ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: On Pitch

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: On Pitch Is it possible to write while one's teeth are chattering? We shall see.
Jack Plotnick
Jack Plotnick

Here's the deal: In September the glass in my bedroom window got a big hole in it because it's so old. The super told me it wouldn't be fixed for a couple of days. Who cares? I thought. It's such beautiful weather out, I don't mind letting in a gentle fall breeze as I drift off to sleep. Well, cut to: It literally just got fixed. That's right, the gentle fall breezes I was drifting off to became bitter night winds that I huddled against, using James and my dog, Maggie, as a buffer. The amazing part is, we got new double-paned windows! The horrible part is that I'm yet again using James and Maggie as a barrier because the whole area around my air conditioner is completely exposed, so it still feels like I'm sleeping in freezer section at Pathmark. I'm hoping this typing will warm me up before I go to sleep and need to once again use Maggie as my live muff.

This week began in sunny L.A. I was there to do my first sitcom pitch to a network, but I also got to see some friends. I stayed with Jack Plotnick, who's been one of my best friends since 1991! I met him because he went to Carnegie Mellon with many of my friends (Michael McElroy, Billy Porter, Natalie Venetia Belcon), and he called me to coach him for his Pageant audition. That was a brilliant show that featured men dressed as women doing a beauty pageant. The contestants were: Miss Texas, Miss Deep South, Miss Great Plains, Miss Bible Belt, Miss West Coast and Miss Industrial Northeast. It was one of the funniest shows I've ever worked on. Each contestant modeled an evening gown, had a talent and had to sell a product made by Glamouresse, the fake company that sponsored the pageant. I'm still obsessed with Miss Bible Belt's spiel. Do you have an enlarged pore? Cleft, pit, or indentation in your skin? (She sassily/accusingly points at someone in the audience.) Ordinary make-up won't cover that up. That's why you need….Glamouresse's "Smooth-as-marble facial spackle". She then demonstrated by taking out a section of dry wall and slathering spackle on it.

Anyhoo, Jack was trying out to be the understudy for all the guys in the show, and he brought me the theme song to the TV show "Alice" to prepare for his audition. Remember? "Early to rise…early to bed...There's a new girl in town…etc." We worked on him giving the essence of each character he was trying out for every eight bars …and he got it! After Pageant closed, we started doing comedy. Our first show was called "An Evening With Joyce DeWitt," named after our first sketch in the show where we re-create Joyce's supposed comeback cabaret. (I wrote about this in one of my older columns…it features Joyce's back-up dancers, and when Joyce doesn't show up, due to a Juicy Fruit commercial call-back, Jack has to go on for her). That mock cabaret sketch was the first thing in the show and after that number, Jack and I introduced ourselves, said it was our comedy show and we went on with sketches. The sad thing is, there were people there who showed up thinking it was Joyce's comeback cabaret…and stormed out when they realized it wasn't. The bizarre thing is, they waited until the show had been going on for a half-hour before they stormed out. Were they storming out because it took them a full 30 minutes to accept that it wasn't Joyce's act (anger, denial, fear, acceptance) or were they storming out because they were devastated she wasn't showing, decided to give our show a chance, and then decided our show sucked? After that performance, we were forced to change the title to "Joyce's Back," which didn't have the same sass. The amazing thing about that show is that it featured an incredibly young Andrea Burns (In the Heights) in a multitude of hilarious cameos. One sketch we did was about the David Drake play The Night Larry Kramer Kissed Me, which played off-Broadway in the early nineties and was a searing auto-biographical play about the experiences David had as a young gay man. Our sketch was about what would happen if the wrong commercial producers got the rights. In the sketch, they fired David and put out a tour starring Adrian Zmed. They felt they had to make it palatable to possible homophobic audiences, so while Adrian Zmed (played by me) was talking about being gay, they added a sexy girl (Andrea) crossing the stage in back of him, bumping and grinding. Then they canned Adrian and brought in Tori Spelling (Jack) for the lead. My favorite moment was how the show got re-written for Tori. In the real play, David stands in front of many unlit candles. He then talks about someone he's known who has died of AIDS and lights a candle for each one of them. In our sketch, Tori stood in front of them and said, This candle is for my friend Melissa who has a really big test tomorrow. Good luck! And this one is for my French teacher, Mademoiselle Chantel. (Pause.) Actually, she's such a bee-yatch. (She blows it out.) Jack and I filmed some of our fave comedy moments while in my hotel room and I just put them up on my site, www.SethRudetsky.com.

Jack and I had a great time and met up with our friend, Kali Rocha, who also went to Carnegie Mellon. Kali and I worked together on Broadway in An Inspector Calls, and then she took over the Katie Finneran role in Noises Off. You probably know her as the annoying stewardess who makes Ben Stiller wait to board the plane in "Meet the Parents," and right now she plays Dr. Sydney Heron, the perpetually peppy doctor, on "Grey's Anatomy." She and I are the kind of friends that constantly repeat stupid jokes we made 15 years ago. Once we were eating at Josie's, which is a sort of health food restaurant on the Upper West Side, and for dessert they had non-dairy ice cream. The brand of the ice cream was "Mattus," and when I asked Kali what flavor she wanted, she shrugged and said, "It doesn't Mattus." That happened in '96, but we literally hauled out that headache-y chestnut last week in L.A. It wasn't funny the first time, and it's not funny now, but we love it.

On the day of the pitch meeting, I went to Kali's house (and hung out with her adorable baby, Barlow), and she drove me to meet Amy, my writing partner. I've never done a pitch before so I have nothing to compare it to, but Amy thinks that it went well. I got the network exec to laugh numerous times, especially when I was describing my arch-nemesis honors English teacher. (She once yelled at me, in front of the class, "They warned me not to put you in this class!" to which I retorted back, blank-faced, "Well, now you've learned your lesson.") After we pitched it, we sent the exec the pilot episode, so I guess we'll know soon whether he loved or hated it. It was a really fun experience to do, so either way, it doesn't Mattus. I flew Virgin Atlantic home, and though I praised the flight out there in last week's column, I must dish the return flight. It was a red-eye, and when we asked for blankets, we were told that they ran out! Pretty much every person on a red eye wants to sleep, so how could they not have enough and run out? It's like going to a Patti LuPone concert and having her run out of belting. I arrived home and dragged myself to my Sirius XM Live on Broadway show. Laura Benanti was my main guest and was hi-larious. She felt she had to describe to the listening audience what it looked like in The Times Square Information Center where we do the interview. We're essentially in this big, cavernous room, and she talked about how on one side there are people lined up buying tickets from the Broadway concierge, on the other side people are checking their Yahoo email. She then held up several pamphlets available in various kiosks (including one for the Circle Line) and pointed out that in the center of the room we have a row of chairs filled with our audience. "But," she said, "instead of all those images, I want the listening audience to imagine me sitting on a beautiful velvet throne. I'm wearing a long, bejeweled gown…and so is Seth." And there it ended.

Thursday I interviewed Olga Merediz, who plays Abuela in In the Heights and sings the H-E-double hockey sticks out of "Paciencia y Fe." She grew up in Cuba and fled the revolution with her parents when she still a child. Her parents told the Cuban government that they were going on vacation to Jamaica, but they were actually going there to hide out. Unfortunately, her parents told Olga what the plan was, so she had the terrifying job of not revealing to anybody that they were escaping Cuba…and she was five years old! How did she do it? I still can't keep a secret, and I ain't five. If that were me, my whole family would still be in the Gulag…or whatever the Spanish word is for that. She finally moved to the U.S., and her first big theatre job was at a dinner theater in Maryland. The horrible thing was, not only were people eating during the show she was performing in, but she was also one of the waitresses! She'd wait on tables, do Act One and then wait on tables again during intermission! After that, she felt that she paid her dues and moved to New York, where she worked at The Public Theater many times. She got the First National Tour of Les Misérables, where she was the hair hag ("What pretty hair…what lovely locks you got there!") and understudied a very young Victoria Clark, who was playing Madame Thenardier. She did the show for two-and-a-half years (on Broadway as well) and after that, she didn't sing for many years. She felt like she was sung out. Don't forget, back then the show was three hours and fifteen minutes, and she said the whole time you were either singing, changing clothes/wigs or putting dirt on your face. She wound up getting a lot of TV gigs including one on "The Cosby Show." She was playing a Hispanic immigrant, so she added a thick accent. During the table read-through, she noticed Bill Cosby whispering after her lines, and afterwards someone came up to her and said that she should cut the accent. I think they thought it was too stereotypical. The reason I'm writing this story is for the bizarre imagery; the person who came up and told her to drop the accent was the guest star for that week…Tony Orlando! I think it's cool that he went to Olga himself and didn't send Dawn to do his bidding.

She started with In the Heights very early on in its inception, but she played the role of Camilla, Nina's mother, now played by Priscilla Lopez. They were auditioning people to play Abuela but couldn't find anybody the right age who could sing it with enough sass. Finally, they let Olga audition, who is way too young, but she aged herself with how she carried her body, and she got the gig…and a Tony nomination! The only problem I can see is that nobody recognizes her when she leaves the stage door because she is so much younger/sassier than she looks onstage. Ironically, on Friday, James and I saw The Language of Trees, which has the opposite of Olga playing Abuela. An adult actor named Gio Perez (who's great, FYI) plays a seven-year-old boy. I haven't seen such an age difference since the Zeta-Jones/Douglas wedding. PS, I also thought that Maggie Burke was great as the busybody neighbor, and she had the added bonus of playing the actual age she is.

After the show, James and I hightailed it to the stage door of The Little Mermaid because I asked Norm Lewis to leave me a copy of his long-awaited CD. We got to the stage door at around 8:45…and it wasn't there! We literally heard Norm talking to someone backstage because the stage door is so near the wings, but the doorman wasn't allowed to let me open it and bust him. I left the theatre and texted him, and two seconds later he texted me back. We returned to the theatre and met up with him wearing his full costume covered by a bathrobe. He looked cra-za-zy, so, natch, I had to take a picture. My question is, how did he respond so quickly to my text. Where does he keep it? Under his beard? I just started listening to the CD and he sounds amazing! I will be doing a full deconstruction on my site in the future. Until then, you must get the CD and obsessively replay "Before the Parade Passes By" and "This Is the Life" like I do (go to CDbaby.com to buy it…if you go to the stage door, it won't be there)

When I was in L.A., I sent a few emails and finally got a babysitter for the following Saturday night because James and I had tix to Road Show. As Saturday approached, I realized that I had forgotten whom I hired. Finally, it was 5 PM on Saturday, and I hadn't heard from anybody. I now have no idea whether I hired someone or dreamed it when I was in a Virgin America fitful sleep without a blanket. I started frantically trying to get someone to watch Juli and finally called Judy Gold, the hilarious comedian. I thought maybe Juli could go over there because she loves Judy, her partner Elisa and their two kids. Essentially, the situation that followed was an example of stereotypes being true: The two gay dads wanted to go see a Sondheim musical, but the two gay moms were unavailable because they were going to a football game. I would write a letter to the Anti-Defamation League if I saw that on a sitcom.

The final big news is that Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS asked me to host the Gypsy of the Year Competition! It's the twentieth anniversary, and I'm psyched!!!! You can get tix at bcefa.org for the Monday afternoon show (Dec. 8 at 4:30 PM) or the Tuesday show (Dec. 9 at 2 PM). Also, don't forget to watch "Rosie Live" this Wednesday at 8 PM on NBC. I'll be backstage having a panic attack, but there'll be lots of great of great variety (and Broadway) onstage! Happy pre-Thanksgiving, everyone. See you after my signature eight-pound weight gain!

* (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.)

Norm Lewis and Seth Rudetsky
Norm Lewis and Seth Rudetsky
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