Secrets and Stories From the Rehearsal Room of Broadway’s Original Annie

Seth Rudetsky   Secrets and Stories From the Rehearsal Room of Broadway’s Original Annie
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from Broadway’s original Molly, plus backstage secrets from Jason Alexander, and more.
Reid Shelton and Andrea McArdle in the original Broadway production of Annie.
Reid Shelton and Andrea McArdle in the original Broadway production of Annie. Martha Swope / The New York Public Library

Hello from my flight back from Seattle!

First, we visited James’ dad and his wife in beautiful Friday Harbor, which is part of the San Juan Islands off the coast of Washington state. Boy, is it stunning! We took a hike every day and saw such beautiful scenery, but I was also looking forward to seeing some wildlife in their natural habitat. Unfortunately, we saw zero (0) wildlife. It wouldn’t have been so bad, but James’ dad kept bringing me down unintentionally by saying things like “This is the trail where we saw a whale (or otters or a bunch of sea lions or an eagle or a fox or “20 deer” etc.).” He’d point to the spot where he saw the previously mentioned animals and it would be completely deserted. My only conclusion: Wildlife is anti-Semitic.

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We spent Saturday night at the beautiful 5th Avenue Theatre, which was the out-of-town tryout theatre for Hairspray, Young Frankenstein, and many more shows as well as the venue of our Seattle Concert For America. This time, James and I saw Austen’s Pride, which is not only a musical version of Pride and Prejudice, but also the story of Jane Austen writing Pride and Prejudice. Sort of a Pride and Prejudice via [title of show]. Laura Michelle Kelly, who plays Jane Austen, was out and her understudy was on. It’s still incredible to me that someone can go on for a leading role and appear totally confident. The most amazing part was Cayman Ilika seemed like she’d been playing the show for months. So many lines, so many high notes! Watching the show, however, made me regret not reading the assigned book in high school and skimming the Cliff Notes instead which directly led to my AP English teacher yelling at me, “They warned me not to put you in this class!” I still haven’t found out who “they” referred to, but quite frankly I agree with their warning.

Anyhoo, the absolute stand-out in the musical was Michele Ragusa. She’s one of those comic actors who is like a technician that can figure out a way to bring comedy (rooted in reality) to anything. She plays two completely different roles: the sweet, doting/interfering mother Mrs. Bennet and the judgmental beeyatch Dame Judi Dench-esque doyenne Lady Catherine de Bourgh. She made so many amazing comedic choices and then her tour-de-force solo “My Nerves” got applause in the middle of the song, which was capped off with her hitting a crazily high soprano note sung amazingly…reminding me that she once played Maria in the European West Side Story tour and still has the range! Brava and #StillGotIt!

The role of her husband was played by actor-songwriter Clifton Davis, who wrote one of my favorites: “Never Can Say Goodbye.” Here’s my deconstruction of that gem of song, which later led to Jennifer Simard’s Tony nomination:

Last week on Seth Speaks, I welcomed Danielle Brisebois, who was the original Molly, the youngest orphan, in Annie. On a related side note, when Andrea McArdle did Annie in London, do you know who played Molly? Future Oscar winner, Catherine Zeta-Jones! Anyhoo, Danielle told me that back in 1976 she was at Phil Black Dance Studios (where basically everyone in 1970s NYC took class…including me!) and a stage mom saw her and told her she needed to rush over and audition for a new musical called Annie. Danielle said that the mom had sons and that’s why she told Danielle about the audition. She would have never told Danielle if the show needed boys, but since her kids faced no competition, she gave Danielle info about where it was. #MamaRose

Anyhoo, Danielle showed up and sang. She thinks she probably hauled out her favorite audition song—which she admits was an odd choice—“Soon It’s Gonna Rain” from The Fantasticks. I’ve heard of odder choices. Mine was the depression-era classic “Brother, Can You Spare A Dime?” or the Most Happy Fella song about a waitress who’s worked all day long… “Ooh, My Feet.”

Regardless, Danielle got the job and went to Goodspeed, where Annie famously tried out before Broadway. She doesn’t have that many clear memories because she was only seven years old, but she remembers spending a lot of time relaxing underneath the rehearsal piano. That’s where she’d hear Martin Charnin and Charles Strouse write songs together…like “Easy Street”! Because she witnessed song creation so close up, she thinks that’s why she herself became a songwriter. As a matter of fact, “Lost Stars,” one of the songs she co-wrote, was up for an Oscar. (It was in the movie Begin Again.) Here’s Adam Levine singing it!

Back to the ’70s. After playing Molly for a while, she got too big and they told her that she needed to graduate from Molly and eventually play Annie. For the interim, they offered her Duffy. She was not interested in making a lateral move, and that’s when she found out that Norman Lear had come to the show and Charles Strouse had been chatting with him about her. Charles knew Norman because he was written that amazing theme song for All In The Family.

Danielle went out to L.A., Charles got her a meeting with Norman, she brought her tape recorder that had her accompaniment, sang a few songs (like “Soon It’s Gonna Rain”) and got cast as Archie Bunker’s niece! Watch her sing with Carroll O’Connor!

We were talking about the choreographer Peter Gennaro, who—if you don’t know—choreographed all the Latin dances in West Side Story, aka “Mambo” and “America.” Peter choreographed Annie, and Danielle loved that he was able to highlight what people were good at. For instance, Dorothy Loudon had that hilarious pelvic isolation that was used so brilliantly in “Easy Street” and Danielle was a really advanced tap dancer and could do a cartwheel. Hence, her solo spot in “You’re Never Fully Dressed Without a Smile.” Watch their brilliant Tony Award performance and note how Peter connected Danielle’s cartwheel into a bow and then immediately back into the group step. It’s so seamless!

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Andrea McArdle, Danielle Brisebois, and cast Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Last week, I also chatted with Jason Alexander who, turns out, was born Jay Greenspan (but his mom always called him Jason). He had also wanted to make his stage name Jason Scott, but when he finally joined the union as a teen they told him they had numerous Jason Scott’s with every spelling possible. He then thought his dad would feel bad he was getting rid of his last name so he took his father’s first name (Alex) and came up with Alexander!

We were talking about theatre acting vs. TV acting and he explained how he adjusted himself during Seinfeld. In so many ways, Seinfeld was like doing theatre because there was a live audience and he was onstage. But in reality, the studio audience was watching it mostly on TV screens above their heads but he also thought the sound was not great in the studio audience. So, after the first couple of episodes, he realized the recipe was to perform a little smaller than theatre but kept his voice theatrically loud. He also said that coincided with his realization that his character was not like Woody Allen but instead like the co-creator, Larry David. Here’s the best of Jason’s George Castanza.

He also talked about how director Gene Saks got a great performance out of him for Broadway Bound. Jason came into rehearsal and completely understood his character. At the first read-through, he knew all his choices and nailed them. That afternoon, Gene told him that he needed to completely change his choices. It wasn’t that Gene didn’t think they were good, he just wanted Jason to try something different to expand his understanding of what the character could be. Jason changed everything and Gene asked him to change everything again! This happened five times total. Yowza! After that, Gene told him he could do whatever he wanted. Basically, Jason now had tons of choices to mix-and-match that he wouldn’t have had that if Gene hadn’t pushed him.

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Jason Alexander, John Randolph, Jonathan Silverman, and Linda Lavin Martha Swope

Jason also told me that Chita Rivera taught him how to lead a company. He was in The Rink, which starred her and Liza Minelli. Jason was one of the “the boys”—which also included Rob Marshall and Scott Ellis. One night, Liza called out and tons of people got refunds because they wanted to see both divas together or not at all. Jason thinks around 100 people stayed. Management told Chita they could cancel the show if she wanted. She asked if “the boys” would be docked 1/8th of their salary for the week (for the missed show) and they told her yes. She called them to her dressing room and asked them if they wanted to go on and they all agreed. She then told them that, yes, there was a very small audience, but that small audience stayed to see the show and everyone onstage had to promise to give their absolute best performance. Jason loved the dedication!!!

He also told me a hilarious humbling story that happened after he won the Tony Award for Jerome Robbins Broadway. He left the show and Tony Roberts had taken over. However, Tony got sick and the understudy wasn’t ready. They begged Jason to come back and do four shows or else they’d have to cancel. He agreed and was puffed up like a Tony Award–winning hero who stepped in and single-handedly saved the Broadway show. Well, after the performance, he went to his parents’ apartment and arbitrarily took the stairs up. (He brings that up because he wanted to show how it was all about timing…he wouldn’t have been standing where he was if he had taken the elevator.) Anyway, he was at the door to his parents’ apartment and, again feeling like he just saved Jerome Robbins Broadway…nay, he saved all of Broadway. Right at the moment, his parents’ neighbors from across the hall were entering their apartment. They didn’t see Jason. Perhaps if they did, he wouldn’t have heard them say, “Meh, he was fine. I would have rather seen Tony Roberts.” It completely burst his hero bubble. As he puts it, “Thanks a lot, 3A!”

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And finally, I had the cast of the new Forbidden Broadway on Seth Speaks, plus creator Gerard Allesandrini and the brilliant pianist/music director Fred Barton (who played the original run in the ’80s!). I can’t tell you how much I enjoy seeing that show! And it’s back at The Triad where I originally saw it with my sisters when I was in college. This time there are five cast members instead of four (including teenager Joshua Turchin—who is so talented—and instead of the original style of having to stage everything with people holding microphones, everyone wears a body mic so each number is completely choreographed (fantastically) by Gerry McIntyre. Get thee to see it! Here’s one of Forbidden Broadway’s alums, Christine Pedi, doing a performance perfect for Halloween this week:

And now, PEACE OUT!

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