ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jenna, Emily . . . and Elle Woods

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jenna, Emily . . . and Elle Woods
 
I am officially better. Or "So Much Better" Legally Blonde-style. Speaking of which, tonight is the debut of the Legally Blonde reality show on MTV.

Seth with
Seth with "Elle Woods" hopefuls.

They came up with an amazing title: Legally Blonde The Musical: The Search for Elle Woods." What great word play! It's not literal at all. I must admit it's a little lengthy to say, but putting the colon in the middle of the title gives me plenty of time to rest and then finish the second half. After the show airs (10 PM ET on MTV), they're going to post a video of me deconstructing the show on IAmOnMTV.com. Hopefully, I'll be as amazing as those Hills girls were when they hosted the MTV airing of Legally Blonde.

Let me now discuss my first sentence. I was literally sick for a week. I haven't been sick that long since junior high. Remember what it was like staying home from school back then? You'd watch "I Love Lucy" then "The Price Is Right" and then nothing but devastatingly boring soap operas until 4 PM when "The Little Rascals" came on. Ah, Spanky. PS, how did we deal with having no television in the afternoon? And only three channels all the time?

Speaking of childhood, after I did "Broadway 101" (which, I just found out, raised $30,000 for The Actors Fund!), I got a call from a television production company. We set up a meeting, and I had delicious visions of filming "Broadway 101" for network TV. Well, turns out, the woman in charge of creative development for this company saw "Broadway 101" and was very interested in the sections where I talked about my childhood. She wound up contracting me to write and develop a sitcom about my (devastating) adolescent years! Sort of "Everybody Hates Chris" but more like "Everybody Hates Fat, Gay Seth". There's one classic story that happened to me in English class, but I don't know if I can re-enact it in a series. My whole class was supposed to have read "The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn," but even though it was an honors English class, essentially nobody read it. Mrs. Messner (who was always all smiles, and we therefore called her "Goody" Messner à la The Crucible) was our teacher and first asked my friend Whitney Malin what the theme of the book was. Whitney started flipping through the book like the theme was on a certain page and she just had to find it. After some aimless flipping, she muttered, "Call on someone else." But Mrs. Messner didn't hear, so Whitney essentially had to yell, "Call on someone else!" Then Mrs. Messner called on Julie Einhorn who said, "Ooh….you caught me at a bad time." Huh? Did she just get out of the shower and her hair was still wet? Weren't we in the middle of English class? What's a better time for a question relating to English? Finally, she called on my friend Terry Heyman by saying, "And Terry?," but because Mrs. Messner had a Midwestern accent, it sounded like "And Tirry?" Terry thought Mrs. Messner was asking about some obscure character from the book, so she looked miffed and asked, "Who the hell is Ann Tirry?" Nonetheless, we all somehow graduated.

Jenna Russell
photo by Christie Ford

My new favorite person is Jenna Russell, who is starring as Dot/Marie in Sunday in the Park With George. I interviewed her at the Chatterbox, and she is so much fun! First of all, if you don't know, she's British. She did her first big London show when she was still a teenager and it had music by ABBA but with different lyrics. Instead of "Fernando" she sang "Back Home Now." Suffice it to say, it did not have the success of Mamma Mia! However, she said that because of that show, Tim Rice and Benny and Bjorn (from ABBA) decided to write Chess, so something good came from it. For the opening, everybody got champagne from the ABBA men, but because she was 16, she instead got an autographed album. She said there are pictures of her holding the album ("Arrival") and glaring because she was infuriated she wasn't allowed to get drunk, but now she's so happy to have an autographed record! Also, in that show she got to work with West End theatre legend, Elaine Paige. Jenna was young and didn't quite have all of her social graces. She literally told Elaine, "You know, I really like you. (pause) I mean, everyone told me that you were a (C word), but I don't think you are!" Wow. Instead of getting her fired, Elaine told her why people were annoyed with her. Elaine started out as a chorus girl and then she got to originate the role of Evita. When she was still in the chorus, she'd go out after the show and hang out till all hours, but after she got the role of Evita, she had to curtail all social activity. People thought she was being a snob by not going out partying, when in actuality she was just trying to preserve her voice so she could belt "A New Argentina" and not have her next gig be replacing Lauren Bacall in Woman of the Year. Jenna also did Les Misérables as one of the ensemble women, and then spent 13 weeks understudying Eponine. I asked her if she ever went on, and she said only once…which is 100 percent more times than I ever went on for Brooks Ashmanskas in The Ritz. Then, she said, three years passed, and she suddenly got a call from the Les Miz people. "Hey, Jenna. What are you doing tonight?"
"Um….going out to dinner."
"Oh, good. Because we might need you to go on for Eponine."
"Why!?!?!"
"You see, the girl playing Eponine is out, and her understudy has an abscess, and her second cover isn't prepared. Do you mind calling in at six to see if we'll need you?"

Well, Jenna had met the understudy and knew that she was the type who'd go on, abscess or not… Jenna said sure and called in at six, just because she promised. Turns out, she had to go on! She had only gone on once for the role…three years before…but she remembered it! She said the guy playing Marius had a great sense of humor and when she sang her final verse of "A Little Fall of Rain" and died in his arms, she heard him say, "Take this b**** away from me, she bores me." She came back later to the show to play Fantine. Now, a lot of you may not know this, but Fantine appears in Act Two of Les Miz as a boy on the barricade. Why? Well, when the show was first being staged, the actors understood that it was an ensemble piece, and when they weren't playing featured roles, they'd do chorus work. Patti LuPone told me that she wasn't so into the chorus stuff, so she told John Caird (the director) that because she was doing another show in London, she wouldn't have time to show up to any other rehearsals except for those as Fantine. Cut to, they were rehearsing the Act Two barricade scene, and Patti came to the theatre. She was in the back of the house, essentially hiding behind a row of seats because she didn't want to get caught and put onstage. She didn't know if they were up to her scene yet, so she stealthily stuck her head out to see what they were doing. Suddenly: "Patti! So glad you're at rehearsal! Come join the barricade." And that's why there's such a long gap between when Fantine dies and when she comes out again. Simply because of the arbitrariness of Patti's peek above the seats!

Anyhoo, Jenna told the people running the show that she was bored sitting backstage for so long, so they added her to the Paris scene at the End of Act One. I asked if any of the following Fantines were mad about that, and she said no but… At one point she was talking about her dressing room being so big, and they asked her if she minded sharing it. She said she'd love to. And now when she meets women playing Fantine they glare and say, "Thanks for the dressing roommates."

Jenna was starring as Sarah Brown in the West End production of Guys and Dolls when she heard that Sunday in the Park With George was playing at The Chocolate Factory (which is like a small Off-Broadway house). She told Jane Krakowski (who was playing Adelaide) that they better get their a**es over there and they went the following Sunday matinee. They loved it. Then, the show was about to transfer to the West End, and the woman playing Dot got pregnant. I asked Jenna if she hid her supply of the pill, and she denied it. Not very convincingly, I might add. Regardless, Jenna was suddenly up for the role of Dot and listened to the CD in her car on the way to the audition. She said that every time she tried to sing along, she started crying because the words are so moving. I guess her puffy eyes didn't matter because she got the gig and then found out it was going to go to Broadway. But not for another year! So she took the whole year off. Delicious! I know how that feels. I've taken the last five months off from doing a Broadway show — although, not on purpose. So I don't really know how that feels. But I do need a job.

When Tony time came, she woke up early to watch the announcements, but right before they came on, Todd Haimes (who runs The Roundabout) called and congratulated her because the nominations were put online early. Unfortunately, by the time she finished gabbing with him, she missed hearing her name announced. She's not expecting to win, so she's happy her show was extended. At first it was going to close at Tony time, so she said it would have been, "Close the show, don't win any Tonys and fly home." Depressing. But she's happy the show's going 'til the end of June. If you haven't seen it, get there asap!

Sunday night I went to Feinstein's on the East Side and saw Emily Skinner perform. She was amazing. First of all, she can sing anything. High soprano, belt, blues, riff (meaning many notes sung fast, not the role "Riff," although she could sing that, too). I have to also say she is absolutely one of the best actresses I've ever seen. She is so connected and real with each song. Also, her patter was so interesting…and so was the audience's. At one point she said, "I love my boyfriend, but he's not a big fan of musical theatre," and the man in front of me said, "Mine is." I first met Emily through my friend Jack Plotnick, who went to Carnegie-Mellon with her, and he told me that she's the most talented person he knows and I know why! She is way too young now, but I cannot wait for the next Gypsy revival with her as Mama Rose. She would tear it up!

OK, everybody. I have to get ready because I'm playing an Alzheimer's benefit tonight with Jonathan Groff, and he's about to come over. Hmmm . . . is it possible to lose 20 pounds, 15 years and convince my boyfriend to have an open relationship in the next ten minutes? We shall see! *

(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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Jenna Russell with Seth Rudetsky
Jenna Russell with Seth Rudetsky Photo by Christie Ford
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