ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Gypsy in Their Souls

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Gypsy in Their Souls What the hell happened to global warming? Why is it May and the heat is still on in my apartment? I decided to go to the play that most described the month it feels like…November.

It was the Sunday night Actors Fund performance, and the audience loved it. Nathan Lane was hi-larious, and I can't believe he did my Chatterbox a few weeks ago and then did the show that night...it's a mammoth role! People are always talking about roles where "he/she never leaves the stage"…and then they follow it with "…except to change costumes" and then "…and except for a short time during a few scenes in Act Two but she's getting a new wig on at that point." Okay, once the word "except" is used, it's called "She leaves the stage." Whereas Nathan never left the stage! Except during intermission. But while the play is on, he's there the whole time. It's very similar to my role in The Ritz in that I never left the stage… if all the world's a stage.

Monday afternoon I saw the Easter Bonnet Competition, and seated behind me was one of the contestants I just worked with on the Legally Blonde reality show. Because we finished filming a few weeks ago, I know who won… and quite frankly I can't take the tension of keeping it a secret. It's very tense seeing anyone involved with the show because I'm always nervous that whatever I say will give away to the people around us whether or not the person got the role of Elle Woods. Example: "How are you today?" Meaning, "still giddy from getting the role of Elle Woods?" or "How are you coping with not getting the role of Elle Woods?" Even "Hi" makes me nervous to say because I can't tell whether people can tell my subtext is "Hi, winner!" or "Hi, not Elle Woods."

On Monday night I was a judge at the second annual Broadway Beauty Pageant. Male beauty, that is. Five contestants competed for the title that was won last year by Frankie Grande from Mamma Mia! I judged alongside two of the brilliantly talented stars of [title of show], Susan Blackwell and Hunter Bell. The male contestants were from Grease, Curtains, Xanadu, A Chorus Line and Hairspray. I loved Mr. Curtains who sang "Show Off" from The Drowsy Chaperone. He went en pointe (!), played the saw, did rhythmic gymnastic scarf dancing and during the snake-charmer section of the song, was about to pull off his underwear but then decided he didn't want to "show off." He also put cookie dough in an "oven," and at the end of the number served the three judges cookies. Brava! The whole night was a benefit for the Ali Forney center, which is a place for young gay kids who have nowhere to go. Even though it's much easier to come out of the closet now than when I came out (with Quentin Crisp), there are, devastatingly, still plenty of families who kick their kids out. Carl Siciliano, who founded the center, told of a girl who came out to her parents who then put her in a car, drove for a while and dropped her off in the woods. The Ali Forney Center is essentially a homeless center for children, and it does a great job. The winner of the evening was Marty Thomas, who was Mr. Xanadu. He sang an amazing version of "Proud Mary" that sounded like it was in the original Tina Turner key. I remember seeing him years ago on "Star Search" when my friend Billy Porter was on a winning streak. Marty was in the kid's category and was up against a buck-toothed brunette who sold it a little too hard. He wound up winning…and the girl who lost wound up becoming a mom with two kids. She also wound up in the Off-Broadway show Ruthless, The New Mickey Mouse Club and the film "Riding in the Car With Boys." Yes, his singing won "Star Search" over Britney Spears' performance...which incidentally may have been the last time she didn't lip synch. Here he is sassing "Defying Gravity"… http://youtube.com/watch?v=bDaBAJE88aw&feature=related.

I had so much fun judging with Hunter and Susan. First of all, I'm so obsessed with their [title of show] Show. It's these ten-minute movies they've filmed over the last few months with amazing Broadway guest stars. I love the episode entitled "Snake Eats Tail" and Susan's seriousness when she talks of "sexperts." It's not a word and/or profession! How dare she infuse it with such gravitas? Brava on the line reading.

At the "Broadway Beauty Pageant," Hunter asked the contestants what he called "tough questions," such as "Tyne, Bernadette or Patti?" I focused solely on the latter and asked one contestant a string of Patti questions which hit him like a machine gun: Evita or Anything Goes? The Old Neighborhood or Noises Off? "Life Goes On" or that movie about Lady Bird Johnson? After each option I threw out, Hunter would nod his head and mutter "tough questions…" Speaking of Patti, on Thursday at the Chatterbox, I had two of Gypsy's sassy strippers: Alison Fraser, who plays Tessie Tura, and Marilyn Caskey, who plays Electra. Alison grew up in Natick, MA, where William (Bill) Finn (composer of Falsettos, Spelling Bee, A New Brain etc…) is from. After Bill graduated college, he came back to town and saw a high school show where Alison was singing "Stormy Weather." Why do so many theatre kids perform stuff they need 30 more years of life experience to be able to perform with any understanding? Why, at 13, was I one of the 27 (!) performers in my camp's production of Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. Did I need to know that the "old folks never die…they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day…"? Why was that my solo? Devastating.

Anyway, Alison and Bill began performing together in the town square (he'd play piano and sing with her, and they'd get tips), but then she went off to Carnegie Mellon University. She hated the way they taught there, which she thought was sort of based on the theory, "You've all been the stars of your high school, so let's tear you down completely and then build you up again." She wound up leaving and moving to New York. Bill started working on In Trousers (the first of the Marvin trilogy…Falsettos is the second and third installment) with Mary Testa and Alison. Alison said that she told Bill they should do a concert of the music in his apartment and see if anyone's interested. She said that they borrowed chairs from the local synagogue. I asked if she barged in and said, "I'm Christian. I'm taking these." She said that Bill was a member. Ira Weitzman, who was developing projects for Playwrights Horizons, was there and gave them a spot. I'm obsessed that their allotted time for rehearsals was 12-4…in the morning! It was in the Times Square area during the terrifying 1970's when anything went. Alison said she remembers Bill at around 3 AM in the morning, exhausted, go up to the assistant and say, frantically, "Get me some coke!" The assistant ran out and came back an hour later. He said that he couldn't get any right then, but was promised some tomorrow. Bill said "Why'd you go outside? There's a machine right in the lobby!" Yes, that old chestnut actually happened.

Alison also talked about auditioning. She absolutely hates it. She said that she's one of those actresses who really needs to delve into a role for a while to finally nail it. She said that it takes a brave director to watch her audition and say, "Hmm…she's terrible…but might one day have it." She got cast in The Secret Garden and cut her hair super short as did Rebecca Luker, who was playing the ghostly wife. Rebecca is from the South and would hold hands with Alison when they left the theatre. One day, they were being interviewed for the radio, and the interviewer turned the tape off and asked, "So, you can tell me off the record. How long have you two been together?" It's that old equation: short hair + hand holding = hot girl-on-girl action.

Speaking of auditions, Alison didn't have to audition for Gypsy. Arthur Laurents saw her at the Bay Street Theatre last year, took her out to dinner and offered her Tessie Tura. She regrets dropping out of college and has decided to finish her degree! She's going to John Jay and studying every night. Literally. The strippers don't enter 'til the middle of Act Two, so they have a lot of time on their hands. Alison was supposed to read "The Odyssey," but it was hard to take in, so she started reading it out loud. Marilyn heard her and asked if she could play one of the parts. Soon they read the whole thing, as well as "The Iliad," and Marilyn spends the beginning of the show testing Alison's knowledge of those classic snoozefests…I mean, masterpieces. Marilyn brought her notes on Thursday and tested the audience at the Chatterbox. For every question that the audience got before Alison did, they donated $20 to Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Turns out the audience knew everything, and they gave a donation of $160! I was onstage the whole time and found out after that Alison was giving the audience the answers as Marilyn was reading! Pret-ty sneaky, sis.

Marilyn grew up in Utah and studied voice in college and then went to ACT in San Francisco. She played Cunegonde in a production of Candide at the Arena Stage in DC, but had very little money when she got to New York, where she had moved. She was on a bus going uptown and saw someone she had just done Candide with. She was mortified because she had just come from a temp job as a secretary and saw her former castmate, was now in Phantom, get on the bus. Marilyn tried to hide, but the woman came over. And, it's a good thing she did, because she told Marilyn that she was gonna try to get her an audition for Phantom! Marilyn said that she moved mountains to make it happen, and it finally did. She got an audition for Carlotta and prepared the managers' scene (which goes to a high E!) and the speech that Carlotta says when something almost falls on her head in the first scene and she storms out. ("These-a things do happen? Well, until you stop these-a things from happening, this thing does not happen!") She inhaled to start the speech, and Hal Prince yelled, "Stop! This is not a comic monologue…She takes this very seriously. Her life was just threatened." I agree with him, but how did he know she was going to have a comic take on it from one inhale? Was her inhale hilarious? How do you inhale and make it funny? I'd ask Bill Clinton, but we all know he didn't inhale! That's right, now that it's election year, expect a string of numbingly unfunny jokes from me.

Marilyn said that she spent a year visualizing herself in that part: imagining how it felt coming to the theatre, seeing her name in the Playbill, having her picture outside. It was "The Secret" back when "Secret" just meant a deodorant strong enough for a man, but made for a woman. She had five auditions and was told that she had to go to Trump Tower to give her final audition for Sir Andrew (The Lordship came later). She had borrowed a pair of shoes for the audition that were too small, and they messed up her whole back. She remembers riding the bus home, leaning against the window and weeping because her sciatic nerve was flaring up so badly. When she got home, she got a call saying that she didn't need to do the next audition…she got it! Se-cret! I mean, creative visualization!

She also covered the role of Norma Desmond in the Toronto production of Sunset Boulevard. The role was being played by Diahann Carroll (who, you remember, was the first black female star of a TV series, "Julia"), and Marilyn said that there were certain performances where she (a red-headed white girl) would go on for the second act. My Chatterbox audience gasped, and Marilyn said, "That was pretty much the reaction of the audience up there." I remember doing Forever Plaid in Toronto and running into Marilyn. She made me laugh so hard because, as the standby, none of the front-of-house staff knew who she was because she was always backstage. So when she was scheduled to first go on, she heard one usher tell another, "Marilyn Caskey is playing Norma tonight." Marilyn walked up and said, "I hear she's fan-tastic! I drove from Florida to Toronto to see her." Marilyn said to me, "Rumors are going to happen, why not start them yourself!"

Both she and Alison said that Patti is at the top of her game in the show, and her voice is flawless. Marilyn said that Patti was really sick one night, but went on. She sounded fantastic onstage and then offstage would cough her lungs out. They love working with her, and Alison said that she's never heard an audience reaction that can compare with what Patti gets for "Rose's Turn." Brava!

Last Monday I started recording the audio version of my novel, "Broadway Nights," for Audible.com. The good news is that the LOGO television website is going to promote it as their book for June. The bad news is that we were supposed to have this long, leisurely time to record it, but the whole thing has to be done by this Friday. I'm playing the lead character, and I have a ton of actors coming to play all the others. Audible felt that in case an actor suddenly cancels out at the last minute, I should first record the entire book! It's more than 350 pages!! I did the whole thing in four days and have the nodes to prove it. Now that I've recorded everything, I'm going to keep the narration parts, and I just started bringing in Broadway people to play the other roles. Last week I had Ann Harada come out and play the cheap, nightmarish producer character, Bettina Geisenshlaag. Ann was fantastic and was joined by Kristin Chenoweth, who played Francoise, my assistant music director who is obsessed with the harpsichord...or, as she says, the "harp-see-chord," which is the way she claims it was originally pronounced. We all took the train home from Newark and were exhausted slash devastated we were not in amazing car service. I put a photo on the side of the column to show our bad attitudes. I also put some video footage of the recording sessions on my website, www.sethrudetsky.com.

Seth Rudetsky with Kristin Chenoweth and Ann Harada

On a side note, I did Grease years ago with Marissa Jaret Winokur, and I am super proud that she's on "Dancing With the Stars." Well, cut to, she's desperate to stay on that show and just sent me an email asking me to beg my friends to vote for her tonight! Just call (800) 868-3409 between 8:30 and 10 PM in your time zone. The best part is, you don't even have to watch the show! You can listen to your CD of Hairspray and just keep your finger on the re-dial button. All right, everyone, this week I finish recording the book, see South Pacific and celebrate my mom's birthday. And I got an invite to the opening of Glory Days, the last show before the Tony cutoffs. I feel like such an insider — if an insider has to wait a complete theatre season to finally get an invitation to an opening night. Anybody? Nobody. Stay tuned for some more "I'd Do Anything" recaps!

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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.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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Ann Harada, Seth Rudetsky and Kristin Chenoweth.
Ann Harada, Seth Rudetsky and Kristin Chenoweth.
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