ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Seth's Broadway 101 Plus Willis, Kudisch and Zaks

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Seth's Broadway 101 Plus Willis, Kudisch and Zaks
 
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Gay Willis and Marc Kudisch
Gay Willis and Marc Kudisch

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Good morning! It's the day after my first performance of Seth's Broadway 101 at Ars Nova, and I'm in a great mood! More on that later.

On Wednesday during my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show I interviewed Gay Willis, who is the "soprano" in Seth's Broadway 101 (as opposed to the "belter"). She has one of the most beautiful soprano voices I've heard, and I asked her about playing Christine in Phantom with Colm Wilkinson (which I saw her do). During her run, Cris Groenendaal came in to play Raul. Turns out, unbeknownst to Gay, Cris would always say something to the Christine to try to make her laugh right before they would sing "All I Ask of You." The sound guy was in on it and knew to turn off Cris' microphone two beats before the song and then immediately turn it back on again. Cris would say something full volume — literally one beat before the song began — as he would caress Christine's face. Gay demonstrated what he said the night her back was out. I can't believe how close to singing he would say it. Set your metronome at 110, do the dialogue as eighth notes, and this is how it timed out: 5,6, "You should be in traction," No more talk of darkness. Come here her sing amazing high C's in Seth's Broadway 101 and go to GayWillis.com for her beautiful CD.

Also at the Sirius/XM show was Marc Kudisch. Marc and I met doing Forever Plaid in Kansas City in the early nineties and since then he's done nine Broadway shows! He talked about his first big musical audition, which was for the tour of Bye Bye Birdie starring Tommy Tune. He went to the open call, and even though the casting people liked him, they didn't want to call him back because he had no musical theatre experience. But after many months of looking for a Conrad Birdie and not finding one, they called him in. It was an old-school audition that took place at an actual Broadway theatre as opposed to a rehearsal room. The horrible part was that all the important people were in the orchestra seats, and everyone else auditioning was in the balcony and could watch everyone else's audition. It's fun to sing while the whole orchestra is filled with people judging you and the balcony is filled with people hating you. Marc had prepared the song "Sincere" from the show, and when his name was called, he started walking down the aisle of the orchestra section and met up with the casting director. The casting director wished him luck and added, "Whatever you do, don't sing 'Sincere.'" Marc went into a full panic sweat. He had never done a musical, so he didn't have a slew of songs in his arsenal. He slowly walked past Tommy Tune, Gene Saks and The Weisslers and approached the pianist who asked him what he was singing. Marc said that he prepared "Sincere" but was just told not to sing it. The pianist asked, "Whose audition is this?" Marc then decided to do it! He came down center, gave a nod and the pianist played the first chord. Well, the first chord is a very distinctive one, and that's all it took for the casting director to throw up his hands and storm into the lobby. Marc started singing and after a few measures, he saw the casting guy poke his head back into the theatre and slowly start to re-enter. Finally, Marc finished and was asked to read and then chatted with Gene Saks. On his way out back to the balcony, the casting director approached him and said, "Thank you for not listening to me!" And he got the part!

I also interviewed multiple Tony Award-winning director Jerry Zaks. He began his theatre career as an actor, and his first big gig was as Kenickie in the national tour of Grease. After he got the gig, he was standing in the back of the Broadway theatre, watching the show to familiarize himself with it. During the intermission, he wanted to brag to someone that he was in it, so he turned to the guy standing next to him and said, "Great show, huh?" The other guy agreed. Jerry proudly said, "I'm gonna be in it." The other guy said, "So am I!" And that's how Jerry met an 18-year-old John Travolta! It was a fabulous tour with John as Doody and Rizzo played by Judy Kaye. Jerry also played Motel on tour with Zero Mostel. At one point, Zero as Tevye would sit on Jerry, and the audience would love it. As Zero walked away, Jerry added a bit where he'd get up and look dazed from being sat on, and the audience always would laugh at that as well. At the end of his staggering, he'd do shtick where he'd shake his leg to the side. Zero didn't see what Jerry was doing because his back was to him, and it would sound like the audience was still laughing from Zero sitting on him. Until one day, Zero turned around and saw the bit. At intermission, Jerry was called to Zero's dressing room. Jerry thought he was gonna get fired. He walked in, tentatively.

ZERO: I saw what you're doing after I sat on you.
JERRY: (Terrified) Oh?
ZERO: It's funny.
JERRY: (Greatly relieved)
ZERO: BUT—
JERRY: (Nervous) Yes?
ZERO: Don't do the last leg shake. It's cheap. (Pause.) And believe me, I know cheap!

Jerry said he felt under incredible pressure when he did the Guys and Dolls revival in the early nineties because everybody would say to him, "Guys and Dolls? That's my favorite show!" Jerry told us that "That's my favorite show" is code for "Don't f*** it up!" He told a hilarious story about working with the great Tovah Feldshuh in Lend Me a Tenor. The stage was spilt in two; one side was the bedroom, and the other was the living room. The lights would dim in one area to let the audience know what part of the stage to focus on. Well, in once scene, Tovah would storm into the bedroom, and the lights would then dim on her and come up on the living room where the action was. But Tovah would sit on the bed and peel a banana which, of course, everyone would be watching instead of the scene. So Jerry asked her not to peel the banana. The next day, Tovah walked into the bedroom…and peeled an orange. Brava! Jerry then told the stage manager to get rid of the fruit bowl. He said it was hilarious the next night to watch Tovah walk into the bedroom and look all around for something to do a bit with. All I can say is, whatever she was doing worked because she got a Tony nomination!

After rehearsing all week, we finally debuted Seth's Broadway 101 at Ars Nova, and it went great! It was sold-out (it was an Actors Fund benefit), and my sister Nancy and her family came up from Virginia to see it. After the show, Nancy was telling me about an Ann Reinking-type sitting in front of her, loving the show. I didn't understand what her point was until I realized she was telling me that it was the Ann Reinking sitting in front of her loving the show!! AH!! Star-struck! Right before the show, my choreographer Rickey Tripp (from In the Heights) asked me if I like to know who's in the audience and I said no . Thank God because I would have horrified to "dance" in front of her and would not only have spent the whole show thinking, "Every move you make, Roxie is watching" but I know so much about her career that I would have included "Cassie's replacement is watching" and "Pippin's Catherine understudy is watching."

At the end of the show, I give the audience a test about various Broadway terms and I sing a middle C and said, "Who makes this, (sings) AH!...into this!" and then the whole ensemble runs out and sings an enormous chord to demonstrate what a vocal arranger does. Unfortunately, typical of most benefits, we didn't get enough time to tech the show, and the dancers didn't know that immediately after the section about where we demonstrate a quick change, they have to come back onstage to demonstrate vocal arrangements. So I asked, "Who turns this, AH!....into this-" and instead of a full ensemble running out and singing a beautiful chord, a dancer ran out. Literally one. And the note she sang is the same one I'm on. So the beautiful vocal arrangement harmony the audience was supposed to hear was literally two notes. In unison. It was hi-larious.

Also typical of most benefits, I had a last-minute cast drop-out (Friday night at 11:30 PM!), so I texted my friend Marya Grandy who, right away, agreed to do the show, and the audience went crazy for her. She and Gay Willis sounded phenomenal together. Celina Carvajal sassed the quick-change section, Tituss Burgess sounded gorgeous on his song (apparently Ann Reinking loved that section, according to the spying eyes of my sister), and Andy Karl was s-e-x-y in the finale. And, I had Brian Schwartz play me at 13 years old, and every time during rehearsal that I'd forget something in the script, he immediately knew my line. It's always "fun" to work with a child. I must save my biggest shout out for the ensemble. The last time I did the show, I did it old-school with a singing ensemble and a dancing ensemble. This time I did it with just eight singer/dancers, and I cannot believe their talent level. I knew they'd all be amazing dancers (with amazing bodies to further devastate me) but on top of that, their singing is so good . The opening number has a kick-line, and I hate doing it because there are two brilliant singers on either side of me and I have to hear my own clanky voice mixed in with theirs. It's a classic example of "one of these things is not like the other" re-purposed as "two of these people are super-talented, and one isn't." And, a special shout-out goes to my stage manager Jeffrey Davolt and his team. I'm sure it's a joy to stage manage me because I refuse to stick to a script, so you have to constantly second guess what the cues are for lighting and sound. And by "a joy," I mean I hope Jeff is doing my show next week and not taking me to small claims court for stress-related illness. And, the band sounded so great despite the fact that my conductor, Steve Freeman, was seated in a completely different area. Essentially, they were in Queens, and he was in Brooklyn. And not close-to-the-city Borough Park, Brooklyn — like four different subway lines, a shuttle bus and a hovercraft Brooklyn. Also, brava to Rickey Tripp, who's out of In the Heights temporarily because of an injury but took over as choreographer. I essentially told him to schedule his physical therapy around rehearsals — and he did! We have two more shows on Sundays, Aug. 23 and 30, so take a gander; visit www.SethRudetsky.com for tickets. Peace out!

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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.

Kat Nejat, Samantha Shafer, Holly Ann Butler, Kiira Schmidt, Seth Rudetsky, Isaac Calpito, Frankie Grande, Adam Fleming and Jacob ben Widmar
Kat Nejat, Samantha Shafer, Holly Ann Butler, Kiira Schmidt, Seth Rudetsky, Isaac Calpito, Frankie Grande, Adam Fleming and Jacob ben Widmar
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