ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Mystery of a Music Director and Saying Goodbye to Unbroken Circle

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28 Oct 2013

Seth Rudetsky
Seth Rudetsky

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


Greetings from Amtrak. I'm on my way back to NYC after doing Deconstructing Broadway at a synagogue (!) for a cantor's ten-year anniversary. 'Natch! Whenever I'm in at a Jewish function, I remember the classic mortification I experienced with my niece, Rachel Sarah. Both her and her sister Eliana go to Yeshiva, and I'm always pretending I know what they're talking about when they mention Hebrew phrases, because I'm too embarrassed to be 1,000 years older than them and have no idea what they're talking about.

So, one day when my niece was 8, I was on the phone with her. I asked the requisite "How's school?" question and she responded that this year they had to learn neesach. Hm….I knew it was some prayer but I didn't know if it was for during Shabbos or after Shabbos so I decided to simply be supportive. I said, with great authority, "That's OK! You're smart. You can do it!" She was silent for a moment and then randomly told me that her neighbor gave her a pear. Awww! I was reminded of how children are fascinated by the simplest things and thought back to my uncomplicated youth and specifically my early 20's when I rented a Prospect Heights ground floor with a backyard. I smiled nostalgically to myself and told her, "When I lived in Brooklyn, I had a peach tree!" Again she was silent until I finally heard a nervous, "Here's Mommy." Strange.

The phone was then handed to my sister who asked me, annoyed, "What were you saying to her?" What the — ? I had been proud of the way I supported her fear of learning new prayers and my support of her love for fruit, so I proudly repeated my part of the conversation. Then I found out why our interchange felt vaguely stilted. Turns out, when I asked Rachel Sarah how school was, she didn't inform me that "this year we have to learn neesach." No, what she actually told me was "This year we have to wear knee socks." That's right, my terror at having to understand yet another Hebrew word made me mishear the simplest of sentences. And what was my response to her having to wear knee socks? The weirdly unhelpful, "That's OK! You're smart. You can do it!" Why so condescending? Who can't wear knee socks? It takes no skill. Naturally, she was miffed but continued on. Her next sentence related to her first one so instead of saying the random "My neighbor gave me a pear…", like she was a child from the 1920's who proudly got an orange for Christmas, she actually told me, "My neighbor gave me a pair." As in a "pair" of knee socks. And what was my response? The bizarre and uncalled for, "When I lived in Brooklyn, I had a peach tree." And on that note, I'm out. And so was she.

On "Seth Speaks," my SiriusXM talk show, I did a special hour focused on music directing. Rider University has added a degree in Musical Theatre (piano). One of the teachers, Nathan Hurwitz, came on the show and I decided to have him join a few active and successful Broadway music directors: Steve Marzullo, Stephen Oremus and Ted Sperling.  Steve, Stephen, Ted and I all grew up playing piano and being interested in Broadway, but none of us really knew what music directing was.

It's unbelievable to me that only Rider University and Shenondoah College have any kind of program for Brodway music directing... and Shenondoah hasn't even had anyone graduate yet. There are degrees for all other aspects of theatre — costume design, lighting design, technical theatre — but the way most people become music directors is to have a degree in something related to it. I have a piano performance degree from Oberlin Conservatory but my degree focus was totally on classical piano, not Broadway. The way I got around it was to study some pieces that had the essence of show tunes... like playing "Rhapsody in Blue" for the concerto competition. (I'm still devastated that I made it to the finals but didn't win.) During "Seth Speaks," I wound up comparing being a music director to being gay, because it's something you feel you are, but something that's very off the mainstream... something you have to find out about for yourself through bits and pieces of information.


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