ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Casting a Disaster and Joking With Varla Jean Merman

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01 Oct 2013

Michele Ragusa
Michele Ragusa

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

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And thus begins the first week of Disaster! rehearsals. We finally have our entire cast and we are barreling towards our first preview Oct. 14.

I'm so obsessed with the songs that are in the show: "Alone Again," "Naturally," "Mockingbird," "I Am Woman," "When Will I Be Loved?" "Daybreak," etc. It's like driving with my family in our station wagon back when I was a kid in the '70's.

It was very exciting for me to sit at rehearsal, learning the opening number ("Hot Stuff") and look at all the actors surrounding me. I couldn't believe all these amazing people are going to be involved with this show that I started writing with Jack Plotnick on a rickety-rackety laptop in Palm Desert three years ago. Jack is also directing, and I love that we surrounded ourselves with friends...many of whom we've known since we both first moved to the city!

I play the disaster expert in the show (there's always someone in a 70's disaster movie who predicts doom, but nobody will listen to him!), and my nemesis is Tony DelVecchio, the owner of New York's first floating casino (drilled into a faultline in the Hudson River). We were able to get John Treacy Egan, whom Jack and I first saw back in the mid-90's when he starred in When Pigs Fly. Since then, I've worked with John on Broadway in The Producers which he got from an open call! Everyone thinks that the only way to get a Broadway show is have an agent submit you, but John showed up at an open (cattle) call and kept getting called back until he eventually sang for Mel Brooks. He decided to do "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar but to sing it as an old, tired Jewish man. The lyrics are perfect for someone who's always kvetching: "God… Thy will is hard… But you… You hold every card!"

John got cast in the show as an understudy and I myself was the understudy pianist and conductor. I loved conducting the show with him because you never knew what role he'd be playing. He immediately went from understudy to the role of the Nazi but while he was playing that role, he also understudied Roger DeBris and eventually took over the lead role of Max Bialystock and played it until the show closed. I want to reiterate: He got the lead role in The Producers from an open call! There is hope for all those brilliant actors without agents.

We also cast Michele Ragusa as Jackie the nightclub singer. We all go way back. Jack and I met in 1991 doing the hilarious Off-Broadway show Pageant and about two years later he was cast in a show called The Sheik of Avenue B. When I was watching the show, there was a moment when a woman did this sort of rag doll dance with the most hilarious face and I immediately became obsessed with her comedy. It was Michele Ragusa. Ten years later we were both cast in Lend Me A Tenor, where I was the bellhop and she was the Italian wife. Even though she didn't have the last bow, she always seemed to get the biggest audience applause at the end of the show.

Jack and I also asked our friend Jennifer Simard to play the role of Sister Mary Downy, the nun with the gambling addiction. We all met back in the early '90's as well when Jack and I were doing our own comedy sketch show. Jen joined the show and was hilarious playing Janet in our musical version of "Three's Company." Here's a video of her doing Janet's 11 o'clock number "I'm Not The Pretty One."

Late-night production meeting with James, director Jack Plotnick and associate producer Joey Monda



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