ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Setup

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Setup Happy June!
Rupert Holmes
Rupert Holmes Photo by Aubrey Reuben

June is one of my favorite months because even though I graduated from high school way back when Molly Ringwald was the new, big thing ("Sixteen Candles"? Anybody? "Fresh Horses" Nobody?), every June 1, I still feel the joy I felt knowing it was the last month of the school year.

This week began with the culmination of a bizarre experience. Back in January, I answered an email from a friend who told me about an audition for a TV host. I was in a rage because it was being held on the East Side (Is there any easy way to get there besides using the Helipad on 34th Street?), but I went anyway. I knew it was a swanky audition because it was held at an Au Bon Pain. As I always say, why rent a studio and have a monitor when you can easily find an empty table in the back of a chain restaurant? Tara Rubin, you could be saving a mint of money by staking out a corner at Hot and Crusty.

I met the lady "auditioning" me and looked for the camera that would put me on tape. I instead saw two businessmen, a homeless person and the fixins bar with half and half, whole, two percent and skim milk. The auditioner was very friendly and said that the show would have a different host talking about his or her favorite part of New York. I told her I was most familiar with the theatre district and the Upper West Side, and she then told me that the hosts had to be pop culture savvy and she therefore needed to ask me some questions. She asked me ten questions, and I answered three correctly. Suffice it to say, I did not know that Ted Turner founded the Goodwill Games, amongst many other things. But she liked my personality and said that she'd tell them I aced all the questions and I would probably get the gig. I got a call a few days later offering me the show and, actor style, told them to call my agent. They told me that because it's a new show, they weren't going through agents. Huh? What was the show, I asked. They told me that it's new so they can't really talk about it. Again, huh? Why so many secrets? Why was I suddenly in an episode of "24" —one that would eventually get the show canceled because it's not even that interesting. Nothing made sense, but because of my natural actor whore-ishness and a desperation to add something new to my reel, I accepted the job. A week later I showed up on the corner of Columbus and 74th to meet the producer, Donna. She told me that the show car would pick me up, take me to Don't Tell Mama, and I'd film an episode talking about my favorite midtown spots. (aka Amy's Bread). Donna kept making cell-phone calls to the other producers and finally said that the car was stuck in traffic and I should take a cab. She gave me $20 and said that the crew would meet me there. I got in the cab, gave the address of Mama's and was suddenly accosted by non-stop blinking lights on the roof of the inside of the cab. Yes, I was on an episode of the Discovery Channel's "Cash Cab." The whole thing about hosting a show about New York was one big, fat setup! I had never seen the show and found out that it consists of a cab driver asking me questions as he drives me to my destination, and every correct answer would win me money! He said that if I got three wrong, I had to leave the cab. Well, I freaked out because I remembered the auditioner asking me questions and me getting three out of ten right. I didn't want to be kicked out of a cab on 54th Street and Ninth Avenue! What would I do in that neighborhood? Go to Mee Noodle Shop? Well, suffice it to say, I knew the answers to all the questions except the last one (Q: What is the Urban Dictionary's definition of the computer term NSFW? A: Not Safe For Work.), and I won $300! The point is, if you audition for something that seems fishy, then get the gig and it seems fishier, you should take the gig and you could win money! Or wind up in a snuff film.

Wednesday I played the matinee of Phantom. I've been subbing on that show for 14 years, but I rarely play the second keyboard part. And I think it's now apparent to the audience. During the Act Two graveyard scene, I push a low C on the synth that starts something called a sequencer, which repeats a low note over and over again. As the Phantom menaces Raoul and Christine, the orchestra is playing little snippets in the winds, brass and strings, but the low C continues its terrifying ominous repetitive note. Well, halfway through, I looked up from my music and saw the conductor cut off one of the orchestra phrases and, unfortunately, thought that he was cutting me off as well. Talk about the bottom dropping out. There was total silence from the pit, broken only by Howard McGillin's voice scarily saying, "So, it is to be war upon you both!" It was obvious something was missing. It was like seeing Elaine Stritch with her signature white shirt but missing the black leggings. I was mortified. The next scene consisted of one of the opera owners looking over the pit with a miffed expression on his face wondering who the clunker at the keyboard was. T'was I, Firmin, t'was I.

Thursday I interviewed Rupert Holmes at the Chatterbox. What a talent! He's done everything. First of all, he wrote music for "The Partridge Family." I always thought that they were the cool version of "The Brady Bunch" until Ricky came along and ruined it all. And, Holmes wrote the flip side of "Daddy, don't you walk so fast." Do you remember that childhood downer? The only thing sadder than that was the book "Bridge to Terabithia" which is essentially the children's version of "The Year of Magical Thinking." Rupert said that he was writing and singing on his own albums when he got a phone call. "Hello, this is Barbra Streisand, and I'd like you to write some songs for my upcoming movie 'A Star Is Born.'" He responded with that old chestnut, "That's the worst Barbra Streisand imitation I've ever heard." Instead of hanging up, she got back at him by getting that horrible seventies perm. Well, maybe that wasn't to get him back, but let's all acknowledge that it was a national tragedy.

Regardless, he wrote her that sassy song "Queen Bee" and "Everything," which was a big high school girl audition song before "Out Here On my Own" stole its thunder. Rupert also conducted Barbra on her "Lazy Afternoon" record and for some songs that were never released. He actually conducted that fabulous youtube clip of her singing "Make Our Garden Grow" where she holds the last note for a crazy length of time. He said he remembered thinking that he was gonna run out of orchestral music, but he didn't want to be the one responsible for cutting off La Streisand, so he ritarded like crazy and it was thrilling! Watch it!

We talked about Drood and Betty Buckley's unbelievable high E at the end of "The Writing On the Wall." He said that the song was supposed to end on a B, but when they did the workshop performance, the adrenaline got to her and she went up to an E. Everyone was obsessed and it was immediately added to the show. Well, Graciela Danielle staged it so the whole cast would turn around to face Betty right before the note, and Betty could see everybody thinking "Is she gonna make it? Can she hit it?" It began to psych her out. If you don't know the note I'm talking about, I demand that you buy or download the album and listen to the song in its entirety. Betty gives one of the best Broadway performances ever. Rupert not only wrote the book music and lyrics to Drood, but he orchestrated the whole show as well! At that time the Imperial Theatre had a orchestra minimum of 27 musicians. Get back to that CD and listen to how fabulous the orchestra sounds! Drood also had a brava cast. Not only the fabulous leads, but dance captain Rob Marshall and chorus members Judy Kuhn and Donna Murphy. Holmes said that whenever Donna went on, she was voted the murderer. She was electrifying in any role she played. When Betty left, Rupert begged the producers not to give to the role to some TV personality, but to the person who would give the best performance. They asked who he meant, and Donna Murphy got her first Broadway leading role. And Joyce DeWitt was out of luck.

The Curtains CD has just come out, and I played the opening number for the audience just to hear Patty Goble playing the no-talent star and her hilarious off-keyness when she sings "It's Kansas forever."

Saturday night I guest starred in Don't Quit Your Night Job in the segment called Backstage Story. I told of some nachtmares that happened to me in the pit, and then we did a section where two audience members come up on stage to guess who the actors are imitating. I came out and said in a low voice, "I starred on Broadway in one role and years later came back in the other. I love to do this move (Chicago walk)." Silence from the guessers. "I starred on TV opposite Kelsey Grammer." Silence. "I dated George Stephanapolous." Silence. Finally, someone from the audience (not a contestant) mercifully called out "Bebe Neuwirth." I fled the stage as Malcolm Gets came out and sang "Mem'ries . . . light the corners of my mind." The lady onstage proudly guessed "Grizabella." That was it for me — I shut down emotionally.

FYI, per last week's column, I've received many letters from "Straight Talk" fans. Apparently, the movie is amazing. Hmm… I don't retract what I say (even though I love Dolly), but I appreciate your passion and think we may just have different taste. On that note, I suggest you rent Ashley and Mary-Kate Olsen's "New York Minute." I think you'll love it.

* (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.)