ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Putting on The Ritz

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Putting on The Ritz Okay, I've been holding out on you. I sort of got big news a while ago, but I kept waiting for complete confirmation before writing about it. And by complete confirmation, I mean a signed contract.
The cast of the National Asian American Theatre Company's production of Falsettoland.
The cast of the National Asian American Theatre Company's production of Falsettoland.

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about doing a one-day reading of The Ritz at The Roundabout? Well, a little while after that, Joe Mantello called me and said that the The Ritz was going to happen in the fall, and he wanted me to be in it! I was thrilled because it will be my Broadway debut (above the pit)! In the reading I had such pivotal roles as Patron and Snooty Patron. When Joe called, I had no idea which of the myriad of one-line roles I was being offered. Well, I was thrilled when I got my contract and it not only read "as cast" (meaning whatever little roles come up in rehearsal), but it also had me down as Snooty Patron! I was so excited to see the word "snooty" before patron. That's one step above just plain Patron!

So, this week I was meeting with Joe outside his rehearsal for 9 to 5, and the talented/cute Marc Kudisch walked by. He asked what I was up to, and I told him that Joe just cast me in The Ritz. I downplayed it and said I essentially had very few lines and I was playing tiny roles like Snooty Patron . . . even though I was secretly proud of snagging that part. Joe piped up and said apologetically, "Actually, I think someone else is playing Snooty Patron." Ow. My role just lost an adjective. I looked devastated but then told Joe I'm happy with any part since this is my Broadway debut. He stopped looking guilty and said, "Exactly! What are you complaining about, Meryl!" He got me.

Anyhoo, during the reading we did, I coveted the role that Brooks Ashmanskas is playing (the F. Murray Abraham part) and asked my agent if I could be the understudy, assuming the powers that be would say a quick and decisive yes. Instead, they said a quick and decisive, "You'll have to audition." So, last week I went in and read for Joe, big-time casting director Jim Carnahan and the playwright himself, Terrence McNally! It was a triptych of honchos. I like auditioning, but don't you hate the moment right after you finish your audition? After I read, I have to use so much control to not obsessively repeat, "Did I get it? Did I? Did I?" I can't stand pretending I'm comfortable walking out of the room not knowing how I did. Note to all casting directors: My jaunty exit punctuated with a convivial "Great seeing you! Have an excellent day" is a total farce. Inside I'm desperate for any and all information. The good news is, once I know whether I got it or not, I'm pretty much fine. My friend Paul Castree has a rule that you're allowed to be devastated for 24 hours if you don't book something, but after that you have to move on. So, I don't lament lost roles, it's the waiting that's brutal for me! Thankfully, I only had to wait one day for my agent to call and say I'm understudying Brooks! I'm so crazily excited!

Here's what else happened this week. I interviewed the great Debra Monk at the Chatterbox, currently starring in Curtains. Firstly, she talked about how green she was doing her first play in college. She got cast on a whim and knew nothing about theatre. She showed up, and the director said he wanted to start with the opening scene. He told her to say the first line at the window, start making toast after the phone rang and finish her tea on the last line. She did the scene that way, and the next day when she showed up, he said he wanted to run it. Well, this time she started the first line at the door, finished her tea right away and never made toast. He asked why she wasn't doing what they decided the day before, and she was completely confused. She had no idea she was supposed to do the same thing every time! She did the show and loved it and then discovered that people make a living acting. It was so foreign to the way she grew up because she said that her family was blue collar, and everyone hated their job — she had no idea you could earn a living doing what you loved. When she finally moved to New York, she couldn't get work or an agent, so she and her friends wrote an act about a rockabilly band and decided to run it once a week at the Westside Arts Theater. It was the eighties, and that part of town literally had groups of rats running around the sidewalk, mixing it up with the prostitutes. The show was slated for 11 PM at night, so they begged their friends to come and comped their admission, except for making them buy one drink. The show got great word of mouth, and they finally got a little blurb written about them in the Post. Suddenly, 11 producers wanted to buy the rights! The show became Pump Boys and Dinettes, moved Off-Broadway and then to Broadway! It was then nominated for a Tony Award opposite Joseph, Nine and Dreamgirls! Monk remembers being backstage right after Jennifer Holliday blew the roof off the theatre with "And I Am Telling You. . . " She said the audience went crazy from the Dreamgirls number. The curtain opened, and then "there we were. The whitest show ever." It was a letdown for everyone . . . onstage and off.

The real devastating part was that after writing a Tony- nominated Broadway show and starring in it, she still couldn't get an agent! After the show closed, she had such trouble landing work that she took a gig in the Midwest doing Pump Boys in a mall! A part of the stage led to the loading dock, and one day a UPS man actually came onstage and asked someone to sign for a delivery…and Deb did. Maybe now he can sell it on eBay?

The part I loved is that she heard that The Louisville Rep was having auditions for their season, and she flew herself there and asked to audition. They kept saying that she had to be submitted by an agent, but she begged and said that she flew there on her own dime and just wanted a chance. She auditioned, got a part and while she was in Kentucky, she finally got a New York agent who she's still with today. I love that she took her career into her own hands and wasn't afraid of begging.

Sunday night I went to Caroline's Comedy Club to see my old buddy, Linda Smith, whom I used to be a writer with on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." Her stand up is hi-larious. She said she loves the beach but can't deal with the sand, so she wants to stay in her apartment and pretend she's at the beach. "First, I'll gather up a couple of radios and put them all on different stations, then I'll invite over a really loud family with kids and make 'em sit right next to me . . . and then I'll just sit in front of the fan and try to light cigarettes."

OK, I saw William Finn's brilliant Falsettoland and, as I predicted, I literally cried from start to finish. I went twice this week because I love it so much, and, of course, in the middle of my weeping, my mother leaned over and (loudly) asked if I had allergies. I was in a rage that she didn't pick up on the fact I was crying, 'til I realized that I was pre-crying. That's when you know a show so well, you cry way too early because you know the devastating things that are gonna happen later on. For instance, the second time I saw Ragtime, I broke down in tears as soon as Audra walked onstage. Hence, my mother assumed it was hay fever that made me do non-stop nose blowing during the hilarious "Baseball Game" song. The all-Asian production was very well directed by Alan Muraoka, and the cast was top notch. I think the show should perpetually be playing in New York. The characters are so rich. There's no hero, no perfect person. All the characters are flawed, and that's what makes them real. And the story is so beautiful. It's about what love really is. Not, "Oh, you're great looking and nice, I love you," but true love like 13-year-old Jason deciding to have his Bar Mitzvah in Whizzer's hospital room because he loves his father and he loves Whizzer.

This coming week starts intense rehearsals for The Rosie Cruise…and then we sail next Saturday.

I want to close the column by writing about Thommie Walsh, who passed away two weeks ago. I met Thommie when he worked on a show I did with Kristine Zbornik and Varla Jean Merman called "Holiday Hams." Thommie staged the songs but spent much time answering my obsessive questions about his Broadway career … especially his first Broadway show, Seesaw. Thommie was in the original version that was playing in Detroit (on its way to Broadway) when Michael Bennett was brought in to fix the show. Michael, in his direct way, ixnayed most of the ensemble by walking around backstage and telling them they were fired right before they went onstage! Thommie said he would be backstage stretching, see Michael coming, and literally hide behind a costume rack to avoid being canned! He needn't have hid because Michael loved him as a performer. He kept him in the show and, of course, a few years later, Thommie originated the role of Bobby in A Chorus Line. He then went on to do brilliant work on Best Little Whorehouse, My One and Only and one of my absolute favorite shows, A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. Thommie was hilarious and multi-talented and will always be remembered as a part of Broadway history ("If Troy Donahue could be a movie star…then I could be a movie star…"). *

(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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