Let me start by saying that I sympathize with Madonna. Not for singing Evita three steps down, but for adopting a phony English accent. I've found that it's very hard to avoid talking like you're British when you're surrounded by Brits. It almost takes more of an effort to not speak like them. It does, however, take no effort to not eat like them. Let me just say that this was the first time in the history of television that I didn't make the craft service table area double as my dressing room.
I spent the first five days in Liverpool where I'd travel every day to the Wallasey School, which is right over the river. It was the final week of rehearsals for their production of Grease. The TV show concept is that high school kids have their show put up by professionals. So the producer/host of the show was Duncan James, who's a member of a famous British boy band, and the show was directed and choreographed by Stacey Haynes, who's been involved with many shows on the West End. I was brought in to give them some Broadway sass. The Wallasey School is public, but they have a big concentration in art and theatre. There were tons of photos of past productions all over the walls as well as great artwork. But the one thing they don't study in the U.K. is American accents. Hoo, boy. The first sign that I had a lot of work to do is when I got my "script" for the days shooting. The producers wanted me to tell the kids that they had to speak like an American all day. However, this was the very natural dialogue they gave me: "You need to speak American everywhere. During rehearsal, whilst taking a shower…" "Whilst?" I gently informed them that no one has said "whilst" in America since the 1600's, as in "Pass me the sweet potatoes whilst that witch burns."
Then they asked me to do American things with the kids and stared at me for examples. I told them that I don't know what things I do that are American as opposed to British, besides seeing a dentist twice a year (come on…I needed one British teeth joke). They gave me a big box full of American things and had me pass them out. For some reason, one of the American things I passed out was a bowl of popcorn. They don't have that in the U.K.? One of the kids tried out his accent on me with this sentence; "Hey, Seth! Let's go play some American football." I gently explained that in the U.S., by the very fact that we are in America, we don't need to put the word "American" before things. Then I handed out various sports paraphernalia like baseballs and footballs, and both the Brits and I had no idea what to do with them.
They're doing the "school version" of Grease, which runs just 45 minutes. It's essentially a couple of lines and then one or two verses of a song. They've also cleaned up any objectionable material for the school version, and it's crazy. In "Summer Nights," the substitute for We made out…under the dock is literally We told jokes…under the dock. What? That was the best substitution they could come up with? Why not "We faced away from each other…under the dock"?
I loved walking around Liverpool and seeing how different it was from America except for the fact that every time I started to cross the street, a car came terrifyingly zooming towards me from a direction I never considered looking in. Why do they drive on the opposite side of the street here? Just to kill Americans? Also, I was raging at the globalization of Liverpool because every ten feet was another Starbucks. I don't want a fancy coffee store, I want coffee the way Liverpudlians drink it. I felt that way until I got to the set, asked for a cup of coffee, and they explained that all they had to offer was instant coffee. What the-?? Are they trying to start another Revolutionary War? On the second day of filming, they wanted to give a few kids a chance to perform in front of a live audience, so we went on a field trip with them to a place called "The Cavern." What's historic about that place is that The Beatles were discovered there! What's not historic is that the original Cavern was torn down and a new one built across the street. So it was sort of like on "Bewitched" when the original Darren was torn down and everyone pretended the new one was the same thing.
Wednesday was my last day of filming at the school, so that night we took a crazily fast train to London. We checked in at around 10:30 and immediately took a walk around the neighborhood. I loved it As soon as we started walking, we saw the theatre where Hairspray is playing and then we walked a little further and saw Chicago. Our hotel was right near an area called the "Seven Dials," which is a little circle that has seven streets leading out from it. People were just hanging around, there were all these little shops, and it reminded me a lot of Provincetown. Our hotel was a combination of fabulous and horrifying. First of all, as soon as we walked in, I commented on the delicious smell. They had some kind of cologne wafting into the lobby on a constant loop that had us starting at, "Mmm..that smells so good" and quickly segueing to "Quick! Hold your breath! Don't breath! You're inhaling the toxins." Then Juli entered our spacious, luxurious bathroom and screamed. There was an enormous water bug (aka giant cockroach) walking around. James was dispatched to take care of it, and we never spoke of it again. Til the next night, when another one appeared in the bathroom. Where were they coming from? The open windows? We decided to keep the windows shut and erase it from our minds. We erased it until the next night when we walked in and saw another water bug, but this one was out of the bathroom and relaxing on the carpet! I'm praying that none of them decided to stow away and start a new life on the Upper West Side.
On our first full day in London we took the London Eye, which is an enormous ferris wheel that turns super-slowly and goes high enough so you can see many of the famous sights: Westminster Abbey, Big Ben, Parliament, Buckingham Palace, etc. We then walked through a gorgeous park to get a closer look at Buckingham Palace, and I commented how clean everything is even though it's impossible to find a trash can. We found out that they limit the amount of trash cans because they're nervous about terrorism. But, I also saw a big sign telling people that cigarette butts are still considered litter, and I noticed that even though so many people smoke, there aren't butts all over the ground like in NYC. I don't know why people in the U.S. who generally throw out all refuse think that if a cigarette is mostly smoked, it doesn't exist when put on the ground. It's like the unfunny refrigerator magnets that say "Crumbs Don't Count." Actually, crumbs do have calories, and a cigarette on the street is littering. Next question.
Thursday afternoon we met an old friend of mine, David Bedella, who won the Oliver Award for playing Satan in Jerry Springer—The Opera and is about to do a year- long British tour as Dr. Frank N Furter in The Rocky Horror Show. We all went for a traditional English tea at The Orangerie, which is a beautiful restaurant on the grounds of Kensington Palace. At one point, The Orangerie was used to grow oranges and the "great" part is, even though it's now a restaurant, it still maintains the tropical temperature necessary to grow oranges and/or make me covered in sweat within two minutes of being seated. Nonetheless, it was delicious and I felt very British — if "British" means "needing a shower desperately."
That night I had a lovely dinner with my friend John Reid, his partner James and Jonathan Phang. I've never met Jonathan before but he pretty much got me my job in Britain. Jonathan was a successful manager of high fashion models and was recently a judge on "Britain's Top Model." He's also friends with the head of the TV show, and she called and told him that she needed a Broadway expert from America. He told her that I was perfect for the gig. He had never met me, but was a fan of my deconstruction videos and told her to contact www.SethRudetsky.com. Brava worldwide web! John Reid worked as manager for some of the biggest musicians in the world (Elton John, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Michael Jackson and Freddie Mercury), and he also became a fan of mine because of my deconstruction videos. He told us that he made reservations for me, James and Juli at The Ivy Club, which is a super swanky eatery near our hotel. As soon as we walked in, the hostess looked horrified, and I thought we were being busted for not having jackets. Turns out, children aren't allowed! What the-? I was looking forward all day to a delish meal so I was prepared to give Juli 20 pence and directions to Burger King, but John had a word with the powers-that-be and next thing we knew, we were at a lovely table for six. John's partner James is about to start the musical theatre writing program at NYU, so we found out that by coincidence we're all flying to N.Y. on the same day. Then I saw my first West End show! It was Sister Act and ironically my premiere foray into British theatre had music by Alan Menken and lyrics by Glenn Slater, but it was in a real live West End theatre with a (mostly) British cast. British people may be reserved in restaurants, but in the theatre there are no holds barred. Throughout the show they were whooping, cheering, clapping along and saying "awwww." I felt like I was in old Music Hall. The next night we saw Priscilla, Queen of the Desert, which I was not in the mood for but wound up totally enjoying. And, even though it's not recommended for children under 16, Juli loved it. There wasn't anything bad for kids except the F word numerous times. But it was classed up by being spoken with an Australian accent. It's a jukebox musical, so it was fun to hear "Go West," "Don't Leave Me This Way," "Hot Stuff" and even "I've Never Been to Me." The show is different from the movie because instead of having the drag queens lip-synch to pre-recorded songs, it's theatricalized by having them lip-synch to women singing live, hanging above the stage. James and I were trying to cast the Broadway versions of both shows, and so far we think the Mother Superior part in Sister Act should go to Betty Buckley and the drag queen with a son in Priscilla should be played by Raul Esparza. The one negative thing that I noticed is that there seems to be a penchant for "sweetening" in British theatre (supplementing the ensemble numbers with pre-recorded singing) which I H-A-T-E. This lip-synch-fest has infiltrated its way to certain shows on Broadway, and we have to stop this British invasion before the Great White Way sounds like the "I Heart Broadway" review at Six Flags over Stratford.
The little boy role in Priscilla… is shared between five kids, even though he's only onstage in the last 15 minutes of the show. James and I are fascinated with the dichotomy of child safety in England. Kids cannot do eight shows a week and an adult is not allowed to take photographs of their child in a playground if there are any other children in the photo. Yet, kids can ride bikes without safety helmets, and children are allowed to sit up front in the passenger seat. I guess playing Annie eight times a week is much more dangerous than driving on a highway while sitting comfortably in what's known as "the death seat."
The night we saw Sister Act was incredibly British because John is so connected. The other people he invited to join us were two sisters who are both members of Parliament and one is a Baroness, as well. An actual Baroness. It was so A Little Night Music. Plus, sitting right in front of us was John's good friend, Joan Collins! PS, she's in her late 70's and looks fabulous. The two sisters were so nice and hooked us up with a private tour of Parliament, and it was amazing. One of the buildings is 1,000 years old! Almost everything in England is from at least a hundred years ago and has such history. As opposed to a brand-new apartment building in my neighborhood that's still being built and literally calls itself "pre-war." First of all, if it's brand new, how can it be "pre-war"? Or… what do they know that we don't know? Is the owner of the building Nostradamus?
In conclusion, my trip to England was a ton of fun, or as they would say, a kilo of fun. As soon as I get back to New York, I begin rehearsals for Seth's Broadway 101, which is playing every Sunday night at Ars Nova for the rest of the month. This week the show has me and my full ensemble plus Doug Kreeger, Gay Willis, Andrea McArdle, Andy Karl and Celina Carvajal. OK. I finished this on the plane, and it took forever to write. And, I have another fours left on the flight! Oy. I need to take a nap. I better put on the movie version of Mamma Mia! Peace 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.