ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Putting on The Ritz

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03 Jul 2007

The cast of the National Asian American Theatre Company's production of <I>Falsettoland</I>.
The cast of the National Asian American Theatre Company's production of Falsettoland.
Okay, I've been holding out on you. I sort of got big news a while ago, but I kept waiting for complete confirmation before writing about it. And by complete confirmation, I mean a signed contract.

Remember a few weeks ago when I wrote about doing a one-day reading of The Ritz at The Roundabout? Well, a little while after that, Joe Mantello called me and said that the The Ritz was going to happen in the fall, and he wanted me to be in it! I was thrilled because it will be my Broadway debut (above the pit)! In the reading I had such pivotal roles as Patron and Snooty Patron. When Joe called, I had no idea which of the myriad of one-line roles I was being offered. Well, I was thrilled when I got my contract and it not only read "as cast" (meaning whatever little roles come up in rehearsal), but it also had me down as Snooty Patron! I was so excited to see the word "snooty" before patron. That's one step above just plain Patron!

So, this week I was meeting with Joe outside his rehearsal for 9 to 5, and the talented/cute Marc Kudisch walked by. He asked what I was up to, and I told him that Joe just cast me in The Ritz. I downplayed it and said I essentially had very few lines and I was playing tiny roles like Snooty Patron . . . even though I was secretly proud of snagging that part. Joe piped up and said apologetically, "Actually, I think someone else is playing Snooty Patron." Ow. My role just lost an adjective. I looked devastated but then told Joe I'm happy with any part since this is my Broadway debut. He stopped looking guilty and said, "Exactly! What are you complaining about, Meryl!" He got me.

Anyhoo, during the reading we did, I coveted the role that Brooks Ashmanskas is playing (the F. Murray Abraham part) and asked my agent if I could be the understudy, assuming the powers that be would say a quick and decisive yes. Instead, they said a quick and decisive, "You'll have to audition." So, last week I went in and read for Joe, big-time casting director Jim Carnahan and the playwright himself, Terrence McNally! It was a triptych of honchos. I like auditioning, but don't you hate the moment right after you finish your audition? After I read, I have to use so much control to not obsessively repeat, "Did I get it? Did I? Did I?" I can't stand pretending I'm comfortable walking out of the room not knowing how I did. Note to all casting directors: My jaunty exit punctuated with a convivial "Great seeing you! Have an excellent day" is a total farce. Inside I'm desperate for any and all information. The good news is, once I know whether I got it or not, I'm pretty much fine. My friend Paul Castree has a rule that you're allowed to be devastated for 24 hours if you don't book something, but after that you have to move on. So, I don't lament lost roles, it's the waiting that's brutal for me! Thankfully, I only had to wait one day for my agent to call and say I'm understudying Brooks! I'm so crazily excited!

Here's what else happened this week. I interviewed the great Debra Monk at the Chatterbox, currently starring in Curtains. Firstly, she talked about how green she was doing her first play in college. She got cast on a whim and knew nothing about theatre. She showed up, and the director said he wanted to start with the opening scene. He told her to say the first line at the window, start making toast after the phone rang and finish her tea on the last line. She did the scene that way, and the next day when she showed up, he said he wanted to run it. Well, this time she started the first line at the door, finished her tea right away and never made toast. He asked why she wasn't doing what they decided the day before, and she was completely confused. She had no idea she was supposed to do the same thing every time! She did the show and loved it and then discovered that people make a living acting. It was so foreign to the way she grew up because she said that her family was blue collar, and everyone hated their job — she had no idea you could earn a living doing what you loved. When she finally moved to New York, she couldn't get work or an agent, so she and her friends wrote an act about a rockabilly band and decided to run it once a week at the Westside Arts Theater. It was the eighties, and that part of town literally had groups of rats running around the sidewalk, mixing it up with the prostitutes. The show was slated for 11 PM at night, so they begged their friends to come and comped their admission, except for making them buy one drink. The show got great word of mouth, and they finally got a little blurb written about them in the Post. Suddenly, 11 producers wanted to buy the rights! The show became Pump Boys and Dinettes, moved Off-Broadway and then to Broadway! It was then nominated for a Tony Award opposite Joseph, Nine and Dreamgirls! Monk remembers being backstage right after Jennifer Holliday blew the roof off the theatre with "And I Am Telling You. . . " She said the audience went crazy from the Dreamgirls number. The curtain opened, and then "there we were. The whitest show ever." It was a letdown for everyone . . . onstage and off.


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