Onstage & Backstage: Vanessa Williams Remembers Miss America and Stepping into Spider Woman

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: Vanessa Williams Remembers Miss America and Stepping into Spider Woman
 
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
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Last week I flew to California and back, and again I'm on a plane from the West Coast. This time, I'm flying back from San Francisco where I just did a show with Vanessa Williams. Details on that later on! First, let me write about the Easter Bonnet competition! Here's the hilarious Avenue Q sketch that won where they complained that The Lion King always wins because the cast is "far too fit and attractive." Brava! And here's my favorite Avenue Q sketch when they teamed up with Fiddler On The Roof. Brilliant!

This year, Tom Viola asked me if I would introduce the judges along with Andrea Martin. It's always fun before the show because the dressing room's are filled with random groups of celebs. Andrea and I were with Nancy Opel and Rob McClure from Honeymoon in Vegas and Micah Stock from It's Only A Play. First, everyone wound up talking about ADR, which is when you film something and then go back and dub in your lines either because they didn't come out well or because there are changes. Rob said he filmed something where he was in a cab on the phone and person on the other end was giving him info. He didn't really have any specific lines, just a lot of reacting to what was being told to him over the phone. The sound quality wound up being bad so he had to go in and re-record his lines while watching himself. He said it was a nightmare because his lines weren't, "Oh, yes, I see!" Instead, he had to watch himself like a hawk and try to match his mouth saying "Mm-hm…yeah, yeah, yeah…Wai-wai-wai-wait, yeah…b-b-b-b-b-b-ut I-i-i-i-i-i-i-I know…etc." Yay?

Andrea and I had carte blanche about what to say before we actually intro'd the judges so after she told the dressing room what had just happened to her before she got to the theatre, we told her she had to tell it onstage. And she did! We came out and, of course, she looked glamorous and incredibly fit. She told everyone that she had just been at UPS mailing a lot of books to her son. She asked the UPS guy if it could be sent in one box. He looked at her and asked her if she'd be picking it up when it arrived or if someone else would. She told him that her son would be picking it up. He nodded and told her, in that case, one box would be fine. He then informed her that two boxes would have been necessary if she were the one picking it up because one box is too heavy to lift "for the elderly." Hilariously rude! We introduced all the judges and I paused when we got to Judy Kuhn who's currently in Fun Home so I could do deconstruction of her in Rags. Of course, she sounds amazing and the audience went crazy. Listen.

Andrea and I watched the show before they performed and then went backstage to get mic'd. Our dressing room now had Lin-Manuel Miranda and Renee Elise Goldsberry from Hamilton. Immediately Lin launched into the Edith Prickley rap he wrote for Andrea for her show Final Days: Everything Must Go. If you've never heard it, watch Andrea do it here. Hilarious! On to San Fran! I arrived on Friday and checked into the Mark Hopkins hotel. It's so beautiful! Right on top of a classic San Francisco hill. The show was part of the series of Broadway @ shows I'm doing at the Nourse. The first one was with Megan Hilty and I have four coming up in the fall! Usually, when I do these shows, I've interviewed the celeb already; either at my SiriusXM show or at my "Chatterbox" or I've played for them at some concert or benefit. Well, I've never interviewed Vanessa Williams, and the only time I played for her was when I was the rehearsal pianist for Kiss of the Spider Woman and she was taking over the title role…20 years ago! Turns out, she wound up being a great interview and so easy-going. We rehearsed the music right before the show and I hauled out things she hadn't sung in years. For instance, she mentioned that the audition song she was taught in her musical theatre classes at Syracuse University was "On The Other Side of The Tracks." I printed the music that afternoon and she did it that night. And she remembered all the words!

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We first chatted about her childhood: She grew up in Westchester and her parents were music teachers. She was constantly seeing ballets, orchestras and concerts. At first, she was a modern dancer and wanted to be in Alvin Ailey. Then she saw The Wiz on Broadway. She loved the idea of dancing and singing and acting at the same time. And Stephanie Mills was around her age so it seemed possible. She applied to musical theatre programs for college but Carnegie-Mellon was too expensive and NYU meant she'd have to live in NYC which her parents didn't think was safe, so she went to Syracuse. I didn't know whether she'd want to talk about Miss America but she told us everything. What's so interesting is how arbitrary it was. She was supposed to do a show at Syracuse but it got cancelled so she had nothing to do for April. She had been scouted by pageant people who were on the lookout for talented college kids and they asked her to do the local pageant. She won, then came states and suddenly she was on Miss America. She emphasized she was just a regular college kid who "smoked pot and lived with my boyfriend." She was not familiar with the pageant world at all and didn't even know where to go onstage when she won. She was going to spend her junior year abroad to study acting, singing and dancing and when she was crowned Miss America, her first thought was not "Hooray!" it was "Oh, no! I'm not going to be able to go to London!"

She emphasized how she was totally not trained in the pageant world and she had therefore had no compunction when people would ask, "Do you support ERA?" to respond "Of course!" Or "Do you support a woman's right to choose?" "Yes!" Being the first black Miss America came with lots of drama... from many sides. She heard from a lot of folks in the black community who felt it didn't mean anything because she had light eyes. And when she traveled in the south, she couldn't be in the open-air cars that every former Miss America was in because she had so many death threats. Seriously. How horrible is that? She had grown up very sheltered from racism and was shocked at how horrific it was around the country. When her crown was revoked, she had only had five weeks left to her reign. Being Miss America made her a name, but it also meant that she had to constantly prove herself; many people thought she was a goody-two shoes pageant girl without talent and others thought she was a "slut."

She wound up telling a devastating story about My One And Only. She had a final callback to star opposite Tommy Tune where she had to sing and tap dance up a storm. Everyone was on board to cast her (including Mike Nichols) until Lee Gershwin, who owned the rights, told Tommy Tune she would never allow the show to star that "f-ing whore." Horrific. The first person to give her a job after the pageant was the great James Lescene (the writer of Trevor which led to the Trevor project) which was in the show One Man Band. But after that, she couldn't get a theatre job. Her husband finally told her that the one place she could control her image was in the record world and she stopped pursuing theatre to became a recording artist. She wound up having hits like "Save the Best for Last" and "Colors of the Wind" and was finally asked to make her Broadway debut in the aforementioned Kiss of the Spider Woman. She was so excited to finally show people what she could do! She was, of course, intimidated following the great Chita Rivera. She remembers how hard it was to get her stamina to Chita's level. There's a song called "Where You Are" where the character sings, dances then sings again and holds the last note for a long time. Vanessa was winded at the end of the song during her first performance and cut the note off early, but then came back in…up the octave! For some reason, that was easier. I found a clip of Chita doing the number from the show. Watch…and try to hold the last note!

As for California, I'm back again at the end of May! I did a section of Deconstructing Broadway at Judd Apatow's show at Largo, and now I'm going to do my show there May 30! That club is so super-hip. As the head of the club was finding me a date he was saying things like "Hmm...Sarah Silverman has a show that night" and "That's the night Steve Martin has his show…" Ah! So exciting! Here's the info and ticket link. And now, peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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