ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Judy, Judy, Judy . . . and Julia

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Judy, Judy, Judy . . . and Julia A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Judy Kuhn and Seth Rudetsky
Judy Kuhn and Seth Rudetsky Photo by Christie Ford

Happy New Year! I'm writing this from rehearsal for Lend Me a Tenor.

That's right, my role is big enough to give me ample time offstage to write a column…and by "big" I mean "small." I actually love my role. I play the bellhop, and I come on every once in a while and annoy everybody. I'm sort of the Gladys Kravitz of the show. The theatre is the newly built John W. Engeman Theater in Northport, but thankfully we're rehearsing in New York.

When I graduated from high school, I thought I was done with Long Island, but it keeps calling to me. And, I mean literally calling. Last week, I wrote about how my mother has given me a terrible complex about my driving, and that's why I haven't driven in years. She called me on the night the column came out (New Year's Eve), and I assumed that by seeing in print how her lack of confidence in my driving has debilitated me for years, she would be apologizing. This was the conversation:

MOTHER: Hi. I saw your column about how you've been scared to drive for all these years…
ME: (Preparing to magnanimously accept her apology) Yes…
MOTHER: Let me just say…YOU ARE A MENACE TO OTHER DRIVERS! That was what I was trying to say!

Why is that any better!?!?! Suffice it to say, I'm looking forward to the next conversation after this column. MOTHER: Hi. I've taken the liberty of having your driver's license revoked. The DMV authorities will be right over…

Speaking of New Year's Eve, I spent it at my apartment with my boyfriend James and my friends Tim Cross (from college), Stephen Spadarro (who is one of the company managers of Chicago) and Paul Castree (Young Frankenstein). We planned on having a game night, but wound up watching tons of videos first. We watched two of my favorites: "We'll Raise a Glass Together" from Grand Hotel (mentioned in last week's column) and Karen Morrow's "I Had A Ball" from "The Ed Sullivan Show" (I think both are available on Bluegobo.com). I just heard that Karen Morrow is performing here in NY at the 92nd Street Y with Ted Sperling at the piano, but I have rehearsal all that day. Foiled. I've got to see her live one day! I can't get enough of that Ed Sullivan clip.

Right before midnight, my friends asked me to put on the television for the countdown, and my TV was on some station that was showing "When Harry Met Sally." It was the scene where Meg Ryan fakes the orgasm, and I insisted upon seeing Rob Reiner's mother say, "I'll have what she's having," which unfortunately happened at midnight and 30 seconds. In other words, we missed the countdown so I could watch a laugh line from a 21-old movie I've seen 1,000 times. I guess it was worth ruining my party.

New Year's Day, James, his daughter (Juli) and I went to Julia Murney's parents' apartment to have pancakes. It sounds random, but it's been a Murney tradition for almost 20 years. Julia invites tons of her friends, who invite all of their friends, and the apartment winds up looking like the Equity Lounge. Julia wears an apron and asks how many pancakes you want and then ladles 'em out…with a big plate of bacon that the non-vegetarians were wolfing down (not me). I hung out with married couple Barbara Walsh and Jack Cummings (who runs The Transport Group). Barbara always looks amazing, and I asked her the signature "What have you been up to?" question, and she told me she just filmed a great commercial. I asked her if her type was "young Mom." She then informed me it was featuring a medicine for menopause. And, that's why I'm not a casting director. It sounds like a hilarious commercial… she gets a hot flash and throws herself into an ice machine.

Then I chatted with Nancy Anderson, who told me that she was helping Celeste Holm clean her closets. First of all, that last sentence gets an "only in New York" tag. Secondly, if you don't know, Celeste Holm was Bette Davis' best friend in the film "All About Eve" and the original Ado Annie (not the version with Hugh Jackman or the one from the 70's). I'm talking the one FDR saw. Nancy told me that there was one bag filled with clothing swatches, and she decided to look all the way to the bottom of the bag. It was filled with Celeste's diaries from the late 1920's! They had writing in those days!? And, apparently, Celeste remembers every person mentioned in those pages. I'm dying to know if there's any theatre gossip like: "Went to an open call for a new show called Porgy and Bess. Got typed out."

This week I interviewed Judy Kuhn at my Chatterbox. Her first big Broadway audition was for The Mystery of Edwin Drood. She said the final callback was for all the creative staff: producer Joe Papp, composer Rupert Holmes, director Wilford Leach, Graciela Daniele (choreographer) and her assistant, Rob Marshall. She was asked to sing a song that ends with the character of Edwin Drood angrily leaving the theatre. The director told her to sing it and then storm out like it would happen in the show. Judy started singing and told me that she spent the whole time thinking, "Did he mean for me to literally storm out of the room?" Finally, she thought that she should go for it full out, so she hit the last note, glared at the creative staff, grabbed her stuff, stormed out of the room and slammed the door. She then realized that the lobby was filled with other actors waiting for their callback. She tried to explain that she wasn't really angry and then started to wonder what she should do next. Was that the end of her audition? Should she open the door and go back in? Hmm… She waited for an awkward period of time. Then Robbie Marshall stuck his head out of the door and thanked her. Uh-oh. Turns out, she got it! Phew. That gig demonstrates her brilliant voice. She was able to understudy the high soprano part of Rosabud and the Betty Buckley belt of Edwin Drood! Unbelievable.

On the third preview, she got a call at three o'clock in the afternoon telling her that she was on for Rosabud. They quickly rehearsed her, and she got through the whole show. At the very end, all the characters hold signs with numbers on them, and the audience votes for who they think the murderer was. Whoever is chosen as the murderer has a special song they have to sing that explains why and how they did it. After the voting, Judy headed offstage to do a quick costume change, run onstage to watch Cleo Lane sing a song and then watch the murderer sing his or her song. As she exited, the stage manager pointed at her and said, "It's you." She laughed. She had spent the afternoon reviewing the role of Rosabud…not the extra song she'd only have to sing if she was voted murderer. He pointed again, "It's you!" Before she could scream, "I don't know the lyrics!," she was being put into her last costume and was suddenly onstage. All through Cleo Lane's song, she was trying frantically to remember the lyrics. And, the song she had to sing ended on a crazy coloratura note. I asked her how it went, and she said she has no memory of the performance. That's what the brain does after trauma: It never happened.

She left Drood because she got cast as Bella in Rags starring Teresa Stratas. She said Teresa was an unbelievably great artist. One day they were rehearsing her song "Blame it on the Summer Night," and Teresa was resting her voice. Judy said that even though Teresa performed the song in barely a whisper, the whole cast was riveted. That's how emotionally connected she was to the material. Rags had lots of problems…one of which was the director was fired a few weeks before the show opened on Broadway…and was never replaced! Unfortunately, it opened on a Thursday and closed three days later. The cast decided to have a march from TKTS to the theatre to protest the closing of the show. Judy muttered, "…We were so naïve." I asked her what she thought the march would achieve. She laughed and said she probably assumed "millions would join us!" I said that I would have joined (if I hadn't been in college) because the score to Rags is fan-effing-tastic. As a matter of fact, it was nominated for Best Score and Best Musical Tony Awards! And, thus begins another amazing story. Judy got the role of Cosette in the original Les Miz right after Rags closed…and she got nominated for a Tony Award. She was going to sing "One Day More" with the Les Miz cast on the Tonys, and Teresa Stratas was going to sing from Rags. Well, right before the telecast, Teresa dropped out, and they asked Judy to sing the title song. That would mean that she'd sing as Bella in the Rags number and Cosette in the Les Miz one! The title song from Rags is a brilliant number, but much longer than the time it was allotted for the Tony Awards. They kept trying different cuts in the song to make it fit and still be effective. Finally, they came up with the final version, and Judy learned it with the new funky cuts. She was thankful that her category was first because she wanted that stress over with. Frances Ruffelle, who played Eponine, won and Judy now only had to worry about her two numbers. The people who ran the show told her that a PA would come get her and bring her backstage with plenty of time and not to worry. The first commercial break came, and no one got her. Second one, still no one. She said it was so stressful because she had no idea where she went in the line up. Finally, even though she had been told to wait in the audience, she decided to go backstage. As soon as she got there they screamed, "Where were you? You're on next!" They threw her wig and costume on and pushed her onstage to sing. She started the song, hoping to remember all the new cuts. As she was singing, she heard the orchestra go into the wrong section. She then thought, "Wait a minute. The orchestra is on tape...it's me!"

She had started to sing the bridge instead of the tag of the verse. Dick Latessa, who was playing her father, was a pro and went right along with her. Finally, the bridge started and she repeated what she just sang. The funny part is, I've had a video of that number forever and didn't notice she had made a mistake until years later. She was so committed and so was Dick Latessa! She finished the number, and let me say that the last three notes of the song are so unbelievably thrilling that I've worn out my original tape from rewinding it so much. You can see her brilliant performance at the fabulous bluegobo.com. Judy said that she went offstage and started asking people in panic, "Did you hear what I did? Was it noticeable?" Then, suddenly, her wig and costume were being taken off, she was put into a totally new look and was back onstage in 19th-century France! And, of course, stress or not, she sounded amazing!

We also talked about the brilliant triptych of stars in Chess. It was her, David Carroll and Philip Casnoff. They all sound so great on the CD, it's crazy! She thinks the show failed because it was all about the mistrust between The East and The West and, right before it opened, The Cold War ended. Hmph. Another thing I can blame Ronald Reagan for! Judy thinks the show would work better today because there's an us vs. them type feeling going on now in the U.S. I also think it could work because the score is fabulous! I did a concert version for the Actors Fund a few years ago with Josh Groban, Adam Pascal, Julia Murney and Sutton Foster, and let me say that trying to figure out how to conduct the meter changes at the beginning of "One Night in Bangkok" required a slide ruler and AP calculus.

Judy just closed in Les Miz, playing Fantine, who is Cosette's mother. I asked her if she had any "Chinatown" Faye Dunaway-esque "She's my mother, she's my sister" moments while performing, and she said that only came up in the last scene when she'd be singing as Fantine and she'd see Cosette by the bed. Farewell to Les Miz, but hello to her brand-new CD that just came out and features the music of 60's sasstress Laura Nyro (who also wrote one of my favorite Barbra tunes, "Stoney End"). Judy's doing her own show all this month at Iridium.

This week I also went to go see The Little Mermaid, but I'll write about it after it opens. I don't want to trump Ben Brantley.

I'm also addicted to "Crowned: The Mother of All Beauty Pageants," and I was forced to do a whole video blog about it at my website sethrudetsky.com. It's a mother/daughter beauty pageant, and I dare you to watch just one episode and not immediately TIVO the whole season. All right, people. By the end of this week I'll be in tech for Lend Me a Tenor, and we open on the 19th! What happened to the delicious days of six weeks of rehearsal, three months out of town and then two months of previews. Do the words LORT mean anything to you? Have a great week and don't forget to go to bluegobo.com!

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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." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com. His first novel is titled "Broadway Nights.")

Judy Kuhn and Seth Rudetsky at the <i>Chatterbox</i>.
Judy Kuhn and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox. Photo by Christie Ford
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