ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Durang and Rupert on Fire Island

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12 Oct 2009

Chris Durang
Chris Durang
Photo by Aubrey Reuben
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.


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.


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