ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Last Stop on the Q

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Last Stop on the Q
 
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Danielle K. Thomas, Jennifer Barnhart, Anika Larsen and Ann Harada with Seth Rudetsky (center)
Danielle K. Thomas, Jennifer Barnhart, Anika Larsen and Ann Harada with Seth Rudetsky (center)

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How can summer end when it feels like it began two weeks ago!?! October is in a month? That's cra-za-zy.

The good news is I'm spending my end of summer vacation by traveling to beautiful Provincetown this week to do my show. I'm performing Deconstructing Broadway at the Provincetown Theater on Thursday, Friday, Sunday and Labor Day (ps, get tickets at www.SethRudetsky.com), but I have all the days free to shop and act out with food. Speaking of acting out with food, after Broadway 101 last week, Andy Karl texted me, "Wanna eat at Les Halles?" The show had been exhausting, and I figured I could get a quick bite with him even though I had never been to that restaurant. I texted back, "Where is it?" and then he replied, "Sorry, I thought I was texting Orfeh." . Ouch. I felt like I had run the full Carriegamut within seconds: Being asked to the prom and getting the pigs blood on the head.

This week, I interviewed the final cast of Avenue Q. If you don't know the story of how the show was created, here 'tis. Jeff Marx and Bobby Lopez met at the BMI workshop and did a presentation of Avenue Q, which they planned to do as a TV show. They thought of it as "Sesame Street" for adults. On television the puppeteers are in back of a big set, so the audience can't see them, but Jeff and Bobby couldn't construct one just for a reading, so the actors held/worked their puppets as they read lines and did songs. Turns out, the idea of getting a set was ixnayed because the feedback Jeff and Bobby got was that the audience was fascinated watching the actors with their puppets. The show was then developed for theatre instead of TV, and it started running Off-Broadway at the Vineyard and then moved to Broadway and won the Tony for Best Musical. Ann Harada was with the show for the very first reading, and she said her main purpose was to appear in the middle of the song "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" and yell to her husband, "Brian, you take out recyclables" with a thick Asian accent…aka, "Blian, you take out le-cyc-ra-bers." Ann said that because of that one joke, the character was stuck having that accent for the rest of the show. At first, the accent was the main joke being written. She'd come out and say to sad Rod, "Hey, Lod… Feering row?" Ann told Jeff Whitty that she couldn't just get laughs based on that old chestnut…she had to have a character. I then explained to the audience that she got a main character trait: bitchery. Ann somberly said, "I don't see her as a b*tch." She paused and hauled out the ol', "I see her as a extremely flawed individual who-" and I cut her off. Ann told us she went to Brown University and knew she wanted to do something with theatre but thought it could never be acting because she felt wasn't as good as her classmates. Looking back, one can see why she was intimidated because her "classmates" were Tim Blake Nelson and Laura Linney! She started out by working for a producer but finally auditioned for a play at Manhattan Theatre Club and got it! Suddenly, she had her Equity card but told us that she couldn't get work because "she wasn't talented enough." That sounded crazy to me, but she meant she didn't have all the skills other people had. She couldn't dance, she couldn't sight read, and she said she went from being non-Equity to "Suddenly I'm at a Chess chorus call thinking, 'This is a disaster.' She knew she'd have to wait 'til she was older to get the kind of roles she was right for, aka the sassy sidekick.

Jen Barnhart plays Mrs. Thistletwat and one of the Bad Ideas Bears. She also does the right hand of the two-hand puppets. She told me she's been with the show since it began at the Vineyard, and at this point she's been "right-handing" for six years. I, of course, hauled out the "Right-handing? Doesn't that make you go blind" as a tip o' the hat to my Catholic upbringing and then realized I grew up Jewish. Danielle K. Thomas plays Gary Coleman in the show, and even thought it's her first Broadway show, she did a big feature film when she was a kid. In 1994 Spike Lee was auditioning kids in Brooklyn for his film "Crooklyn," and she got it! There was one moment where Spike is playing a bad guy and is supposed to harass her; during one take he got too close to her and "because she used to have problems with people coming in her personal space," she slapped him in the face! Yowtch! Instead of getting busted, he loved it and kept it in the film. Hmmm…at least she claimed that he loved it. I noticed she hasn't done a Spike Lee film since 1994.

Anika Larsen did the tour as Kate Monster and just joined the Broadway company. She talked about how much she loved her dressing roommates. Even though Avenue Q is in a Broadway theatre, it's a small one with not that many dressing rooms, and the producers felt that since it's basically an ensemble show, it wasn't fair if one person got a nicer dressing room than the others. So, the really nice dressing room on the first floor is for stage management, the music director has another one and allthe girls in the show are in one room and all the boys in the other. And, as Jen pointed out, the copy machine has its own dressing room. What the-? Does it have it's own dresser, too?

The woman who was scheduled to play Ann Harada's part in the London Avenue Q got a TV show and had to drop out right before the show opened, so the producers asked Ann to come and play the role in London. She explained to the producers that she had a husband and a child and her parents lived with her. They said it was fine and paid for them all to come! I asked Ann to tell the audience what she calls her parents and she said, "My staff." Brava. Ann told us that the British cast were all young kids right out of theatre school. She said they were all around 23 years old, and when she walked into rehearsal they all gushed with British accents, "Oh, Miss Harada. We so enjoy you on the original cast album!" She said they essentially treated her like Elaine Stritch. Ann and Jen were telling us tidbits about the early days of the show and turns out, the character of "Brian" was named that because during the initial readings because he was played by a fellow BMI writer named Brian. He wound up not getting the role Off-Broadway because he didn't sing well enough which was probably upsetting, but I'm sure his Tony Award for writing the lyrics to Next to Normal was a nice consolation prize. That's right, Brian was originally Brian Yorkey! The other interesting casting choice is that the character of Gary Coleman was originally played not only by a woman, but by a white woman! Amanda Green was also a fellow BMI writer, and she did all the early readings but was finally replaced because the creators thought it was too many steps removed from Gary Coleman to make sense to the audience. However, apparently having a black woman play it is sometimes too close to the real Gary Coleman. When Anika and Danielle were on tour, the swings from the show would sit in the audience and when Danielle would come out, they'd hear people say, "Is it him? Yes! Yes, it is. It's Gary Coleman!" And, often Danielle would get entrance applause! I haven't seen that much gender confusion since my ex-boyfriend Aaron was at the gym a few years ago. He decided to be nice to the guy walking right behind him, so Aaron held open the door to the men's locker room and politely motioned him in saying, "After you"… and it was a woman.

When Avenue Q came to London, Cameron Mackintosh felt the Brits would be really confused if Gary Coleman wasn't played by a guy. He was also nervous that no one would know who Gary Coleman was, so they made the character a former child actor name "Job"…as in the guy who a lot of bad things happen to. Then, after a while, they made him a former child actor who just happened to have the first name of "Gary." Finally, they tried calling him Gary Coleman and turns out the audience knew who it was. Phew. A lot of unnecessary energy was spent changing something that didn't need changing. It's like when they added the character of "Punjab" to the "Annie" movie. Who needed him? Or when they replaced "Hello, Twelve Hello, Thirteen" with the song "Surprise" in the "Chorus Line" film. Why? The "surprise" was I was devastated.

OK, I did two performances of Seth's Broadway 101 last night and they were so fun. I got my first review (in AM NY) and didn't want to read it, good or bad, but of course my friend Jack Plotnick emailed me that it was fantastic, and I had to use all of these pull quotes: "Rudetsky has really hit his creative stride with Seth's Broadway 101…an irresistible piece of theater. Here's hoping that the intimate show...eventually receives the extended run it deserves." I guess my version of "not reading it" is called "having someone else read it and send me all the amazing comments." Peace out and happy September!

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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" 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 Rudetsky with Danielle K. Thomas, Jennifer Barnhart, Anika Larsen and Ann Harada
Seth Rudetsky with Danielle K. Thomas, Jennifer Barnhart, Anika Larsen and Ann Harada
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