ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Singing Along in Times Square Before Avenue Q's Last Broadway Night

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Singing Along in Times Square Before Avenue Q's Last Broadway Night
 
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Shayna Steele
Shayna Steele

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Hi, everyone! It's a gorgeous day and I'm sitting in my backyard looking at the garden that James planted and I take credit for. Essentially, I'll have people over at the apartment, bring them to the backyard and say, "We had to replace all the dirt" or "We decided to plant the tomatoes over there" and James will overhear and barge in with, "And by we he means me." Hmph. Stealing credit is a time-honored Broadway tradition. And I'm old-school. Anyhoo, we just got back from Broadway on Broadway [on Sept. 13] which is this big, annual Broadway concert held in Times Square. All the shows that performed came off great but I especially loved seeing "96,000" from In the Heights. And I loved Chad Kimball's crazy high notes at the end of his song from Memphis. I ran into David Bryan (from Bon Jovi), who's the composer, and he told me Chad was hitting a C sharp! David told me he thinks it's the highest guy note on Broadway. I added a qualification of "right now" to myself because there were two D sharps in Little Mermaid sung by Tituss Burgess and Eddie Korbich respectively. I'm just saying.

Speaking of high notes, Shayna Steele was the guest star in the Broadway on Broadway segment that I did. I was asked to lead something that's never been done before during the show: a sing-along. At first I was terrified because that's the kind of thing that could leave me with a full omelet on my face, but I thought if it was done right, it could be great. Alex Lacamoire (conductor/Tony Award-winning co-orchestrator of In the Heights) told me that the two song suggestions were "Cabaret" or "Seasons of Love." I told him that the fun part of the sing-along would be having some of it in harmony and there ain't none in "Cabaret." Then I added that if the audience sounds clanky on the song, a good safeguard to have would be a soloist to sass it up. So, I called the fantastic Shayna Steele who sang the middle "Seasons of Love" solo section during the run of Rent, and she agreed to do it.

When it was time for the song, I walked onstage and was overwhelmed by how many people were there. I looked out and it was a sea of shapes that seemed to go all the uptown and not stop. I taught the harmony quickly, then brought out Shayna and told everyone the story she had told me a few years ago. One night on Broadway, she was doing the solo in "Seasons of Love" and someone told her backstage that Pavarotti was in the audience. She knew he'd be listening to her high note and when she got to it, she clanked. Ever since then, she's done an optional note because it traumatized her. I then told the audience she would be now be attempting the high note again for the first time. The song started and the audience actually sounded sassy…and did their harmony. Shayna started singing and sounded amazing and then nailed the high note! It was a brava. If you've never seen me deconstruct Shayna, click here.

On Wednesday I interviewed John Cudia who is the current Broadway Phantom. I'm obsessed with mishaps that can happen in shows. For instance, normally, the Phantom is supposed to sit in a chair, cover himself with a sheet and then Meg, the ballet girl, comes onstage, rips off the sheet and discovers he's gone…except for his mask, which she picks up. John said that he's had trouble working the mechanism in the chair that helps him disappear, and often Meg would come out and have to stall because she'd hear him muttering, "Dagnab it! UH! Just…one….second!" Eventually, she'd let John out of his misery by just reaching under the sheet and taking out the mask. At least she left him his dignity as opposed to a former Meg who was doing the last scene and tiptoe-ing to the chair where the Phantom was — with John not able to get the disappearance device to work. Because he knew Meg was gettting close to his chair, he loudly whispered "No! No! No!" to stall her, but she thought he was saying "Go! Go! Go!" so she ripped off the sheet and revealed him to the audience, awkwardly sitting. I'm sure the audience was like, "Hmm. I guess that ending is terrifying. Look. The Phantom is sitting. Scary." Speaking of scary, one night John was playing the Phantom out of town and right before the show began, they told him they didn't have a boat! For some reason, the boat didn't work in the theatre they were performing in so they told John to wing it. What the — ? How is supposed to take Christine to his subterranean hideaway that's surrounded by an underground lake? It's a good thing Andrew Lloyd Webber also wrote Jesus Christ Superstar because that night John gave that show a tip o' the hat when he took Christine to his lair by walking on water. I'm sure when Christine later told Raoul she was visited by the "angel of music" the audience was like, "Yeah, she was. We saw it."

Wednesday night I was at Café Carlyle with a bevy of Broadway folk, at a birthday party for John Reid who used to be the manager for Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Jackson, Elton John and Freddie Mercury. It all began a few months ago when I got a call from John. He had recently become a fan of my deconstruction videos and asked me to put together the entertainment for his 60th birthday party! Even though I assume he is a ferocious manager when he needs to be, he let me do whatever I wanted for his show. I asked John who some of his favorite Broadway singers were and his partner, James Thompson (who's studying musical theatre composing at NYU) sent me a list of John's favorite shows. After much perusing, I got the night's line-up. First came the fabulous Lillias White singing her amazing version of "Don't Rain On My Parade" because John loves Funny Girl and she sings the best version I know (next to Babs). After the song, Lillias got a phenomenal audience reaction — British-style, as the room was filled John's British friends. Clapping and cheering…in a proper, reserved, "it's rude to call attention to oneself" way.

James Wesley and Pam Myers
photo by Seth Rudetsky

Here's a little backstory about the next act: While we were in London, John took me, James and Juli out to dinner and I told him that I had booked everybody but one singer. When we next saw him, he went up to James (my partner) and asked him if he'd be the one singer I had yet to book. James, of course, said yes, so after Lillias, he got up and sang an amazing version of "Piece of Sky." Then, because John is a major fan of Company, I asked Pam Myers to fly in and she sang the song she originated: "Another Hundred People"…in the original key! John's partner had also told me that they were both major Christine Ebersole fans so I wanted to get her to make an appearance. But then I remembered she had a show that night. Sad face. But then I realized that our show wouldn't start til 10 PM and her show would end around then…and it was at Feinstein's which is just a few blocks away. I called her (while she was in California at a wedding) and she agreed to hightail it over after her act. She got there just in time and sang a beautiful rendition of "The Music That Makes Me Dance." Her vocal placement is so perfect. It's like listening to an orchestral instrument. Brava! Finally, Lillias came back, and because John loves Dreamgirls, she closed with "I Am Changing." Yet again, wild applause issued forth from the audience…contrasted by their upright bodies with proper posture. Afterward, there was a delicious cake which I devoured while lamenting the fact that Jackie Collins left before I could tell her how much I loved "Lucky" and "Hollywood Husbands" (anybody?).

The craziest part was hanging out at the Carlyle before we performed. James overheard a man on his cell phone say: "Hi. I'm having drinks with one of the Olsen twins. (Pause). I don't know which one." Then the aforementioned Olsen twin walked out of the bar into the lobby…and James also had no idea which one she was. I guess the effect from Full House still works today. I put clips of all of the singers from the evening at my site: sethrudetsky.com/blog.

On Sunday night I went to the closing of Avenue Q. The show was so great. Every performer got entrance applause and there was extended applause after "The More You Ruv Someone" which was a tip o' the hat to Ann Harada for being an original cast member. And, I think it was a call back to the enormous applause she got when she entered during the Avenue Q performance on the Tony Awards when the subtext was: you deserved a Tony nomination. But, it's always weird to be at a show where the whole audience is so inside. Every time a performer did a new line reading than the ones we were used to, he/she got BIG laughs. But some of the built-in jokes that always bring the house down during a regular show got crickets because we all knew the joke. Usually, when Nicky brings out the Ricky puppet, Rod's new boyfriend he finds on the internet, the crowd goes crazy because it's so hilarious. But since most of the audience had seen it many times, the big reveal had the same effect that happens in a library after you're glared at by the stern librarian: Silence. And looking for the microfiche area.

During "I Wish I Could Go Back to College" (one of my favorite songs in the show) I remembered Ann Harada telling me that John Tartaglia had come to New York right after high school, so during rehearsals they had to explain to him what the word "quad" meant! During the final ("For Now"), all of the previous casts began filing onstage. It was so moving to see all the different people who've played the various parts. Then instead of the part that goes "George Bush! Is only for now…" they sang, "This show! Is only for now…" Ironically, Kevin McCollum (one of the producers) got onstage after the show and announced that it would be re-opening "in the Broadway district" at New World Stages in one month. And now comes my brava: Kevin told me about that months ago and I kept it secret!!!! I've always had the secret-keeping capabilities of Ethel Mertz but I actually did it this time. It was so hard because I was constantly around people whom it would affect. In July, I went out to dinner with Ann Harada and Anika Larsen, and asked them about their fall plans but couldn't say, "Don't go anywhere!!! You're shows going to re-open and you'll need to rehearse!" Instead, I had to listen to their various plans and stifle my voice by shoveling food in my mouth. Well, the shoveling part is de riguer at a meal, but this time it also helped me not spill the beans instead of just leading to an acid reflux attack. And finally, I left Manhattan for one afternoon last week to visit the beautiful estate of Fran and Barry Weissler. Fran had seen me host the National Touring Awards and thought I was "so hilarious," she invited me and my Sirius/XM co-host Christine Pedi to her house to see if we'd like to perform in the outdoor theatre she's built. That's right, she has so much land that she's able to have an outdoor theatre. Her house is similar to my apartment without all the space, land, theatre or estate. While walking through her beautiful home, I saw all the framed posters of the shows they've produced. I pointed out one of my absolute favorite shows, Falsettos, and she said that it was one of her favorite shows… and, the hardest one to produce! "No one was interested because it was about gay people, AIDS…and Jews." The Weisslers finally had to put their own money into it…and it became a Tony Award winning hit. BRAVA!

This week I'll have Kelli O'Hara at my Sirius Live On Broadway show Wednesday at noon and I'll be hosting "Broadway Karaoke" Thursday at 5 PM…both at the Times Square Information Center. It's part of "Back to Broadway" month and the info is at ilovenytheater.com. Happy Rosh Hashana!

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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.

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