ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Mermaid Boggess' Tales; Cruising With Creel

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Mermaid Boggess' Tales; Cruising With Creel A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Sierra Boggess
Sierra Boggess Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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I'm back on dry land. The sixth R Family cruise has ended and I'm in my typical post-vacation depression. Let me cheer myself by describing everything.

First of all, I need to tell you about the Chatterbox I did before I left with the star of The Little Mermaid, Sierra Boggess. Turns out, Sierra grew up in Denver and spent her childhood training as an ice skater! It sounded so fun and I began to regret that I didn't spend my childhood doing it until she told me that she didn't train after school, she trained before…at 5 AM. What the — ? The only reason I'd have gotten up that early as a child would be if Patti LuPone had rung my doorbell. And even then I would have made her wait in the living room while I made my coffee.

Sierra said that she did competitions as an ice skater but never came in first place. I mock-judged her for not winning and she hauled out this hilarious self-hating quote: "Second-place is the first loser." It's so negative, I love it! Sierra moved to New York after college and came very close to getting a Broadway show…Good Vibrations. Suffice it to say, she's not devastated that she wasn't cast. Her first big break was getting the national tour of Les Miz as the "hair hag." I started singing, "Come here, my dear. Let's see this trinket you wear…" and she immediately corrected me by saying, "That's the locket crone." Hmm. Why does the Hair Hag have alliteration and the Locket Crone doesn't? Why not the Locket Lady? Or the Necklace Nag? She then gave me more insight into the Les Miz character track world by telling me that the Hair Hag role is known as the "Snack Track" because it has so little to sing. In "At the End of the Day" she only sings "…and in a bed." Then after her hair hag section she has no other solo til Act Two during "Turning" when she sings "…nothing ever will." She said one time the woman soloing before her forgot to stop and sang the first and second part: "Nothing changes… nothing ever will." Poor Sierra heard "Nothing Changes" and started to sing "Nothing e-" and watched as the last two syllables of the precious five she got to sing in Act Two were sung by another. Of course the rest of the song was spent trying to hold in laughter. She said that "Turning" is the big church laughter song because all the women have just been off-stage chitty-chatting but suddenly they're onstage, looking each other in the eye solemnly and singing a sad song. Sierra said the juxtaposition of worlds was too much and there wasn't one performance where someone didn't have to turn upstage to suppress their laughter.

Besides the Hair Hag/Snack Track, she also got to understudy Cosette and the first time she went on happened to coincide with her parents seeing her in the show for the first time. She didn't tell them she was playing Cosette that night and they found out when they opened their programs and saw "At this performance…" How exciting for them...and how terrifying for her. While doing Les Miz in DC, she took a train to NYC to try out for the Vegas production of Phantom. After her audition she got on the train back to DC with plenty of time, but someone had committed suicide on the tracks so her train was delayed. I said that her consternation reminded me of Tracy in Hairspray apologizing for being late ("Stupid bus crash"). She had never called out of a show before and was freaking, but her friend told her that first time is the hardest and she had to tell the truth. Her stage manager was super nice and, even though she got there incredibly late, she was still able to go on (due to the fact that Les Miz is three hours long…Cosette hadn't even come onstage yet!). She got a call-back for Phantom and thinks of that as her Broadway debut — because it was onstage at the Ambassador Theater. In the audience were Hal Prince, Gillian Lynne and Andrew Lloyd Webber! Her call-back was at 9:30 in the morning and by 11 AM she had gotten the call from her agent that she got Christine!

While on vacation in New York during her Vegas run, she got the audition to play the Little Mermaid. Unfortunately, the night before her audition she got food poisoning and wound up in the hospital! She was determined to get the role and showed up and sang the next day. She didn't hear anything until months later right after a bikram yoga class — the kind where they heat the room to 100 degrees.

I asked her why she would take something like that in Vegas and she said she loves hothouse yoga because it's so difficult that you sometimes feel like you're going to die…but then the class ends and you get the good feeling of knowing you're still alive. I guess it's like when I watched "From Justin to Kelly" and thought I was going to die of boredom, but when it ended, I had the pleasure of knowing I was still alive and would never have to worry about those two starring opposite each other ever again.

Anyhoo, right after class she got a call from her agent saying that they wanted to see her again for Ariel. She had to fly herself and it cost $700! I couldn't believe she had to pay for it herself and told her to submit Disney the receipt (which she still has). The callback was around five hours long and I asked her if it was all about working the Heelys they have to wear to look like they're swimming. Turns out, that part of the audition was only ten minutes at the very end. She had spent hours in Vegas in her garage (which was all cement) spinning around on Heelys that she borrowed from her dresser. Why a grown woman would have Heelys readily available to lend to someone is a question that remains unanswered. Sierra had to wait a full three days, as opposed to the one hour she had to wait for Phantom. She was driving in her car, and her agent called. When Sierra answered, her agent said, "Ariel?" Of course, Sierra began crying and then drove around with the top down, blasting "Yentl." Are we twins?

Sierra was so happy, but the more she thought about it, the more she didn't believe it. It seemed too amazing to be true. She didn't tell anybody (even her parents!) because she thought she'd misheard and finally, after two days, called her agent to make sure that she really had the part. The answer was a definite yes and now she's playing Ariel eight times a week! I asked her what the hardest part was and she said she thinks it's the kind of role she'll look back and think, "Wow, that show was hard." She has to deal with manipulating her tail, being half-naked and working those Heelys. Then when she first thought about the show, she figured, "Ah… I lose my voice at the end of Act One so I can rest it all during the second act." No. Turns out, she's able to sing her thoughts. And in the scenes where she can't sing, she has to get her point across by wildly gesticulating. So, all in all, Ariel ain't the "snack track."

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All right, now the cruise. I finished filming the Legally Blonde reality show for MTV which was super fun. I got so emotional during the finale seeing my girls sing with the orchestra that I totally teared up. Of course I was thinking "I'm so proud of these girls" mixed with "This is great TV, those cameras better be catching this." I've watched enough "Top Model" and/or "Chef" to know what works. Right after the finale, I hightailed it to the airport to catch a plane to Puerto Vallarta to meet the Rosie cruise halfway through their trip. Well, my plane was supposed to make a stop in Dallas but because of tornadoes down there, they cancelled the flight! I was devastated (stupid bus crash) til they got me another flight that flew into Mexico City and would allow me to connect to Puerto Vallarta. It was great being back on an R Family Vacation and seeing so many people I've seen for the past six cruises. The first night Jack Plotnick and I did our show called Mortification Theater, where we re-enact and reclaim devastating moments from our childhoods. I showed my signature: a video of me jazz dancing to the disco version of "I Am What I Am" wearing purple plastic jazz pants, leg warmers and white Capezios (I thought white was better for my line).

Jack told two devastating stories about childhood disappointment using visual aids. When he was five, he desperately wanted a certain bird marionette that had stunningly colored feathers everywhere, piercing eyes and literally looked like a beautiful Disney character. He showed a photo of himself on his birthday with an enormous smile because his parents had just told him that he had a surprise coming…one that he had asked for! Suddenly, out comes his father with a marionette. Jack showed us the picture. It was not the marionette Jack wanted but one that was essentially made of three big Styrofoam balls glued together that had wings attached to it made out of cotton balls. The next shot is of Jack's brother playing with the marionette and Jack looking emotionally shut down. Then, when he was a pre-teen, he begged his parents to get him a Commodore computer for Hanukkah. They soon started hinting that they got him a certain present he had asked for. Hanukkah came and he ran downstairs and suddenly saw a wrapped present that was the shape of a computer! He then showed a picture of the present he got: a computer...shaped pillow. What?!?!?! Then we saw the pictures his parents took of him, sitting and "typing" on the computer with a people-pleasing, co-dependant "everything's great" smile. He said he completely understood why his parents would think they're both comparable presents. He showed four pictures of different activities on a computer: "On a computer I can do schoolwork, work with friends, research and play games." Then he showed four shots of a head on a pillow. "On a computer-shaped pillow I can hit the hay, nap, catch 40 winks, and go night-night. It's the same thing."

The next night was a show called Kids Belters which I first thought would star Danielle Brisebois and Shelley Bruce, but the show was actually the Broadway entertainers of the boat singing songs for kids. Julia Murney sang "Do-Re-Mi" and I was so impressed by how she sounds in head voice. Not that I ever want her to do it again. I'd better not hear any other signature belters discover their hidden head voices. Eden Espinoza, I don't care if you can sing it, stay the hell away from the role of Glinda.

Seth Rudetsky and Gavin Creel
photo by Michael Warwick

That night I played for Gavin Creel who did an act in the piano bar. As usual, his voice sounded glorious. If you have a minute, go to my website and watch me deconstruct his brilliant A flats, A's and vibrato (www.SethRudetsky.com). Hmm…That's actually a great name for an act I would see: A Flats, A's and Vibrato…I'm there! Gavin said he's planning on playing Jesus on Broadway in Godspell and he asked the audience to leave a note backstage if they're seeing the show. I sassily said that it was to remind him not to mark that night. He laughed and said he normally gives 40 percent but if he knew that a friend was in the audience he would give a full 100 percent…of 46 percent. Brava! He sang the audition song he did when he got out of college ("Today is the First Day of the Rest of My Life") and showed us the extra A flat he put at the end because the original version didn't show off his sassy high notes. He also sang a gorgeous version of "Hero and Leander" by Adam Guettel and when he tried to tell the story of the myth, he kept getting glared at by a so-called myth expert in the audience…my mother. I reminded her that taking a Greek Mythology class in '52 does not make her a myth expert…and asked her to stop breaking the fourth wall. Gavin said that one of his favorite composers was Sondheim and he proceeded to sing "What Can You Lose," which is the song from "Dick Tracy" that Madonna sang. It was very interesting to actually hear it sung with vibrato. (Madonna made the bold choice of singing it straight tone and just slightly under pitch…brava, trailblazer!) Gavin also sang Jimmy's big Act One song from Thoroughly Modern Millie and I mentioned to everyone that he was nominated for a Tony for Best Actor in a Musical (at 26!) What a coup! He said that Sutton performed "Forget About the Boy" on the Tonys but he made a delicious $2,000 for singing the end of the title song and lifting each arm once. (Run onstage) "Beat the drums 'cause here comes Thoroughly Mo-dern Mil-lie (one arm lifts = $1,000) No-o-o-o-ow! (Second arm lifts at button of song = another $1,000)."

The next day, I did a Chatterbox interview with Shoshana Bean and Julia Murney, or as I called it, "Dueling Elphabas." Julia said that she first met Wild Party composer Andrew Lippa when she was auditioning for the Stephen Schwartz revue called Snapshots. The director asked her if she could sing "Meadowlark" and she said that she could but didn't have the music. Even though Andrew was the music director and not the audition pianist, he got up and played it for her. He had just started writing Wild Party and put a note down about her on his audition sheet that said, "Queenie?" She got to do all the initial readings of Wild Party as Queenie, but then right before the big workshop of the show, they made her try out for the role. She said she walked in with a huge chip on her shoulder because she was annoyed she had to try out for a role that was pretty much written on her, and — cut to — she didn't get the gig, Marin Mazzie did. Before it came to Off-Broadway they asked Julia to try out again and she said, because the worst had already happened, she didn't have the chip anymore and she got the gig! I then, of course, ran to the piano and made her belt all of "Raise the Roof." She's still got it!

I asked Shoshana and Julia how hard it was going to a theatre conservatory (Shoshana went to CCM and Julia to Syracuse) and they said they all the girls were made to feel neurotic about their weight. At Shoshana's first evaluation they asked her how much weight she felt she needed to lose (!), and Julia said her school would post a "weight list"…which would have the names of students who needed to lose weight. That's great for the self-esteem of an 18-year-old. We talked about Sho having to go on for Idina Menzel on her final weekend because Idina got injured. She said she went on for the last five minutes of the show, but refused to think she'd be going on for Idina's last show. She didn't want to think that was possible. But it happened. People had flown in from around the world to see Idina do it one final time, and instead they got the dreaded "At this performance, the role of Elphaba..." But I'm sure once they heard one of Shoshana signature high notes/crazy flexible riffs they were like, "Bring on the Bean!" Julia said that her last weekend in Wicked was marred by the cherry picker not working. That's the thing that lifts Elphaba in the air so it looks like she's flying. Instead, during the big climax section of "Defying Gravity" she had to unhook herself from it and walk downstage. And to give the illusion that Elphaba is flying above them…the cast lays on the ground. Suffice it to say, I'm sure there was a lot of Les Miz "Turning" church laughter.

The final night of the cruise I hosted an all-'70s show. I started with Jimmy Smagula (from Phantom) who sang "Love Will Keep Us Together" and sounded great…in the original Toni Tennille key! I even put that weird back-up part in at the end… remember? "Bah….bah, dah, dah, dah….Sedaka is back…" Neil Sedaka told me that by the end of the '60s he didn't have any hit songs. Suddenly, the Captain and Tennille did "Love Will Keep us Together" and his income went from something like $50,000 to a $1,000,000! Sedaka was back…and rich! Then my friend Traci Lyn Thomas, who was in the Vegas Mamma Mia! sang "The Winner Takes it All" and I told the audience that I was annoyed she had moved to Colorado and after she sang, I wanted them to tell her whether they felt she should come back to Broadway. After she belted that last amazing C, they were all shouting with her to come back to Broadway. She later informed me of the irony in their shouts since she had never actually been on Broadway. Details, details. Shoshana Bean came out and sang "I Will Survive" which she should have re-titled "I Will Survive (And Interpolate Sassy High Notes in the Process)." Then I introduced James and said that we started dating late in life and I'm always jealous when he talks about his other boyfriends. I said that tonight I would allow him to talk about his first relationship and we'd see how jealous I get from the piano. He started singing. "Oh, What a Night…late December 1963…" when he got to the part about "Oh, I …got a funny feeling when he walked in the room..." Gavin came out in short shorts, high white gym socks and an afro. He was dancing all around James and working it, and finally near the end of the song, I got up from the piano, ripped off Gavin's wig as he scurried offstage…and James and I ended the song in a kiss. Awwww, cute!! You can watch it at http://youtube.com/watch?v=ZmDswJ6q5uU.

Then Julia Murney sang Linda Rondstadt's "You're No Good" into "When Will I be Loved" with full back-up harmony (with choreography by Gavin) and sounded fantastic! She needs to do an all-Linda night…and I don't mean Linda Lavin (theme to "Alice"?).

It wound up being the Gavin show when he came back out and sang the H-E-double hockey sticks out of "Enough is Enough" with the multi-talented Matt Zarley. Matt and I realized that we've known each other for 20 years! I met him when he was first doing Chorus Line on Broadway and I was trying to sub. Then we went on the Chorus Line tour of Germany , or as my mother still calls it, Nazi Germany. Matt and Gavin both sounded so great together and added a full layout to the middle of the song that had Gavin asking me for an aspirin the next day on the plane home. Kevin Chamberlin came up and sang the Barry Manilow classic (that I also sang in ninth-grade chorus) "Daybreak." In the middle of the song, all these kids filed onstage. They had been working on the song all week as part of the cruise's version of "Rosie's Broadway Kids" and they sang along with adorable choreography (no lay-outs.). Kevin sounded great despite the fact that he was hit with a 15-foot wave while body surfing in Puerto Vallarta. Ouch. Finally, Marya Grandy got up and sang "Last Dance" and sounded phenomenal on the signature Donna Summer F. Matt Zarley and Frankie Grande (who was voted Mr. Broadway last year) did a dance break in the middle of the song that had the moves of "Solid Gold," the tackiness level of "The Shields and Yarnell Show" and the hotness of an old '70s Colt video. It's so nice that so many non-gays come on the cruise…and so many non-parents! As a matter of fact, James ran into two couples who came on the last cruise just for fun, and were so inspired, they've now become parents! Brava, R Family Vacations! *

On April 14, Seth Rudetsky will appear in Broadway 101 with Jonathan Groff, Julia Murney and other Broadway celebs. Visit www.ActorsFund.org for tickets.

(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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Shoshana Bean, Seth Rudetsky and Julia Murney.
Shoshana Bean, Seth Rudetsky and Julia Murney. Photo by Michael Warwick