ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Weekend in the Country

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Weekend in the Country A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Tommar Wilson and Will Swenson in Hair.
Tommar Wilson and Will Swenson in Hair. Photo by Michal Daniel

*

Happy post–Labor Day! Labor Day has always been bittersweet for me. Sweet because it's a holiday, bitter because the next day meant I had to re-enter Hell and see those horrible people (aka school and my peers). But now, thankfully, the only "school" I have to go to is Grease's Rydell High or Wicked's Shizz University and the only "horrible People" is any version not sung by Barbra Streisand ! Ha ha ha!!!! That's right, my point is not that I work on Broadway, but that I'm a hack comic. Anybody? Nobody.

Last Wednesday I finally saw Hair! I've mentioned this before, but, if you don't know, Hairwas the first Broadway show my parents took me to. No, I'm not in my sixties, people. It was during the final year of its run and I was barely out of diapers. But the cast sure was! To this day I remember that nude scene. And by "nude scene" I mean seeing people onstage naked for two seconds and then seeing the inside of my mother's palm that she placed over my eyes. She did the same thing during some choice scenes in "Taxi Driver" which we went to see when I was in second grade! I know some of you may think, Oh she probably thought it was a kids movie because it had Jodie Foster from "Bugsy Malone." Perhaps, but why that same year did we see "One Flew Over the Cukoos Next" and "Death Wish"? Silence. And the sound of a phone dialing The Children Services Hotline.

Nonetheless, I grew up obsessed with Hair and I'm very thankful I got to see it as my first show. I am, however, still raging that my parents took me to see The Three Penny Opera with Raul Julia when I was nine. What were they thinking? That show still gives me a headache even as an adult! Back to Hair. I wanted to give a link to the Tony Award performance from Hair and I went to Youtube and put in the search word Hair and Tony Awards and it led me to a clip of Laura Bell Bundy getting her hair done for the Tonys. I guess that's comparable…

Hair is one of those show where it's fun to be a lead and it's fun to be in the ensemble. There are so many group numbers so no matter who you are, you're always singing something fabulous. FYI I thought the ensemble sounded terrific! It's also one of those shows where every song is fantastic. Galt MacDermott has such a brilliant gift for songwriting. Most shows have around 15 songs, but Hair has more than 25 and they're all amazing! I especially love the weird ones like "Don't Put It Down", "Initials" and "Going Down". (To watch me deconstruct Gavin Creel singing "Going Down," get thee to www.SethRudetsky.com). Even though I know Hair really well I was still sobbing up a storm at the end. Bring that music back to Broadway where it belongs!

Seth and James in front of Bushkill waterfall.

For the last few weeks James, Juli and I were thinking about going away for Labor Day weekend. It looked like we were going to vacation with Andrea Burns (from In the Heights) and her husband Peter Flynn, but he's the new artistic director of the Hangar Theater in Ithaca, NY, and he had to work through the weekend. I was lamenting my fate to Susan Blackwell from [title of show] and she immediately volunteered her new vacation house near the Delaware Water Gap! How sweet is that? James, Juli, Maggie (my Lab/Dalmation/Whippet mutt) and I drove down on Friday and had an amazing time. Susan's husband, Steve, hung out with us and, on the last night, made us "campfire stew." We put carrots, potatoes, onions and fish in tin foil and he cooked it over an open fire in the forest behind their house. Delish! Maggie had the time of her life sniffing everywhere and going in the creek. However, Steve gave us a lift in his car at one point and when I got in it I thought, Hmm…that must be that "new car" smell. And by "new car" I meant, "dead rat rotting in a vent." I was slightly nauseated, but kept my airways closed and appreciated the lift. Later on, we were making ice cream in the ice cream maker that Hunter (from [title of show]) bought them as a housewarming gift. We were all talking about how easy it is to make ice cream now…no more rock salt and churning for two hours. Just milk, flavor and sugar. Steve said that the last time Hunter came, he thought he brought everything, but forgot the milk. A week later, Steve and Susan realized that Hunter didn't "forget the milk"…he left it under the passenger seat in their car! The carton expanded and leaked and that's what that amazing smell was! Steve said that they've yet to get rid of the aroma. Hunter Bell! You owe me the oxygen I was unable to take in for the 20 minutes I spent in that car trying not to breathe!

Beth Leavel

At the Chatterbox, I interviewed Tony Award winner Beth Leavel. The first shocker she laid on me is that she's from North Carolina! I asked her if there was a "Lynn" involved with her name and she admitted her full name is Elizabeth Lynn Leavel and when she'd hear all three names from her mother, it meant she was in severe trouble. She grew up so Southern that she actually took Cotillion Class! That's where you learn social dancing like the tango and the rhumba and fill out your dance card. And you wear a dress made from the drapes. The second shocker is that she didn't grow up wanting to be an actress! Not until she did her senior class play (Brigadoon) did she get bitten by the acting bug. She also said that she loved it because she got to kiss the cutest boy in her class. I asked her how long it took for him to come out and she said it happened around six months later. She got her college degree in counseling, but finally decided to pursue theatre for real. However, she was too scared to move to New York, so she got a masters degree in directing. She finally moved to New York (BETH: Remember when 45th Street was awesome in the '80s? Between Ninth and Tenth?) and got the role of Bonnie in Applause at the Equity Library Theater. That was the theatre where you got paid in subway tokens (seriously!) but agents and casting people would come. It was a great showcase for actors starting out. Beth got her agent then…and is still with him 25 years later! She also met her husband there (he was a dancer)…and is still with him 25 years later!

Her agent got her an audition for the national tour of 42nd Street but Beth had not taken tap since she was at "Betty Kovaks School of Dance" back in third and fourth grade. They loved her singing and comedy at the audition, but her dancing was not up to snuff. Karin Baker (who was in charge of the tour) told her that if she could nail the dance break to "Go Into Your Dance" at her next audition, she'd have the job. Unfortunately, her next audition was four days later! Yowtch! She rented a studio and practiced every day, coached by her husband. When she went back to re-audition, her husband waited for her at a bar where he knew the bartender. He felt that Beth's tapping was still really iffy and the bartender felt bad that Beth was about to lose out on this job, so he kept plying her husband with drink. After the audition, Beth breathlessly arrived and was met by her husband who was slobbering "Hey, Beth! Ah love you anyway! You'll get a job shoon…" She sobered him up and told him that she indeed got the job…right after she danced! Beth sighed and told the Chatterbox audience that it was easier then. They'd tell you that you got the gig on the spot instead of nowadays when you have to wait for a urinealysis and a pap smear. Beth did the tour of 42nd Street, did it on Broadway and did it in Japan! You can see her do her treacherous audition dance in a clip on Bluegobo.com (http://bluegobo.com/production.php?var=10031&mode=P&vid=0). They filmed it when she was in Japan and she looks amazing. If you can't recognize her at first, she's the one with the solo dance that's not Peggy Sawyer.

She talked about auditioning for the lead in Crazy For You. After her sixth audition (!), she got a call from William Ivey Long (a North Carolina native and the costume designer) who told her that he was going to take her shopping for her next audition. He said that she needed to look completely elegant for the role and dragged her to Macy's where she tried on a ton of outfits. She finally got a stunning blue dress and then he had someone do her hair and makeup. She showed up at the audition looking stunning…and they promptly decided they didn't want the role to be played by someone elegant, they wanted "cute as a button." Jodi Benson got the gig, but they still wanted to give Beth a job so they offered a small role…which expanded into a delicious one. She did the show until she got pregnant and then two weeks after her C section, she was rehearsing Show Boat in Toronto! Ow!

In 2000, she auditioned for the 42nd Street revival. She went in for the roles of Maggie or Dorothy Brock but the director said that she fell between the cracks so he asked her to stand-by. Christine Ebersole, who played Dorothy, had a medical emergency the first week of previews and Beth had to go on with no rehearsals!!!! There were no costumes for her, so someone ran out to Lord and Taylor and got her what she called "some mother of the bride" outfits and she went on. She said it was terrifying, but she learned that if she could do that, she could do anything.

She recalled auditioning for The Drowsy Chaperone and afterwards she spoke to the director, Casey Nicholaw, who said that she wasn't really right for the role. They wanted something different…maybe someone older...who knows? But he said it wasn't her. A month later her agent called with a job offer and she thought it was for The Wedding Singer because she had just auditioned for that. When her agent said it was for The Drowsy Chaperone, she made him call back the general manager to make sure it wasn't a mistake! If you haven't seen her Tony Award acceptance speech, check out http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=p5Y1WuMnQY0. Right now she's starring as Frau Blucher in Young Frankensteinand loving it. By the way, the reason I know Beth is because she directed a production of Grease at the Candlewood Playhouse when I was 22 and worked as the assistant music director. On the last Friday of the show, the guy playing Danny called the theatre and said that he wasn't showing up! No one really ever found out the reason, but we think it was because he got a soap opera and began filming. Anyhoo, it was three in the afternoon and everyone was in a panic because he didn't have an understudy. Bob Bartley, who played Kenickie said that he could go on for Danny because he had done the role before. Ron LaRosa (now a big casting agent) was playing Doody and he said that he would play Kenickie. That left open the role of Doody. Well, I had been watching all the rehearsals and therefore knew all the lines, songs and dance steps. I told the producer I would do the role! She said yes and I went on without a put-in rehearsal and had the best time. The "funny" part is that Eric Woodall was an acting intern that summer and the understudy for Doody. And yet, somehow, I'm the one who went on for that role. Eric now works as a casting director for Tara Rubin. I'm not saying I devastated him by acting like a combination of Eve Harrington, The Bad Seed and Drew Barrymore from the film "Poison Ivy," but here are the amount of shows I've done that Tara Rubin has cast: Zero.

All right, everyone, this week I'm putting the finishing touches on my revamped website and starting my new diet. I want to get in shape in case I get called in to play one of those shirtless guys in Mamma Mia! Oh, wait…Tara Rubin casts that show.

Pass the chocolate.

*

(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.)