ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Leaving On a Jet Plane — Maybe

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Leaving On a Jet Plane — Maybe Traveling, thy name is headache.
Raul Esparza
Raul Esparza

I must write about my airport experience, but let's first start on Broadway.

On Tuesday I flew back from Houston where I was with James and his Mom and hightailed it to the endodontist. Why? Well, after you lose your wallet (last Thursday) and find out that your partner's mom has cancer, one of the fun things to do is get a root canal. That's right, two hours after my plane landed I was in a chair getting three Novocain shots. FYI: Here's a little tip. My tooth was crazily sensitive to heat, and I knew that heat sensitivity was much worse than being sensitive to cold. But then the heat stopped bothering me. Ah…perhaps I was cured? The endodontist put something crazily hot next to my tooth, and I proudly said, "It doesn't hurt at all… I guess I'm all better!" He then informed me that the reason it didn't hurt is because the nerve that reacts to heat had died! He told me that patients often have sensitive teeth and then they feel better and think they're cured. They relax and then come staggering in, weeks later, with a crazy abscess! So, if you have pain, get thee to the dentist!

After my root canal, Juli and I went to see Hairspray for the fourth time. Seeing Harvey Fierstein play Edna is like seeing Barbra Streisand play Fanny Brice. It's the perfect melding of actor and role. Every line he says/look he gives is perfect. And, it was so fun to see Marissa Jaret Winokur back in her Tony Award-winning role. I hung out with her after the show in her dressing room, and she kept busting herself for being short and old. Example A: I asked her about the beautiful pink coat hanging up. She explained that she was neurotic about getting sick when she was first doing the show and told the producers she was scared she'd get a cold from performing outside on the Macy's Thanksgiving Day Parade. To keep her snug, they made her an amazing pink coat to wear. After the parade, they told her she could keep it. Marissa told Juli to try it on for fun. Juli put it on and it fit…perfectly. Juli is eight years old and not fully grown. Marissa is. Ouch.

Also, Marissa is playing opposite Constantine Rousouli, who is adorable as Link, her love interest. She told me that she asked him what year he was born and when she found out, became emotionally plunged because she realized that while she was playing Jan in the nineties revival of Grease and I was the pianist, Constantine was seven years old. Not cool. Essentially, after hearing that news, she feels like Michael Douglas to his Catherine Zeta-Jones, and I feel like Eubie Blake.

On Wednesday, I interviewed Raul Esparza at my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show. I told the audience that he was starring in the wordy Speed-the-Plow and, as a joke, I asked him, "How'd you memorize all those lines?" He gave me a sassy look and asked me if I really just posed that question… and I then decided I actually was interested in knowing how he memorized all those lines. After I did Torch Song Trilogy at The Gallery Players, people asked me that question all the time, and I always would tell them about the hour-long train ride to Brooklyn (and back) that gave me plenty of time to drill my lines. Raul had no such interesting answer. After appropriately rolling his eyes, he finally informed us that he just said his lines a lot in rehearsal and eventually they were memorized. Boring! Where's the "I say them into a tape recorder and play them back"? Or the "I hired someone to play the other two parts and run lines with me every night"? In the eighties my friend Charlie Schwartz was hired to run lines with Sally Struthers when she was doing the female Odd Couple. And when I was studying piano as a child, there was a whole technique I had to use for memorizing classical pieces. My teacher would make me play the measure while looking at the music, play it on my lap without looking, and then play it again on the piano by heart. How come I have so many interesting memorizing techniques and I'm not even being interviewed? How come all Raul has is "say them a lot 'til they're memorized"? How come I ask a question as a joke and am then outraged when I don't get a serious answer? It's called passive/aggressive. I texted Raul before the interview and asked him if he'd sing. When he got to the show, he had a stack of music from his piano that he had grabbed on his way out of his apartment. I searched through everything and demanded he first sing "Being Alive" (he's still got it!) and then end the show with a song he just did for a Marvin Hamlisch concert: "Soliloquy" from Carousel. He's always so willing to sing anything whenever we do stuff together. There's a great video of him on my Chatterbox show where he kept singing songs from his audition book…ending with "Defying Gravity"! Check it out (especially his ending on my piano bench) at my website (www.SethRudetsky.com).

John Tartaglia

Thursday, I interviewed John Tartaglia, the original Princeton/Rod in Avenue Q. He told us that he's been equally obsessed with Broadway and puppets since he was a kid. When he was six years old, he remembers being in his backyard and mapping out where people would stand for his staging of "Tradition." He then realized that the only people he had to use were himself and his two parents. What about the other citizens of Anatevka? He convinced his mother to drive him around town where he hung up signs giving the date and time of auditions for his production of Fiddler. And by Fiddler, I mean the song, "Tradition." Unfortunately, he was then devastated when no one showed up. I couldn't believe his mom actually went with him to hang up signs, and he said that she's an actress and has always encouraged him. When he was a little older, he saw that PBS was having a pledge drive, and if you donated a certain amount of money, you would get Bert and Ernie stickers. He begged and begged his mother to donate and finally, after much harassment, she made the call. As he stood there, she dialed quickly, said she was donating and gave her name and address. For months John kept asking when the stickers were coming, and she explained to him that it took time. It wasn't until a few years ago, as he was walking down the street, that he realized, "Wait a minute! I don't think there was anybody on the other end of the that phone call!!" Like I said, she always encouraged him. And by "encouraged," I mean "tricked," As a teen, he wrote letters to Jim Henson all the time and finally got to intern at "Sesame Street," which mostly consisted of doing "right hand work." That's what Jen Barnhart does during Avenue Q. As one person holds the puppet and does the voice, another is right next to the main person and controls the right hand. John said it's the hardest thing to do because you're not in control. You have to estimate what the other person is going to do and follow along. And, when it's on TV, you're in back of the set, reaching your hands over and watching everything on a TV screen. So every time you have to use a prop, you have to reverse your perspective because what's on the screen is backwards. Ow, my head hurts.

Right when he was about to begin college, he got hired by "Sesame Street," so he moved into a studio apartment when he was 18 and did puppeteering while pursuing acting. I asked him about his first audition, and this is the story. He read that The Lion King was coming to Broadway and looking for actors and puppeteers. Perfect! But he didn't have a headshot. No problem, he thought, there's a place that does headshots down the block. It's the same store where they also take family portraits and passport photos. He made an appointment (for an hour later), got his haircut and showed up wearing a perfect headshot outfit: a vest and a bow tie. 'Nuff said. He went to the audition site (890 Broadway) and sat in the waiting room with around 20 other people. Twenty other black people. Who were also women. Finally, one of them tapped him and asked, "Sweetheart…do you know that this is a Lion King audition?" "Yes, I do!" he said with a proud grin and looked down at his music. Pause. She tapped him again. "Sweetheart, do you know it's an audition for the role of Rafiki?" Pause. "Yes, I do." He actually had read the date wrong, and hadn't been planning on auditioning for the role of the black female belting baboon, but decided to go through with it anyway. Pause. Tap, tap, tap again. "You're gonna be just fine," she said and walked away.

The casting person came out and read his name with a questioning lilt. Could it be a sassy woman's name à la Michael Learned? No, she saw as he stood up, it's an 18 year-old white Italian boy. John said he walked in, and two people in the room looked horrified and one had a look that said, "Uh-oh…did I schedule this by accident?" John stood center and launched into his 16-bar version of "Can You Feel the Love Tonight?" He got through around 7 measures of his 16 bars before getting an enormous "Thank you!" with a full circle hand. He said the hand that cut him off started off high above the head of the person saying "thank you" and wrapped around in a full 360-degree-circle so as to prevent any possible extra singing. Of course, he thought that they cut him off early because he was so amazing. He walked out with chin held high, waiting for the phone to ring. I asked him if, à la the Bert and Ernie stickers, he was walking down the street years later and suddenly thought, "Wait a minute! That 'thank you' wasn't because I was amazing!" PS, to this day, he's been trying to find out who was in the audition room but no one "remembers" being there. Note to the Jay Binder Casting office: Therapy can help people recall traumas they've blocked out.

I told John that I was so impressed with his performance as Pinocchio in Shrek. He took a role that didn't necessarily have funny line after funny line and found such comedic takes on them. I thought he was hi-larious in the show, and I asked him how he thought of adding a southern twang. Apparently, during rehearsal, all of the fairy tale characters in the show had to stand up and talk about their history and their relationships to the other characters. He decided that the wood that made Pinocchio was from trees in Georgia, and that's why he speaks like a combo of Clay Aiken and Jackee from "227." And, if you need a Xmas present for a puppet/Broadway loving kid, get the DVD of his TV show, "Johnny and The Sprites." The puppets are adorable, and it's so Broadway; music by people like Stephen Schwartz or Bobby Lopez and appearances by Chita Rivera and Sutton Foster!

All right, here's my amazing traveling experience. I had a ticket to fly to Dallas on Friday morning where I was gonna meet James and then teach a musical theatre audition workshop the next day. I knew there was gonna be a storm but was so relieved to wake up and see that there was no snow. My plane was scheduled to leave at 6:45 AM (!) from Newark, but I didn't care about the early hour because it meant I was gonna miss the snow. I got to the airport, looked up at the big board with flight information, and instead of seeing the gate listed next to my flight, I saw the word CANCELED. The plane we were gonna fly out on must have been coming from somewhere that was snowed in. I stood on many lines and finally got a stand-by ticket on an 8:30 AM flight. I waited and couldn't get on the flight. I then went back to the line and the guy ahead of me turned to me and said, "Make it stop, Seth." Huh? Was my passport around my neck and hanging open with my Jewish name for all to see? Turns out, he just got back form playing Mark in the national tour of A Chorus Line and recognized me from "the biz." I still got it! I finally got to the head of the line, and the agent I spoke to told me I could get on a flight…four days later!! What the-?! I had to make that workshop. Finally, a nice agent got me a flight leaving in two hours...to Houston…from LaGuardia! Inconvenient, considering I wanted to go to Dallas and I was in Newark Airport, but he put me in first class and didn't charge me extra so I didn't mind the $90 cab ride. I did mind the cab driver not checking what terminal Continental Airlines was in. He kept insisting it was C. As we drove around, he told me, "C should be for Continental and A should be for American. All the other small airlines should be B." Maybe…but that's not how it is! We sat in the backseat while he meandered around LaGuardia forever trying to find my terminal, and he finally dropped me off at a baggage area. I ran upstairs, went through security and settled into delicious first class. The "fun" part was when the guy next to me got up and spilled water all over my seat, which completely soaked one side of my pants and seeped through to my underwear. There was no way I could dry it all off, so I just accepted I'd have one side of my pants dripping wet. I got up to go to the bathroom, and as I got out, I saw a guy in the front row look at my pants and widen his eyes in shock. It's always fun for someone in the first class section of a plane to look at you and think you've soiled yourself in the bathroom. Mortifying. Regardless, I landed in Houston, got a flight to Dallas and had a great time teaching my workshop. This week, I'm in Houston with James, his sister, Juli and his mom. I head back right after Christmas and, hopefully, we'll finally get a new apartment. Hanukkah just began, so make sure you enjoy plenty of latkes and all the other signature deep fried Jewish foods that have prevented most members of my family from wearing two-piece bathing suits since the mid-seventies. And, don't forget see the Broadway shows that are closing! Next week is my last column for '08!

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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.)

Marissa Jaret Winokur with Seth Rudetsky and Juli.
Marissa Jaret Winokur with Seth Rudetsky and Juli.