When Andrew Lloyd Webber Had to Ask Sunset Boulevard’s John Barrowman Not to Do ‘That Thing’ Onstage...

Seth Rudetsky   When Andrew Lloyd Webber Had to Ask Sunset Boulevard’s John Barrowman Not to Do ‘That Thing’ Onstage...
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares tales from his concerts with Barrowman, including onstage pranks he pulled during Sunset and Phantom of the Opera.
John Barrowman and Seth Rudetsky
John Barrowman and Seth Rudetsky

Greetings from Chicago! I spent the weekend here and, on Saturday night, saw the Chicago Theater Workshop production of Disaster!. Brava! So many great performances. And the little boy playing Ben/Lisa is not only hilariously blank-faced, he’s also wowing them every week on MasterChef Junior! If you’re near the so-called Windy City, get tickets here. (Such great voices!)

Interestingly, another Disaster! production was happening near Chicago this weekend. It was in Rockford and they sent me some fabulous photos from their show. This is from Rockford Christian High School. Look at the great set!

<i>Disaster! </i>at Rockford Christian High School
Disaster! at Rockford Christian High School

After the performance, I did a talkback with the audience and one of the questions I was asked, and am often asked, is about how we got the song rights. Basically, after Jack Plotnick and I wrote the show and were hoping to bring it to a commercial run in NYC, I had been (haughtily) told by a prominent (annoying) Broadway producer how it was going to cost tons and tons of money to secure the song rights and it wound up making me too scared to pursue it. BUT, James (aka my husband) told me I should at least try and see how difficult it would be. I asked my friend Chris D’Arienzo how he got the song rights to Rock of Ages. He told me that he used Janet Billig Rich to negotiate with all the publishing houses. Well, I emailed her, was thrilled to find out that she listened to me on SiriusXM (!) and she immediately got to work.

Turns out, it was not this horrific process that I had been warned about and one of the only problems we had was “Signed Sealed Delivered” which was Jennifer Simard’s big song when the show ran Off-Broadway. We could not get the rights for Broadway. Long story short, James researched and recommended we replace the song with “Never Can Say Goodbye,” which had the perfect lyrics for a nun struggling between her love of Jesus and her love of gambling. I started arranging it based on the Michael Jackson version. Then James kept researching and found the Gloria Gaynor disco version, which I had never heard. I combined both feels within the song, Jennifer added her amazingness to it and this all ended with her getting a Tony nomination.

I bring it up as a reminder to other artists (and myself) that sometimes when you think you’ve lost something irreplaceable, you can actually wind up getting something better! Here’s my full deconstruction of her amazing performance from the cast album:

I have to write about my super-fun shows with John Barrowman last week in London. The format is the kind I do at all of my shows: a bunch of songs that vary each time we do a performance plus off-the-cuff interviews in between each song where I don’t know what we’re going to talk about. Here’s some of the fun things that came out throughout the three shows:

John Barrowman
John Barrowman

1. John was born in Scotland but moved to Illinois (where I am right now!) when he was eight years old. He knew he was gay, or at least different, and didn’t want to have any other reason to be bullied so he worked hard to completely learn how to do an American accent. Hence, he can go back and forth between accents amazingly.

2. As I wrote last week, he is notorious for pranks and he told us about a lot of them throughout our shows, and the bulk were R-rated! For instance, I asked him if he did anything inappropriate during his run with The Phantom of the Opera and he blushed and asked how I knew. Knew what? It was a random question. Well, I’m glad I asked (I think) because he wound up revealing that when he was playing Raoul, he and the woman playing Christine dared each other to do the show with certain accoutrements employed. Hmm… this is a family column. Let’s just say that the dare was to perform the entire show with certain sex toys firmly ensconced on/in their person! And on that note, I’m out. The accoutrements, however, were in for two acts.

Our dresser for the three shows was Murray Lane, who is one of the premiere West End dressers and we used him for Patti and Audra’s show as well. Murray told me that Anita Louise Combe was going to be in the audience on Friday night and I decided to surprise John. I called her up to the stage and they both cackled remembering the pranks they pulled doing Sunset Boulevard together.

At one point, John was playing Joe Gillis and she was about to take over the role of Betty Schaefer. Well, in Act 2, Betty storms over to Norma Desmond’s house, stands at the top of the stairs and berates Joe. Right before Anita took over, John noticed something different during a performance. The woman currently playing Betty Schaefer was indeed standing at the top of the stairs fuming but so was Anita….seething and dressed in the same outfit! The woman playing Betty pointed to Anita and angrily intoned, “Joe! I assume you remember my sister!” The scene then played out as usual with Betty’s sister being there for moral support and silent glaring.

Sunset_Boulevard_Broadway_1994_HR
John Barrowman and Betty Buckley Donald Cooper

Speaking of Sunset and X-rated stories, at one point in the show, Joe Gillis stands behind a piano during a party scene. The audience can’t see the lower half of his body. Well, knowing this, John therefore took that opportunity to take out his you-know-what and use it to play the piano! That bit of staging lasted one performance. Lord Lloyd Webber immediately wrote him a letter asking that John not upstage the score with his appendage.

What was interesting is that John wasn’t closeted to his friends, but he wasn’t really out publicly until he did Company at the Kennedy Center. Doing that show, and singing “Being Alive” made him get in touch with what’s important in life and he realized that was being who he is in every aspect of his life. John is one of the few romantic leading men/hunky TV stars who is out of the closet and I think it’s fantastic! (He was a co-star of Dr. Who and then his character, Captain Jack Harkness, became the star of Torchwood).

John played Albin in La Cage Aux Folles in London a few years ago and some people thought he was too young. He wound up speaking to Jerry Herman who told him that the role was actually written for someone in their early 40s, but they were only able to cast men in the 50s because younger men thought playing a gay man would be bad for their careers. Here is John singing “I Am What I Am.”

P.S. They just announced that Chita Rivera is going to get a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Tonys this year! Brava! Come see the two of us at the Wallis Theater in L.A. on May 10!

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