ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Durang and Rupert on Fire Island

A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.

Christopher Durang
Christopher Durang (Photo by Aubrey Reuben)

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I'm sitting on a lounge chair on a beautiful wooden deck, looking through billowy white curtains lazily blowing in the wind, at a pool below. First of all, I think I ended that sentence in a preposition. Secondly, it sounds like the beginning of a Harlequin romance called "Her Roman Lover." Thirdly, it's true! I'm at the Madison on Fire Island, which is a stunning hotel that's more like your rich friend's enormous beautiful house that he lets you stay in. I'm here because Ben Hodges (who edits Theater World and just edited "The Play That Changed My Life") invited me to spend the weekend. Ben and Andrew Kurtzman do an event every year where Broadway folk are interviewed in an effort to try to keep people coming out to Fire Island in the fall. Last year celebrated Grey Gardens and I interviewed Doug Wright (script) and Michael Korie (lyrics). This year I interviewed Tony Award winner Michael Rupert and hilarious playwright Chris Durang. Or, as he was advertised, "Chris Durang, legendary playwright, making a rare public appearance." We were obsessed at how Norma Desmond they tried to make him sound. And it was perfect because the interview took place around the pool so he could just end it by shooting me and having my body drop in the water.

[AUDIO-LEFT] I asked Michael Rupert what it was like when he was 21 and took over for John Rubinstein and played the title role in Pippin. Turns out, it was a hard time for him. He came from California and told us that being 21 in L.A. is like being 17 in New York. Also, Bob Fosse's concept of Pippin was that the Ben Vereen character is like Charles Manson and the ensemble is like the Manson family. They spend the show manipulating Pippin til they finally try to convince him that the only perfect act he can do is commit suicide by setting himself on fire. Cra-a-zy. Michael said that after a few months he began to get very depressed having all this negative energy coming at him, eight shows a week. John Kander recommended a therapist (so Broadway!) and when he followed the advice of his therapist, he put the stage managers in a state of shock. Essentially, because he was a replacement, he never had the rehearsal period to bond with the ensemble. The only interaction he had with them was onstage when they were trying to convince him to set himself on fire. So, one day he went into his amazing star dressing room, packed up all of his stuff and moved into the boys' chorus room! Let me repeat: he had an enormous dressing room right off the stage, with its own private shower, and vacated it to go into the overcrowded, boys' dressing room. The stage managers though he was out of his mind. But turns out, he loved it…and it did the trick! He became friends with all of the gypsies offstage and was able to separate them from the people they were onstage. I think it's the only time a star has given up his/her dressing room for an ensemble one. I doubt that Patti arrived at a matinee of Evita one Wednesday and proclaimed: "This dressing room is way too spacious. Girls, clear a space on the fifth floor. I'm movin' in!"

I asked Chris about some of the hilarious short plays he'd written. One of my favorites is also audition monologue! It's from his play Business Lunch at the Russian Tea Room which is about a Hollywood executive having lunch with a playwright. The writer is pitched different film ideas to see if he wants to write one. Here's one pitch: "A priest and Rabbi fall in love, and then, Gift of the Magi-style, each has a sex change without telling the other." The writer is not interested. Then the executive says, "OK, did you see the movie Cruising? S and M Murders? Al Pacino as an undercover cop posing as a homosexual in leather? Re-do the whole movie, but with children. Did you see 'Bugsy Malone'? It would be like that…only sick." I'm obsessed. Anyhoo, we talked about the funeral sketch he wrote for a Carol Burnett TV special in the '80s that featured Robin Williams. They filmed it three times in front of an audience. The first two were as written and for the last one, Carol Burnett told the audience that Robin was going to go off-script and do his shtick. Of course, the audience loved it. For the TV version, the show edited together sections from the real sketch and merged it with the one that Robin sassed up, but it didn't really land because you could only appreciate Robin's ad libs if you knew what it was beforehand. Chris was, of course, frustrated because he felt that the stuff Robin ad libbed didn't really make sense unless you knew what it originally was and the sketch was going to clank on TV. Well, it was an hour-long show and it was supposed to feature four sketches, however, one of the sketches didn't work out and they were suddenly short a segment. So the network decided to run Chris' sketch as written and then follow it with the one featuring Robin Willliams doing his shenanigans. It was a brava… and Robin won an Emmy for it!

Chris Durang and Michael were both in Putting It Together, the Manhattan Theatre Club Sondheim revue. Chris said that Julie Andrews was decidedly not a diva. He remembers seeing her in her costume for the first time and thinking, "That's odd. During rehearsals she looked fantastic and slender, but this costume is actually making her look matronly." Julie wore the costume and one day during preview performances, she came offstage and asked Chris and Stephen Collins, "How do you think I look in this costume?" They both said, in a nice way, she could probably look better in another one. She thought to herself and softly said, "Yes…we're perhaps thinking that as well." The first costume was very expensive, but luckily Cameron Mackintosh had put extra money into the show and that paid for a new costume. Chris' point was he was extremely impressed that Julie didn't use her celebrity status and proclaim, "I will not wear this costume!" My point is I love that Chris used the word "slender." Is that word still used in every day conversation? The last time I heard a woman described as slender, she also had the vapors.

Julie Andrews in Putting It Together

The most hilarious Julie Andrews story was recounted by both Chris and Michael. She has a house in Switzerland and that's where the creative team of Putting It Together went to talk to her about being a part of the show. She agreed to do it and the next morning took one of her exercise walks around the mountains that bordered her house. Julie hadn't been on a New York stage in 35 years and she thought that she'd better start getting her voice in shape. She was vocalizing and singing different songs from her past and decided to test her soprano by singing something from The Sound of Music. She began the song while nearing the peak of a mountain and right when she got to "The Hills are alive…with the sound of music" she was coming down the other side of the mountain. Well, that moment coincided with an entirely filled tour bus coming down the road! Julie was horrified that a bunch of tourists saw her literally coming over the Swiss Alps while singing, "The hills are alive with the sound of music." Julie said their faces had the subtext of "How sad. She still thinks she's still in The Sound of Music. Poor Julie Andrews." Last Monday, I went to a fantastic benefit for an organization called Broadway in South Africa featuring the belting of Deborah Cox, Kate Shindle and Shoshana Bean. My friend Frankie Grande is one of the founders of it and what they do is bring Broadway performers to South Africa and give kids a theatre intensive program. The stories the Broadway performers/teachers told about their last trip were amazing. There's still a lot of prejudice and ignorance in South Africa and, at first, certain kids wouldn't sit next to other kids from different townships. But by the end when they had to say goodbye, those same kids were crying and hugging each other. Then they showed a video of the dance class taught by Frankie and I was mortified to admit these kids who just started taking dance four days before looked better than I did in my fourth year of "Modern Dance 3" at Oberlin. Check out the videos on their fabulous website: BroadwayInSouthAfrica.org.

I also went to see Superior Donuts with my mom and loved it. It was literally one of those "it made you laugh, it made you cry"-type shows and the actors were excellent.

Annoyingly, we're still looking for an apartment. I was excited to see a four bedroom advertised that I could afford and when I went to see it, there were actually just two bedrooms and then a large downstairs. I asked the broker why it was advertised falsely and he said, "Well, it used to be a four bedroom." I'd had it. I glared and said, "AND I USED TO BE 20!" and stormed out.

And finally, on Nov. 2, I'm performing in the Only Make Believe benefit I do every year. The exciting news is that it's the tenth anniversary benefit this year and it's going to be on Broadway at the Shubert Theater with appearances by Jude Law, Alan Cumming, Nellie McKay, the cast of Hair and Memphis and I'm going to do a section from Broadway 101! I put together a Broadway quiz that can win you two $100 tickets! Go to www.sethrudetsky.com for the link.

All right, this week I have Rebecca Luker at my "Sirius/XM Live on Broadway" show and I'm seeing Love, Loss and What I Wore. Peace out and get out your fall jackets! Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.

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Seth interviews Chris Durang and Michael Rupert
Seth interviews Chris Durang and Michael Rupert (Photo by Will Chafin)