ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Pancakes With Julia Murney

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Pancakes With Julia Murney A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Julia Murney
Julia Murney

*

Hey, everyone! It's 2009 and I'm feelin' fine. And by "fine," I mean a terrible case of vertigo brought on by blocked Eustachian tubes. I started feeling it Saturday, and took a decongestant, which I thought would relieve it by Sunday morning. No. Then I took two Dramamine to get rid of the dizziness, which did nothing for the dizziness but caused me to take a four-hour nap in the middle of the day. The last time I slept that many hours during an afternoon was when I saw a matinee of Nicholas Nickleby. Settle down, Charles Dickens estate, I never actually saw that show.

OK, on to my first column of the year! Last week, I was rushing to Sirius/XM to do my radio show, when (long story short) I bumped into somebody on the street, damaged their property and gave them some money for it. Now, here's the real story: I was walking down Broadway, near 50th Street when my arm brushed against someone else's arm. He dropped his glasses on the sidewalk and I felt terrible and apologized profusely. Suddenly, he lifted up his glasses and I saw that one of the frames had broken! He now looked at me with an expression not unlike the one Bill Sykes gives Nancy right before he murders her in Act Two of Oliver! I was right on the corner of 49th Street by this point. I thought, "Can I possibly get killed down the block from Spring Awakening? Won't Jonathan Groff save me?" Then I realized that Jonathan had left the cast! Uh-oh. I was on my own. Would the run of that Tony Award-winning hit musical and my life end at the same time? The man I bumped into started muttering that the glasses cost $67 and I quickly said I would give him whatever cash was in my wallet. I handed what I had ($22…we're all struggling on Broadway) and he suddenly turned towards me and gave me a huge hug. "You're a great guy!" he said with a big smile. Then he followed it with, "You see how scared you were of me?" and I thought…hmm…I never said I was scared of him. I suddenly realized that this is an age-old scam that my friend Tim warned me about! It actually happened to Tim in his neighborhood three different times…by the same guy!!!! It's the old "bump into someone on the street, show broken glasses frame and ask for money." Thinking back, I realized that the guy's arm bumped into me, not vice versa. And, P.S., why was he carrying his glasses in his hand and not on his face? And what kind of glasses cost $67? Ones that were bought in '67? Whatever. Maybe he used the $22 to buy a standing room ticket to one of the shows that was about to close so I was inadvertently supporting Broadway.

The next day was New Year's Eve which was spent chez moi. I had some friends come over and play Taboo (not the show) and, of course, watch old Tony Award performances. My friend Anne was there; I've known her since we first went to musical theatre summer camp (Usdan) when I was 14 and she was 13. We then wound up going to the same college (Oberlin) and went into the same profession! And by "same profession," I mean that I pursued theatre and she got a Ph.D. in public health. Regardless of her now lofty academic pedigree, she was an inspiration to me back in the early '80s, when she was the understudy in our camp's production of Babes in Arms. First of all, I think it's hilarious that there were understudies for a production that had three performances. Secondly, she actually went on! It was for a rehearsal because Heidi (the girl playing Susie) missed camp one day and suddenly Anne was thrust into the spotlight. And I do mean spotlight because everyone on the bus home that afternoon talked about how she knew all of her lines, songs and blocking. She was the talk of the 'tweens. I didn't see her go on for that rehearsal because I was not in Babes in Arms. I was in the other show, which was written by the other director. It was called Broadway Rainbow and one day I should do a dramatic reading of that script, if I can lock the theatre doors to prevent the audience from stampeding out. Even at age 14 I knew it was a headache, and because of my lack of boundaries/social skills, I let all the adults on the artistic staff know that I was constantly judging/hating it.

One day, I remarked to the head of the camp that wished I was in Babes in Arms and he glared and said, "If you were in that show, you'd be in the last row of the chorus." What an excellent rapport with children. I guess I learned my lesson: To hate authority figures. Hmph. When will Marvin Hamlisch and Ed Kleban write me my "Nothing"? Paul Castree was also at my place for New Year's Eve and since he's about to do 9 to 5 we asked him to tell us how Dolly Parton really is. Turns out, she's incredibly nice and hung out with the cast all the time. I love hearing stories about big stars being friendly.

I remember when I first subbed for Putting it Together when it starred Julie Andrews and played Off-Broadway. I was subbing the piano part for Joe Thalken and I told Joe that was scared that on my first show I would start playing and Julie Andrews would put her hand over one ear, turn around, and slowly say with a British accent, "Who the hell is playing the piano?" To this day, whenever I run into Joe we always start every conversation with "Who the hell…" What really happened is that I played the whole show and right after the exit music, Julie Andrews' dresser came to where the band was and asked me to come to Julie's dressing room! I went and as I walked in, Julie was sitting and said, "I hope you don't mind that I'm putting on my stockings!" She finished and told me that when she turned around at the end of the show to acknowledge the orchestra (we were onstage), she saw me sitting in Joe's seat and realized that she never met me… so she just wanted to say hello. How nice is that?! I had always heard that she's a very thoughtful and kind woman. Someone told me that Julie had one of those private tours of Disneyland that celebrities can get so they don't spend the whole day signing autographs and, every Christmas since then, she always remembers the woman who led her tour and sends her a present!

A few years after Putting It Together, Joe asked me to sub and be the assistant conductor on Victor/Victoria. I loved it. However, after a few months, I got a steady job on Grease! and stopped subbing other shows. But, one day, Joe called me and asked me if I could fill in because it was an emergency and he couldn't get another sub. I took off from Grease! and hightailed it to the Marquis Theatre. I figured that I had played the show a lot and didn't need to review it. Well, what I had forgotten is that the last few times I had played it, Julie's understudy, Anne Runolfsson was on and she sang all of the songs in a different key! I was struggling a little to remember how to play the score in Julie's keys, but all in all, doing fine. However, I was not prepared for Julie's big 11 o'clock number, "Living in the Shadows." It begins with an enormous piano solo and as I played it, I literally felt like I was sight-reading because Anne's key was so vastly different from Julie's. I hit clam after clam and hoped Julie wouldn't notice. Then I recalled that the staging for the beginning of that number was Julie, by herself, simply taking in the music! Uh-oh. After the show, Joe (who had conducted) went to her dressing room to check in with her, like he did after every show. Afterwards, I asked him if Julie commented on my horrible "Living in the Shadows" piano playing and he said that indeed she had! Apparently, when it came up, she laughed, shook her head and said, "Oh, my! I thought I was living in the shadows." First I was mortified...then I realized I didn't know what she meant! Maybe it's a British thing? Perhaps calling yourself the name of a song is a supreme insult in England? Like, if I had messed up in Act One, she would have said, "I thought I was 'Le Jazz Hot!'" Or if I had messed up during The Sound of Music, she would have said, "I thought I was a Lonely Goatherd."

Julia Murney and Seth Rudetsky
photo by Cortes Alexander

New Year's Day was the continuation of a long held tradition: Pancakes at Julia Murney's apartment. She's been doing this for more than ten years and it's stayed the same over all these years. Show up any time after noon and you'll get pancakes, bacon, juice and coffee, all served by Miss Murney. I ran into Jen Cody later on and she expanded on the story I wrote about last week featuring Sutton going to the open call of Grease! While Sutton was staying with Jen and Hunter, she looked in Backstage and said, "Ooh! There's an open call for Grease!! I'd better go to the corner passport store and get an 8 x 10." She got her photo (!) and announced, "I'm off to the audition. I'll be singing 16 bars of 'Oklahoma!'" Jen said at that point she finally shook her head and said to Hunter, "Sutton has to stop thinking she can get a job by going to an audition with a crazy photo and bizarre audition song. She needs to — " and that's the moment Sutton ran in and screamed, "I got it!"

Kate Shindle
photo by Seth Rudetsky

I also saw Kate Shindle (from Legally Blonde) at the pancake fest and we were laughing about a video of us put up on youtube. It's from an interview I did with her which she ended by singing. The video is crazy because a.) it keeps the first three minutes of us at the piano, slowly deciding what song to do, b.) the person who put it up didn't know how to change the video to "Portrait" so half of it is Kate belting, completely sideways. I posted it on my website (www.SethRudetsky.com) and you can also see a photo in this column for a reenactment. A few weeks ago, Idina Menzel emailed me and asked if I still coached because she needed me. I had no problem coaching her, but I had a problem with her other request: keeping it a secret! She was getting ready to sing "Don't Rain On My Parade" for the Kennedy Center salute to Barbra Streisand and had been sworn to keep it under wraps. It was so frustrating for me not to reveal everything as it unfolded, but I kept my trap shut. She worked hard doing research, listening to so many different versions of Barbra doing it so she could do a proper homage. Finally, we picked what parts would be a tip o' the hat to Barbra (like speaking "It's me and not you!") and what would be her own (right before the bridge she changed the melody to go up to an E on "Who told you you're allowed to rain on my parade!"). Plus, since Idina did my Actors' Fund concert of Funny Girl, she remembered how amazing Lillias White's version was of the song so we added a tip o' the hat to Lillias' version (going up a minor third on the word know"Get what I want, I know how"). Finally, I couldn't keep how amazing Idina sounded a total secret so I had her sing it for James in our apartment (who loved it). Then I called my sister Nancy in Virginia, put the phone on the kitchen table and had Idina sing it for her! Nancy went crazy after the song was over and it actually helped Idina because it made her a little nervous so she could get used to how that felt. I was so proud of Idina when I watched the airing of the show last week. I warned her that the camera was going to cut to Barbra's reaction, which would run the gamut from staring to glaring. I was essentially right, but in reality, how is somebody supposed to look when they're watching a song being sung? I think people wanted Barbra to be smiling the whole time while muttering to James Brolin, "She sounds great!" What do most of us look like when we're listening? Do we have a smile plastered to our face the whole time? Isn't that crazy looking? The only reaction the Kennedy Center should be showing is the one after the number where you can see how happy the person is as they clap…or if they're pretentious, as they snap.

Last week I also saw Dividing the Estate, partly because I'm trying to force myself to see more plays that don't include high belting, and partly to see Penny Fuller, with whom I did A New Brain ten years ago. Of course, I got to my seat at "places" which I always do because I'm perpetually late and James handed me the slip that was inside the Playbill: At this performance, the role usually played by Penny Fuller will be played by Jennifer Harmon. I was devastated! Cut to: I loved the show and Ms. Harmon was great in the part! It's one of those theatre lessons: Don't immediately dread seeing the understudy…even if you're there to see the person playing the part. And the other lesson is for the person who was sitting behind me: Chew with your mouth closed. Thanks.

OK, big news! I just got a phone call saying that we got the three-bedroom apartment on the Upper West Side we applied for last week. Yay! I must start preparing to move ASAP! But any minute, Jackie Hoffman is coming over to rehearse for her hi-larious Hanukkah show I'm playing for tonight at Joe's Pub! Hmm…maybe I can convince her that helping me pack my enormous collection of Playbills in a box is a time-honored warm-up. Anybody? Nobody.

(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.)