ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Ship of Dreams—Part II

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Ship of Dreams—Part II Okay, part two of the Rosie Cruise!
Seth and Brenda Braxton on the Rosie cruise.
Seth and Brenda Braxton on the Rosie cruise.

First, let's discuss the onboard food. My version of dieting was that I never got one of the fresh baked waffles in the morning…after that small bit of self-restraint, all bets were off. I'd have delicious oatmeal with a ton of brown sugar, and thanks to a tip from Brenda Braxton, melted butter in it as well. Mmm. I was outraged, though, that the delicious chocolate chip cookies were only in the children's area of the main dining room. Rude! I had no shame about leaning my whole body over the partition that's supposed to separate the kid from the adult area and grabbing a fistful of cookies while claiming to the shocked faces around me that they were for Juli. And, no, Juli never got any from me. Why were they in one area and restricted from the other? Quite frankly, I wasn't acting out with food, I was standing up against discrimination!

Okay, we're midway through the trip at this point. I haven't mentioned the ports we went to, so let me just say they were all beautiful, but they also all rated a ten on the melanoma-inducing scale. Is there literally no more ozone? Only after St. John in Canada did I not spend the whole night checking my moles for any changes. What was really nice about the cool weather up there is that James and I were able to leave our balcony door open at night so we could hear the ocean outside. So beautiful! The only "incident" on the trip happened in Bar Harbor, Maine. A bunch of us decided to take a trolley that had a narrated tour. When we showed up, the "trolley" was actually a school bus. Interesting. We piled on and sat with no air conditioning for 15 minutes. Then we were told, for no reason, that people who had white tickets had to get off the "trolley." Of course, we had white tickets, so we got off. Suddenly, we saw an actual trolley. Yes! As we approached it to get on, the doors were abruptly shut. The driver wanted to make sure we were supposed to get on, so we were told to stand outside. It was a frosty 95 degrees, with no shade, and my mother is a ripe 76. Excellent! We finally got on and sat again with no air conditioning. Finally, the tour began. The driver started to talk on his microphone, telling us how Bar Harbor got its name. One of the other passengers who shall remain nameless (let's just say Andrea McArdle's brother) made a small joke to his friend. Suddenly the driver yelled into the mic, "This is a narrated tour, and if you talk, I'm not narrating anything!" This was after literally one minute of driving. Well, the R Family people had had it. Everyone started muttering, "What? No way!" Finally, I had a verbal fit, complaining about the no a/c, the school bus, the mass exit we were forced to make off of the school bus, etc… I don't remember what else I said, but Klea Blackhurst, who was sitting in back of me, claims that I silenced the driver by saying "And, cut!" I told her I didn't remember saying that phrase, and she informed me that I actually said it three times. This was verified by her sister. All I know is that after my tirade, a whole bunch of us got up and stormed off the bus. Very few remained… but one that did was Andrea McArdle's brother! Son of a-!

Back on the boat, I did a full hour Chatterbox with the brilliant Christine Ebersole. She talked about how her three children are adopted, but after she and her husband adopted their first, he flew to China to get their second, a baby girl. They had been trying to adopt from different places, and while he was flying home with their new baby girl, Christine got a call that there was a little boy who needed a family! She couldn't call her husband because he was mid-flight, so she said yes, and when she got to the airport, she met her husband who was carrying their new daughter, and then she told him they had to go to a different terminal to pick up their new son! They went from having one child to three in a few minutes!

Christine ended the Chatterbox by singing "Around the World" from Grey Gardens, which I'm obsessed with! (To watch my deconstruction, go to www.SethRudetsky.com). We were both a little panicked, though. Me, because it's a crazy hard piano part that I, of course, started practicing ten minutes before show time, and she because the show closed a year ago and she was nervous about lyrics. I'm sort of fascinated by what the window is before you start forgetting what you've done in a show. Like, how long will it take for me to forget the lines I memorized to understudy Brooks Ashmanskas in The Ritz? And, sometimes you don't just forget lyrics you forget whole songs! Betty Buckley loves singing "Old Friend" from I'm Getting My Act Together…, but when I suggested she do "Put in a Package," which is the opening number from the show, she stared at me blankly. Then, I started playing it for her, and the only thing she added to her staring was blinking. Of course, you have to remember, she performed that part 30 years ago, so I think that's a fair amount of time to forget something, but Priscilla Lopez told me something that happened when she was doing A Day in Hollywood… She took a one-week vacation and came back to the show refreshed. She had a great song in Act One called "The Best In the World." It had four choruses and pretty much each one began with "Papa said you're the best…you're the best in the world." Cut to; she stands in her spotlight, starts the song, gets to the chorus and sang, "Papa said…uh…um.....silence." Suddenly, from the pit she heard, in a crazy stage whisper "…You're the best!" She literally forgot the title refrain of the song! I guess it's more about your brain deciding it can forget. Priscilla went on a vacation and didn't have to think about the show, and a part of her brain stayed in that mode. So, in conclusion, you can forget a song/lyrics after 30 years or after a week at a spa.

Back to the cruise. Friday we docked in Provincetown, a town I love! I got off the boat with my mom, and we went to look for some delish lunch. We passed a restaurant with a guy standing outside, holding a menu. "Come in!" he said. "It's great food!" I checked the menu and didn't see enough vegetarian food/seafood so we ixnayed it. We wound up having a great lunch at the Crown and Anchor and afterwards started walking back to the ship. We passed by the first restaurant again, and I decided to pop in to get an iced latte from them. Well, for some reason, I couldn't open the door. Hmm…should I push or pull? Apparently neither would work because it was locked! I looked on the window pane and saw a sign that said, "Closed: Due to Imminent Health Violation." That's right! In the one hour it took us to eat at that other restaurant, the first one was shackled. And, we almost ate there! We were thisclose to being imminently violated!

Finally, Saturday arrived, the night of the big show. Last year, we hauled out a mini-version of Annie starring Andrea McArdle, and this year we decided to do Chicago. A few weeks before the cruise I was thinking of who should play Velma, and I remembered my friend, Brenda Braxton, whom I saw play the role twice on Broadway. I called her and said, "We're going to do Chicago on the Rosie cruise, and I wanted to know if you had any interest in playing Vel-" and before I could get to "-ma" she said Yes. Brenda had been hankering for a vacation because she has a thriving side business running a grooming salon for men. Seriously! www.Bbraxton.com. She told me she wasn't going to do anything besides rehearse the show on the boat, and she wasn't kidding. The cruise stopped in five different ports, and Brenda didn't get off once! She said she just sat and relaxed, ordered room service and ate it on the balcony in her room! I told her that she should have gotten off the ship and been nearly violated in Provincetown like the rest of us. All right, back to casting. I had to find a Roxie. I knew Michael Lee Scott (who was the choreographer for the opening show) performed with his cousin Sandy Duncan, so I asked him to ask her to do it. Sandy couldn't break her other commitments, so I was left Roxie-less. I was thinking, "Michael Lee is sad because  he couldn't get Sandy to play Roxie." Then my mind changed the sentence to, "Michael Lee is sad, get Sandy play Roxie," then "Michael Lee is Sandy play Roxie" and suddenly: "Michael Lee is Roxie!" That's right, I gender-bendered that role because I knew Michael Lee was hilarious and would dance up a storm. I then asked the amazing Lillias White to reprise her Broadway performance as Mama Morton and did one more gender-bend by having Andrea McArdle play Billy (Billie?) Flynn. And, as luck would have it, David Sabella, who was the original Mary Sunshine on Broadway, was on the boat vacationing as a gay dad. Well, vacation or not, I needed him onstage! We got some drag, his original music charts and the next thing he knew, he was out of the shuffleboard area and hitting high As. He was great! Since we could only do a 45-minute version of the show, I narrated the story line between songs. I told the audience that I've been obsessed with it ever since I was little boy. As a matter of fact, I was desperate to get the music so I could play it on the piano. While other kids were harassing their parents to get them Atari, I was begging mine for the complete piano/vocal score of Chicago. (I finally got it after two months of begging.) Also, my mom got me tickets to see it, and I still remember they cost $15, which is now essentially the "theatre improvement" fee. I would always listen to the record in my den and try to choreograph it (never getting much past flexed hands), and one of my favorite songs was "Cell Block Tango." So, of course, I cast myself in it as "squish." It was so much fun! "Lipschitz" was none other than Daphne Rubin-Vega, and she was fabulous. I was filming her doing a little part of it Monday night at the NYCLU benefit, and Julia Murney said she played Hunyak ("Uh-uh") when she was 14 years old in summer camp, and she stills knows the monologue. She then plunged right into it and would have made Graciela Daniele proud (the original!). You can watch footage at www.SethRudetsky.com. Anyhoo, the last casting problem was "Class." We wanted to make it different for the boat version. Dev Janki and I decided to ask two fabulous women to do it. Actually, four fabulous women. My set up was: I asked the audience if anyone knew who replaced Gwen Verdon as Roxie in the seventies for a short time. A few people called out Liza. Brava. Then I said, perhaps Liza coveted the role of Velma. Then I suggested that if Chicago had opened in the Golden Age, perhaps Mama Morton would have been played by the premiere belter of Broadway. I then introduced "Class" as sung by Ethel Merman (Klea Blackhurst) and Liza Minnelli (Christine Pedi). Yes, it made no sense, but ending it with the "New York New York" vamp brought the house down.

Finally, Brett Macias had orchestrated "Don't Rain On My Parade" for Lillias White, but we wound up not doing it on the first night of the cruise in the Barbra show. But, I didn't want to deprive the audience of her brilliance, so as an encore to Chicago, I kept Lillias onstage and started the vamp. Needless to say, she sounded amazing. Take a gander at http://youtube.com/watch?v=sotn0agpVR4. All in all, the cruise was fantastic! Come with us to Alaska next year!!!! www.Rfamilyvacations.com.

On a final note, I saw Damn Yankees Thursday night. I'm obsessed with how funny Cheyenne is and how he can spin his vibrato. Beautiful! And, I've loved Jane Krakowski ever since I saw her in Grand Hotel as Flaemmchen. I remember spotting her on the street a few weeks after I first saw her (in '89) and going into shock. I just stepped in front of her, stared, and said, "You're amazing." She thanked me, while stepping the hell around me asap. Now though, in 2008, I'm able to go backstage …and act awkward to her face in her dressing room. I love how she's such a theatre person! Jane said that she loves doing Lola because she gets to dance Fosse. And, she researched the role vigorously. Apparently, Gwen Verdon complained to Fosse that she couldn't do certain steps without falling because she had to wear heels. Fosse kept telling her she could do it, and Gwen finally flat-out said she couldn't. Fosse literally then showed up the next day with his own pair of heels! Once he did, he understood the problems Gwen was having, and together they fixed it. Check out this Fosse/Gwen interview and demonstration of "Whatever Lola Wants." http://youtube.com/watch?v=mLx7qUeRGU0&feature=related. I didn't know what to expect from Sean Hayes, since I've never seen him do theatre. Let me say: he was amazing! He had so many hilarious choices that were so original and didn't seem "I thought this up in rehearsal and now it's frozen and not fresh at all." He was so great in his scenes, and then in his song "Those Were The Good Old Days" he sang great, and he had the nerve the play the piano. My jealousy meter was ticking on high. How dare he be so talented? Then (spoiler alert), he came out for his encore holding a violin. What? The violin is my favorite instrument and I know how to play a little, but I stink. I've always dreamed of being a concert violinist, but my terrible technique and lack of talent has prevented me. I turned to James and said, "If he sounds amazing, I've had it!" Sean lifted the violin to his chin…and promptly threw it offstage. Phew! Still, I turned to James and said, "He's so amazingly talented I'm phenomenally jealous." James "comforted" me by reminding me that Sean is also a multi-millionaire. Not cool! Regardless, I went backstage and told Sean he was brilliant in the show…and slipped an untraceable amount of cyanide into his off-stage water. Kidding! It's a mixture of formaldehyde and arsenic.

Okay, have a great weekend and I'll be back on Monday!

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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.)

Backstage at <i>Damn Yankees</i> with (l.-r.) Sean Hayes, Seth, James and Cheyenne Jackson.
Backstage at Damn Yankees with (l.-r.) Sean Hayes, Seth, James and Cheyenne Jackson.