ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Shafrika and Salonga

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Shafrika and Salonga I know you're reading this post-Tony Awards, but I'm writing this before they've happened, so keep your traps shut because I don't know who the winners are.
Lea Salonga and Seth Rudetsky
Lea Salonga and Seth Rudetsky

That's right, I can somehow hear you talking about who won and who lost through the computer screen. It's a combination of "Carrie," "The Net" and that Japanese movie that was re-made with Sarah Michelle Gellar.

Here's a re-cap of the last week: Last Monday I did a reading of Radio Girl… the Henry Krieger/Susan Birkenhead/ Daniel Goldfarb musical. The cast was so much fun to rehearse with. One time when we were learning music, I surreptitiously checked my Blackberry. It suddenly lit up with a text message. I looked and saw that it was from Kevin Chamberlin, who was across the room, and it said, "Pay attention." Brava! Kevin and I were talking about the upcoming Rosie Family Cruise to Alaska, and he told me that he is still feeling the effects of last year's cruise to Mexico. In one of the ports, he went to a beautiful Mexican beach, but when he got there crew members from the boat were coming out of the water and warning him that the surf was strong. He looked at their svelte-ness and tabulated that they all weighed a maximum of 150 pounds. Kevin chuckled at their weakness/baby-ishness and dove right in. The first wave that came lifted him crazily high in the air and then smashed him to the beach. He went from laughing at the crew to recently having surgery to fix his shoulder! Sometimes karma is immediate and severe… but also thankfully covered by health insurance.

Right after the Radio Girl reading, I played for Norm Lewis, who did an Actors Fund benefit at Feinstein's. His voice is so gorgeous, I can't take it. He welcomed the audience to his show and told them that the evening would be like hanging out at his house while he entertained. But, because it was Feinstein's, it wouldn't be in the den of his house, but the living room with the formal, uncomfortable chairs. He then admitted that the house in which he grew up had the so-called "blue room" that no one was allowed to go into unless they had company. He paused and confessed that, at one point, the furniture had plastic on it. I then shut down emotionally and only came out of it when he belted the B flat in "Before the Parade Passes By."

On Wednesday I had Anika Larsen come to my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway Show but forgot to warn her that there was a live audience, so when she showed up, she was devastated that she wasn't dressed up. She looked adorable anyway and was nowhere near as devastated as Tituss Burgess was when the same thing happened to him. He showed up at the show straight from the gym, wearing an old T-shirt and grey sweatpants that had been cut-off below the knee exposing his legs. The sight of his gams forced me to haul out one of the comments my old math teacher once made years ago to a skinny student in shorts: "That reminds me…we're having chicken for dinner." Tituss glared and then remembered that he had a change of clothes in his gym bag, so it all worked out. Except for me in math class: I literally got a 50 on my report card...twice! PS, that's a 50 out of a 100. Thankfully, my need for geometry in daily life has remained the same percentage as my caring about the marital problems of Jon and Kate Plus Eight (0).

Anyhoo, Anika made her Broadway debut in Rent as a swing, and we talked about the times she'd go on for Maureen. I'm so busted because I asked her how cool it was to enter on a motorcycle. Anika then informed me that Maureen never enters on a motorcycle. What? Turns out, many people have the same memory I do because first you see a crazy headlight shining into the audience and when Maureen enters, she takes off a helmet. It's such a trick your mind plays on you. I said it's like that optical illusion picture you look at and continually think, "Ah…what a beautiful young lady…wait a minute…that's a decrepit old hag!" I remembered when Anika had her audition for Xanadu. The role was the "muse of dance," and she was mortified because she doesn't consider herself a dancer. Instead of trying to do the best she could, she decided that she would indeed be the muse of dance, but the muse would be a no-talent. So, she did all the dancing at the audition horribly and on the wrong foot, but after every section she would hit a sassy pose to imply, "I am in-cre-di-ble." It got her the gig! They then (thankfully) changed her part to the "muse of music," and she understudied Kerry Butler in the lead. Kerry's daughter was still very young at the time, so her contract had a stipulation that she had one show off a month to spend time as a mom. Anika went on her first time and didn't tell anybody because she knew she'd have many more times to go really nail the role. Turns out, once the show opened to such great reviews for Kerry, she felt that she shouldn't take off any more shows, so Anika never went on again! AKA, none of her friends ever got to see her! Anika said that you're called an understudy because you're always under-rehearsed. You never do it with the full costume, lights, orchestra, etc., so going on is always somewhat terrifying. The worst was Xanadu because roller skates were added to the mix, and Anika knew that if she fell early on, the audience would be nervous for her throughout the rest of the show. Kerry's character enters on an elevator that comes up through the floor of the stage. Anika remembers standing under the stage right before her entrance and thinking, "Hmm...what if I got off the elevator and just walked out the stage door." She decided to go on when she thought through how many people would find out (because it would sweep through the Broadway gossip mill…aka me).

For a few years Anika has been working on a one-woman show based on her childhood growing up with nine brothers and sisters…most of them from other countries. It's called Shafrika: The White Girl, and it's finally premiering in New York. The irony is, it's no longer a one-woman show. It's being produced by and starring the Jaradoa Theater Company (Don't get me started on their name…I dedicated half a column to it when they first formed) at Off-Broadway's Vineyard Theatre. Go to www.Jaradoatheater.org for tix and come to the show opening night…I'll be there!

Then I had Lea Salonga for the second part of the show. I, of course, asked her how she got her big break in Miss Saigon and turns out, they really did look all over the world for a Kim. Claude-Michel Schönberg had heard some Filipino singers on TV singing western music well, and he thought that his Kim would probably be Filipino, but he didn't think he'd have to travel to the Philippines to find her! But after auditioning in England, New York, L.A. and Hawaii, they went to the source. Lea was a pre-med student at the time and went to the audition straight from class. She sang "On My Own" from Les Miz, but the auditioners weren't that impressed. Rude. They asked for something else, but all she had with her was a book on the Alimentary Canal (my embellishment…but essentially true). She told them that she could sing the Whitney Houston version of "The Greatest Love of All" (she wasn't being retro...this was the late eighties). She walked over to the pianist, hoping that he would know it by heart and, crazily, there on top of the piano was the sheet music to "The Greatest Love of All"! It was very Oprah's "The Secret" mixed with VH-1's "I Love the 80's." Lea was petrified that it would be in the wrong key, but as soon as the piano began she knew it was the right one for her! Soon, they flew her to London for a final call-back…along with another girl who was up for the same role. Why do they always do that? Ever hear of separate flights? It's one thing to have to be in the waiting room with your competition, but I don't want to take a six-hour-flight sitting in the middle seat between Mario Cantone and Alice Ghostley. PS, why are we all up for the same role?

Lea got to try out on the stage of the Royal Albert Hall…with no mic! She said that you don't need any amplification in a lot of those old theatres because they have such amazing acoustics. She got to sing opposite Simon Bowman (who wound up playing Chris) and lots of woman auditioning for Ellen…including Frances Ruffelle, the original Eponine, whom Lea said sounded great! The other woman from the Philippines auditioned and was told that she would be understudying the role of Kim. Lea was told that she was cast…but they didn't know what part. When she heard the news, she didn't know what to think. She was in the middle of her pre-med program and even though she knew it would be cool to perform on the West End, she didn't know if it was worth leaving school for. All of the women who auditioned had a photo call for a Daily Mail story about the audition process, and a few days later, it came out. Lea picked up a copy at the newsstand and saw a picture of herself. Underneath, it said she was playing Kim!!!! What a crazy way to find out. It reminds of me of a devastating version of that kind of story. Scott Wise, the fantastic (and great-looking) performer told me that he was in Dream out of town and was excited about it coming to New York. He was waiting and waiting to get his offer to do the Broadway version and didn't know what the delay was. One day, he was in a rehearsal building and saw some of the other cast members…rehearsing the show for Broadway! That's how he found out that he wasn't doing it. Hmm…I like Lea's version better.

During Miss Saigon Lea was constantly hinting that she wanted to play Eponine by singing Eponine's big song. Whenever there was an event where Lea had to sing, she'd always launch into "Rue Plumet"…I mean, "On My Own." Finally she was offered the role and was the first non-traditional lead in that show. She then came back to the recent revival and graduated to Fantine. I assume her next stop is the 2040 revival playing Mme. Thenardier. That reminds me of something that happened a few years back. I wrote the lyrics to a big opening number for Nothin' Like a Dame that was set to West Side Story's "America." At the end Chita Rivera came out, dressed as Anita and sang and danced. Of course, the audience went crazy, and on her way off the stage I ran up to her and said, "They love you!" Then I pointed to her (she was dressed in full Anita drag) and said, "I smell revival!" She nodded sarcastically and said, "Yeah…I'll play Doc." Hilarious.

Okay, I'm on my way back from Harrisburg, and the last two shows were sold out. Delicious! Next, I have Nothin' Like a Dame on June 15. The line-up is now official: Betty Buckley, Audra McDonald, Andrea McArdle, Kelli O'Hara and Bebe Neuwirth; tix at ActorsFund.org. Then, next Monday I'm hosting a fundraiser for Surflight Summer on Long Beach Island, NJ…where I spent three summers when I was in college; tix at www.surflight.org. Tony Award details next week!

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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.)

Lea Salonga and Seth Rudetsky
Lea Salonga and Seth Rudetsky