ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Texas to Disaster!

By Seth Rudetsky
30 Jan 2012

Drew Geraci and his Plaid castmates
photo by Greg Kolack
So, speaking of creative outlets, I thought I'd tell the story of my musical Disaster! One of my first jobs when I came to New York was playing piano for Forever Plaid. I wound up playing it for a few years Off-Broadway at Steve McGraw's, which was a venue originally called Paulsson's. I used to go to Paulsson's in the '80s when I was in college because that's where Forbidden Broadway originally played. Anyhoo, when I first joined Forever Plaid, Frankie was played by Drew Geraci, who had recently played Paul in the final Broadway company of A Chorus Line. Drew and I became good friends and wound up traveling all over the place and setting up various companies of Forever Plaid. Off the top of my head, I remember we did the Toronto, Vancouver and Las Vegas companies. Also off the top of my head, I remember I threw my back out in Toronto because for some reason suitcases didn't have wheels in the early '90s. When we got to Toronto, the cab dropped us off a few blocks away from our hotel and I had to carry my suitcase, causing a back spasm. I know the internet didn't come around 'til the late '90s but why was it just as difficult to think of wheels for suitcases? Back to Disaster!: Drew and I were always thinking of different shows to write. One was about two guys: One is gay and obsessed with other, who is straight. The gay guy decides to get a sex change so the straight guy will like him, but unfortunately the straight guy also decides to get a sex change to get the gay guy off his back. Cut to: They're now both women and arch-rivals. And then they both get offered the title role in Mame in competing Broadway productions. I have no more memory of what else happens to them, but if the rest of the plot was as brilliant as that, I'm glad it remained unwritten. A better idea we had was to write a musical version of a 1970s disaster movie. We had both loved "Poseidon Adventure," "Towering Inferno, "Airport '75," etc. — and even clunkers like that movie about snakes called "S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s." Anybody? Anybody with a lateral lisp? We wanted to feature a new disaster that hadn't been in a movie, so I thought it would be funny to do a whole show about the New York City blackout of 1977 because it's such a soft disaster. Where's the scary part? For the music, we wanted to use actual '70s songs. Well, like many things I've planned on doing (leading all the way up to this morning in terms of putting away my clean clothes), it went completely undone. For more than 15 years! Finally, last year, I was asked to do a benefit for Only Make Believe, which is an organization (founded by Dena Hammerstein) that brings theatre to hospitalized children. I've performed in their annual gala many times and I had done an evening of Deconstructing Broadway for them the year before. They told me I could do any type of show I wanted. I decided to employ the Charles Busch trick: give yourself a deadline to force yourself to write something. Back in the '80s, he got a date to perform at the Limbo Lounge in the East Village and then wrote Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. So, I picked a date in late May and told Only Make Believe we'd be doing Disaster! Cut to a blank computer screen. Ah! Writing it was the hard part. The one thing I changed right away was the idea of the blackout being the disaster. I thought it would be more exciting to incorporate all of my favorite disasters from those 1970s films.

Seth with Jack Plotnick
photo by Lauren Kennedy

Drew and I met to discuss various plot elements, but we're both Pisces and there was a lot of procrastination and dreaminess. Plus, he was working a full time job and we were on opposite schedules. Cut to: It's mid-February and I'm in Palm Springs playing for Audra McDonald at a fancy benefit for Desert AIDS. They gave me a great hotel room so I invited one of my best friends, Jack Plotnick, to stay with me. He loves being creative, so he asked if he could brainstorm the show with me. I was telling him various ideas and he was loving them. Then I told him the show was scheduled to happen in three months. He had a panic attack and forced open my computer so something could actually be written. We became a team. By April, Jack and I had written the show, with Drew adding extra hilarious material. Then I began casting. I wanted to replicate another aspect of Charles Busch and decided to surround myself with friends onstage, so I called/emailed/texted people I've known forever and asked to play different parts. All the roles are archetype disaster-movie roles. To name a few, I was able to get Anika Larsen (who I've known since she was doing Zanna, Don't and I was doing Rhapsody in Seth) to play Sister Mary Downy, the nun with the gambling addiction; Kathy Fitzgerald (who I met when we were both doing The Producers) to play Shirley Summers, the older lady with the heart condition; and Lauren Kennedy (who I've known since I interviewed her right after she understudied in Side Show) to play Jackie Sylvestri, the lounge singer who has terrible taste in unavailable men. And, a la Charles Busch, I gave myself a great part! That's right, I cast myself as Professor Scheider, the disaster expert. For director-choreographer, I asked Denis Jones. I first met Denis when he was in the ensemble of Grease! and I was playing in the pit. He danced in tons of Easter Bonnet opening numbers that I wrote, and also danced in my 2001 Dreamgirls benefit concert. Plus he came to my mom's house on Long Island for Thanksgiving. Of course, he was dancing back then so he just had non-stop coffee and three cigarettes, but it was still a festive meal.