ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Memphis When It Sizzles

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Memphis When It Sizzles A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Montego Glover in Memphis
Montego Glover in Memphis Photo by Joan Marcus

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Let me start my column by saying "Brava" to the cast of Memphis. I saw the Saturday matinee and, first of all, was so impressed by the ensemble's amazing dancing and singing. And I was so happy for the two leads, Chad Kimball and Montego Glover. I first saw Chad in Godspell in 2000 (with a cast of future stars including Leslie Kritzer, Capathia Jenkins, Eliseo Roman, Barrett Foa and Shoshana Bean) and I asked him to sing back-up for the opening number I wrote for the Easter Bonnet competition…and now he's starring on Broadway! And now I'm writing about it. The contrast is a downer. And I first saw Montego in 2001 when she was playing Mabel in a production of The Pirates of Penzance on a boat in the South Street Seaport. I asked her to sing in the ensemble of my Actors Fund concert of Dreamgirls. (P.S. that ensemble was also Godspell-style and had future stars like Adriane Lenox, Orfeh and Sara Ramirez).

Montego "lending" Seth one of her gowns
photo by James Wesley

I got so choked up seeing Montego standing center stage and singing up a storm. And I do mean singing up a storm. She's sings so many songs and they're all crazily high. I was nervous to see it during critics' week because I knew the cast had been rehearsing during the day and performing at night and they were probably vocally tired. I went in with earplugs handy, but turns out they all sounded amazing. I went backstage and asked Montego how she was able to sing so many difficult songs and not sound like Lauren Bacall by the end of the show. She told me that she was lucky because she'd been with Memphis from the beginning (six years ago!) so the songs were written to fit her voice. [AUDIO-LEFT] She said she was able to choose keys and riffs that she knew she could do eight times a week so it's not a problem. Hmm…I hear what she's saying; that she luckily doesn't have to sing something that doesn't fit her voice and instead the songs fit her voice…but the point she's overlooking is that the "voice" the songs are fitting is AMAZING. It's the same thing with In the Heights…the songs were written on Chris Jackson's and Mandy Gonzales' voice so they both told me it's easy for them to sing it. Yet again I say yes, it is easy…if you have a fantastic voice. Where's the confident conceitedness? I want someone to say to me, "It's easy for me to sing it because I'm a phenomenal singer. Next question." See the related photo I took with Montego backstage when she "let" me sample some of her amazing outfits.

Andrea Burns
photo by Peter Flynn

This week began with a trip to the Bronx Zoo with James, Juli, Peter Flynn (who is the artistic director at the Hangar Theatre in Ithaca), Andrea Burns (from In the Heights) and their adorable five-year-old son, Hudson. We all laughed so hard because we were walking by a sign at the zoo that had the word "heights" in it and Andrea said, "Can you imagine if I was one of those needy people that was like Oh my God! Everyone, look! and pointed to anything that referenced what show I was doing." Peter took a photo of her grinning from ear-to-ear and pointing to "heights" and decided we should start a photo series with all of our friends on Broadway. Like a picture of Gavin Creel needily pointing at the word "Hair" in a sign for Hair Cuts, or John Tartaglia pointing to the word "Avenue" on "5th Avenue." Peter named the series "Hey guys!" because that's what Andrea's face is saying in the photo here. Andrea and I make so many inside jokes together that only the most theatre obsessed people will get. I was walking and felt something go in my shoe. I stopped to get it out and she said, "What is it? Is it a pebble? Is it Dare?" Brava! I immediately knew she was referencing the song "By My Side" from Godspell that has the (bizarre) lyrics: "I'll put a pebble in my shoe…I shall call the pebble Dare." She is hi-larious.

On Wednesday, I interviewed Liz Callaway at my "Sirius/XM Live on Broadway" show. I was obsessed with the Baby album in college and asked her about her big end of Act One song, "The Story Goes On." Turns out, when the song was written, it ended on a high soprano G. Liz had done a few backers' auditions with the high note ending, but one day she showed up and was told everyone that she had a cold. She could belt, but she couldn't go into her high head voice. The composer told her that, just for that day, she could end it on a belted C since she couldn't reach the high note. Cut to: she sounded so amazing on the belted C, it became the ending note! Perhaps that's what happened when Mary Martin "belted" the low note the end of "Do Re Mi" and they made that the ending…and gave me a 20-year headache. Here's my deconstruction of that terrible choice.

I loved Baby when I first saw the three lady leads sing on the 1984 Tony Awards. Ironically, that fantastic performance was laced with depression. It was the same year as La Cage Aux Folles and Sunday In the Park With George and, even though Baby was nominated for a lot of awards, the cast knew that the only Tony Award they could possible win would be the one for Best Score. If not, they knew their show was going to close. Liz, Beth Fowler and Catherine Cox were all at the Tonys, standing in back of the stage curtain waiting to sing "I Want It All." But right before they sang, the award for Best Score, and their only hope, was given…to La Cage Aux Folles. As soon as they heard that, they looked at each other and said, "Our show is going to close"…and the curtain went up and they had to sell it. Watch how they performed through internal depression at bluegobo.com.

Liz spent a lot of last year being Barbra Streisand's stand-in for rehearsals. Wherever Barbra's concert was, Liz would go to do the sound check. She loved how Barbra never sang anything the same way twice. At one point, the conductor told Liz to come in at the wrong time during "Don't Rain On My Parade" because he didn't want to orchestra to get used to playing a certain amount of vamps. Liz hesitantly said she would. She then begged the conductor to tell the players that she was told to come in at the wrong time. She didn't want them gossiping about her in the viola section. (Comedy note: She didn't mention the viola section by name, I just thought the story needed some specificity and the word "viola" always gets a laugh, like Cleveland.) Liz would not only have to sing all of the songs in the concert, but she'd also have to say all of the dialogue that was on the telepromters. ("I'm so thrilled to be here. When I first heard the score of Funny Girl… or "You know, Barry Gibb once said to me….")

She said it got to the point where she began to believe that she herself directed and starred in "Yentl." Speaking of films, she was the singing voice of the character Anastasia in the animated film "Anastasia," which has a great Ahrens and Flaherty score. Meg Ryan did the speaking voice but she and Liz didn't do any recording together and, as a matter of fact, never even met until the night of the film's premiere. Liz was so excited and she approached Meg and said, "Hi! I'm Liz Callaway." Meg stared. Liz followed with "I did all of the singing of your character's songs." Meg was blank-faced and finally said, "Really? I've told everyone that I did my own singing." Silence. Meg then entered the stage and started lip-synching "Journey to the Past" while Liz stood in back of the curtain singing into a microphone. Suddenly, the curtain was raised and everyone saw that Liz was the real singing voice. Meg ran off the stage in horror and Liz ran into the arms of a handsome Gene Kelly. Wait. That was "Singin' in the Rain." What really happened was that Meg made her comment and was then karmically punished by starring in the film "My Mom's New Boyfriend." Have you heard of it? Exactly.

Go see Liz's show at the Metropolitan Room, which celebrates the release of her first CD in eight years ("Passage of Time" on the PS Classics label)! Visit www.LizCallaway.com.

This Thursday I fly to California to do a big benefit in Orange County for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. So many great Broadway singers are performing, including Norm Lewis, Megan Hilty, Eden Espinosa, Laura Osnes and Laura Bell Bundy! PLUS I'll be doing an audition Master Class on Sunday at the Costa Mesa Playhouse. For info and tix, go to SethRudetsky.com. Peace out and turn up the heat! 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.

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