ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Working Vacation in P-Town

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Working Vacation in P-Town A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Varla Jean Merman
Varla Jean Merman

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Greetings from Provincetown! James and I are sitting on the porch of our Bed and Breakfast looking out over the beautiful garden and hearing the nearby fountain splash...with our computers in our laps. That's right, this is a "working vacation." I got invited up here to play for Varla Jean Merman's annual concert called Classical Varla which benefits AIDS Support Group Cape Cod (http://www.asgcc.org). This is her fourth concert and it always raises a ton of money. Last night, I saw the show Varla is doing in P-town all summer and it was, as usual, hilarious. At one point a stagehand "accidentally" left a box onstage, filled with all of Varla's clippings so she was "forced" to read them. She showed everyone the New York Times review of her Off-Broadway foray Enough About Me and pridefully said that they called the show "insane." She then looked closer and noticed that the Times "made a mistake" and left the "s" out of the word.

Her opening number had her making an entrance as Mary Poppins (holding an umbrella) and immediately launching into Riahnna's hit song "Umbrella" (!) that then segued to "Supercalifragilisticexpialidocious."During the bridge of the song, she sang "Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle i! Um diddle diddle diddle um diddle i!" Then she started jabbing the audience with her umbrella singing: "Um-brella in your eye! Um-brella in your eye!"

Varla and I worked on a great piece based on gay history a la "Schoolhouse Rock" for LOGO TV that was supposed to recur but happened only once...not unlike all the Broadway show offers I thought I'd get after The Ritz. It's a half animated/half filmed musical version of the Stonewall Riots. Take a gander at the amazing song she wrote and the brilliant animation etc…at http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=mS9jBmbdeX4.

Anyone that does a show in Provincetown has to have a hawker who strolls up and down the street handing out flyers. One day when I was visiting here a few years ago, Varla's hawker wasn't available so I said that I'd help out. I started walking up Commercial Street and as Varla smiled and waved and walked in front of me, I handed flyers to anyone who passed by. Varla had many fans fawning all over her, but at one point, two guys ignored Varla and instead came up to me to say how much they loved my show on Sirius radio. Varla immediately whirled around and told me, "You're fired!" P.S., This Wednesday the "Project Runway" models are all guys in drag and Varla is one of them! How amazing is that! Go to www.Varlaonline.com for deets.

Last week I played the first two performances of Andrea McArdle's show at The Metropolitan Room (www.metropolitanroom.com for tix). Justin Paul is playing the ones this week while I'm in P-town and then I'm back for her final two performances Aug. 24-25. Andrea belts up a storm in the show, but the "patter" is mostly her answering questions I ask. I brought up Dorothy Loudon and Andrea said, "She didn't like most kids…but she liked me." Andrea said that sometimes onstage she'd fiddle with her dress or her hair and Dorothy pulled her aside after one performance and told her, "If you ever move when I have a funny line…you will never do this show again." Andrea was terrified and told us all that she learned her lesson. She brought up Carol Channing with whom she did Jerry's Girls six years later and said that Carol told her the same thing. I then pointed out the fact that she apparently didn't learn her lesson. She also told the audience that before Annie she did a Bounty Paper Towel commercial with Nancy Walker. Remember? Nancy was "Rosie" the waitress and Bounty was "the quicker-picker-upper." Unfortunately Andrea also recalled that Nancy felt the need to take a nap during the filming of the commercial…for six hours! And it was the same day as her father's college graduation. Bye-bye seeing Daddy graduate, Hello residual. She played a young Judy Garland in the TV movie "Rainbow" and found out that it was seen by...Liberace! He hired her to be his opening act and designed all of her costumes. She had never seen a bugle bead but she was suddenly covered in them. She also wondered out loud why he had high-heeled shoes in his closet that were such a large size. Remind me never to invite a 15-year-old over to my place without first locking my closet/drawers.

Monday night I performed at an Obama Fundraiser put together by Ryan Mekenian and when I showed up, I read the program and saw that I hardly recognized any names on the list of performers. I was thrilled to see Teri Ralston who was the original Jenny in Company listed. Of course, I've been obsessed with that cast album ever since I played Harry in tenth grade so I was psyched to see her perform. She sang David Friedman's beautiful song "Help is on the Way" and every time she sang that refrain, she pointed to the big Obama face on her T-shirt. Regarding the rest of the performers, I sat in my seat thinking that I'd try to be supportive no matter how clanky they were. Turns out, the talent on that stage was incredible! I was completely intimidated starting right at the beginning when Carrie Mannolakos sang "America the Beautiful." She sang phenomenally and after the show I approached her and decided to give this newcomer a tip on how to get her Equity card. Turns out, she's starring as Sophie in Mamma Mia!. Huh. Perhaps she has a tip for me. Then a young woman named Lindsay Mendez sang a new song Andrew Lippa wrote, and yet again I thought, "I must give this newcomer some pointers. After googling her, I realized she plays Jan on Broadway in Grease! And I've been obsessed this whole last year with how she sounds on "Mooning." What is my problem? The other person I was obsessed with was a woman named Shaina Taub who arranged the cool and creative back-up harmonies for "America the Beautiful" and than sang a great song about Halloween being scary, but election night being even scarier. She had the coolest, soulful, smoky sound and I assumed she was a chanteuse that's been playing in all the coolest clubs in town for years. Turns out, she's 19! Why do I assume that established Broadway performers are fresh off the bus and actual newcomers are aging jazz-tresses? That reminds me…I must write and give some professional encouragement to a certain C. Rivera whom I think has potential.

My sister Nancy came to visit this week from Virginia so we hightailed it to my long-time fave, [title of show]. I love it so much and was nervous she wouldn't think it lived up to everything I've said about it. Cut to: she loved it! She went backstage after the show and showed everyone the tears in her eyes. She told Susan that she was so moved and felt it was her life up there (Nancy performed all through high school but is now a lawyer). She said she that needed an emergency therapy session ASAP after seeing the show but was faced with the problem that no therapists are available at 11 at night. She added that the other stumbling block is that she doesn't actually have a therapist.

The craziest thing happened the night we saw it. Around two-thirds of the way through the show, Hunter and Jeff exit the stage through a door and Susan and Heidi remain onstage and sing about being the secondary characters. Well, I saw Jeff start to leave and the next thing I knew, he was flat on the floor and all that we could see onstage were his feet sticking out of the doorway. Everyone awkwardly stood there and Jeff did not move! Nancy leaned over to me and asked if that was supposed to happen and I knew if I said it was an accident, her co-dependence would kick in and she'd hail an ambulance so I muttered a combination of yes and no and kept staring at the stage. Finally, Hunter said with an odd line reading, "We'll be back" and it looked like Jeff was dragged offstage! What the — ? I was freaking out! What was with the immobilization? Heidi and Susan sang their song and I later found out they were thinking that he could be a.) injured b.) terribly injured or c.) dead. How can you go on with a comedy scene when you're wondering if your co-star is dead? Although, that's probably what Carol Channing wondered onstage about Mary Martin when they toured in Legends (see James Kirkwood's book "Diary of a Mad Playwright"). Anyhoo, Susan and Heidi got through their scene with plenty of laughs and, normally, at the end of it, Heidi riffs up a storm until Jeff surprises her and she stops suddenly. Well, I saw someone enter in Jeff's clothes and I was sure it was the understudy. But then the lights came up fully and I saw it was Jeff! I was so thrilled he was able to walk (and that he was alive) and apparently so was Heidi because right after she was "surprised" by him, she threw her arms around him in joy. I know she was happy but I have seen the show seven times and know that it wasn't the regular blocking. As a concerned theatrical professional, I took the liberty of writing her up to Equity. I'm still awaiting a response.

Jeff Bowen and Seth

After the show, Nancy and I saw Jeff and he said he twisted his ankle super-bad. It was so bizarre to me because when he came back onstage, he looked totally fine and was able to do all the dancing, but after the show I saw how swollen his ankle was. He essentially got through the show on pure adrenaline and, as my director Peter Flynn calls it, "Dr. Theater." That's why Andrea Burns was able to break her foot onstage yet do all the high kicks at the end of "Be Our Guest" and Kevin Chamberlin was able to do Suessical while passing a kidney stone! Seriously! Next, I wanna see Heidi from [title of show] sing "A Way Back to Then" while giving birth. Sans epidural. Speaking of Heidi, she wrote all about the Jeff debacle from her perspective at http://www.titleofshow.com/blog/index.php?itemid=1301. I interviewed Bailey Hanks (the current Elle Woods in Legally Blonde) and Autumn Hurlbert (her understudy) at my Sirius radio show. I got more details on the horrors of doing a reality show. They literally confiscate your cell phones when you get there so you have no contact with the outside world. And then, after they filmed around six episodes, the girls were allowed one ten-minute phone call. Autumn called her boyfriend, but because he was performing in South Pacific at the time, he didn't get the call. Of course, that was great for the TV show because it made Autumn more emotionally fragile. Seriously, they would play into everybody's insecurities so the girls would have breakdowns like, "The judges today said your dancing wasn't good. We watched the audition and your dancing really isn't good." Then they'd have her talk to the camera, hoping for "Leave Britney Alone" tears. Autumn's first big job was touring the country in Little Women and she told me how much she loved Maureen McGovern who played Marmee. Every Saturday, no matter what town they were in, Maureen would buy donuts for the whole cast and every Sunday she'd bring in a full bagel spread. They all called her "Maureen McGenerous." Generous? Generous is what my hips would be called if I was on that tour with Maureen McCarbLoading.

I complimented Bailey on her last note in "So Much Better" and asked her if she was happy that she got applause for it after only holding it for four counts. She said she loved the applause but a part of her wanted the audience to hear that she actually could hold it to the end of the phrase (29 counts). She's studying with Joan Lader (Betty Buckley and Patti LuPone's voice teacher) and Bailey said that Joan taught her it's all about being grounded. Bailey said it's not about her vocal placement as much as it is feeling strongly planted in the ground. Hmm…maybe that's why my Oak Tree has such a high belt. Horticulture comedy? Anybody? Nobody.

My nieces watched the interview (they were obsessed with the TV show) and then went to see Legally Blonde. I'm not saying that obsessiveness runs in the family…but….right after the matinee ended, Rachel Sarah immediately asked me to get her tickets for the 8 PM show. Yes! Another addict is inducted! All right, everyone. This week I'm playing the Varla benefit and then heading home to NYC just in time to turn around and do my deconstructing show in Pennsylvania! I'll be at the Fulton Theatre in Lancaster on Aug. 22. Will they get my Barbra/Bea Arthur bit in Amish country? Will they like my show and build me a barn? Or will I be a "witness" to a slew of blank faces with beards? I'll find out at the end of this week and update you all on Monday. 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.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

Seth and nieces (Rachel Sarah and Eliana Berman) with Bailey Hanks and Autumn Hurlbert.
Seth and nieces (Rachel Sarah and Eliana Berman) with Bailey Hanks and Autumn Hurlbert.