ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Sweet Smell of Success

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Sweet Smell of Success A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Seth Rudetsky and nieces (Rachel Sarah and Eliana Berman) with Legally Blonde star Rhiannon Hansen
Seth Rudetsky and nieces (Rachel Sarah and Eliana Berman) with Legally Blonde star Rhiannon Hansen Photo by Nancy Berman

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Greetings from Amtrak train 155!

I'm on my way down to Baltimore because I was beckoned by Amanda Brown Lipitz, who was the executive producer of the Legally Blonde reality show. Her mom is raising money for a girls leadership school, and today is a fundraiser which consists of the matinee of the Legally Blonde national tour followed by a talk back with some of the reality TV show folk. The trip began in a totally bizarre and random way. I got on the train and, of course, immediately hightailed it to the dining car. Annoyingly, it wasn't open yet. I glared and then started walking back to my seat. I passed a man reading a newspaper and, typical of me, glanced down at what he was reading. I'm one of those people on the subway who sit next to you and, not only read the page of the book your reading, but I also completely bend and contort my body to try to see the cover. If it's a book I like, I always give the ol' "Brava! Great book!" and am usually met with a seat change. Anyhoo, after I glanced at his paper and started to walk away, he turned and looked over his shoulder at me. I thought he was going to bust me for disturbing his reading, but I didn't scurry away. Instead, I walked back to face the reprimand and instead of telling me how rude I was, he told me that he recognized me from a video deconstruction I did of Christine Ebersole singing Grey Gardens on my website (SethRudetsky.com)! He then said he was from Grey Gardens. He didn't look like anybody in the cast, but he had a beard and was stocky, so I assumed he was a backstage crew member. Instead, I found out he really meant he was from Grey Garden. He said, "I'm Jerry…the marble faun!" I couldn't believe it! Jerry is the handyman in the documentary who comes over and helps out the Beale women. He was so sweet, and I was super excited to meet him. Wow! Jerry likes my corn! And my video! Now I'm constantly scanning all my surrounding Amtrak seats hoping that on my way to the bathroom someone will glance at me and say, "I enjoyed your Patti LuPone deconstruction of Evita. I'm Juan Peron."

Last weekend I went to the East Side and saw the York Theater's production of Enter Laughing. It was so well-directed by my friend Stuart Ross, who created Forever Plaid, and with whom I did countless productions as the onstage pianist/upstager of the actors. The cast was fantastic including George S. Irving who was literally in the original production of Oklahoma! In 1944! That's like Jonathan Groff doing a sassy musical in 2072. Josh Grisetti was so charming in the lead (and had a great voice) and, as usual, I loved Janine LaManna. She was hilarious in her big torch number telling us all the requirements that the man she will love must have. Essentially, her list includes a nose, a chin and a working respiratory system. Janine told one of my favorite stories in my Chatterbox show that I recounted in my book, "Broadway Nights." She was Chita Rivera's standby in the tour of Kiss of the Spider Woman even though Chita was known for never missing performances. Well, cut to opening night. Janine is relaxing in her hotel room, and she suddenly gets a call: Chita injured herself in the middle of Act One, and Janine has to take over asap. Janine races out of her room, hails a cab, gives the driver the theatre address and frantically starts putting on her makeup for the show. She tells the driver to step on it because it's an emergency! She now realizes how crazy the dichotomy must have looked to the driver as Janine applied eyeliner, lipstick and false eyelashes yet screamed, "Please! It's an emergency!"

So now I do two talk shows a week, and it's fun! Wednesdays at noon I'm in the Times Square Information Center doing Sirius Live on Broadway and Thursdays I'm at Don't Tell Mama doing Seth's Broadway Chatterbox. All the guest info is always at my website, fyi. Anyhoo, I had three guests at my Wednesday SIRIUS show. The first was Josh Strickland (he was cutie Tarzan on Broadway), who sang a song from the NYMF show he's starring in called Play It Cool. He sounded amazing. His co-star is Sally Mayes, and I told him how Sally and I almost worked together on Broadway. She made her Broadway debut in a show by Cy Coleman called Welcome to the Club. David Pogue (who now writes for the New York Times) was the conductor and told me to come watch the piano part in the pit so I could start subbing. I hadn't yet played a Broadway show and was so excited. I showed up the very next show and felt very cool bypassing the lobby entrance and walking straight to the stage door. Unfortunately, it was locked. I jiggled the handle repeatedly and then figured out that I showed up on the show's "dark day" (the day of the week when Broadway shows are closed…in those days, Mondays). Then I remembered that it was Tuesday. Huh? Why was Tuesday a dark day? I soon realized that it was the ultimate dark day. The show had closed! Son of a-! Josh talked about all of his call backs for Tarzan (16!) and how they involved getting harnessed, climbing to the top of a high-ceilinged rehearsal room and jumping down a gazillion feet holding onto a vine. He said that many people got called back, climbed to the top and then said, "I'm out!" After Josh, I had Constantine Rousouli and Marissa Perry, who play Link and Tracy in Hairspray. Constantine "fondly" reminisced about doing the non-equity Hairspray tour where they traveled by a Greyhound bus that had 45 seats and 40 cast/musician/crew members. I'm sure the bathroom was amazing. He also told me that the wigs in the show are a hazard to wear. Once, during "You Can't Stop the Beat," Penny did her line, "I am now a checkerboard chick" and hugged Tracy. Unfortunately, their wigs also hugged, got stuck together and came off — perhaps leading the Weisslers to produce a Hairspray tour starring Yul Brynner and Telly Savalas? We shall see.

Marissa said that she auditioned in New York and got sent to "Tracy Camp." That meant she went up to Canada to learn the role with the Toronto company, but she was told she would never play the role in that company. They just wanted her to really know the role so she could put her in a company later on. It sounds a little passive/aggressive at first; i.e., "Learn this great role in a big production debuting in a fabulous city…and make sure you know that you're never going on!" But after she learned it, she got to do it on Broadway, so it totally paid off. She told me that she's super-sensitive and was recently at the final callback for a new Broadway show. She asked the director whether she should sing the song as written or add some vocal flourishes. The director slammed her fist on the table and yelled, "This isn't 'American Idol'!"…and Marissa began crying. She did not get the gig. Those of you thinking that Marissa perhaps should not have asked that question should know that Andrew Lippa told me that Idina Menzel got her role Wild Party role because she came in and sang "The Life of the Party" and changed some of the melody, adding her own sassafras to it. On the other hand, perhaps Marissa shouldn't have asked about riffing at a callback for Eliza in My Fair Lady. Just kidding. But, speaking of that, James and I were walking home Tuesday night when he suddenly looked up and whispered, "Marni Nixon is walking towards us." I, of course, waited 'til she was just past us and then started singing, "I could have dahnced all night…" She stopped in her tracks and turned around. I said, "You were great in the movie," and she smiled and walked away. Some might say "scurried away." Some might even add the modifier "frantically," but my point is we parted company.

This week I also interviewed Kelli O'Hara, who's starring as Nellie Forbush in South Pacific. Kelli grew up in Oklahoma (like Kristin Chenoweth) and went to Oklahoma City University and majored in opera (like Kristin Chenoweth!). She was essentially following in Kristin's footsteps, and I thought maybe I'd get some great catfight competition story about Kelli moving to New York and confronting Kristin at an audition, but, turns out, Kristin was amazing to Kelli! Kristin got Kelli an audition with her agent, and the agent signed her! Her first big break was the tour and then the Broadway company of Jekyll and Hyde as the understudy for Emma, played by the sassy Andrea Rivette. She used that show to learn how to change her way of singing from operatic legit to more Broadway/pop. She then became an understudy in the Broadway revival of Follies. She played the young Hattie (Betty Garrett) and then took over the role of Young Phyllis (Blythe Danner). In the opening scene, she was in charge of leading Joan Roberts to the stage. Joan was the original Laurey in Oklahoma!, and Kelli was essentially her assistant in the opening scene. But Joan also seemed to think that Kelli was her assistant at all times! Kelli said that Joan didn't really know her name and would call out to her at the end of rehearsal, "Hey, you! Go get me a taxi!" Kelli would rush out and hail a cab for the first two weeks of rehearsal until a stage manager told her that she didn't actually have to do that.

Kelli got an audition for Sweet Smell of Success, but it was while she was in tech for Follies. She asked if she could go in during her lunch break, but it was the same lunch break that Sweet Smell was taking! Still, she went to the rehearsal studio and hoped someone would be there. She knocked on the door and there were a few people there from the creative staff (including the director) and she begged them to let her sing. Unfortunately, there was no pianist, but one of the guys there offered to play. She started singing and felt the tempo was too slow, so she did ye olde "snap at the piano player to pick up the tempo" routine. Kelli described the audition to her friend that night, including the part about the too-slow accompanist, and her friend went on the internet and pointed to a picture of a guy and asked, "Was this the pianist?" Kelli then saw that the man she snapped at to speed-it-the-hell-up was the composer, Marvin Hamlisch! Of course, Marvin thought it was hilarious and loves to tell the story to people. Kelli had the good fortune to get a lead in Sweet Smell of Success and the badfortune to be doing Follies at the same time with the girl who did it in the workshop but didn't get the Broadway gig. Yay. It's fun to feel awkward eight times a week.

After Sweet Smell she went to Sundance to work on the musical of The Light in the Piazza, where she played Franca, the wife of the Michael Berresse character, and she was excited to know that it was coming to Broadway in February. She was then offered Dracula and turned it down because she was doing Piazza that season. However, Dracula said they would let her out after six months! Even though she felt a little dubious about the show, she needed the work, the exposure and the health insurance (!), so she took the gig. Kelli was told that she wasn't going to have to be naked but the next thing she knew, she was nude. She recalled that right before she took off her clothes, an enormous group of stage hands would suddenly have a cue to prepare for stage left. She's still got it!

As she was preparing for Piazza, she got a call from Bartlett Sher telling her that it was decided that Celia Keenan-Bolger who played Clara looked too young for the role. They said that Clara has to look like a woman so that the child-like behavior she exhibits is more incongruous. They had auditions around the country and finally asked Kelli to try out for the part. She said absolutely not. She told Bart that everyone was happy where they were and not to change anything. But the role was definitely going to be open, so Kelli finally went in. She got the role and a Tony nomination and before you're devastated for Celia, just know that she got Spelling Beethat same season and a Tony nomination as well!

Kelli said that playing Babe in Pajama Game made the creative staff of South Pacific realize that she could do more belty-style Broadway (not just soprano), and that's why she was brought in for South Pacific. However, she had to wait four months (!) for a callback because they wanted to cast the Emile first. They felt that he was a more difficult part to cast and once they had him, they could match a Nellie to whoever it was. As a matter of fact, they had three different age ranges up for the role: Kelli was in the middle, and the younger actress up for Nellie was Celia Keenan-Bolger, and the older one was Victoria Clark! I'd also like to pitch the three of them to star in the musical version of "The Brady Bunch"…with Joan Roberts as Alice.

This week, I'll be doing my Sirius Live on Broadway show at the Times Square Information Center Wednesday at noon with Tony nominee Alice Ripley and Autumn Hurlbert and Bailey Hanks from "Legally Blonde: the Search for the Next Elle Woods." Speaking of which, check out the new episodes of "Legally Brown: The Search for the New Piragua Guy" at my website. This is the web series created by Lin-Manuel Miranda from In the Heights, and episode three features the elimination of Matthew Morrison and episode four has the end of Allison Janney, who, for some reason, is trying out for the Piragua guy. The episodes are at www.SethRudetsky.com, and they're hilarious. Oh, and this week is also the "fun" holiday of Yom Kippur. Oy. Let me wish my fellow Jews an easy fast and Happy New Year! And, I'm out. *

(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.)

Seth and Kelli O'Hara
Seth and Kelli O'Hara