ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Conquering Broken Pianos With Patti LuPone, Unbroken Circle Reviewed in New York

By Seth Rudetsky
June 25, 2013

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

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'Allo!' Sigh. Sadly, I won't be hearing that missing "H" for a while because I'm on my way back from London. The entire experience was thrilling.

Let me go back to the beginning. On June 15, I flew to London with my good friend Jack (because James had to be in the opening of Unbroken Circle). On Sunday, I had a tech rehearsal at the Leicester Square Theatre for the first of seven shows I'd be doing with Patti LuPone. Leicester Square is in the heart of the West End of London (ye olde theatre district) and the area is like Times Square — very touristy with lots of cafes/restaurants everywhere and the requisite M&M store.

The show I was doing with Patti is in the format of the Broadway series I started in Provincetown (that I now do in New Orleans and, soon, Santa Monica). Essentially, there's no set patter for the artist. Instead, there's a mini-interview between every song. It's always unscripted, but usually the singer will want to have a sense of the song order. Patti doesn't even want to know the song list! She loves being surprised, and each show would begin with her coming onstage and having to recognize the introduction I'm playing so she'd know what to sing.

The biggest difference in the show format was because the theatre asked me to begin with an opening act so there could be an intermission (or interval, as the Brits say). Before I left, I asked my computer whiz friend, Kris Monroe, to help me put together some of my favorite deconstructing videos including Leslie Uggams singing "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and the Osmonds singing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. I hoped the Brits would find the videos funny, and right before opening night, I sat in my dressing room and tried to think of some jokes I could say to introduce myself.

Right before I went on, I was backstage with Murray, Patti's dresser. I ran my opening jokes by him and he laughed, so I was pretty relaxed when I went onstage. I walked and said, "I know some of you are asking, 'Who is Seth Rudetsky?' Or if you're cockney, you're asking, 'Oo is Seth Rudetsky?' Or, if you're really cockney, 'Oo is Seff Rudetsky?'" Thankfully, that got a delish laugh. Then, I told the audience that I'm a Broadway radio host and, since I knew that Elaine Paige had a musical theatre radio show in England, I told them I'm essentially the American Elaine Paige...but just a little taller. That got a crazy laugh and the rest of the act went phenomenally. We had the "interval," Patti and I came out and I started the opening vamp to "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Of course, she sounded great, and the show was off and running.

Before I say what happened next, I want to mention the Chatterbox I did recently with Broadway music director/arranger/orchestrator Stephen Oremus (Wicked, Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon). He told me about the first time he presented his arrangements of Tick, Tick...BOOM! to the producers of the show and to the family of Jonathan Larson. He was a nervous wreck and to add to it, the pedal on his piano broke. I was so sympathetic during the interview and kept saying how much I hated when a pedal broke. It's a nightmare to play anything because you can't sustain the notes.

Patti and Seth recreate their reaction to the broken piano

Cut to London. In Patti's show, I was playing what looked and sounded like a baby grand but it was, in fact, an electric piano. Everything was fine for the first few numbers but then, you guessed it, the pedal broke. What's so crazy about that whole evening is that it reminds me of the actors I interview who talk about going on big auditions in their twenties. They always say that they really didn't know what was at stake because of their lack of experience, and it made them very relaxed. Well, the same was true for me. I had no idea that the opening act I whipped together and the entire Patti show was being reviewed by every major London paper! I was just acting like it was a show for my closest friends.

When the pedal broke, I didn't care about reviews. My only concern was being judged by one of the audience members, the brilliant Marc Shaiman. Marc is in London because he and his partner Scott Wittman have written the score to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I didn't want him to think I had bad technique. So, right before "I Dreamed a Dream," I spoke directly to him from the stage and told him to be aware that I had to try to make the accompaniment sound pretty and connected by using finger legato. Right after the song, I decided to stay with the Les Misérables theme and hauled out, "Come To Me (Fantine's Death)," which I had asked Patti to re-learn. Near the end it becomes a duet with Jean Valjean and I asked the audience if anyone knew the role. A guy in the front row came bounding onstage and, turns out, he sounded great! Patti put on her glasses so she could read the music and he sang it while standing next to her. At the very end, when she's supposed to die, she lifted her glasses and faced him. Somehow, he knew exactly what she wanted him to do and the audience watched him reach forward and, with his two fingers, close her eyelids. It was hilarious!

LuPone in Women on the Verge.
Photo by Paul Kolnik
Patti did a lot more songs ("Being Alive," "Rainbow High," etc.) and when the show ended, the entire audience stood immediately. Patti came back out and we brought up Nic Gibney, the guy who's playing Magaldi in the British tour of Evita. He had written to me on Facebook and asked if Patti would be willing to sing "Eva and Magaldi." I re-taught it to her and they did it together as an encore. It went so great and then I kept playing so Patti could do the song that immediately follows: "Buenos Aires". Again the audience stood and Patti came out for another encore which I decided should be "Invisible" from Women on the Verge. Not surprisingly, she sounded amazing and her acting was great.

The next day, I was at breakfast with Jack and started getting texts from Mark Cortale (the producer) telling me that the reviews were over-the-top! I try to resist reading them, but the publicist sent me quotes, and The Telegraph gave us five stars, saying, "Anybody who has ever enjoyed a musical on the stage should see this show, a miraculous close-up encounter with Patti LuPone. It is a fair bet that they will have the time of their life." WhatsOnStage described the show as having, "spectacular music, fascinating insights, irreverent humour and true star quality – if you're a fan of Broadway, or musical theatre in general, this show is an absolute must-see."

The great news is, the next six shows remained just as exciting as the first one and Patti got at least two encores a night. The horrible news is that on the second night, the pedal broke again. But this time, instead of not being able to sustain, it was the opposite; all the pedal did was sustain. I tried to play a song, but realized it would have had to have zero chord changes because whatever chord I first played sustained for two minutes. I told Patti we should chitty-chat onstage while the tech people came to fix it. The got it working and Patti sang "Invisible." At the end of the song, the pedal broke again! The tech people came back, and Patti and I chatted. After a long time, I found out that there was another piano backstage and no one told me we could just replace it! I guess it was worth adding an extra 30 minutes to the show (!) while they tried various pedal-fixing techniques. Once I knew about the other piano, we took a ten-minute "interval" and they brought the piano out. The good news is, we got an acoustic piano the next day. The better news is, we get more amazing press with the London Evening Standard printing an article called, "Patti LuPone Unfazed by Pesky Piano."

While all this amazing stuff was happening in London, I was anxiously awaiting the opening of Unbroken Circle in New York. The official opening was Wednesday night, and because it's an Off-Broadway show, not all the critics have come yet. But the Daily News has said, "carefully plotted and well-paced…revelations fly out and sting like hornets," and Broadway Spotted said, "A beautiful and heartbreaking story…with laughter, and emotional, stirring moments…The theater world needs more stories like this one!"

The New York Times came, which was a big coup because they don't always review Off-Broadway shows and, not only does the review say, "The script makes all the right moves," (Brava, James!) but, right before opening night, James and I were talking about the cast and hoping that the critics would mention how fantastic Eve Plumb is. Eve left California a few years ago for a New York theatre career and, from interviewing other former sitcom stars, I know how hard it is to be taken seriously in theatre if you began in TV. We always hoped this show would make people realize what a great comedienne she is. Well, James and I were so happy when the Times singled her out with, "Ms. Plumb is the attraction." YAY! Then it says, "She demonstrates a flair for grown-up comedy here. Maybe there is a reason her 'Brady Bunch' lament, 'Marcia, Marcia, Marcia' endures!"

Unbroken Circle plays again this Wednesday and I still have a discount code to tout: BroadwayOffers.com and the code is UCSETH (The UC before Seth stands for Unbroken Circle).

Speaking of UC, I have so many more stories about the UK, but wait until Part Two of my column!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)