ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Ritz in Retrospect

By Seth Rudetsky
10 Dec 2007

Danny Burstein talked about one of his first gigs when he met Tony Randall. Danny told Tony that he wanted to teach one day and Tony said, "What would you say is the most important thing to teach about acting?" Danny said, "Reacting." Tony said, "Ah…it is listening!" Danny said that listening is part of reacting and Tony said, "Don't contradict me you *#$%!!" This was not said angrily…it was said with a dry Tony Randall line reading. He then said, "It takes ten years to learn how to listen correctly." Uh-oh. I better start soon! Tony said that he was thinking of starting an acting company in New York and Danny told him that he'd love to do it if it ever happened. Years later Tony called Danny and invited him to be in his National Actors Theater and that was his Broadway debut!

The whole benefit honored Michael Patrick King who was the executive producer/director of "Sex and the City" (he's now directing the movie) and "The Comeback" (with which I am obsessed!). Michael talked about theatre people versus television/film people and how there is so much financial reward in TV/film. He said that theatre people's rewards are always emotional and spiritual (as opposed to financial) and unfortunately they turn that against themselves and feel that they're doing something wrong. I really loved hearing that. Why do some people consider an actor more successful for having a role on a headache-y sitcom as opposed to doing a brilliant show for low buckage? I remembered turning down an audition for a TV show that I probably would have gotten last year so I could do Torch Song Trilogy at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn and get paid in train fare…but I don't regret it! It was amazing for me!

This week at the Chatterbox I interviewed the incomparable Rosie Perez. She was hy-sterical! What a story teller...and what a life! She grew up in Brooklyn and always wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau (who knew?). She was studying biology in college but, because of her sassy dancing in clubs, she started getting hired to choreograph major hip hop stars. One night she was at a club and saw Spike Lee having a "big butt" contest onstage. She was so annoyed, she got onstage and started making fun of it and the club owners went to throw her out! Spike intervened and said it was meant to be that they met and told her to call him to be in his next film! She had only done one play at her Catholic school and never thought of being an actress but she showed up to audition for the casting person, who immediately asked her if she had a monologue. Huh? She certainly didn't. The casting person told her to make one up about the character. Rosie asked for a description. "Well," the casting person said, "she's a poor Puerto Rican, on welfare, with kids and — " "OK!" Rosie cut her off because she didn't need to hear anymore, she knew exactly who that was. Rosie started talking as the character, basing her on her aunt…but was so nervous that she started crying. Uh-oh! She thought fast and feigned that it was part of her monologue, holding her imaginary baby closer…telling him it would be all right. She got the part in 'White Men Can't Jump,' filmed it and went back to working as a choreographer. People were annoyed that she was late sometimes for rehearsals, so the record company got her a driver. An intern named…Sean "Puffy" Combs!!!! He was her driver and he'd always tell her to watch out because he was going places. Apparently to the Royale theatre to star in A Raisin in the Sun.

Rosie then got a job choreographing the fly girls for the TV show, "In Living Color." She wanted to cast Jennifer Lopez but Marlon Wayans wanted another girl who was then fired two weeks later. Marlon still said no to Jennifer, so Rosie put her job on the line to give her the gig because she knew that even though Jennifer wasn't a great dancer, she had incredible star quality. She was right! (Although…"Gigli"? Anybody?)

Rosie really wanted a role in "Fearless" but couldn't get an audition (even though she had done two films at that point!). Her agents said that her only option was to go to an open call, so she did. She remembers that her number was 83. She was waiting so long that she drank too much coffee and as soon as she walked in the room with the director she got "Montezuma's revenge." She asked where the bathroom was and found out that it was right in the room….separated with only swinging French doors. She was mortified. "I ran the water, I sang… I did everything I could to create some noise." She was so devastated that she started crying. Finally, she got herself together, walked out and the director, Peter Weir, said, "Ah! Now you look perfect!" She hadn't done anything but cry and have an incredibly upset stomach but the casting director looked at her as if to say "Go along with it" and Rosie thanked Peter for noticing how she changed her look. The role was of a Catholic woman whose baby is killed in a plane crash. He asked Rosie to pray and say the "Our Father," so she said it like you do if you've done it your whole life in Catholic School…incredibly fast. After the audition, her agent called her and said, "I don't know what you did, but the director loved you!" She found out that she was the only auditioner who prayed like a real person. Everyone else prayed like they were in a movie. Rosie got the gig…and an Oscar nomination. This is yet another example of someone feeling that they're right for a role and not giving up til they get it! Brava, Senorita Perez!

OK…back to The Ritz. I was thinking about what I will miss. I loved showing up and seeing my friends in the dressing room. We had so many stupid running jokes that made me laugh. Jeffrey Thomas who played the "snooty patron" always accused me of trying to sabotage him when I would give him advice about how to sing his song in the talent contest. He first started calling me "Sabotina," then changed it "SaboTina Yothers." "Family Ties"? Anybody?

Also, there's something so nice about doing something during the day and suddenly thinking, "Wow! In so-and-so hours, I'll be on Broadway!" It was a delicious constant in my life and something to always look forward to. And I'll miss the bizarre rituals. Rosie asked me to remind her that she had to unstrap her shoe in the middle of the medley so it would fly off when she kicked. So, right at the end of scene one, we'd see each other in back of the bathhouse set and I'd say a rhyme to help her remember: (pointing to myself) "I'm a Jew, (Pointing to her strap) don't forget your shoe." This turned into me just pointing to her strap saying "shoe" and her pointing to me saying "Jew." Then after a month we graduated to just pointing at each other without saying anything. And finally, the last eight weeks it became a contest to see who would point first. I'd sneak around the corner of the set before my first entrance and find her getting her wig adjusted with her finger already pointing at me. The only times I won were when she was distracted by talking to Lucas Near-Verbrugghe or when I once did my quick change super fast and got to the back of the bathhouse before her. It sounds moronic but it became an important part of my night!

Ah, well…I'm sad to see the show go, but so happy I got to make my Broadway debut in such a great company of actors doing such an incredibly fun show. I'll always remember the image of the company bows on the last show. While we were dancing our curtain call to Donna Summer's "Last Dance" Kevin Chamberlin turned around and there were tears streaming down his face. If a veteran like that can be devastated, so can I!

OK…this week I'm psyched to see the Actors Fund performance of Mary Poppins and my friend Anika Larsen starring in her new theatre company's (JARADOA) production of Serenade. Hopefully, that will get my mind off the closing so I don't spend each night in my apartment putting on my unitard while trying to recreate what has ended…and, quite frankly, considering the way I look in said unitard, what never should have been!