ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Sunnybrook Farm's Bounty

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Sunnybrook Farm's Bounty A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Henry Krieger and Seth Rudetsky
Henry Krieger and Seth Rudetsky Photo by Aubrey Reuben

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Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm ruined my diet. There, I said it. I rehearsed Rebecca for a week and last Monday was the reading. Once I showed up I discovered that Kelly Gonda, one of the producers from East of Doheny loves homecooking, so instead of the food spread at the reading being a typical cheese and fruit platter (AKA stuff I'm not interested in), it featured everything I love. Cakes, brownies and, my personal obsession, cookies. I'm obsessed with cookies and I ingested about eight chocolate chip ones over the course of both acts. Then on my way out, I shoved more in my pocket, praying there wasn't an electronic tag attached that would start beeping as I left the rehearsal room.

The reading went great and the audience loved everything...including my broad comedy moments. There's nothing more devastating than doing a bit that gets big laughs in rehearsal and then getting crickets when you finally perform it. What was stressful was that all my comedy moments came near the end of the show so I had to be nervous the whole time, hence the eight cookies.

Henry Krieger was the composer and, as many of you know, I'm obsessed with Dreamgirls. Here's some fun trivia. I had heard that the first song he and Tom Eyen wrote for that show was "One Night Only." They first started talking about the show at a Manhattan diner and Henry wrote stuff down on a napkin. However, I was listening to a CD someone had of the pre-New York tryout of Dreamgirls and it had a totally different song where "One Night Only" normally went. I asked Henry if he really had written "One Night Only" first, or if he wrote it only when the show came to Broadway. Turns out, it was the first Dreamgirls song but it was cut in Boston by Michael Bennett. Why? Because he thought it sounded too Jewish!!!! I know that sounds crazy, but if you listen to it, especially the minor introduction with the oboe, it does have the essence of my Bar Mitzvah. However, people in the cast were so devastated when the song was cut that they begged Michael Bennett to put the song back in. When the ushers joined in with the begging, he knew that "One Night Only" was too good to cut. And now, some Dreamgirls movie trivia. I heard that certain executives didn't want the amazing through-sung fight scene (featuring the memorable "You're lyin', you're lyin', I never been so thin") that leads up to "And I Am Telling You" in the film, so Bill Condon filmed one version with the fight as dialogue and one version with the fight totally sung. Thankfully, the belting triumphed. I listen to that fight scene almost every day at the gym. I actually do a compare and contrast of all three recorded versions (The Broadway, The Actors Fund Concert with Lillias White, Audra MacDonald and Heather Headley, and the film) on my website. Listen to all three Effie's belting the "G" in "For SE-ven years I sung with you…". Brava! (www.SethRudetsky.com).

At my "Sirius Live On Broadway" show (Wednesday at noon at the Times Square Information Center) I first interviewed The Marvelous Wonderettes. Backstage, I was talking to two of the ladies in the show and learning their names. Bets Malone pointed out that she was not related to fellow cast member Beth Malone. "You're not siblings?" I asked. She laughed and said, "What mother would possibly do that to her child?" My lower lip started trembling as I informed her that my name is Seth Rudetsky and my sister's name is Beth Rudetsky. She was mortified and I then proceeded to tell her the many different ways it was annoying. Once, I put Beth in a benefit I was doing (she's a great singer) and more than one person said to me, "I saw the name Beth Rudetsky on the poster. Is that your drag name?" What the — ? They think that the most creative drag name I can come up with for Seth Rudetsky is Beth Rudetsky? A single letter change? Come on! If anything, I'd use my favorite (and most offensive) drag name I've ever heard: Amber Alert. One of the Wonderettes, Farah Alvin (brilliant singer…check my website for her amazing rendition of "Solitaire"), said that she tried out for a small regional theatre a year ago and the director looked at her resume, and her four Broadway shows and asked her if she was in Actors' Equity. She laughed at his joke. He wasn't joking. She explained that since she had been on Broadway…four times…it meant that she was in the union. She didn't get the gig. What did he think the Broadway credits on her resume were? Shows she'd been called back for?

I also interviewed three of the stars of 13. The role of Evan, the Bar Mitzvah boy, is played by Graham Phillips. I told him that his name did not indicate "Bar Mitzvah" to me, but rather someone at a Country Club who is in charge of keeping it "restricted." He acknowledged that he is indeed not Jewish and I told him that the last time I was this outraged at a casting choice was when Michelle Pfeiffer got the lead in the film version of Frankie and Johnny…. He was blank-faced and I soon realized that the film was made in 1991…two years before he was born. Yowtch. I knew then that I had to throw out the next few bits I had planned featuring riffs on Agnes Moorehead, Erin Moran and Tab. Essentially, my frame of reference had to be limited to The Last Five Years…and not just the show. For my next interview I might as well get a microscopic camera and interview a triple-threat zygote.

The 13 CD is played in my apartment non-stop by Juli so I pretty much know every song. There are some songs on the CD that aren't in the show and I asked Elizbeth Gillies (who plays Lucy has a great voice) what happened to the amazing song "Opportunity." She said that it was her big song and it opened Act Two. Cut to: she showed up at the theatre and the creative staff said that there were some changes…the show is now only one act and "Opportunity" is cut. I asked her if she cried up a storm and she said no. Then I asked if she emotionally shut down instead and informed her that it would serve well as an adult.

I went to go see 13 again last Saturday matinee and, turns out, they only let Graham do six shows a week so he can preserve his voice and perhaps star in 14. The matinee Evan is Corey Snide and from just watching him walk out during the opening number I knew he was an amazing dancer. I checked his credits and saw that he starred in the West End as Billy Elliot. I still got it! I feel like Wicked's Madame Morrible: "…and that's my talent. Recognizing talent."

Joe Mantello
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Saturday night I stopped by Studio 54 because I knew Pal Joey would be teching and I wanted to say hi to my favorite Broadway director (AKA my only Broadway director) Joe Mantello. It was 9:30 and everybody was hard at work. I saw so many of the people whom I worked with on The Ritz that it was like a little reunion. Thankfully, I avoided my unitard. Joe was in the audience but didn't have the signature "God Mic" that so many directors use so they can angrily yell "CUT" when something goes wrong. Instead, he'd just hop up and walk over to the lighting designer or stage manager when something needed to be changed. I either salute his yoga regimen or his psycho-pharmacologist. Scott Pask who did the set for The Ritz built an amazing set for Pal Joey. Wait 'til you see it! At one point during the rehearsal, a beautiful blonde came out onstage and started singing "Zip." I nudged James and whispered knowingly, "That's Martha Plimpton." I had heard she has an amazing voice but she sounded clanky! I put a frozen smile on my face and after one minute Joe leaned over and informed us, a. she's supposed to sound awful in this scene and b. that's not Martha Plimpton. Turns out, there's a moment in the show where someone else sings "Zip" and is supposed to stink. I went from a "know-it-all" to a "know nothing" in four measures. I asked Joe about 9 to 5 and if it's true that Dolly came up onstage during a performance. Turns out, when the show had to stop due to technical difficulties, she bounded up onstage and sang "9 to 5" and "I Will Always Love You". Brava! Unfortunately, the next time she did it, she sang "9 to 5" and then announced she was gonna sing "I Will Always Love You." Of course, the audience went crazy. Then, she found out that the set was fixed so she excitedly told everyone that she didn't need to sing and the show could go on. Crickets. The curtain came up and poor Stephanie J. Block had to sing her song. I'm sure it felt like when you're the understudy and the whole audience is mad they have to see you perform. The good news is, it was Stephanie J. Block who has a phenomenal voice, so of course, she won the audience over with her brava belt.

Also at the tech rehearsal was everybody's favorite Latina dancer turned director/choreographer, Graciela Daniele. Every actor I've interviewed has said that they'd drop everything to work with her. I remembered one story she had told me when I interviewed her years ago. She was one half of Vincent and Vanessa, the tango couple in the original Follies. She told me about one night near the end of her run when she wasn't fully focusing because she was about to leave the show and her mind was on the future. She was in her dressing room and suddenly heard her entrance music! She panicked and flew down the staircase running into Vincent in the wings. She started frantically explaining to him at what point in the music they could enter and still have their dance make sense. In the middle of her babbling he cut her off with, "Graciela! Calm down! You're speaking in Spanish!" Caramba!

Thursday I interviewed the Defarges from Tale of Two Cities as a swan song. Natalie Toro (Madame Defarge) told us a great Broadway bitchery tale. When she graduated college she was obsessed with Les Miz and desperate to get in it. She went to Japan to play Rosalia in West Side Story and was loving it (they would literally have a red carpet every night leading from the stage door). However, while she was there, they had auditions for the Les Miz national tour, back in New York. She was gonna try to fly back to audition for Eponine but it takes so long to fly there that by the time the plane landed, she'd be right for Madame Thenardier. Besides, she couldn't miss any West Side Story performances. She let it go and when she got back, the casting director called her and asked her to audition. He told her it was for the "New York company" of Les Miz and she was so naïve that she didn't know that meant Broadway! I guess she assumed there was a Les Miz company in Elmira. A few days before her audition, she tried out for a regional production of Baby and got it! She called the producer and told them that she had a big audition for Eponine coming up the next day (Saturday) and they said that she could postpone signing her contract until Monday at 5 PM. At the Les Miz audition, she ran into a woman who was at the Baby audition. Let's call her "Eve." Eve said, "I heard you got the role in Baby. Is that true? What are you gonna do if you get this?" Natalie explained that she had til Monday at 5 to sign the contract. Then they both auditioned and went home to wait. The good news is that Vinnie Liff (the casting director) called Natalie later and said those amazing words to her: "Welcome to Broadway." Natalie doesn't think she'll ever experience the thrill that went through her body during that phone call. The annoying news is that Vinnie told her that after she and "Eve" auditioned, "Eve" went back, knocked on the door and told the creative people that they shouldn't give the role to Natalie…because she already had another job! Sabateuse! Months later, Natalie was on the subway going home after the show. She was wearing her Les Miz jacket and her Eponine hat and when she looked up...she saw "Eve" sitting across from her. They locked eyes and, as the poets say nary a word was spoken…but so much was said!

Speaking of phone calls, Natalie also told us that she originated the role of Madame Defarge on the Tale of Two Cities concept album and then played the role in the workshops and the out of town tryout. She was therefore super-psyched when she found out that it was going to Broadway. One day, however, she was driving on the Van Wyck expressway and the casting director called saying, "This is the part of my job that I hate." He told her that because there was new director, she'd have to audition for her role. She literally pulled over to the side of the road because she was so overwhelmed. Natalie decided to have a good attitude and went into the audition feeling positive. She sang her big number, "Out of Sight, Out of Mind" and then read. The only sass she gave was on her way out when she called over her shoulder, "Happy Hunting." She left the audition wanting to get a drink (!) but none of her friends were around. Instead, she went shopping…and bought what she decided would be her opening night shoes. A few hours later her phone rang. She saw from the caller ID that it was the director. She didn't want to pick up because there was a big chance it was a "You're so wonderful…we can't use you" phone call. She finally answered and he was very polite. He asked her what she did after the audition. She told him that she bought her opening night shoes. He could have said, "Wonderful. We'll definitely invite you opening night so you'll get a chance to wear them" but instead he told her that she got the part! For those of you that think that it always works out this way, you should know that many people originate roles and then get ixnayed for the Broadway production (Matthew Broderick Parade and Carolee Carmello Scarlett Pimpernel for example). Just know that I want credit if Rebecca of Sunnybrook Farm goes to Broadway, and the guy playing Hamilton shoves eight chocolate chip cookies down his gullet backstage. I did it first!

Finally, I have to talk about election night. At 11 PM Nov. 4, James and I went to turn on the news because we had a feeling there'd be a big announcement. We sat on the couch, anticipating history being made…and we couldn't get to a news channel! Why? Because DVR only lets you watch the shows you're taping and we were taping "The Daily Show" and "Clifford The Big Red Dog". Son of a — !!!! By the time I figured out how to stop recording, Oprah had been crying for 20 minutes. I have to say that I, too, was crying during his acceptance speech. However, the elation we both felt about Obama being elected was monumentally depleted when we heard about Proposition 8 being passed outlawing marriage equality in California. We were so upset for the next few days, and knew so many people who felt devastated/helpless, that we decided to start a new website where people can write their feelings. We're hoping that President Obama appoints a LGBT liaison (a position that Bush eliminated) who will read the various posts on the site and then show it to the president. Go to www.OurVoicesForMarriage.com and take a gander. This week I'm off to Ithaca for a Hangar Theater benefit on Monday (with Julia Murney and Andrea Burns) and Tuesday I have a benefit with Cheyenne Jackson for The Harvey Milk School. Wednesday I have the "Sirius Live on Broadway" show with the leads from The Fantasticks and then Thursday is my Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama. But, the most fun news is, next week's column will be written from L.A.! Details to follow!!!

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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.)