ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Life Is a Cabaret

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Life Is a Cabaret Bring on the bread, Passover's over!
Norm Lewis
Norm Lewis Photo by Maryann Lopinto

I had a few non-matzoh slips, but was relatively good. And speaking of good, let's just say that those Starbucks breakfast sandwiches are hard to resist. 'Nuff said.

The week started out at Birdland, where Wayman Wong put together another fantastic "Leading Men" show for BC/EFA. I played the piano for most of the acts and did some deconstructing, demonstrating the difference between straight tone and vibrato using the ending of "Everything's Coming up Roses" with Tyne Daly versus Ethel Merman. Try to figure out who represented what. The men all sounded great, and I must give a special shout-out to Tom Andersen who performed his signature song that he also wrote, "Yard Sale." It has such a simple, beautiful melody and tells about a yard sale that Tom really went to in San Francisco that you realize is being held by a man who knows that he's dying of AIDS. It's so well-written and literally makes me cry as I play it! You must listen — visit http://youtube.com/watch?v=2hLtT5vUVGU.

The whole show ended with my favorite male singer, Norm Lewis, doing a blast from both of our pasts. When he first moved to New York, Norm wanted to do a song that guys don't normally do, so he'd audition with "Before the Parade Passes By," and that's what I heard him do when I was the music director for the Candlewood Playhouse's production of Joseph… back in 1989! Back then he was non-Equity and I had a 30-inch waist. Norm sang a phenomenal arrangement of it that completely brought the house down and it's going to be featured on his new CD. I cannot wait! Even though he's a baritone, he literally hits a B flat in it….which is a full two octaves above Carol Channing's high note. After the show I stayed at Birdland for Jim Caruso and Billy Stritch's "Cast Party." It's basically an open mic show with (as Jim says) "the most talented people in New York…and other people." Brad Oscar and I sang two songs from the reading we had done the week before (The Road to Qatar), and I knew that would be the last of me seeing Brad for a while because he's heading down to D.C. to do The Mystery of Irma Vep.

On Wednesday I saw Young Frankenstein again because my mom hadn't gone yet, and she loved it. After the show, I was gabbing with my friend Paul Castree backstage, and Megan Mullally came out of her dressing room and said, "I thought I heard your voice." I have a recognizable voice? Who's the one with the high-pitched, nasal, fast-talking twang? Oh. Both of us.

Joel Grey

On Sirius radio, I interviewed one of my childhood obsessions, Joel Grey. He told me that he grew up in Cleveland, and his father was a famous Yiddish comedian named Mickey Katz. Joel said that all of the New York Jews who moved out to Los Angeles didn't have any entertainment, so his dad moved his family to California and created the show "Borscht-capades," which was obviously later bought by WASPS and re-titled "Ice Capades." Get it? Mary Tyler Moore's icy performance in "Ordinary People"? "The Ice Storm"? Anybody? Joel said he was very inspired by Mickey Rooney and Judy Garland…especially the Andy Hardy movies. Eddie Cantor saw Joel singing and dancing in his father's show, and when Joel was 18, put him on TV. I watched it on Youtube and Eddie says, "This kid might be the Danny Kaye of tomorrow." Joel said it's embarrassing, but I loved it! Watch Joel talk to Eddie Cantor…he's obviously so nervous and keeps his eyes totally downcast throughout the whole interview. But then he tears up during his number and does some sassy high kicks and crazy turns (http://youtube.com/watch?v=b4fV-5JHcmQ).

Right after that he did nightclubs (the Copa in N.Y.) and the London Palladium. In London he performed with Johnnie Ray (who sang the big hit, "Cry"), and Joel said that he had to perform after Johnnie and kick away the panties that lined the stage — panties that had been thrown by girls in the audience. My question is; when girls do that, are those panties that the girls were actually wearing? What do they hope to get from throwing them? Do they stitch their phone number inside? And, do they take them off during the show? Isn't that awkward? Do they bring along a dresser to help them? Joel said that he couldn't get a job after his nightclub career because producers looked down on nightclub performers. He remembers auditioning (and being rejected from) the Broadway productions of West Side Story, Irma La Douce and The Sound of Music. He wanted the role of Rolf, who sings "Sixteen Going on Seventeen," and later becomes a Nazi. Hmm…perhaps the fact that his father was a famous Yiddish comedian prevented him from playing an effective Nazi. Speaking of Jews inappropriately trying out for The Sound of Music, Barbra Streisand also tried out for that show and got a big, fat rejection. And, years later, I auditioned to be one of the Von Trapp kids at the Equity Library Theatre and got ixnayed faster than you can say Sh'ma Yisroel. Is there no place for a Jewish person on Broadway? Besides every single show but The Sound of Music?

Joel said that he brought along an audition pianist for Irma La Douce…John Kander! He didn't say that's why he didn't get the gig…but perhaps somebody should stick to composing classic musicals. Joel kept getting feedback that he looked too young for the roles he was trying out for, so when he went in for Stop the World — I Want to Get Off, he showed up in the kind of make-up Anthony Newly wore in the show, and he felt it made him look ageless. The embarrassing part was that he got into the make-up across the street and had to walk to the audition in full clown-face. Oddly, in a recent column I wrote about Priscilla Lopez, who was nervous that she looked too young for the role of Fastrada in Pippin and showed up in full old-age make-up and wig. She said she didn't mind the walking to the theatre as much as she did sitting with her contemporaries in the waiting room looking like a crazy, needy actress. PS, it paid off for both of them. She got Fastrada, and he got the lead on tour and then replaced Anthony Newley on Broadway! He then replaced Anthony in The Roar of The Greaspaint — The Smell of the Crowd. PS, what's with the long-winded titles? In my day, we did shows like Carrie and Rags. We were also out of work by Sunday.

Joel did a horrible show at the Jones Beach Theater called Mardi Gras, which ran seven days a week (!), and he hated it so much that he was on the verge of quitting the business. Suddenly, Hal Prince (who had seen him in Stop the World… or as people annoyingly now call shows on message boards, STWIWTGO) called Joel and said that he was doing a musical based on the novel "I Am a Camera," and there was a part that was being created that was right for him. It was the first role he got without an audition! I guess if he did have to audition, he would have asked John Kander to play, which would have been weird since John wrote it. But at least he would have known what the composer thought of his audition.

When Joel started working on the Emcee, he knew it was what he had waited his whole career for and had essentially given up the hope of ever getting. The Jones Beach show was his lowest career point but was then followed by what he had always wanted…so those of you struggling right now, doing some headache-y show, or doing no show, hold on!

When he first got cast, his role only had the four songs written ("Willkommen," "Two Ladies," "The Money Song" and "If You Could See Her") and no real character. There was someone whom Hal saw during the war that Hal wanted to base the character on, but since there was no dialogue or scenes for the Emcee, it was really up to Joel to create something to connect all those songs. He did it by writing a complete history of the Emcee, so he knew everything about him when he was onstage, and that way the character could live within the show when he was offstage. The look came from what Hal had seen, and Joel added to it. Joel decided that the Emcee would always want to look young, so he chose a base color that reads as white, but was actually called "Juvenile Pink." There were no readings or workshops like there are today. They just rehearsed and then took it out of town. Joel said that people were extremely negative when they heard about Cabaret, judging a "musical about Nazis." That makes me happy to hear because I'm constantly reading things on message boards saying, "Audiences aren't interested in (fill in the blank)." Let me say that no one knows what audiences are interested in!! You can have the best subject matter in the world and do a bad show, or the most bizarre theme and do a brilliant show, so let's put the kibosh on pre-judging what shows will be a hit because no one knows!

We started talking about the song "If You Could See Her," where the emcee is singing a comedy song with a gorilla. He sings of his love for her and about how everyone judges their relationship…and right at the end he sings, "If you could see her through my eyes…she wouldn't look Jewish at all." It's a brilliant theatrical device because the audience is like the audience in Berlin, laughing along with the song, but at the end, you realize how anti-Semitic Germany was becoming, and it's devastating. Audiences would gasp in shock because it's almost as though they were complicit in the Anti-Semitism by laughing throughout the song. Unfortunately, B'nai B'rith didn't understand the point of it and made Hal Prince change the ending to "she isn't a meeskite at all," which completely takes away the impact of realizing how the Germans were dehumanizing Jews and therefore were able to follow through with the Holocaust. Joel had to change it on Broadway…and the film didn't want the original ending either! Joel insisted that they shoot two versions, and thankfully the real version got in the film. Speaking of the film, he almost wasn't cast. First considered was Anthony Newley (whom he had replaced on Broadway in the early sixties) and….Ruth Gordon!Joel didn't have any details except to say that she was up for it, and my head reeled. Would it have been done Drag King style? Linda Hunt style? Victor/Victoria style? If so, which Victoria? Julia Andrews, Liza Minnelli or Raquel Welch? The National tour version with Toni Tennille? And what about the Captain? How would he have figured in? Would she have sung "Muskrat Love"? Okay, I'm out.

Not only was Joel one of the few people who originated a role on Broadway and got to play it in the film version, but he was nominated for an Oscar. He was up for an Oscar opposite Al Pacino for "The Godfather"…and Joel won!!!! Brava on the Tony and the Oscar. On Thursday night I had to walk my dog late and didn't feel like getting dressed again, so I just went outside in my pajama bottoms. "Who am I going to run into?" I asked myself. Answer: Jonathan Groff. He said he was on his way to Lea Michele's apartment to watch a movie and invited me over to say hi, so two Spring Awakening stars saw me in my underwear, which is nothing compared to what I saw of them onstage.

This week should be fun because it's the always-entertaining "Easter Bonnet Competition" on Monday and Tuesday, and I'll also be spending the week in New Jersey. That's not the fun part — I'm excited because I'm going to be recording my book, "Broadway Nights," for Audible.com. This week I'll be recording all my stuff as the narrator and then I'm going to bring in my co-stars. For now, farewell to Passover and let me say next year in Jerusalem…if there's a Starbucks within walking distance.

*

(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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