ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Laughter Is the Best Medicine

By Seth Rudetsky
15 Dec 2008

On Thursday, I interviewed Haydn Gywnne who plays the dance teacher in Billy Elliot. Turns out, she didn't think she'd ever pursue acting and worked as a teacher in Italy. Finally, she acknowledged she wanted to be a performer and moved back to England to give it a try. She got into a theatre school, but right before she began, got cast by Alan Ayckbourn in his company. She then made her musical theatre debut in Ziegfeld, one of the West End's notorious flops, directed by Joe Layton. I asked for a scandalous story, and she said I'd have to take her out and get her drunk for details. Since I'm not in the habit of getting ladies drunk to get my way, I segued to her first hit musical, City of Angels. She was the sassy secretary in the London debut and got to sing "You Can Always Count on Me." The show got amazing reviews, but didn't hit it off with the public and therefore closed very quickly. What's annoying is that it won the Best Musical Olivier Award, which would have helped ticket sales tremendously, but it opened right after the deadline for that year's awards, so it didn't win until almost a year after it closed. That and a nickel will get you on the subway. Or should I say, that and a ha'penny will get you on the Tube. She got a lot of work on television (or "telly" as she called it), and I didn't understand how that was possible since I thought there's only one channel in England. I asked and didn't get a straight answer. Regardless, she tried out for Billy Elliot using her song from City of Angels. Then they asked her if she could dance. She told us she couldn't decide whether to act British and say she couldn't dance at all, or be what she called American, and claim she was an amazing dancer. She finally told them that she didn't have training, but picked up steps very well. The choreographer took her out of the room, and she mentally prepared herself for a vigorous dance call. He asked her to do something like "Walk, walk, touch" and then took her back to the audition room and told the rest of the creative team that she passed. Wow. Maybe the original concept for the dance teacher was more along the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" type, aka sitting in a wheelchair. Anyhoo, she got the gig and loved doing it. She heard that it might move to Broadway and was interested in doing it, but didn't want to appear too eager. "I finally asked Stephen… but I was incredibly British about it, so I said something along the lines of, 'If this goes to Broadway, would I be wrong in assuming I might be considered for the role or would I not?" He gave her a firm but friendly, "No"… but because of the British double talk in her question, she didn't know if he was saying she was wrong in assuming she would go or wrong in assuming that she would not go. She didn't find out she was going to Broadway until a few weeks before rehearsals began!

At one point during the interview, I was showing some video from the show that featured one of the young Billy Elliots doing some crazy ballet steps, and I coyly asked her if I was too old to play Billy. She gave me a firm but un-friendly, "Yes"…and then followed it with "But you're not too tall." Brava on the sass!

Okay, here's the depressing part of this week. James said I should call this column "A Very Special Episode." I'm writing this from Houston because a couple of days ago, James' mom discovered that she has uterine cancer. It was completely unexpected. She had been getting all of her regular check-ups but something was missed and it got very advanced. As hard as this has been for all of us throughout this ordeal, lots of hilarious things have happened. The day we heard the diagnosis, we were on our way to see an apartment. I quickly called the realtor and had this conversation:

SETH: Hi. I'm sorry about the last-minute notice, but we can't come today. James' mom just discovered that she has cancer (now crying), and we're both trying to figure out what to do. We just got the call a few minutes ago.
SETH: Oh. Um….well, we can't come today because James' mom found out that she has cancer (crying again). We have to cancel because we've got to go back to our apartment and —
SETH: Did you hear what I said?
REALTOR: Most of it.
SETH: OK. So, like I said, we're going home to figure out what to do.
REALTOR: So…do you wanna see it tomorrow?
SETH: Um…I don't know.
REALTOR: Because it's really a great space.
SETH: We'll get back to you!

I assumed he didn't hear the cancer part and just the canceling part, but then got an email saying he was sorry she had cancer, but we should definitely get the apartment. What was he saying "what" to?!?! Why is he crazy?

Okay, that was craziness number one. Next. When his mom was visiting for Thanksgiving, she saw a hat on my wall that my high school friend Kevin Gerber made for his store. Kevin has his own hat line (Kevin Todd), and one day Liza Minnelli came into the store and bought one. He had her autograph one of the ones in his store and then gave it to me because he knew I'd appreciate it more than he. James' mom saw it hanging on my wall and admired it, so I decided to bring it to Houston to give to her, but because I didn't want it to get crushed, I decided to wear it to the airport… even though I looked crazy. I figured I wouldn't run into anybody on my way to pick up Juli from school to catch our flight. Of course, a half block from my apartment I hear, "Seth!" That's right…It was David Hyde Pierce running across the street to tell me how much he enjoyed Gypsy of the Year. He saw the hat and said, "I didn't know you were orthodox." Oy. I then ran to the school and immediately told Juli how great she'd look in the hat and promptly put it on her. When I arrived in the hospital bearing my gift, Elizabeth (James' mom) was shocked I would give it away and asked me, "Are you just giving this to me because you know I'm dying and you'll get it back soon?" Still sassy. She has to get radiation and chemo, so we're now going to jumpstart our apartment search so she can move in with us and get her treatment at Sloan Kettering.

The next crazy thing that happened was James and I got a hotel to stay in for the night, and when we approached our room, it looked like the light was on. Did the maid clean it and forget to turn it off? James opened the door…to a room already occupied. Yay. Thankfully, the occupants weren't in bed with a shotgun aimed towards us (it is Houston, after all). We got the key to another room and at 5AM I heard loud running right outside our room and then "Don't Move!!!" followed by a weak, "I'm not moving." It sounded like a woman was being arrested outside our door. Then for 20 minutes I heard "Ow! I can't breathe! Too tight!" I suddenly thought, what if she's not being arrested but being kidnapped? Of course, selfish-style, I fell back to sleep. Then, at 7 AM, someone banged on our door. "Who is it?" we called. More banging…then silence. We called James' mom, who said that our hotel was a notorious "cat house." What's happening? We literally checked into "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?" The front desk told us that the woman arrested was roaming through the parking lot, trying all the car door handles and was finally caught by the police. That info was followed with, "She must have been on some good stuff because they had to hog tie her to get her into the car." And cut! We got our money back.

I'm on my way back to New York to do my Sirius Wednesday talk show with Forbidden Broadway cast and Raul Esparza, and then I'm gonna meet up with James in Dallas to do my workshop and then come back to Houston for the holidays. I will keep everybody updated next week. And, not to end with an old chestnut, but…hug someone you love today!


(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.)