Onstage & Backstage: Why Did Laura Benanti Become My Daughter's Bodyguard?

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: Why Did Laura Benanti Become My Daughter's Bodyguard?
 
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

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I think Marilyn Cooper said it best when she sang "Puerto Rico… you lovely island…" I arrived in San Juan on Tuesday night at 1 AM, instead of Monday morning when the Playbill Broadway By The Sea vacation began.

Hugh Jackman, Deborra-Lee Furness and Seth
Hugh Jackman, Deborra-Lee Furness and Seth

Why did I come a day late? Because I spent Monday and Tuesday hosting Gypsy of the Year, which was so much fun. I could not believe the celebs that were assigned to my dressing room. Take a look at the photo I took! Not since "Sesame Street'"s "One of these things is not like the other!"

The opening number was a celebration of the 40th anniversary of The Wiz and they did so many songs and, on a side note, the band conducted by Ben Cohn sounded amazing! The number had cast members from the original run including future Ain't Misbehavin' stars Andre De Shields and Ken Page. Andre (in a tight, white, bejeweled onesie) sang "So You Want to Meet The Wizard" and Ken sang "Mean Ol' Lion" and "Be A Lion." They both sounded fantastic and holy cow, was Ken's song high! Afterwards, I complimented Ken for still singing in the original key and Andre for still fitting in his original costume (basically a size zero).

We were in the Aladdin theatre, so I was given the actual genie lamp which I rubbed (and learned the trick for getting the smoke to come out!) and up came James Monroe Iglehart! I knew that he improv'd some stuff as the genie during rehearsals and asked if he ever was told to cut a joke. He remembered one time he came out while surrounded by smoke and made a joke about needing to cut down on cigarettes. He immediately heard the pitter-patter of determined Disney executive feet running over and telling him in no uncertain terms that Disney characters do not smoke. I then asked if they had ever seen one of the Goofy's at Disneyland with his costume half-on taking a break while chain-smoking. No answer. James is part of the group Freestyle Love Supreme (with In The Heights cast members Lin-Manuel Miranda and Chris Jackson), and I told the audience that he's amazing at doing a freestyle rap on any subject. When we did the dress rehearsal, I asked for a subject from the audience and Frank Conway (from Broadway Cares) called out Joyce DeWitt. James made up a great Joyce DeWitt-themed song, and I was excited to hear the different words called out during the actual performance with a giant audience. What amazing options would we get that I have to chose from? So, on Monday afternoon, I asked for a suggestion from the audience. Silence. Finally, the only word called out was "garbage." What? I denied the request and asked for something else. Surely, someone would call out a fun subject for an improv rap. It was a sold-out show! The next suggestion was "heartbreak." I had had it. I told the audience very clearly they needed to call out something that wasn't a complete downer. Thankfully, the next suggestion was "drag queens" and James did a great rap. The next day someone called out "jewelry" but it wasn't 100% clear and sounded a bit like "jewery." I then told James he had to do improv a song about jewels and Jews. And he did! Brava!

During the Monday show, the Motown number featured one of the stars coming up through the elevator on the stage. There was a comedy bit about her long, beautiful gown being stuck between the elevator and the stage. It culminated with a stagehand running out and "cutting" the bottom of the gown so she could move. Well, I found out after the show, that it wasn't a comedy bit! She rose up and the elevator actually closed with part of her dress between the top of the elevator and the stage floor. The number started and she tugged and tugged and finally a stagehand had no choice but to come out with a big, fat scissor and sliced up the costume! FYI, it wasn't a cute little $49 dress from Target; it was an actual costume from the show! Not since Kristin Chenoweth's beauty pageant days. What's that obscure reference, you ask? Well, Kristin told me that those pageants had some beeyatchery backstage and one time, as she and the other girls were getting ready for the bathing suit competition, she saw that her bathing suit had been completely cut. As Kristin told me, "It wasn't on a seam. It was cut." Kristin decided to "own it" so she held it up and loudly stated, Southern-style, "Thank you to whoever cut up my bathing suit. I have another one with me that I actually like better." PS. She didn't win. But she has a Tony and an Emmy, so it all worked out.

Right after the Tuesday performance, I had a car take me to JFK for my flight to San Juan. Everything went incredibly smoothly. Until. We were around 90 minutes into the flight and dinner had just been served. Suddenly, and I mean suddenly, we hit something called "clear air turbulence." I dare you to Google it. It means what it says: turbulence that comes out of the clear air. There's no warning to the pilots. And it's not a little shaking. It literally felt like we were hit by a truck. The plane was smashed by the air at least twice. It was terrifying. I was completely traumatized and thought we were going to have to make an emergency landing. Then I remembered the pilot telling us that our flight path was completely over the ocean. Where the hell would we land? I finally relaxed myself by thinking, "I'm sure the flight attendants deal with this all the time. There's nothing to worry about." Cut to, the flight attendant came over to me right afterwards and revealed she had never experienced anything like it! She then proceeded to say "I literally saw someone get up during the turbulence and I was like, 'Lady! Sit the f*ck down!'" PS, she didn't use astericks… she literally said the word to me. Turbulence makes us all lose any and all boundaries. Anyway, the plane wasn't injured and I had a wonderful rest of the flight, sitting with my hands gripping my arm rest and my eyes completely bugged out of my head.

Juli and Seth
Juli and Seth

The resort that Playbill booked in Puerto Rico was lovely, and my room was enormous. I guess I should say rooms since I had a full bedroom, enormous bathroom with a marble shower and giant tub and then a full living room with a terrace as well! My mother was across the hall and immediately had her signature Sally Rudetsky complain-for-no-reason moment. She was completely irritated because the people in the next room played classical music all day and night. Even though it was pretty music, she was having trouble sleeping because it was so loud and relentless. After two nights of not sleeping well, she called the front desk and told them the next door neighbors were "very rude" and played music non-stop. She was informed that there actually wasn't a room next to hers. First, take that in. She was then told that when housekeepers clean, they put the radio on for ambience. In other words, for the last two days, the music from "next door" had actually been coming from the radio next to her bed. "Not since When A Stranger Calls" ("The calls are coming from inside the house"!).

Seth, Christine Ebersole and Paolo Szot
Seth, Christine Ebersole and Paolo Szot

The shows were all fantastic. I began with a Leading Men-themed "Chatterbox" starring Paulo Szot and Cheyenne Jackson. Cheyenne told us he had just auditioned for the role of Gaston in "Beauty and the Beast." No, not the bus and truck company, a new live action film! How perfect is he for that role! Paulo shocked me when he told us that before he was an opera singer, he was a dancer! He grew up in Brazil but had Polish parents and when he was 18, he went to Poland on a ballet scholarship! However, he had a mean Russian teacher whom he was trying to impress and he danced so hard that he injured his knee. When he left dancing, someone told him he had the voice of an opera singer, and that's been his career ever since. His show had a hilarious section where he talked about wanting to do Broadway, but being nervous about his English. So, he claims he went to the old Colony Record Store and got "The Big Book of Broadway Roles for Actors with Accents." He then did a medley of possible parts he could play, including Tevye, The Emcee, The King, Don Quixote and Anita (!).

My mom and Faith Prince
My mom and Faith Prince

Faith Prince also had a great show and told the story about playing Daisy doing a big production of On A Clear Day You Can See Forever with Jack Jones. One of Jack's big song is "Come Back To Me" which lists the various modes of transportation his character wants Daisy to take to reunite with him: Car, plane, train, mule, etc. They didn't have a lot of rehearsal, and for some reason, he was having trouble remembering "mule" so they painted a big red MULE in the middle of the stage so he'd remember. On opening night, not only did he not remember mule, but he forget every other mode of transport in the lyrics. He was silent for the whole song except at the end of every verse when he sang "Come back to me!" Faith saw him right afterwards, and he was mortified. He told her that he froze and he couldn't remember anything. She asked why not mule? It was literally written right on the stage! Well, the stage was in the round and he told her that he was on the wrong side so all he said he saw was "Elum." And I'm out.

Megan Hilty was only there for a few days because she had to fly home to do concerts in Washington, DC. But if you want to see us together, get thee here and come see us in San Francisco this February! Not only was Megan's show great (full-out belting in "Let Me Be Your Star," yet high soprano in "Goodnight My Someone") but I was extra impressed because she was traveling with her 10-week-old daughter. Brava dealing with the glares of the airline passengers as you get on board for a four-hour flight!

Tommy Tune did his fabulous show accompanied by Michael Biagi. It's an autobiographical show but, because it's 70 minutes, it can only touch on 1/10th of his career. It's mind-boggling how much he's done as a performer, director and choreographer. And he still dances up a storm! Speaking of dancing, Donna McKechnie was there, looking fabulous, and talked about her experience in the original Company. She remembers Michael Bennett and Bob Avian talking about what it's like being in bed with someone and feeling removed from the situation. The only thing you hear is the ticking of the clock in the room. She remembers sitting there in the meeting, nodding like she knew what they meant, but in actuality she was way too innocent to have experienced anything like it. However, she thinks it's so cool to have been with them to see the tiny little germ that led to her amazing Act Two dance solo "Tick Tock." Here she is doing it in the 90's concert when the original cast reunited!

She also talked about the story of Maggie in A Chorus Line being based on her (she's the one who in real life danced around the living room with the Indian Chief). She then sang a solo version of "At The Ballet" that was only Maggie's part and it was amazing! She does it in Four Girls Four, the show she tours in with Andrea McArdle, Maureen McGovern and Faith Prince. Go see it!

Juli and Laura Benanti
Juli and Laura Benanti

Laura Benanti sounded amazing, of course, and was hilarious from the get-go. She came onstage in a stunning gown and sang, in her lilting soprano, "I'm Old Fashioned." Halfway through the song, she lifted a cell phone out of her bust area and took a selfie. Brava! Juli came down to San Juan and Laura felt it was her duty to protect her. Of course, Lucy-style, it was always completely inappropriate and unneeded. (PS. These stories are totally true.) First, Laura saw Juli walking on the beach with a guy who was clearly in his 20's. She stormed over to tell the man that Juli was only 14 and he was in violation of the law. When she got closer, she saw it wasn't an island native on the make, but it was Joey Monda, my old assistant who was working for Playbill. And who is also decidedly gay. Then, that night, Laura saw Juli holding a fancy drink and was about to snatch it out of her hands and return it to the bar. How dare she have alcohol at 14! She then noticed it wasn't a fifth of bourbon, it was actually chocolate milk. All we needed was a laugh track to make it like a sitcom. And then a cancellation notice from the network.

Seth and Roger Bart
Seth and Roger Bart

The final show starred Christine Ebersole and she decided to make it an all-request show. Passengers filled out pieces of paper, put them in a box, and she chose various songs like "New Words," "Around The World" and "Revolutionary Costume." At one point, she told the audience, "Well, I recognized the handwriting on this next suggestion." Laugh. Then "Because it was mine." She explained to the audience that she wanted to do a song she'd never get to do on Broadway or at the opera. But it was something she'd love to sing. She brought up Paulo to join her, and together they sang an amazing version of "Bess, You Is My Woman Now/Porgy, I's Your Woman Now." It was incredible! She was hitting high Bb's over and over again! I recorded it, so go to SethTV.com if you want to hear some. Amazing! The delicious news is, Disaster! is going to do a one-night Actors Fund Benefit Concert in Los Angeles Jan. 25, 2014! The cast is amazing: Kerry Butler, Roger Bart, Jenn Simard, Kate Reinders, Rachel York, Saum Eskandani, Kevin Chamberlin, Lacretta Nicole, Andrea Martin, Barrett Foa and Adam Pascal. And me! When I was in L.A., I started rehearsing with the L.A. stars, and it's so exciting to hear them do the material. Andrea and Kevin are so funny together as the older couple, Barrett and Adam look adorable as best friends and I cannot wait to play opposite the comic genius of Roger Bart, who's playing my nemesis. I got some great photos from rehearsal, and I'll have even more next month. Get tix here and 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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