ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Year by Year in the Early 'Aughts

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Year by Year in the Early 'Aughts A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and talk show host Seth Rudetsky.
Heidi Blickenstaff, James, Juli, Julia Murney and Seth Rudetsky
Heidi Blickenstaff, James, Juli, Julia Murney and Seth Rudetsky

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It's 2010! How cra-za-zy is that? I remember being in junior high school, reading George Orwell and wondering what would happen in far-off 1984. Then in college, Prince sang about partying in the WAY future…1999. Then when I was working on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," we wrote a parody about Rosie being a superhero called "R2K" because we were all dreading Y2K and the year 2000. And now, suddenly, it's ten years after that! How come going from second grade to 12th grade felt like sitting through Nicholas Nickleby but the last ten years have flown by faster than Patti LuPone's tempos at her final performance of Evita. (I know it's obscure, but ask someone who was there). Speaking of Y2K and Rosie, I remember a production meeting for her show back then where one of the producers told us that she was in a cab and the driver thought the "Y2K" meant that when the New Year came, every word that had the letter Y was going to have to change the Y to a K. What the — ? HappK New Kear.

[AUDIO-LEFT] This week I'm going to sunny Indiana (?) to do my deconstructing show and a master class for the state-wide theatre education conference. It's fun to fly from somewhere freezing to somewhere even more freezing. Speaking of master classes, now that I've moved to a much bigger place, I've been doing a lot more coaching. This is the time of year when I get teenagers preparing for their college theatre auditions. A lot of times, they sound great but have no idea what they're singing about. When I was in England doing that Grease reality show, I asked the 17-year-old girl playing Sandy if she knew what a section of words meant in "You're The One That I Want." Not surprisingly, she said, "I have no clue"… but, P.S., she had a thick Liverpool accent so it came out pretty much sounding like, "Blimey." Anyhoo, this week I was coaching a young girl named Bridget who has a really nice voice. She was singing "Colors of the Wind" from Pocahontas and I knew I'd ask my typical "do you know what this part means?" question to expose her for not thinking of the lyrics. She started singing the part that goes "Have you ever heard the wolf cry to the blue corn moon? " and I stopped her and asked, "What's a blue corn moon?" While I was waiting for the typical teenage shrug and preparing to launch into my patented speech about how you need to not only focus on your voice but you must understand what you're singing, she had the calmly said, "A blue moon is an extra full moon in a given month due to the unequal length of the solar and lunar cycles and a Corn Moon is one of the many names for full moons in May, along with Milk Moon, Flower Moon and Hare's Moon." She then had the nerve to tell me that her mom is part Native American! Of course, I had no idea of the proper definition so I just nodded knowingly, didn't make eye contact and began playing the second verse.

When I get back from Illinois, I'm going to do Deconstructing Broadway here in NYC! If you wanna see me deconstruct amazing belting, devastating head voice and '70s video clips that will blow your mind, come by Don't Tell Mama on Sunday Jan. 10 at noon. Reservations at (212) 757-0788 or donttellmamanyc.com.

* To celebrate the new decade I thought I'd write a little theatrical recap about the years in early 'aughts when I didn't have my Playbill.com column. Here goes: In the year 2000 I was subbing piano on many Broadway shows, including The Full Monty. I still remember the beginning of Act Two one night. I was reading an article in Newsday about the Vietnam war and it brought up many questions for me: Would I have been drafted? Would I have burned my draft card? Would I have fled to Canada? As I was thinking of all these possible scenarios, I heard the drummer warming up. He was coming through my headphones, full volume. I thought, "If I can hear him, that means the audience can hear him too! How unprofessional." I then looked up and saw Kim Grigsby conducting the beginning of the song "The Goods." If you're not familiar with it, the opening two-measure introduction is just drums and keyboard. Since I had been sitting at my keyboard, pondering the Vietnam War and was apparently unavailable, the beginning of the song that night featured just drums. That's right, a simple drum solo with no tonality. I'm sure it was very easy for Patrick Wilson to get his opening pitch from the snare. I wish I took heart medication so I could have doubled my dose that night because you cannot believe the heart attack I thought I was having at that moment. And that's the highlight for year 2000.

2001 was the culmination of many years of planning. I had been obsessed with Dreamgirls ever since I saw it in high school in 1984. In 1997 I did my yearly benefit for Beth Simchat Torah, the Gay/Lesbian Synagogue in the Village. I was featuring the music of David Friedman and Henry Krieger and at the last minute, I lost my Effie. Lillias White was in tech for The Life but said she'd stop by afterwards to sing for me. She got onstage and sang the end of the Act One Fight Scene, which leads into "And I Am Telling You." I was SO blown away that I told her I was going to one day do a concert of Dreamgirls with a full orchestra and her as Effie. I knew that Audra MacDonald always wanted to play Deena so I went to the Actors Fund and asked them if they'd sponsor the concert starring those two Tony-Award winning sasstresses. Tim Pinckney and Catherine Cooke thought of the idea of asking Heather Headley to play Lorrell and that's how we got three Tony winners to star in the show! We first planned to do it in December of 2000, but Audra suddenly called me and told me she was having some problems with her pregnancy and had to go on bed rest. We postponed the concert til Sept. 21, 2001, and raised almost $1,000,000! I'm still obsessed that my chorus consisted of people like Orfeh, Montego Glover, Adrian Lenox and Sara Ramirez! FYI, there was some dishing that we started the concert super late, but, inside-scoop, that was because we weren't allowed to use the dressing rooms at the Ford Center (don't get me started) and the ladies had to dress in the rehearsal studios which are so far away they're almost in a separate building and four flights up, so it was an ordeal to get them from their "dressing room" to the backstage. So, no calling them divas! Here's a clip of their amazingness on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" singing "Move."

And, I'll never forget Audra, sounding like Elaine Stritch, calling me the day after the concert. Through her horrible rasp, I deciphered that she was calling to thank me for putting together the concert and asking her to do it. I told her how great she was and then:

ME: Audra, I couldn't believe you belted that "E" during the fight scene. Why don't you belt that high more often?
AUDRA (gravel-voiced): Because I sound like this the next day.

Point taken.

2002 was the second concert I put together for The Actors Fund: Funny Girl. We cast a different Fanny Brice for each song: Idina Menzel was "Cornet Man," Kristin Chenoweth did the pregnant Ziegfeld song, Bebe Neuwirth was "Private Schwartz," Jane Krakowski was "Sadie Sadie" and MANY more…including Lillias White getting a standing ovation ending Act One with "Don't Rain On My Parade." Watch here!

When we first began casting, I was so thrilled that Sutton Foster said yes…but was then devastated that Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was supposed to be dark that Monday, added a Monday night performance! I didn't want to lose her. So, we spoke to the producers and promised we would start the 7:30 show by 7:40 (we had use of the New Amsterdam dressing rooms!). Then, it just so happened that Sutton was going to sing "I'm the Greatest Star" which is the first number for Fanny. So, to make it all work, she got into her Millie wig at her theater, came over to ours, sang her big song and instead of running offstage afterwards, she ran up the aisle and out of the theatre, directly to the Marquis Theatre to make her 8 o'clock curtain. Brava that Broadway theatres are so close to each other!

When I was casting the show, Andrew Lippa called me and told me that I should use Julia Murney. At that point all she had done in New York was The Wild Party a few years before that, but I loved her in it. I didn't want to make her audition but I also didn't know her well enough to know what song she'd sound good on. I asked her to come over to my apartment and even though the concert was already cast I might one day need a replacement. Truthfully, Audra (who was going to sing "People") had just dropped out due to another gig. I asked Julia to sing it for me at my piano and five seconds later told her: "You're cast!" The most amazing feeling I got from that night was seeing Julia, who had never done a Broadway show, come onstage as Fanny Brice to an audience who mostly didn't know her and, by the end of the number, bring the effing house down! Speaking of Julia, she continued her New Year's Day tradition this week of making pancakes all day long at her parents' Upper West Side apartment. James, Juli and I went at noon and saw a bevy of Broadway folk and then found out it was the 20th anniversary of the pancake fest. Her mom made everyone t-shirts for the occasion.

OK, on to 2003. That was the year I finally got my one-man play Rhapsody in Seth, directed by Peter Flynn, produced. One of my favorite parts was the beginning of the show when the lights would come up on me, sitting at a piano and playing "Rhapsody in Blue." I'd turn out to the audience with a smile and say: "This is the story of what it was like growing up talented and gay on Long Island. Subtitled: The Worst 17 years of my Life." The show was about the dichotomy of being praised as a child for being good on the piano but also, at the same time, hated by everyone at the school for "acting gay." There was also a lot of comedy in the show, like my diatribe against my parents for never hiring a babysitter and taking me to a slew of inappropriate movies when I was seven. The list included "Death Wish," "One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Nest' and "Taxi Driver"! And cut! Doing that show was so satisfying for me, because I had started to write it in 1999 and had an incredibly difficult time getting it produced. I have to thank Peter Breger who owned the Actors Playhouse for producing it and making it happen. Because of that show, I got signed with my agents (Abrams Artists) and I got interviewed on Sirius radio which led to me getting hired as the Broadway host. The nice version of the story is, after I was interviewed, Ray Romano (not the actor, the radio engineer) said he thought I'd be good as a host and asked me for a tape of myself. I gave him an audio of a Chatterbox (my live show at Don't Tell Mama) interview with Bebe Neuwirth. Four months later I got a call from Mike Peters who ran the Broadway station and he put me on as a host two nights a week, Saturday and Sunday. I now know that he was just trying me out and those are considered dead nights. Regardless, two weeks later, I was on seven days a week! I still got it! The not-nice version of the story is the guy who interviewed me initially asked me to come on his show to talk about Rhapsody in Seth. I got there and we chitty-chatted for a while. Then, when the show actually began airing, he started out the interview by literally saying, "Hey, Seth, I saw your show last night. I had just flown in from the West Coast and I have to apologize… I slept through most of it." That's right, he helped "sell" my show by telling the audience that he slept through the majority of it. Yay! SO the interview where Ray thought I'd be a great host was me at my most devastated/hostile. That's the personality trait that works on the radio? It either means I covered it up well, or he also thinks my mother would make a great radio host.

2004 was when I did the Hair concert for the Actors Fund. That was a great lesson in how you have to go for what you want from different angles. Billy Porter came over for a rehearsal (he sang "Abie Baby") and I asked him for ideas about who should sing "Easy To Be Hard." He immediately said I should get Jennifer Hudson from "American Idol." I told him that I liked her voice, but I didn't think she sang high enough (more on that later). He had a clip of her on his computer and when I listened, it convinced me to get her. I contacted someone I knew from "Idol" as well as my friend Jerry Sharell who knew Jennifer. The guy from "Idol" got back to me and said that Jennifer was doing the "American Idol" tour and her final performance was literally the night before the Hair concert. Unfortunately, he said, there was no way she could do it. Then Jerry called me back and said he spoke to Jennifer personally and she would do anything to make it happen! And she did. She learned the song during the tour, flew to NYC the morning of the concert and, that night, made her Broadway debut. P.S., as for me thinking she didn't sing high enough, she later told me that the "Idol" people didn't want her singing high on the show and made all of the songs in her lower register. What a great choice. I'm "shocked" that the people running that show would make a terrible musical decision…just listen to the beautiful medleys they do. Speaking of which, I can't wait to visit Six Flags over Ohio to see Rockin' Rollin' Review. P.S., I had to transpose "Easy to Be Hard" up three steps for her!

2005 is famous for me and my comedy partner Jack Plotnick flying to Las Vegas for the Hollywood Video conference, rehearsing all of our comedy bits for the higher ups and then promptly being fired on the day of the show. If you've never seen the song that sent them over the edge, here we are recreating it at my Chatterbox.

2006 was the year I got to perform at the Tony Awards! And by "perform," I mean, "have pre-recorded videos of myself shown to a limited in-house audience." I was filmed deconstructing different sections of previous Tony Awards and then they were shown to the Radio City Music Hall audience during the commercial breaks. It was actually amazing to have all those people watching me deconstruct things like the distinct lack of blinking during the I Love My Wife performance (53 seconds with nary a blink). Of course, one of my signature lack-of-recognition moments happened that night. I was watching from the audience, and right after I deconstructed Evita, a woman walked by me and said, "You're really funny." I could tell she wanted to say more, but, of course, I was more concerned with star-spotting and not with talking to random audience people, so I nodded politely, said, "Thank you," and looked away. It wasn't until she had walked up to the stage to present an award did I realize it was Julia Roberts. Argh! It's terrible to be a combination of star f****r and blind.

Andrea Martin

That brings me to 2007 when I began this column. So, let me wrap up by saying we had a fun New Year's Eve party with many of our friends, including the brilliantly comedic Andrea Martin. I walked Maggie and took Andrea to get a cab around 11:30. It was hilarious watching her stand on 125th street in her stunning white coat and crazy high heels with her hand in the air muttering to random cars passing by, "Anybody? Anybody?" Happy 2010! Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.

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