What Gender-Bending Sondheim Role Did Billy Porter Almost Play?

Seth Rudetsky   What Gender-Bending Sondheim Role Did Billy Porter Almost Play?
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth talks Billy Porter at the Oscars, stories from A Chorus Line’s original Richie, and more.
Billy Porter
Billy Porter ABC/Rick Rowell

Hello from BED! Take anything sexy out of that statement and that’s what I intend.

I am in L.A., but I have the flu. You know how people say “I have the flu” and they have a cold? Well, I actually have it! I went to the Urgent Care here and they did a nose swab (not recommended!) and I was diagnosed with Type A flu. It’ll go away eventually but it has to go away by Thursday, which is my birthday! My friend Marco Panette (who created “Caroline In The City” but is a major Broadway lover and worked on the script for the On The Twentieth Century revival at the Roundabout) is throwing me a dinner party and then on Friday I’m having a birthday game night. So I have no time for a flu! End of story advice: don’t continually put off your flu shot.

Anyhoo, over the weekend I was in Palm Desert visiting my dad, and we all watched the Oscars. Can we discuss Billy Porter’s amazing outfit? He was actually trending on Twitter!! So, so happy for him.

Billy Porter
Billy Porter ABC/Rick Rowell

I’ve known Billy since we were just starting out in the business. He was cast in Dreamgirls at Candlewood, the Connecticut summer stock theatre I worked at as an assistant music director right after college. He played C.C., Effie’s brother, a role that doesn’t have that much to sing, but every weekend I’d host and play the Candlewood Cabaret and that’s where I heard how amazing he is.

After the summer, I started playing his auditions in NYC and went with him to the open call for Miss Saigon, which wound up being his first Broadway show. He wasn’t even Equity yet! Most people join Equity when they get a regional show, he joined to do his first Broadway show! Unfortunately, there was already another Billy Porter in Equity and you can’t join the union with the same name as someone else in the union. So, he took his first initial and his middle name and, if you check an opening night Playbill for Miss Saigon, you’ll see him listed in the ensemble as W. Ellis Porter. Not everyone knew his actual name, and he would often forget he changed it for the Playbill, so sometimes during rehearsal he’d hear someone yelling “W. Ellis! W. Ellis!” and completely not answer. The good news is, our mutual friend Stephen Spadaro, found the other guy named Billy Porter and, because he wasn’t performing anymore, Stephen was able to convince him to let Billy have the name. When I joined Equity, it was no surprise to find out that there was no one else named Seth Rudetsky. Quite frankly, it would have been a great reason to get rid of my headache-y name, but it was not to be.

As I mentioned once before, when I was a pre-teen, I always assumed I’d use a stage name when I got older: Stephen (with a PH because it was more special) and Denys (based on my middle name, but with special spelling because D-e-n-n-i-s is too typical). My friend Jennifer Simard also prepared as a child for her adult stage name: J.J. Stryker. It has the essence of a race car driver or genderless porn star. My Aunt Phyllis Sheerin, however, takes the cake; usually the stage name you think of is related somewhat to your actual name. Aunt Phyllis’ name was completely non-related: Spray Arden. Oh, I’m sorry…it was even more hilariously pretentious: Sprayye Arden. Why the two Y’s? Whyy not?

Anyhoo, back to W. Ellis, a.k.a. Billy. My favorite Billy Porter story was his audition for the revival of Into The Woods in the early 2000s. He was being seen for the Baker and, after his audition, he was gathering his stuff to leave. James Lapine, the director, stopped him and told Billy that they were thinking of making the Witch a man! He asked Billy if he would mind going home, taking some time and learning “The Last Midnight” and coming back. Billy replied, “Learn it? I know it! Hit it!” And proceeded to sound like this:

When I did my show, Rhapsody in Seth, here in L.A., I had two original A Chorus Line cast members in the audience! Ronald Dennis (the original Richie a.k.a. “Gimme the Ball”) and Kay Cole (the original Maggie a.k.a. “At The BALLET”!). Welll, I visited Ron to get some scoop on his career because, as most of you know, I grew up obsessed with that album. Ron got a partial dance scholarship to Butler University to study dance, but his uncle wouldn’t fund the rest of the money because he didn’t want to encourage anything he deemed “light in the loafers.” So, Ron moved to New York and worked at Plaid Stamps Redemption Center where people would get little prizes for the stamps they collected from A&P supermarket. He was auditioning up a storm for two years but could only audition on Mondays because that was his day off. One day, he went in for the revival of Show Boat in 1966 that was going to be revived at Lincoln Center. The final call back was on a Tuesday (not a Monday!) and his boss told him “If you go to that audition, I will fire you.”

Ron took a chance…and got the job! And his boss’ threats had as much weight as my mom’s threats (“Put away your comics that you’ve left upstairs or I will throw them out!”) because he didn’t fire Ron. He wound up letting Ron stay until rehearsals began and Ron got to work with the incredible Barbara Cook, Constance Towers, and William Warfield! Then he got the national tour of Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey where he understudied Barnaby. He told me that she was definitely “a cranky-ass,” but he realizes now that she probably had a lot of frustration because she didn’t get her due until late in life because her skin color was “a little too chocolate” to get the roles Lena Horne etc. were getting. Still, she was fantastic in the role! (Watch the 1968 Tonys performance here.)

Ronald Dennis and Seth Rudetsky
Ronald Dennis and Seth Rudetsky

I wrote a column two years where I detailed the amazing facts of how he got his big solo in A Chorus Line and you can read it here.

What’s interesting is, in the column, he talks about being upset during rehearsal because he didn’t have any featured part, but he knew to keep a smile on his face and not to act out. He mentioned that he didn’t want to give any reason for Michael Bennett to fire him because it would, apparently, happen often.

But I what I didn’t know is that for a small time in rehearsal, Zach was played by Barry Bostwick! Ron said he was there for a little while and suddenly the role was being played by Robert LuPone. #NoExplantionGiven

If you’ve never seen Ron do his thing as the original Richie, here’s an old-timey video. You can see how amazing he is!

It’s great timing that we’re here in L.A. because there’s a production of Disaster! that’s opening in Garden Grove and we’re going to take a road trip for opening night to see it and do a fun talkback. James, Jack Plotnick, and original cast members Kevin Chamberlin and Adam Pascal and I will all be there! Come join us!

And finally, when I get back to NYC next week, I basically turn right around and come West again to do a show with Gavin Creel at the Scottsdale Performing Arts Center on March 8! Come see us!

And if you need to know more about my Gavin obsession, watch this amazing ending we came up with for the end of “As If We Never Said Goodbye” to make my sister Nancy laugh!

PEACE OUT!

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