ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Disaster Takes the Stage and A Spot of Tea With Edward Hibbert
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
What a week! OK. Monday afternoon was our final tech rehearsal for Disaster! and by "final" I mean "only". It was the first time we had done the show with lights, sets, sound cues, the band and body mics. We actually got through the whole show, but we were constantly commenting about how crazy it was that were going to have a paying audience that night. Nonetheless, the audience showed up, I got into costume, put on my mic and suddenly the show began. Thankfully, it went great!
We were able to rehearse the next day and make changes so the next night was even better. However, there were a few mistakes each show that I found hilarious. First of all, Michele Ragusa plays Jackie and John Treacy Egan plays Tony DelVechhio, the owner of New York's first floating casino. I play Dr. Ted Scheider, noted disaster expert. When I was going over lines with James, he commented about both Tony and Ted begin with the same consonant. I told him that no one's ever had a problem with that. Cut to, the first night, I ran onstage in a rescue scene and Michele said, "Oh, Tony!" I paused and finally said, "I'm Ted." Thank you, James, for putting a hex on the show.
Then, during the Wednesday matinee, which are notoriously filled with older people, Mary Testa (who plays Shirley) was up to the part of the show where she shares an elevator ride with Jen Simard, who plays the nun. Mary pushed the emergency stop like she always does, turned towards the nun and told her, "I'm dying." One second later, a woman in the audience loudly said, "What???" Mary looked out and responded with, "I said I'm dying." Fourth wall? Anybody?
Speaking of Jennifer Simard, she not only plays the nun in Disaster!, she's also starring as Edna in Unbroken Circle. Totally different parts, but both in the same theatre! In Disaster! she's a gambling addict who lives in a convent and belts "Signed, Sealed, Delivered", and in Unbroken Circle she plays a liberal feminist who lives in Austin and returns to her childhood home in Galveston after 25 years. I took a picture of her before she went on in Disaster! and one before Unbroken Circle; both in the same spot in the dressing room. She has a lot of lines memorized!
Oct. 24 at Unbroken Circle I'll be leading a talk back with the audience after the 7 PM show and then Oct. 27 will be the final performance.
At the "Chatterbox," I had the very English Edward Hibbert. Oddly, for all of his highbrow Britishisms, it turns out, he was born in Kew Gardens, Queens! His dad was an actor and was brought to America to star in a Broadway musical opposite a British teenager making her Broadway debut. The show was The Boyfriend and the teen was Julie Andrews! After a few years, and before Edward started saying "fuggedaboutit", they moved back to Jolly Olde England and his rolled r's were firmly ensconced. He came to America in the '70's and a few years later, he was making his Broadway debut in Me and My Girl.
He remembered one night in particular where there was a woman in the aisle in a wheelchair. She had bandages and various tubes connected to IV's and other medical accouterment. He was so moved seeing her that he told the cast they must all do the show that night just for her. It seemed like she was in the last vestiges of her life and obviously had very limited mobility, and he couldn't imagine the effort it took for her to get her wheelchair and various medical supplies to the theatre. When Act Two began, he again made eye contact with the wheelchair, but this time, that was the only remnant! The woman, whom he assumed could barely move, managed to leave the theatre but left her wheelchair behind! To this day, he has no idea what happened, who she was or if he hallucinated from an attack of delayed British jet lag.
Edward and I first worked together on Thoroughly Modern Millie. It was the very first reading and Amanda Naughton was Millie, Christine Ebersole was Muzzie and Edward was...Mrs. Meers! That's right, the Bea Lillie role was first performed by Edward in light drag. After that, Harriet Harris took over and eventually won the Tony Award. I then saw Edward in Noises Off, but he had done the show years before the Broadway revival. He remembers doing it once in Chicago and told us that the set looked like a backstage area with a prop payphone attached to a wall. One day, the real payphone backstage broke and the theatre sent for a telephone repairman. The repairman arrived during the show, wandered out onstage and began trying to fix the fake phone!
On Friday, we had our fourth performance of Disaster! and already someone was out! John Treacy Egan had other gigs lined up when he was cast in Disaster! so we knew we'd have to cover him for certain performances. Since these are planned absences, we thought it would be smarter not to have the swing go on in case another cast member has to miss that same night. So, we hired someone that will go on just for John's part. I'm very excited that Paul Castree said yes! He played Scott in the last run of the show but had another gig when we were rehearsing the show so he couldn't do his role again. But he was able to learn the role of Tony in just a week and did an amazing job. I took a picture of us right after the show with our disaster make up still on.
Paul and I have done so many shows together, starting with Forever Plaid back in 1993. When I first met him, I noticed he was friends with the assistant stage manager, whom I didn't like. I decided I probably wouldn't like him either and made no effort to bond with him. Soon, he started making me laugh and we became good friends. I finally apologized for not being friendly to during the first two months of the show and waited for him to tell me how hurt he had been during my weeks of ignoring him. Turns out, he told me he actually never noticed. What the - ? There's nothing more embarrassing than thinking you're devastating someone by giving them the cold shoulder and then finding out they didn't know/care. What a waste of classic snubbing!
After Friday night's performance of Disaster!, I went to bed at 1 AM and woke up at 4:30 AM (!) to catch a 6:30 AM flight to Los Angeles. The Broad theatre in Santa Monica is now doing the Broadway @ series and the first performance was that afternoon at 5 PM with the great Patti LuPone. We took off on time but around two hours into the flight, they asked if there was a doctor on board. Soon, they announced that because of a sick passenger, the plane had to land in Chicago. We were told to stay on board because we'd be taking off again right away.
I texted Mark Cortale, the producer, and told him I'd probably be an hour late. It didn't make that big of a difference because it meant I'd land at 10:30 AM and the sound check wasn't until 2 PM. Well, soon they asked us to leave the plane but stay in the gate area. I felt weird complaining, because the whole reason we landed was because of a sick passenger. I didn't want to be Tracy in Hairspray when she's late and mutters "Stupid bus crash." I also didn't want to be like the annoying guy near me who kept telling anyone who'd listen how annoyed he was because he "paid for a non-stop flight". I told him that the reason it wasn't non-stop because someone needed medical attention, and he was outraged that the man flew in the first place.
After we waited for a while, they switched our gate. Then another hour passed and they switched our gate again. I began to get nervous and asked if there was another flight to L.A. I could be put on in case this flight didn't take off. The only one they had got me in at 3:40 PM, which would mean that I'd miss the sound check and get to the show with only 45 minutes until curtain. I booked a ticket just in case and soon more hours passed. They kept telling us they'd have more info but then they'd delay take-off again. I fled to the other boarding area and got on the flight that got in at 3:40 PM. We landed on time. I rushed to the theatre, and we did a 10-minute sound check.
Thankfully, I learned my lesson from Audra McDonald, who once checked the bag with her gown and music and then arrived in Fresno without it. So, that morning, even though I didn't not want to lug around the 30 or so songs we rotate, I made sure Patti's music was in my carry-on. However, I didn't fully learn from Audra because I checked the suitcase with my suit! I had to borrow Mark's suit jacket, shirt and tie. I wore my rickety-rackety pants that I was already wearing and my inappropriate Nike sneakers. Regardless, both shows were sold-out and Patti sang up a storm including belting out original keys of "Rainbow High", "Buenos Aires" and "With One Look"!
Speaking of belting, I saw the brilliant Betty Buckley in The Old Friends and, even though there was no belting, she was fantastic. She managed to get so many amazing moments into each line... and so much humor. Brava! OK, I have to meet with Jack, my co-writer, to make some Disaster! changes. Come see a preview and peace out!
(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.)
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