ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Ship of Dreams

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Ship of Dreams Ahoy, mateys! I'm back on dry land. I just got off the R Family Vacations cruise, aka the Rosie Boat. This summer's cruise had the best entertainment so far.

There's a great article that was in The New York Times about all the Broadway performers on the ship (www.nytimes.com/2008/07/19/arts/19rosie.html). In the article I'm quoted as saying the boat has "the greatest entertainment in the world." My sister Nancy emailed me and asked if the Times could add a photo of me with a fat belly, smoking a fat cigar and surrounded by ladies with tassels on their tops. 'Tis true, I sound like Trump, but I was serious. Every show was amazing!

Okay, so Sunday we got on the boat at 11…and by 11, I mean noon because I had to stop by Starbucks and get my signature Iced Latte with a breakfast sandwich, which I heard they're discontinuing! And, I heard from a Starbucks employee that they're being discontinued not because they don't sell well, but because of the smell. "Do they smell bad when they cook?" I asked. "No," he replied, "but they cover up the smell of coffee." What? Who cares?! I can't believe they'd discontinue something the consumer actually wants because they think we need to smell coffee when we're there. I'll smell it when I'm drinking it! Now give me my sandwich ASAP!

Anyhoo, the Sunday night show was dedicated to Streisand music, and it was amahzing. The first number was not a Barbra song, but had lyrics by Michael Lee Scott and Colin Sheehan and music from La Cage. The opening section went: We are what we are/ And what we are/ Is on vacation! Brava! Then Rosie came out and did a full tap dance. Those of you that saw the Encores! production of No, No, Nanette might have found it familiar…perhaps, because it was the exact same one she did in that show. To be quite honest, the steps stayed the same, and we just changed the music underneath it. I always say, if you're good at one thing, stick with it (see Carol Channing's resume since 1964).

Rosie hosted the show and was fun-nee. She said she's been doing the "True Colors" tour for The Human Rights Campaign Fund with Cyndi Lauper, and Cyndi implored the audience to vote this November. Cyndi then said if you can't make it out of your house, you can vote online. Huh? Rosie told her backstage that you can't actually vote online. Cyndi went back out and told the crowd, "Listen, everybody. Turns out, you can't vote online." Pause. "But you probably will be able to do it one day…because I'm a visionary." Good save…New Age-style!

Rosie mentioned her son, Parker, who's now 13 years old and sports a six-pack. She told us that it's proof that Parker was adopted because "…no O'Donnell ever had a six-pack on the outside." Then, Klea Blackhurst came out and sang the hell out of "Before the Parade Passes By," holding the last note as long as Barbra does in the Hello, Dolly! film, which I heard is the longest note ever held in a movie — except for the anguished wail I let out after hearing Madonna's version of "Rainbow High" in Evita. That was followed by James (my "partner" according to the NYT; BF, according to my Playbill.com column) singing "Piece of Sky" from "Yentl." He said the song is about going for something you want that's deemed impossible and equated it with growing up gay in Texas, yet wanting to be a dad, which he now is. The song went over great, and he sounded amazing on the last A flat. You can watch him do the whole number at http://youtube.com/watch?v=Ae6Xzdw8vAw. Up next was Carolee Carmello, who got a four-day leave from Mamma Mia! and belted out "Woman in the Moon." She learned it only because I asked her to and now she must sing it in New York. I was nervous that no one would know it was from the film "A Star is Born," but thankfully Rosie did because she walked onstage right after and immediately launched into "Queen Bee," which is Barbra's first song in the movie. That movie is so great if you can watch it with your eyes closed just enough to block out Barbra's home perm. Next on the show were "The Broadway Boys," which is a group consisting of a group of guys whose only requirement is a. a super high voice, b. flexible riffs that would make Mariah hang up her vocal chords and c. hotness. They sounded great on "I Don't Care Much," which most people thought was a bizarre choice because they only know it from the revival of Cabaret, but Barbra did it first on "The Second Barbra Streisand Album." The genesis of that song is that Kander and Ebb were at a dinner party and someone challenged them to write a song by the end of the party…and that's what came out! How cool is that? All in the time frame of one meal. Of course, if they were having a dinner like the ones I had on the Rosie cruise, they had around five hours to write the song. One night I literally had five appetizers, an entrée, two side dishes and two desserts. Speaking of which, in Texas when I was playing for Betty Buckley, the microphone belt that I wore to hold my body mic was killing me. On the last night I told the sound guy it was killing me, and he said he gave me a mic belt on the assumption that I had a 30-inch waist. I didn't know whether to be flattered that he thought I looked so thin or to glare at him for making me spend three nights in a corset.

Anyhoo, the Broadway Boys tore it up, and next was Christine Pedi, who came out doing her Barbra imitation. "You know…people think I'm a diva…which I'm not. But Rosie knows I am a perfectionist, and I only perform when the temperature is 68 degrees." She then licked her finger and put it in the air. "Hmm…it's 69, so I won't be singing." Instead, "Barbra" invited other strong women to come up and sing a power anthem, and Christine did her amazing "I Will Survive" where she channels Eartha Kitt, Bette Davis, Joan Rivers, Carol Channing and Ethel Merman. The audience went cra-za-zy! Here's a version that's online: http://youtube.com/watch?v=EyCPbuE18-w.

Finally, Andrea McArdle came onstage with her daughter Alexis, and they both belted out "Enough is Enough." My friend Mark Cortale was devastated when he saw Alexis. He assumed Andrea's daughter would be a cute little toddler, but she's literally a grown woman. AKA, we're ninety.

The next night Sheena Easton gave a concert. Turns out, she's hilarious. She told the audience that if they've ever been in an elevator, then they've heard one of her tunes. She had a great attitude about all of her hit songs in the eighties, saying that by singing them today she gets to relive her youth. She sang "Morning Train," which I love not only because it's such a fun song but because I'm obsessed with the formation of it. Circa early eighties: Hmm…I can't think of anything interesting to write a song about. So let me take something completely mundane and feign that it's interesting. Here goes: My baby takes the morning train. He works from 9 to 5 and then...Here comes the amazing part: He takes another home again to find me waiting for him. Sheena stop! It's called commuting. It's not interesting. I take the number one train. And?

The next day we stopped in St. John, New Brunswick, Canada (which was beautiful), and that night was the comedy show. I hosted it and hauled out my Barbra deconstruction (http://youtube.com/watch?v=FsMpdRXEB-M) as well as my deconstruction of Cher singing West Side Story. First of all, yes it exists. Secondly, it's not pleasing to the eye or ear. She not only plays the role of Maria, but thanks to an eighties split screen effect, plays Anita as well. And, thanks to the drag king technology, she also embodies the roles of Tony, Riff, The Sharks and The Jets. When I worked on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," I told Rosie to surprise Cher with it as a funny "embarrassing" clip. Rosie asked Cher if she remembered filming it and… Cher said it was her favorite thing she ever filmed. Stunned silence from me. Then she recounted how she first filmed the role of Biff. Biff? Is there a musical version of Death of a Salesman?

Comic Jessica Kirson made her fourth appearance on the ship and told a joke I loved, specifically because I was traveling with my mom.

Q: What did the waiter say to the older Jewish ladies?
A: Is anything OK?

Brava! Julie Goldman from Logo's "The Big Gay Sketch Show" was the other comic, and the audience was obsessed with her bit about a vegan food market she had to go to when she was working as a "manny." She said it was so natural, it didn't even have floors…it was just dirt…and the workers would often scoop up the dirt and sell it…because it was delicious. Speaking of LOGO, they did a great interview with me about my audio version of "Broadway Nights" and then put together all this behind-the-scenes footage of the recording of the book with me, James, Juli, Richard Kind, Andrea Martin, Ann Harada, Kristin Chenoweth, Hunter Bell and Jonathan Groff. Watch where Jonathan gets church laughter and literally can't record two lines without breaking out into a cackle. Go to www.logoonline.com/audible for a gander!

Then I did a special type of show that I haven't done before on the boat. I had so many great ladies on hand that I put 'em all in a Broadway Divas Sing/Chatterbox show. First up: Carolee. Chatterbox-wise, she talked about how she did all the pre-Broadway readings, workshops and recordings of The Scarlet Pimpernel. She loved the role of Marguerite because of the great songs she got to sing and because the character was from France, and French was her minor in college. They made her audition for the Broadway production (rude), and then they cast someone else! Ouch! She did eventually get to play the role, and I had her sing "When I Look at You" to show everyone how great she was in the part. Then we talked about my Funny Girl concert for The Actors Fund, and she sang "The Music That Makes Me Dance," and the audience gave her a full standing O. Work! Next up was Christine Pedi, who did the brilliant Gerard Alessandrini version of the final song of the Anna Karenina musical: Do ya hear that train comin' 'round the bend?/ It means the tale of Anna is about to end/ As I'm ground into a bloody mess/ 'neath Ashkebad, Tblisi and Kiev Expres!

Christine was followed by Andrea McArdle, who recounted how much fun it was to go from playing goody-two-shoes Belle on Broadway to trampy drug addict Sally Bowles in the national tour of Cabaret. She sang "Maybe This Time," but instead of the weird fade-out ending they added to the revival, she belted the whole ending à la Liza. Andrea always has some crazy hilarious story about the seventies, and she told me that she was asked to be on "Dance Fever" when she was a kid and was super-psyched. She wanted to be considered cool, and Broadway was thought of as nerdy by her circle of friends. She showed up at the TV show ready to meet the hot singer they booked that week: Donna Summer? The Bee Gees? Gloria Gaynor? No, that week, because Andrea was there, they found a guest singer just for her . . . trying out disco for the first time . . . Ethel Merman! Poor Andrea. You can take the girl out of Broadway…but it'll always come back to belt at 'ya. Finally, I brought up Lillias White. I asked her to recount her audition for Dreamgirls. She said that she went in to audition as a replacement for the role of Lorrell and sang "Ain't No Party" for Michael Bennett. There's a section that says, "Now it's been seven years and it don't take a smarty to realize that even though my man throws confetti in my face, it still don't make it no party." When she got to the throwing of confetti part, she mimed throwing it from her crotch. Michael Bennett then thought, "Hmm…I think she's an Effie." She came back and had to sing every single thing that Effie sings in the show. By the end, she had no voice. Regardless, Michael Bennett offered her the understudy to Jennifer Holliday in Los Angeles! However, Lillias didn't want it. First of all, she said, she didn't think it was right for her because she doesn't have that gravelly type of voice that people equate with Effie; secondly, she had a newborn and didn't want to go out of town; and thirdly, it was L.A., and she didn't drive! Michael assured her that she sang it great, she would definitely go on in the role and she would have everything she needed. She rehearsed for five weeks in New York playing Effie because there were a lot of new people going into the cast. Then she got to L.A., and Michael kept his word and got her child care and put her in a driving school. And, then there was a five-show weekend, and Jennifer couldn't go on. Lillias went on for Effie…and Michael re-invited all the critics to see her! Of course, she got amazing reviews, and I then asked her to sing "I Am Changing" because that's my favorite song on my Actors Fund CD of Dreamgirls. I still remember conducting it that night and hearing that crazy cheering after she sang "…nothing's gonna stop…me…now!!!!" Of course, all the R Family audience stood up immediately after her song. Brava!

All right, there's more to report…stay tuned for my next column.

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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.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

Carolee Carmello (l.) and Andrea McArdle (r.) joined Seth on the R Family Vacations cruise.
Carolee Carmello (l.) and Andrea McArdle (r.) joined Seth on the R Family Vacations cruise.