ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Game of Celebrity

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Game of Celebrity I'm writing this column after celebrating Father's Day with my boyfriend James and his six-year-old daughter Juli.
Ana Gasteyer
Ana Gasteyer

First I took them out to brunch. And by "brunch," I mean dinner since it took two hours to get our meal. But it didn't matter because it was delish and we got French toast on the side. Yum. Then we went bowling at Chelsea Piers, which was super fun. Juli essentially got the same score I did because she used bumpers in the lane. Have you seen them? They're literally walls that come up to prevent a child from having the bowling ball go in the gutter! When did bumpers come into existence? I never had that option at my signature bowling birthday parties circa '76, '77 and '78. I did, however, have a birthday cake with a fruit filling every year, even though I hate fruit in my desserts. I'm still angry I didn't just have delicious yellow cake with chocolate icing. But that's an angry confrontation I've yet to have with my mother (but plan on having one day in the "Mirror Has Two Faces" Barbra/Lauren Bacall-style).

Okay, on to Broadway. And by "Broadway," I mean Off-Broadway. I spent Monday at the York Theater Company doing NEO (which stands for New, Emerging, Outstanding). It's a yearly fundraising event for The York that features the work of NEO (see acronym explained) composing teams. I was asked to sing a funny song by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul about a guy who is po'd at his ex-boyfriend. It's called "In Short" and most verses end with a version of the lyric "In short…I hope you die." The audience ate up the bitterness. It was hosted by the talented composer Bobby Lopez (Avenue Q) and the hi-larious and hi-belting Ann Harada. The last time I heard from Ann was when she sent me an email lauding my book, "The Q Guide to Broadway," yet begging me to let her copy edit my next one because her former proofreader sensibilities were up in arms from reading it. I wasn't offended at all because there are some crazy mistakes in the book, including a section on Rush Tickets that refers to them as "Tush" tickets.

So many great people performed, including the amazing Lynne Wintersteller. I have always been obsessed with her voice on the Closer Than Ever CD ("Life Story" is gorgeous), but until I did a reading with her last year, I never knew that she's also fun-nee. Where is her Broadway starring vehicle? I was saying backstage that there should be more shows for women over 40. Is there only Mamma Mia! and Menopause, The Musical? Why is that all there is? And, why must they only start with the letter M?

I hung out backstage with post-Elphaba, Ana Gasteyer. We have had some hilarious times together. Once, for my birthday, I thought it would be nice to have a low-key party and spend the night with my close friends playing my fave game, Celebrity. I wanted around 15 people at my Celebrity party, and I was miffed by Ana acting odd during the phone call when I invited her. A week later, I called to confirm whether she was coming or not and to tell her the version of Celebrity that I play. There was an awkward pause, then the question "Celebrity is a game?"

"Yes," I answered, finally realizing the weirdness from the last phone call. She literally thought I was having a birthday party and inviting only my "celebrity" friends! How shallow did she think I was! "Hi, Myron. I have known you since high school and I'd love to invite you to my party, but your lack of famous-ness prevents me. However, I left an open letter on the Spring Awakening message board inviting any cast members to come. Mm-hm. No understudies. I'm sure they understand. After all, it's a 'Celebrity' party." Another time, Ana and I were talking on the phone and she sounded down. I asked what was up, and she told me that her dad had just died. I screamed, "Oh no! How terrible!" She explained that she was especially upset because her cabaret act was the next day (!) and she was having trouble memorizing her words.Huh? Priorities, anybody? That seemed a little too show-biz obsessed . . . even for me. I assumed that maybe her dad had been sick for a while, and that's why she was able to move quickly from the death of a parent into the realm of difficulty of memorizing a Juice Newton medley. Finally, after some more strange comments from her and talk about getting a dog, I realized I had heard her totally wrong. She didn't say her dad died. She said her cat died! I was mortified. I finally told her what I thought she had said and admitted the silent judgments I was feeling about her as she lamented the difficulty of committing "Almost Over You" to memory. She was so annoyed because she had been silently praising me the whole conversation thinking, "Finally! Out of all my friends, Seth has had the only appropriate reaction to this news.(See: Oh no! How terrible!) PS, she would never do a Juice Newton medley. That was added for comic effect. More PS, how could anyone do a Juice Newton medley? What happens after "Break it to Me Gently"?

Thursday I interviewed theatre legend, Jonathan Tunick. He has orchestrated so many classic Broadway shows my head almost fell off. I asked him to describe what an orchestrator does. I thought he'd say that an orchestrator takes what the composer has written (usually for piano) and divides it up between the instruments of the orchestra. He did say that, but then he said that a good analogy is lighting. "If the music is the set, the orchestration is the lighting. It colors it, it gives it texture, it gives it shading, and it can express the unspoken . . . the subtext. It can tell you what the character is not saying but rather feeling or . . . maybe even unaware of." Well said!

He also talked about the sitzprobe, which is the rehearsal where the actors sing with the orchestra for the first time. To go from singing with a rehearsal piano to a full orchestra is one of the most thrilling moments for any company of a musical. I then realized the sitzprobes he's been to. These were the first times these songs were heard with an orchestra: Follies ("Dorothy…they'll be two violins playing as you sing the last line of "Losing My Mind"); Company ("Vocal minority. The brass plays along with you in "Tick Tock" when you go "Dot Dot Dot Dow!"); Promises, Promises ("Burt…what's a Turkey Lurkey? And Donna…doesn't your neck hurt doing that?") not to mention A Little Night Music, Merrily We Roll Along and A Chorus Line. There were many orchestrators on A Chorus Line because everybody was busy that season, and it was a downtown show that no one thought would ever move uptown. That's ironic. Jonathan said he's not 100% sure, but he thinks he did the Opening, "At The Ballet" and "Nothing."

To have been at those sitzprobes and heard all those classics — I want to have some of his memory cells implanted into my brain as soon as that operation is foolproof.

Saturday, I went back to The York to see the Musicals in Mufti series because they were doing It's a Bird. . . It's a Plane. . . It's Superman. My old buddy Stuart Ross directed and milked much comedy out of the great cast. Can I just say, I'm still devastated that Cheyenne Jackson wasn't nominated for a Tony Award for All Shook Up? He has such a fantastic voice and is a great comedian. I thought good looking people aren't supposed to be funny. What happened to "Because I was so odd looking, I learned to make people laugh to get by." It's not supposed to be, "I'm great looking and hilarious…and I have a cool first name."

Saturday night I went to see one of the most talented people I know, Jeff Roberson as Varla Jean Merman. If you haven't seen Varla, get thee to youtube. My favorite number is the "Schoolhouse Rock" parody ("A Noun's a Person, Place or Thing). The verse is about a friend of hers who met a French producer who promised to put her in a film, but she was never heard from again.. The chorus goes: "Oh, any person you can know/Like a desperate girl, or a seedy Frenchman/ And anyplace that you can go-/Like a bar, or the bank of the Seine/ And anything that you can show-/ Like fake credentials, or a snuff film/ You know they're nouns…."

Finally, I want to tell you what Rupert Holmes is most proud of. I interviewed him on Sirius, and he said that his biggest fear is forgetting to turn off his cell phone and having it go off during a show. He said he figured out the perfect ring, so he won't be devastated if it happens. I racked my brain trying to think what it was — coming up only with the notion of downloading a ringtone from each show he sees so the audience will think it's part of the show. He shook his head and held up his phone. He then played me the ring that won't get him busted. (Cough, cough.) (Cough, cough.) That's it! He literally recorded a cough! He said that light coughing is the one noise you can expect to hear in any audience, be it comedy, drama, musical etc. Also, it's his actual cough, so if someone looks over, he can just do it live for theatre verite. Isn't that brilliant?

Okay, everyone. Happy post-Father's Day, and go listen to a brilliant Tunick orchestration and figure out the characters' subtext. And if someone coughs, answer the phone! *

(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)