ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Variety of Life

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Variety of Life A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Rosie O'Donnell and Liza Minnelli rehearse
Rosie O'Donnell and Liza Minnelli rehearse

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What a week! "Rosie Live," the Rosie O'Donnell variety show, had its ups and downs . . . and by "downs" I mean, it was universally reviled. But it was such an exciting experience! I will give details about the day of the broadcast, but let's start at the top of the week.

Sunday night I got tickets for the opening of White Christmas. Kevin McCollum felt so guilty for not getting me opening-night tickets to In the Heights that he vowed I'd always be invited to his openings. Of course, I immediately abused the privilege and begged for an extra ticket so James and my mom could come. It was a very star-studded event. As soon as I got off the escalator, I ran into Sutton Foster, whom I have not seen forever and she told me that she's loving doing Shrek. Once I sat down, I saw Bobby Lopez and his writing partner/wife Kristen Anderson-Lopez sitting in the row in front of me. James was chatting with them, and afterwards he said that they must know me well because when he mentioned we might move to Brooklyn, they both remarked that I would be even more late than I normally am. I resent their accurate comment. During intermission I heard a high-pitched midwestern twang say, "I know you!" and got a gander at Christine Ebersole pointing at me, looking gorgeous in an all-white outfit. I was, of course, buying coffee at the bar and panicking I was going to trip and stain her ensemble. I asked her how she felt about her upcoming stint in Blithe Spirit, and she said she was thrilled to be performing with Angela Lansbury and Rupert Everett. Before she could elaborate and/or I could permanently destroy her outfit, I skedaddled holding my coffee cradled in my bosom. Then I saw beautiful, blonde Melissa Dye, who played Christine in Phantom when I was subbing there and Sandy when I did Grease! back in the nineties. She went from high soprano to high belting in one theatrical season and I say, Brava!

Melody Hollis plays the little girl in White Christmas and sings a sassy reprise of "Let Me Sing and I'm Happy" and, after she belted it out, I was about to yell my signature, "She's still got it!" during the applause. Then I realized she was ten years old and modified it to, "She just got it."

On Tuesday morning I hightailed to the Eugene O'Neill Theatre for a big press event about Broadway going green (www.GreenBroadway.com). Mayor Bloomberg has spearheaded Broadway becoming more ecologically aware, and The Broadway League asked me to write a song for the event with Nell Benjamin, who co-wrote the score to Legally Blonde with Laurence O'Keefe. It wound up being a really fun event. There was one person from every Broadway show, and I had an hour to teach all of them the song. I knew the musical theatre folk would pick it up fast, but felt bad because there literally was one person there from every Broadway show…including the plays! So I give a special shout out to the people from Speed- the-Plow, August: Osage County Equus, etc. who were honorary gypsies for the day…and had honorary vocal damage for the night. Nell wrote great lyrics to my Seussical/"Schoolhouse Rock"-inspired tune. My favorite was Broadway's going green/ One recycled Playbill can do so much good./ Broadway's going green!/ Can't do Into the Woodsif you run out of wood! Wednesday I interviewed the current cast of Altar Boyz: Michael Kadin Craig, Travis Nesbitt, Neil Haskell, Mauricio Perez and Ravi Roth. Ravi (who plays Abraham) told me that right before the end of a recent performance, a big fat fire alarm went off, à la what happened at The Fantasticks mentioned in a previous column. But the cast of The Fantasticks just kept going, whereas everyone evacuated at Altar Boyz. (ps: it was caused by something at Rock of Ages, which is next door). Ravi said everyone (including the audience) went to Starbucks for a half-hour and then came back for the end of the show. It was supposed to be a devastating story, but it sounded fabulous! I have done many shows where I've desperately craved coffee halfway through and had no relief. Note to self: If Les Miz is ever revived again and I'm in the pit, a still-smoldering cigarette aimed at a hair-sprayed wig on a shelf is your ticket to a delicious latte break.

Michael (who plays Matthew) talked about what it's like bringing up a woman from the audience every show when he sings "Something About You." He revealed that, around two weeks ago, a woman out of the blue literally put her hands down his pants! Maybe the woman thought she was at Naked Boys Singing, which is at the same theatre complex? Or maybe she was trying to set off the fire alarm with some hot action. Regardless, I'm glad Michael mistook me for a woman that night. Anybody?

I went to go see Altar Boyz on Saturday night, and it's still in great shape. The cast is really tight, and I can't believe how much dancing they do while still sounding amazing. I was laughing to myself about a line reading Tyler Maynard changed once when he was "experimenting" (i.e. bored and wanted to sass things up). In the show, Abraham writes lyrics to a song, and when he shows them to Mark (originally played by Tyler), Mark says, "This is first-rate work!" However, one night for fun, Tyler said the same words but added RuPaul sassafras to the end of the line by changing the punctuation. He looked at the new lyrics and said, "This is first rate. Work!" Brava!

And now to "Rosie Live." Right after I interviewed the Altar Boyz, I hightailed it to the Little Shubert Theatre where the "Rosie Live" show was rehearsing for the last time. I watched a run-thru of the show and afterwards met with the creative team to talk about the show. The Clay Aiken appearance was basically Clay coming onstage in Spamalot drag while he and Rosie talked about how much they have in common; they both love Broadway, they both began on reality shows, and they both have a son named Parker. Then they would say that there was one more thing they have in common but they can't remember what it is. They'd rack their brains for a bit, not think of it, and then Clay would leave for his show. We felt that the sketch had no ending. I finally suggested that Rosie say: "I've got it, Clay! It's so obvious what we have in common. We're both Gay…briel Byrne fans!" Then Clay would gush about how much he loved "The Usual Suspects" and exit. Well, I thought it was a funny double-talk ending to the sketch...and was mortified to see it busted in every review of the show! The Hollywood Reporter called it "lame," and the L.A. Times called it "the world's most painfully long gay joke." Ouch! Um…any publicity is good publicity?

Hunter Foster wrote the Urinetown-inspired sketch with Jen Cody as Little Sally and Rosie as Officer Lockstock. Rosie wasn't at the Tuesday run-thru so the other writer, Eric Kornfeld, and I played the roles, which was super fun (see side picture). I loved the jokes in that sketch. When referencing the performance of Anti-Gravity, a gymnastic group that at one point was spinning rugs frantically, Little Sally said, "I haven't seen rugs spin that fast since Donald Trump auditioned for 'Dancing With the Stars.'" Hilarious! She ended with, "I got my own problems, Officer Lockstock. Bill O'Reilly just 'friended' me on Facebook." I literally laughed out loud when I read that in the script. Cut to The New York Times said Rosie's show had a Nixon-like hit list busting her enemies. Turns out, everything I liked was hated? I wrote one joke for that sketch which, thankfully, got a big laugh and wasn't dished in a review.

LITTLE SALLY: Rosie O'Donnell? Did I see her on "Celebrity Fit Club"?
OFFICER LOCKSTOCK: No, Little Sally.
LITTLE SALLY: I didn't think so.

On the day of the show, I watched Liza Minnelli and Rosie rehearse "City Lights," and it was so exciting. The orchestra (conducted by Kevin Stites) sounded great, and even though Liza wasn't singing out, she still has such a unique, powerful way of dancing that was thrilling to see from the first row. Then came the rehearsal with Alec Baldwin. Alec had wanted to come on the show delivering Rosie's door that would open to reveal the visiting stars (First one: Conan O'Brian). He'd hit Conan in the face with a pie when he appeared and then have Rosie hit him in the face with a pie as a follow-up. But, while rehearsing it with two stand-ins, Rosie felt the pies were way too messy and should be cut because the cream was all over her hands/outfit and all over the floor. We finally figured out that there could be less cream in the pie so it didn't get all over the floor and that only Conan should be hit with the pie by Alec. Well, right before the show, Alec Baldwin was backstage ready to put on the plastic smock he was going to wear in the scene so he wouldn't get pie all over his clothes. But since we were ixnaying him getting a pie in the face, it wouldn't have made any sense for him to wear the plastic coat, and he wasn't dressed well enough for TV. We frantically looked for a suit jacket and one of the producers (ironically, also named Liza) asked her boyfriend, who was in the audience, for his jacket. Alec put it on, looked sassy, and we were all relieved. Cut to the next day, one of the reviews mentioned that Alec appeared in a "jacket two sizes too small." Ouchy wowy!

Before the show began, backstage was crammed with people, and I heard Rachael Ray rehearse the one line she had in the holiday song Gloria Estefan wrote. After she sang, Rachael laughed and commented: "I sound that way because I'm pre-op." I gave her a brava because I thought she was joking about having a low voice because she's transitioning to a man...but turns out she was talking about getting surgery over the holidays for a benign cyst that's affecting her voice. I hope it doesn't change her voice too much…I love her raspy/Andrea McArdle quality!

At around 7:50 PM, I hightailed it to the "truck." That's where all the technical stuff was happening. I was there so the executive producer could tell me if the show was running long or short ('cause it was live) and, if so, I would get on my headset and talk to Eric (the other writer) backstage who would tell the teleprompter person what to cut or add. It was very exciting/nerve-wracking being in the truck. There were around 15 different TV screens on the wall representing all of the different cameras, and the director was constantly yelling which one he wanted. ("One! Go! Go to five! GO! Back to One, one one!!!!! Pull out!!") Right next to me was the lighting designer, who was also yelling cues the whole time. I was incredibly anxious and realized it wasn't just because of the frantic activity all around me, but because I had two big jokes in Rosie's opening monologue. She told us that she wanted to talk about wearing Spanx and asked for some "hits," as we call it in the biz. I was so excited when she picked mine but then terrified that they would elicit crickets. It would be an awful way to start the show. She came out, looking glam and asked the crowd: "How do I look? I haven't had surgery, I just got Spanx.
Do you know what that is?
It's an industrial strength girdle…super-sized.
It's essentially a onesie for chubby 40-somethings."

That got a really big laugh, and I felt relief flood through me. Then she talked about how it doesn't actually get rid of fat, it just pushes and smushes all of it upwards. She then pointed to her boobs and said, "These are actually my thighs." When that joke got a big laugh and then applause, I literally started crying. I was so nervous it was going to tank, I literally wept tears of joy. Cut to the next day, the reviews talked about her tired Spanx jokes. What the-? Tears of sadness?

It was one of the times where you have no idea what the reaction is. After the show, the audience was in a great mood and so was everybody at the after-party. It wasn't until I started reading the reviews that I realized the pilot was going to be it, and there'd be no series.

All in all, it was a great experience, and the reason I'm not that devastated the pilot failed is because it tanked for the right reason. A lot of times, Broadway shows bomb because there's a big committee that decides everything, and all the decisions are diluted. No one takes responsibility for anything. Rosie really was the head of the show, and every decision was approved through her. She wrote on her blog that it was the show she wanted to do, and even though she's disappointed it didn't work out, she had a great time doing it... and I agree! It's much better to fail with your own vision than to fail with the regret of having your vision compromised.

Finally, let me give another shout-out to Norm Lewis' new CD "This Is The Life" available on CDBaby.com. I did a full video deconstruction of his brilliant version of "Before the Parade Passes By" and "This Is The Life" (where he hits a high C!!!!) on my website, www.SethRudetsky.com. Tonight is his CD release party at Joe's Pub, so get thee downtown!

OK, I'll write again next Monday…the first day of Gypsy of the Year, which I'm so excited to be hosting!!!! Tickets at www.bcefa.org…where you can also get some amazing holiday Broadway-themed gifts. Tons of autographed CDs and books and so much more! Peace out and enjoy your leftover turkey…or for my fellow vegetarians, left-over tofurkey…which actually sounds less gross than it actually is.

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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.sethrudetsky.com.)

Some of the gang from "Broadway Going Green."
Some of the gang from "Broadway Going Green."