six months later it was gone. PS, it would have been gone in three months if he were buying cardboard boxes. Chris got his first big break in the bound-for-Broadway show Paper Moon. That was one of those shows that had its marquee actually up at the theatre and was then devastatingly canceled before it ever came to Broadway (like Annie 2 and Busker Alley). He finally got his first Broadway show a few years later playing Agis in Triumph of Love. He actually brought the diary he kept during rehearsals to the Chatterbox. It begins with comments like, "Everyone has a Broadway credit. I'm the only rookie in this cast. Will they like me?" and other sweet/seventh grade girl comments. Chris pointed out that at first the handwriting in the diary is legible, but as rehearsals progress, the writing becomes illegible, the pages are wrinkled from sweat/tears (!) and at one point the word nightmare is underlined, and his pen actually tore through the page. I guess he should have a premonition of doom because he said that on the first day of rehearsal, one of the producers talked about how great the cast was and started mentioning everybody's name, one by one. Right before he got to Chris he faltered and pulled a Maryann/Professor by saying "and the rest." I told the audience how crazy that was because he didn't have that many names to remember. That cast had ten people. Chris corrected me and said "Not ten…seven." He then proceeded to add some more tears to his diary.

When he was doing Spamalot in London, Jason Moore called to offer him the role of Lord Farquaad in a reading of Shrek. It was only half an act at that point, but Chris loved it and has stayed with it ever since. When he was in Seattle with the show (before it came to Broadway), he left me a long message about how much he loved my book "Broadway Nights," which he was reading during tech rehearsal. A. That was very sweet of him B. I just wanted to plug my book and remind you that you can get autographed copies on my website as well as the audio version of it featuring me, Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff and many other Broadway faves!

Back to Shrek. Chris feels that the creation of the show was similar to Spamalot because he was allowed to improv and add funny lines. He finds it very bizarre to read the final script to Spamalot and see lines in it that he came up with in rehearsal. He made up funny bits in Shrek as well and said the trick is to not ask first and to just do it during the rehearsal. If you ask first, it usually gets an ixnay before it's tried.

He does the whole show on his knees (he has fake legs in front of him which gives the illusion that he's super short), so he has to do physical therapy twice a week. Not for his knees, but for his back, which he's using to support himself. He also said that even though he loves the show, it's essentially incredibly lonely to do. He thinks the ensemble is amazing because they've almost all played principal roles on Broadway…but he's always in front of them onstage so he doesn't get to connect with them there. His costume takes up tons of space around him, so people can never get close enough to chitty chat, and there's no room backstage for a changing area, so he's in a dark corner whenever he has a costume change. Plus, because it's so dark, his dresser can only see how to change him if Chris stands with his face against the wall. Depressing…and a call-back to the last scene in "Blair Witch Project." Remember?

Friday night was a surprise party for Julia Murney thrown by Jen Bender (resident director of The Lion King) and beltress Lauren Kennedy. There were a ton of people there, and Julia's mother told me that Julia was in a foul mood because she had a terrible day. When we all yelled "surprise," Julia put her head to her knees for a full minute. She was so surprised and happy…or doing that move they tell you to do on airplanes to prepare for a crash landing. I did a deconstruction of a video of her singing "People" in the Actors Fund concert of Funny Girl I put together in 2002. She sounds amazing and then ends in her signature pose (that she wasn't aware she ever does): one hand over her chest and one on lower stomach. It conveys the essence of deep emotion/severe indigestion.

Okay, everyone I'm signing off. If you need a box, get one off the street and use your leftover money to see a Broadway show! *

(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.)

Seth and Chris Sieber at the <i>Chatterbox</i>.
Seth and Chris Sieber at the Chatterbox.
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