ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Gypsy in Their Souls

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Gypsy in Their Souls Howdy y'all. That's right, howdy y'all. Does that sound natural? I thought not. I'm writing to you from Houston, Texas, where my boyfriend, his daughter and I are visiting his mom, sister, sister's boyfriend and cousin.

There's plenty to write about from down here, but first let's begin in New York. I'd like to start with a shout out to my friend Anika Larsen (Zanna, Don't and Xanadu…seriously) who started a new theatre company with her friend April Nikell. That's the amazing part. The "what were they thinking" part is that they named it Jaradoa Theater. My question is, is Jaradoa a word that can be pronounced? My answer: No. I assumed it was some kind of Brazilian word that I should know but didn't. I then found out that it's an acronym for Just a Roomful of Artists Doing Outreach and Theatre. Acronym? An acronym is supposed to make something easier to pronounce, not give you a headache. Anika told me that every name they wanted for their theatre company was taken. Really? Every name? Did their brainstorming conversation go like this:

ANIKA: Anika, focus up. We need a name for our Theater Company ASAP.
APRIL: The Roundabout?
ANIKA: Taken
APRIL: Second Stage?
ANIKA: Taken
APRIL: Jaradoa?
ANIKA: Perfect

Why did they skip to that? Wasn't there a middle ground? Anyhoo, the company is way cool because they not only do new theatre with a collection of super-talented actors and creative staff, they also have in their charter that they all have to do outreach. Jaradoa (Ow! It actually hurts to type it) goes to old age homes with the scripts to old radio plays and performs them as they were 50 years ago, complete with sound effects and commercial breaks. And, hopefully, 1940's accents. I'm obsessed with the way people talked back then. It's a wry combo of British, Boston and Roz Russell/Eva Marie-Saint. Their premiere production was Serenade, and they got a delish review in The New York Times. Brava!

Last Monday and Tuesday was the Gypsy of the Year Competition. After fundraising for six weeks, Broadway shows put on a variety show (where one show wins a "Best in Show" award), and there are awards for the shows that raised the most money for BC/EFA. The most amazing part of this year's production was that the opening number was a salute to West Side Story to celebrate its 50th anniversary. The number began with current-day gypsies playing Jets and dancing the opening. Suddenly, the original Bernardo entered, and the audience went wild. He crossed the stage as the Jets watched his every move and right before he exited…he pulled out a switchblade. He's still got it! Then the original Riff, (Mickey Calin) came out and sang, "When You're a Jet." He was amazing! And still so great looking! I kept thinking he was about to get off the rhythm of the music but turns out he was doing sassy back phrasing. Make it your own, Riff! He was suddenly joined by a slew of original West Side gypsies, and they finished the number together. I got to watch them rehearse Monday afternoon right before the show, and when the original Jets entered and I saw all that history on the stage, I immediately started crying. Broken only by Christine Pedi sitting in back of me, tapping me on the shoulder and whispering, "Is that Harvey Evans?" Note to Christine: When you see someone's shoulders shaking from emotion, do not ask for Broadway gypsy clarification.

Anyhoo, Carol Lawrence then came on to sing "I Feel Pretty" with some current gypsy ladies. I'm obsessed with the fact that dance training never goes away. Carol Lawrence is in her seventies, but she did ballet moves across the stage with such grace. I was with my 75-year-old mom, and I glared at her for not being able to do gazelle-like pas-de-bourées with gorgeous port de bras. The only dance step she's ever been able to haul out is the Hora, which is only appropriate for Bar Mitzvahs and regional Fiddler on the Roofs. After "I Feel Pretty", Chita Rivera stormed the stage and launched into "A Boy Like That." When she sang "One of your own kind, stick to your own ki-i-i-i-ind," she added her signature vibrato, and the audience literally applauded! James and his daughter Juli saw it with me, and later on James told her what a momentous event she had witnessed. She's only seven, and I realized it would have been like me seeing a 50-year-reunion of the original Show Boat. All right, let's be honest age-wise, the original Mikado.

The whole number ended with everyone singing the "Tonight" quintet and, yet again, tears streamed down my face as I thought that these were the people who actually sang this song eight times a week. And they were still selling it to the balcony, old-school!

I wrote the Gypsy of the Year sketch for The Ritz, and it was essentially a lesson for the young gypsies on Broadway. The other cast members and I acted out signature Gypsy Lore that has been around forever. The kind of stories that have been passed along for so many years, no one even knows if they're true, but they're classics nonetheless. We acted out "Wait Until Dark," where the leading lady plays a blind woman being pursued by a murderer. During the final scene, he stalks her in her apartment, she turns off all the lights, opens up a kitchen drawer, pulls out a knife and stabs him. The Gypsy Lore is that during one performance, no one had pre-set her knife, so the drawer was empty. Since she was supposed to be blind, she couldn't really run around the kitchen looking for a knife, but she had to kill the murderer or the play wouldn't end! She was panicking and opened the nearby fridge, hoping for something she could kill him with. Unfortunately, the only thing there was a glass jar. She had no option but to take it out and scream "Poison Jelly" as she wiped it on the murderer's face. End of scene…and career.

The biggest laugh happened during our West Side Story segment. After Tony is killed, Maria confronts the Sharks and the Jets while brandishing a gun. "How many bullets are left in this gun, Chino? Enough for you? You? All of you?" Well, one night she brandished her gun as usual. "How many bullets are left in this gun, Chino? Enough for you?" And the gun went off. There was an awkward silence until Chino realized the audience saw/heard what happened, and he had to act like he was shot. He looked around at the other cast members who didn't know what to do, and finally he realized he had to die. He slowly crumbled to the ground as Maria looked uncomfortable. So, now there was Tony's body on the ground, killed by Chino, and Chino's body next to him. Killed by Maria. The show ended with the gangs carrying off Tony's body as usual, but nobody knew what to do with Chino's, so everyone just stepped over him and left him there.

At the end of Gypsy of the Year, The Ritz won the award for raising the most money of any play: $139,514! Then we found out that our sketch tied for first runner-up! We tied with Xanadu, who combined with Stomp (calling themselves Stompadu) and did a phenomenal a cappella song led by Annie Golden and put together by Marty Thomas. I was so thrilled we got two awards! I was backstage with Jeffrey Thomas from The Ritz and told him that I've done a lot of Gypsy sketches but never won. By the third time I said how excited I was to win, he reminded me that we actually came in as the runner up. And that we tied. Jeffrey has a way with a stick pin. Then we went out to Starbucks with my friend Tim Cross. I checked my messages, and my agent told me to call her about Lend Me a Tenor for which I had auditioned the day before. I told Tim and Jeffrey that I must have gotten a callback. I called my agent, and she told me that I was cast! I hung up and told Tim and Jeffrey that I got the gig. Tim looked at me sadly and said, "No callback?" Hilarious!

I told my agent I'm taking the part. The good news is it's a brand new theatre. The bad news is, it's in Northport Long Island. The good news is it's Patti LuPone's hometown. The bad news is, it's an hour-and-a-half commute. But it's a great director (BT McNichol), a funny part (the bellhop), and I'll get insurance weeks! And comic genius, Michele Ragusa is in it, too! I'm so excited! I start rehearsals Jan. 2. It's so fun to be on vacation and have a job to look forward to! Speaking of vacation, let's go to the Texas part of my week.

James, Juli and I flew down on Wednesday, and the next day we drove to Dallas to visit James' grandma. We left Juli with James' mom and drove to Ft. Worth to hang out with Betty Buckley. For those of you that don't know, around five years ago, Betty sold her Upper West Side apartment and bought an enormous ranch back where she grew up. I've been inspired by her move and have decided to leave the comforts of the West Seventies and move back to my hometown on Long Island where I can enjoy the local mall, a non-stop stream of my mother's "helpful" advice and various taunts from local teenagers. Just kidding. I'd sooner name our next child Jaradoa.

Anyhoo, Betty (or Betty Lynn as she's known by her friends) met us for dinner with her mom, whose name is Betty Bob! We had delicious Tex Mex at a restaurant that Betty has been going to since she was a girl. Betty Lynn said that her mom used to be a singer, but stopped 50 years ago (she's now in her eighties!). At a recent concert, she surprised her mom by bringing her onstage to sing "It Had to Be You." Her mother was a nervous wreck, but Betty had all the lyrics printed and laid out, and worked out the key with her band beforehand. Her mom begged Betty to begin the song, and soon Betty Bob joined in. Her mom said that she didn't want the audience to be bored, so she realized she had to "give it a little something." Betty Lynn said that Betty Bob suddenly started pulsating her shoulder to the rhythm and the crowd loved it. Go to BettyBuckley.com to read the letter her mom wrote about her experience. I wish I had been there!

Then we all went to see "Sweeney Todd." I liked that they kept so many songs from the show in the movie, and I'm so thankful that movie musicals are being made again, but I was annoyed to read Sondheim's quote to the Times that he prefers actors to singers. Why doesn't he prefer people who can do both? I don't understand why there is still the notion that you can either have an actor or a singer. There seems to be a pervading attitude that if you do a musical and sing badly, it's because you're a great actor. Isn't it just called you have a thin voice? Have we all forgotten Bernadette Peters, Patti LuPone, Angela Lansbury, Betty Buckley? Are they not wonderful actors and singers?

Speaking of Betty, James and I then drove (with her leading the way in her new Prius) to Betty's ranch. She now not only does her concert and theatre work, but she competes as a horse cutter. She rides a horse in a stadium with a bunch of cattle and tries to separate one cow from the herd. She showed us pictures of herself in the competition, and her face is so full of concentration, it's amazing. You only have two-and-a-half minutes, and your goal is to separate up to three cows. She's been doing phenomenally well and said that the prize she won in her last competition paid for her new horse! She introduced us to her two horses, Scat Cat and Wild Bill. She offered us a chance to ride, and when I found out it wouldn't be like the birthday party donkeys I remembered from my youth, I politely declined. Of course, James fell in love with Scat Cat and now wants a horse. I said "perhaps later, dear," my signature condescending husband answer. We slept in Betty's fabulous guest house and bid her adieu. She was on her way to a riding lesson, and we were headed back to Houston. For those of you that are nervous she's given up performing, rest assured because she has plenty of concerts coming up (Feinstein's in February!), and she has a great role in the upcoming M. Night Shyamalan film. I read somewhere that he chose that name for himself. Why that? PS, which is worse; M. Night Shyamalan or M. Night Jaradoa? You decide. All right, I'm gearing up for a Texan Christmas. Have a great holiday, everyone, and I'll write next week from the Big Apple instead of the Lone Star state!

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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." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com. His first novel is titled "Broadway Nights.")

The cast of <i>The Ritz</i> at the annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, a fundraiser for BC/EFA.
The cast of The Ritz at the annual Gypsy of the Year Competition, a fundraiser for BC/EFA.
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