ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jennifer, Julia and "Something's Coming"

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jennifer, Julia and "Something's Coming" This week was chock full of belting.

First of all, on Monday I played piano for Jennifer Hudson at the Metropolitan Museum of Art. It was a fundraiser for their costume collection. I got to the sound check early, and a beautiful African-American woman asked me if I was going to see Jennifer later. I told her I would, and she asked me to say hello for her.

Me: Sure. What's your name?
Her:…Naomi.
Me: (Awkward pause…Naomi? As in supermodel Naomi? Must clarify. Wait…what's her last name? Collins? Petrified I'll get it wrong…let me phrase question without using name) Um…aren't you famous for modeling?
Her: (Laughs.) Well, not that much anymore. (She leaves.)
Sound Man: Seth, you know that was Naomi Campbell, right?
Me: That's her last name!
Sound Man: (Glares)

Ooh! Just realized, I never gave the message. Jen, if you're reading this, Naomi says, "Hi." Wait. Is this my future? Intermediary between supermodel and Diva? Patti, if you're reading this, Iman says, "What up."

For the Met event the organizers asked Jennifer to sing "La Vie En Rose" because they were honoring somebody French. Now, while I think the song is pretty, it's not known for bringing down the house. Since it was the opener, I refused to let Jen do a mellow Piaf fin. Instead, I made up an arrangement for the ending. She sang it through, and then we did a tag:

(Slowly building) La vie en….
(more) La Vie en…
(Tremolo in piano) And-I-am-telling-you-
(Fermata in the piano as she riffs a la "You're gonna lo-o-o-ove") La vie-e-e-e-e-e-e-e en-
(Pause, then a la "me-eeee!") Ro-ose!!!!! It made no sense, but got huge applause. Then she belted out two more songs ("Run to You" and "I Am Changing"), took her bow and exited. Well, the audience went wild! They demanded an encore. We hadn't planned one, but luckily, because I was too lazy to separate out what she was singing that night, I brought all of her music to the gig. She came back onstage and knew the audience would go crazy if she hauled out a certain song. Yes, she took centerstage and belted a fierce "It's a Scandal, It's an Outrage" from Oklahoma! Anybody? No, actually I played three G octaves, and she launched into "And I Am Telling You." Brava!

Tuesday I interviewed Stephanie J. Block and Alain Boublil for my Broadway show on Sirius. I spent a good part of the hour trying to pronounce the first and/or last name of Monsieur Boublil and essentially turned it into a combination of Eileen Brennan, Michael Bublé and Bebe Benzenheimer.

Stephanie is such a cool person who has been plagued by opening-night nachtmares. First, the night before she was supposed to open Wicked in Toronto, they were trying a new entrance for "No Good Deed" where she would fly in on a broom. It was a late-night rehearsal and, suddenly, one of the wires broke that was holding her up. The crew tried to get her down, but the computer kept overriding anything they did, so she was swinging around repeatedly above the stage, literally crashing into the light poles!

Then, during Pirate Queen previews, everyone in the cast was spreading around a debilitating virus. She was able to avoid it until the critics came. She started the show on the big critics night, and ten minutes in had to leave and have her understudy take over. Take this in people: She was starring in a show and couldn't perform on a critics night! Do you know how sick you have to be to let yourself miss one of those nights? She was devastated. Stephanie told me she's accepted that openings will always be weird for her. I told her the good news is that after each opening, she'll always have a fun theatre story to tell; that is, once her debilitating psychological and physical traumas have slightly healed. . . . Her silence spoke volumes.

I was then obsessing with Alain about how much I love Frances Ruffelle as the original Eponine. He said that at the time of her audition, she was in Starlight Express in London, and they didn't think she'd be right. But when she walked in, she literally looked like those nineteenth-century illustrations of French waifs. And, I might add, she could belt an E ("I'm gonna scream, I'm gonna warn 'em here!") I remember interviewing Frances, and she told me that she was only 19 when she first did the show and didn't feel totally comfortable onstage. When they were staging her number, she didn't know what to do with her arms, so she folded them across her waist. Like a clichéd movie scene, everyone said, "That's it! Don't move!" That's right. The signature Eponine pose was really because of her uncomfortableness onstage. Brava, Mme. Ruffelle! Way to "take it from where you are"!

I then accompanied Stephanie as she sang her Pirate Queen opening song and subsequently couldn't get the melody or her seamless voice out of my head for the rest of the week. At first I loved it, but then it became phenomenally annoying, and I had to cleanse my compulsive noggin by listening to 1776 from start to finish. That score is brilliant! The orchestrations are superb. And so what if half the leads have nary a vibrato in site, the performances are amazing!

Wednesday I went to Washington to play for Jennifer Hudson (again) at an event for the National Lupus Foundation. While we were running "I Am Changing" during the sound check, she kept beginning it by walking up to me and saying "Do you know this song?" — à la Effie in the movie scene. We wanted to do it during the show, but we knew nobody would remember that specific line, and it would make her look hostile and me, a moron. The event went long, and I wound up missing my train home. I took a flight the next morning that left at 6:50. Let me repeat that. My flight left at 6:50 AM. I haven't been up that early since high school driver's ed. Not cool.

Thursday I had Julia Murney on my Chatterbox. I'm so proud she's starring in Wicked. I asked her about her sassy slide during "Defying Gravity" at the end when she goes, "No one's gonna bri-i-i-i-ing me down!" She claims it was because she was nervous belting the crazy high "me" out of nowhere, so she decided to slide up to it instead. Like I always say, out of fear of belted high notes comes brilliant phrasing. She also talked about her lucrative voice-over career and the one time she needed some extra bucks, so she was the voice of a porn cable channel. She did one of her signature commercials, and let's just say I never realized what the first syllable of the month of October could rhyme with. We were trying to think of other dirty months that they could have used. I pitched "Janu-hairy."

Thursday night, I had one more Jennifer Hudson gig. It was for the Candie's Foundation, and before the show I was talking to Jennifer about how hard it must be to sing these big showstoppers for every live gig. She said it would actually be easier if she was doing it more often. When she toured with "American Idol," even though she was doing a show every night of the week, she didn't really have to worry about warming up. I knew what she meant. One would think that if you do 11 o'clock numbers all the time, you'd tire your voice out. But it's actually much better to be consistently doing them. I remembered doing my Actors' Fund concert of Dreamgirls and how Lillias White always wanted to sing all the Effie songs full out during rehearsals so she'd get it into her body and not go into a state of shock on the night of the show. I still can't believe that Effie has to sing "And I Am Telling You" and follow it with "I Am Changing." Even though plot-wise it's many years between those songs, it's only around 20 minutes in real time. When I was the Rabbi in my high school's Fiddler, I had to sing "Mazel Tov, Mazel Tov" in "Tevye's Dream" and then follow it with my hilarious "Let's sit down" moment during the wedding reception. Thank goodness I rehearsed them both full out during the three-month rehearsal period so I was able to nail them during my high school's signature two performances (Friday and Saturday night).

Mother's Day morning, my boyfriend James sang for the expectant mothers in his Unitarian Church. He sang "Something's Coming," and we hardly had to change the words to make it apropos to motherhood: "There's something due any day/ you will know right away/ Soon as it shows… It may come cannonballing down thru your thighs/ gleam in its eye/ bright as a rose."

That afternoon, my mom and I finally got to see Talk Radio (last week the traffic was a nightmare and we missed it). Christine Pedi is my co-host on Sirius radio and in Talk Radio, and she does a slew of the different voices who call Liev Schreiber. Her acting and comic timing were both so great, and it was fun trying to figure out which characters she was voicing. It was also fun to see producer Jordan Roth in the audience taking his mother, producer Daryl Roth and her mother to the show. Three generations of Roths. It was very "Gilmore Girls."

Okay, I have to gear up to read all the Broadway message boards about the Tony nominations and watch the finale of "America's Top Model"! Talk soon! *

(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.)

Julia Murney and Seth Rudetsky at the <i>Chatterbox</i>.
Julia Murney and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox.

Previous 1 | 2