ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Six Degrees of Matthew Morrison

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Six Degrees of Matthew Morrison Happy post-Mother's Day!
Seth Rudetsky and Steven Pasquale
Seth Rudetsky and Steven Pasquale

The beginning of May is a time when I focus a lot of attention on my mother because it features both Mother's Day andher birthday. Normally when I'm asked by my therapist, "How many phone calls a day can you endure from your Mother?," I respond as Betty Buckley once did when asked to name her TV series, "Eight is Enough." But when it comes to beginning of May, I up the number of calls endured to the name of the Jason Robert Brown show that shockingly didn't get a Best Score Tony nomination (13). If my mother is reading this, let me please make her aware that Mother's Week is over, and I would appreciate the amount of daily phone calls limited to the title of the Hal Prince show that played in Philadelphia…and hopefully with a less annoying spelling (3hree).

I took my mom to see the brilliant Kristine Zbornik at Don't Tell Mama's and, as usual, she was incredibly creative and intelligently hilarious. At one point she sang "Never Met a Man I Didn't Like" from The Will Rogers Follies and mid-way through told us that she felt it was one of the most insipid and annoying songs ever written. Yet, she said that when she sings it, she winds up hating herself because a part of her would love to be that loving. She started singing it again — trying to adopt a "I love everybody attitude" — while her pianist spewed out names at her. Hitler! Idi Amin! Kristine kept signing with a beatific smile. "That Sham-wow guy!" Kristine didn't waver. Suddenly, Barbra Streisand! That did it. Kristine's façade was broken. Later on, she had people pull a song out of a hat filled with comedy stuff she had been doing for years. Someone pulled out "Memory," one of my favorites. Kristine does it as someone who doesn't quite remember the lyrics: When the dawn comes…tonight will be what yesterday was (I'm obsessed with how that's true!) And tomorrow? S***, who knows? Which finally culminates with an angry: Touch me! I could puke when you touch me! Get your filthy hands off me (Suddenly romantically) But don't ever let go! At one point, Kristine was talking about doing yoga and suddenly noticed Jackie Hoffman, who doesn't do yoga, in the audience.. Kristine said, "It doesn't matter, Jackie. You're gonna outlive us all because you're so. . . " Jackie cut in with, "Disease-ridden?"

Monday night I hosted the Touring Broadway Awards and, speaking of my mother, got a big laugh when I announced that "The Best Score goes to Spring Awakening, or, if you're my mother, Spring's Awakening." Jerry Zaks was there and I introduced him as the first Jewish Kenickie (he did Grease on Broadway in the 70's!), and he then introduced three songs from the upcoming tour of 101 Dalmations. The songs were super-tuneful and Cruella DeVille was played with sass by Beth Leavel. Who knows if that was the final cast, but one of the producers did assure us that there would be live doggies. Although, not 101 of them. 13. Which is, again, the amount of daily phone calls I'll allow from my mother who always manages to leave me the same message on my cell phone and home phone because "you never listen to your messages all the way through."

On Wednesday I had Reasons to Be Pretty star Steven Pasquale at my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show. Years ago, he and Laura Benanti came on my radio show, and I kept calling them out for the shameless flirting going on back and forth (sadly, not with me). They were like "What? You're crazy!! There's no flirting!" Cut to: they're now married. Anyhoo, Steven grew up in Hershey, PA, and it wasn't until he traveled to a "bad" part of town that he noticed the not every neighborhood's air smelled like delicious melted chocolate. Not unlike my reaction entering a different neighborhood than my Long Island one (the Five Towns) and realizing there are people who celebrate something called "Christmas." Back to Steven: In high school, he randomly auditioned for the school musical (Fame) on a fluke. The good news: He got cast! The bad news: He got the part of Tyrone, who not only is a dancer (Steven is decidedly not) but is also black (ditto). After high school, he went to college for a bit but left when he got the national tour of West Side Story where he was the Tony understudy and the only non-dancing Jet. He said that when the music for "Cool" would start, he'd slip into the drugstore and then slip back onstage for the last three beats of the song. And, when he demonstrated the final pose he'd hit, he added the requisite "I'm frozen in a sassy pose, but I'm heavily panting due to the strenuous dance I just did" breathing.

I first met Steven when I interviewed Idina Menzel at my Chatterbox. She and Steven are friends (through Taye Diggs), and he came with her to the show. Idina's from Long Island (like me) and not that long ago Steven had to tell her that she misheard the expression for heavy traffic when she was a kid. He kindly informed her it's called "bumper to bumper" traffic because, until recently, she literally thought it was called "bumpita bumpita" traffic. Ouch…and yet…say it out loud. Doesn't it sound the same? But, my question is, who has she been around for all these years who never thought to tell her she sounded like a jazz musician describing a sassy drum vamp? Did Taye opt out because he secretly thought it was hilarious? PS, when I was a kid, I mixed up capital Ls for lower case ls, and I thought there was one state called Iowa and one called Lowa. Steven has a Broadway musical career that keeps getting stymied. He was the original Fabrizio in The Light in the Piazza right up until it came to New York, but his TV show ("Rescue Me") wouldn't let him do the Broadway run. They felt they couldn't guarantee he'd be done filming in time to get to the theatre, and they were nervous that he'd be too tired etc., so he had to ixnay the part. Speaking of "Rescue Me," Steven said that the Mr. Softee man will come to the set when they're filming outdoors and has to be paid off so he doesn't ruin the shoot by playing the signature Mr. Softee song. Steven told us about the time when Dennis Leary angrily cursed out Mr. Softee, and during the long rampage of the most horrifying curses, the whole thing was accompanied by the sweet Mr. Softee song. That's like watching Reasons to Be Pretty while listening to a CD of Free to Be You and Me.

Steven's second brush with Broadway happened when he was cast as Lt. Cable in the recent revival of South Pacific and yet again had to give it up because of "Rescue Me." I've said it before and I'll say it again; I hate when I have to choose between doing a great part in a TV show or having a great role in a Broadway show. I'll also say I hate that it's never happened to me. The one link in these stories is that Matt Morrison got Steven's roles in both Light in the Piazza and South Pacific. And, he also makes an appearance in the life of my next interviewee: James Carpinello. Stay tuned…

I interviewed James at my Chatterbox, but we first met when I was a sub on Saturday Night Fever, and he was playing the lead. Let me simply say that it was not a fun time for both of us…and judging from the comments heard on the way out of the theatre, for the audience as well. James took dance when he was a kid but started feeling peer pressure to drop it when he reached tween-hood. He remembers trying to prevent his friends from seeing him by hiding on the floor of the family car's backseat as his mother drove him to class. He was so happy when he got the part of Tony Manero, but when he flew to London to see the show he felt completely overwhelmed at the amount of dancing. He trained for months before rehearsals began with the dance captain and also by taking Pilates, but the dancing in the show was so strenuous that when the cast did the first run-through of the show, he threw up right after Act One!

James talked about having the actor's nightmare right after he was on vacation. He went to Italy for a week and got to the show feeling super jet-lagged. The show would begin with him standing behind a giant silhouette of the signature Travolta pose and that night he suddenly thought, "I literally have no idea what I'm supposed to do." The music started ("Stayin' Alive"), and he began singing and dancing, but it was his muscle memory doing it, not him. He literally kept thinking, "I don't know what's next." Hmm…I wonder if that only occurs on stage. It's an amusing romp to hear about it happening to an actor, but not so great to hear about it happening to your surgeon; "Hi, it's Dr. Cohen. Cute story…I cut you open and I thought…'I literally have no idea what organ to take out!'" I guess it's funny to be missing a spleen.

Carpinello then created the role of Link in the Hairspray workshop. He loved the show, but Saturday Night Fever had made him dislike dancing, and he remembers doing the Pony during rehearsal and thinking, "I wonder if I got that movie I auditioned for…" Right before the show opened in Seattle (pre-Broadway), he found out that he got the film and….Matt Morrison took over his role! He's everywhere! I'm not saying Matt is Eve Harrington, but I once saw him push Bette Davis and Lauren Bacall down a staircase (That's right…I'm combining "All About Eve" with Applause and "Showgirls".)

James came back to Broadway playing Sonny in Xanadu and loved it! He's incredibly comfortable on skates…as opposed to Jackie Hoffman. He said that when she found out she didn't have to wear skates in the show, she started crying. I love that that's how deep her relief was. When they were staging the show, sometimes the cast would come to rehearsal and find out that some choreography was going to be changed. James remembered that Jackie would look devastated and quietly mutter, "Change? I finally just got the steps," and then she'd literally start crying. Apparently, Jackie sheds tears of joy andtears of sorrow.

Around a week before opening night, James was onstage between shows and commented that the stage felt a little slippery like it was just washed. Right after that statement, he slipped a little and felt himself slowly falling. When he landed he announced, "I just broke my leg." Everyone thought he was joking, but he had heard it snap! He went to the ER and was told he might not be able to walk normally again. They didn't know if he would be able to ever bend his ankle again. Cheyenne Jackson took over the role, but the producers told James he'd be back in the show when he healed. After two surgeries and tons of physical therapy, everyone realized how crazy it would be for him to come into a show that had found a new rhythm with a different leading man for three months, so James never returned. He would love to do it again…if it were with Kerry. There's been talk of a West End version, so he may be joining British Equity soon…aka in a fortnight (British talk).

James never thought he'd love a show as much as Xanadu, but now he's loving playing rock star, Stacey Jaxx, in Rock of Ages. The only devastating thing is he was talking to his friend Patrick Wilson on the phone, and Patrick casually mentioned that he was offered the role of Stacey in the upcoming film version! Ouch! I'm sure it was as fun a conversation as the one between Chita Rivera and Rita Moreno in the late fifties. James is married with two kids, and his wife came to the see the show during previews. His first entrance is him reclining and shirtless and giving one of his female flunkies (played by Savannah Wise) a kiss. His wife's only note to him after seeing the show was that she didn't think the kiss worked. I, of course, thought, "Typical jealous spouse of an actor." Turns out, she told him that in order to make if more believable, he needed to fully make-out with Savannah! Note to my agent: Get me an audition for Savanna's track.

James said his favorite part of the show has been the same since the first preview. Every night, right before he sings "Dead Or Alive" he thinks, "I'm about to sing "Dead or Alive," there's an audience that paid to hear it, and it's not karaoke." Brava!

Okay, this week I'm doing Wayman Wong's "The Leading Men" concert at Birdland (go to www.Broadwaycares.org for tickets) and a comedy benefit for PS 87 at Caroline's with Judy Gold, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, Caroline Rhea and Julia Murney (go to www.SethRudetsky.com for deets). Then I'm off to Virginia to visit my sister and nieces and see the national tour of Wicked. Peace out…and call your mother!

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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.)

James Carpinello and Seth Rudetsky
James Carpinello and Seth Rudetsky