ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Casting a Disaster and Joking With Varla Jean Merman

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01 Oct 2013

Michele Ragusa
Michele Ragusa

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

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And thus begins the first week of Disaster! rehearsals. We finally have our entire cast and we are barreling towards our first preview Oct. 14.

I'm so obsessed with the songs that are in the show: "Alone Again," "Naturally," "Mockingbird," "I Am Woman," "When Will I Be Loved?" "Daybreak," etc. It's like driving with my family in our station wagon back when I was a kid in the '70's.

It was very exciting for me to sit at rehearsal, learning the opening number ("Hot Stuff") and look at all the actors surrounding me. I couldn't believe all these amazing people are going to be involved with this show that I started writing with Jack Plotnick on a rickety-rackety laptop in Palm Desert three years ago. Jack is also directing, and I love that we surrounded ourselves with friends...many of whom we've known since we both first moved to the city!

I play the disaster expert in the show (there's always someone in a 70's disaster movie who predicts doom, but nobody will listen to him!), and my nemesis is Tony DelVecchio, the owner of New York's first floating casino (drilled into a faultline in the Hudson River). We were able to get John Treacy Egan, whom Jack and I first saw back in the mid-90's when he starred in When Pigs Fly. Since then, I've worked with John on Broadway in The Producers which he got from an open call! Everyone thinks that the only way to get a Broadway show is have an agent submit you, but John showed up at an open (cattle) call and kept getting called back until he eventually sang for Mel Brooks. He decided to do "Gethsemane" from Jesus Christ Superstar but to sing it as an old, tired Jewish man. The lyrics are perfect for someone who's always kvetching: "God… Thy will is hard… But you… You hold every card!"

John got cast in the show as an understudy and I myself was the understudy pianist and conductor. I loved conducting the show with him because you never knew what role he'd be playing. He immediately went from understudy to the role of the Nazi but while he was playing that role, he also understudied Roger DeBris and eventually took over the lead role of Max Bialystock and played it until the show closed. I want to reiterate: He got the lead role in The Producers from an open call! There is hope for all those brilliant actors without agents.

We also cast Michele Ragusa as Jackie the nightclub singer. We all go way back. Jack and I met in 1991 doing the hilarious Off-Broadway show Pageant and about two years later he was cast in a show called The Sheik of Avenue B. When I was watching the show, there was a moment when a woman did this sort of rag doll dance with the most hilarious face and I immediately became obsessed with her comedy. It was Michele Ragusa. Ten years later we were both cast in Lend Me A Tenor, where I was the bellhop and she was the Italian wife. Even though she didn't have the last bow, she always seemed to get the biggest audience applause at the end of the show.

Jack and I also asked our friend Jennifer Simard to play the role of Sister Mary Downy, the nun with the gambling addiction. We all met back in the early '90's as well when Jack and I were doing our own comedy sketch show. Jen joined the show and was hilarious playing Janet in our musical version of "Three's Company." Here's a video of her doing Janet's 11 o'clock number "I'm Not The Pretty One."

Late-night production meeting with James, director Jack Plotnick and associate producer Joey Monda

On the creative team, we have Drew Geraci, whom I met during Forever Plaid (1992) and Denis Jones whom I met during Grease (1994). Tom Farrell (whom I thought was amazing in Dirty Blonde on Broadway) beats everyone in the show because he and I met at my first job out of college. It was a show called Kiss Me Quick Before the Lava Reaches the Village and we did it at Musical Theatre Works in 1988! And on that note, I've never felt older.

Last week I filmed another episode of Broadway Game Night and this time I played with Debra Monk, Andrea Martin and married couple Jessica Stone and Christopher Fitzgerald. For weeks Andrea's been talking about her last performance of Pippin (where she swung upside down on a trapeze) and how she'll finally be able to eat something fattening. All we heard was her fantasizing about her upcoming banana split. Finally, at Game Night we all asked how her delicious banana split was. She told us that she did her final show, hightailed it to Ben & Jerry's, ordered a big, fat banana split...and they told her they were out of bananas. It sounds like an unfunny SNL sketch, but it's true.

Andrea helped redecorate our entire apartment, and she's still beautifying the joint. She called us before she left the show and told us we could have all of her dressing room furniture! It's so beautiful! She gave it to us a few days before she her last matinee, and I texted her to see what she had left in her dressing room. I hoped she'd be comfortable while backstage during her final performances. She sent me the picture on the side of the column.

Last Wednesday, I went to a big event for Rosie's Theater Kids at the Marriot. My date was Eden Espinosa and we both loved the opening number which featured all the kids involved in the program. There were so many on that stage and they were choreographed within an inch of their lives. There was one moment where they all kept running in two opposing direction circles that fed out from the middle and it seemed like a clown car because they just kept coming and coming. Amazing! The organization goes to the poorest 5th grade classes in NY and offers kids a chance to learn theatre in the beautiful brownstone Rosie O'Donnell had redone in midtown.

Rosie told a story about the time she first worked with the kids, and she told them all to bring bag lunches. The next day, hardly any kids brought lunch. She was very firm and told them that when she tells them to do something, they have to do it. Right after, one of the theatre teachers at the school told Rosie that if the kids didn't bring food, it's because they don't have any at home.

The program also takes the entire fifth grade class (and some parents!) from every school involved to see a Broadway show. Rosie is so saddened by the fact that many, many children live in the neighborhood where Broadway shows are performed and never get to see them. She did an amazing comparison and said it's like kids in Hawaii never seeing the ocean because the beach is only for rich people. Brava! Of course, between all of her fundraising at the event, she also did some comedy. She talked about her family and mentioned that she has a new baby because all of her other kids are teens. She told us that she needed the baby to remind herself that she likes children.

Varla Jean Merman
Photo by Rex Bonomelli

Speaking of comedy, I played for the hilarious Varla Jean Merman at 54 Below. She did a section from her show The Book of Merman, where she talks about writing a book and what a bad idea that is. "Who reads books anymore? Nobody! Oh, everyone pretends they do, of course, but they don't. It's like flossing." She then asked the audience, "What kind of book should a female celebrity write who's never written a book? And who's probably never read one. Answer: A children's book!"

It reminded me of Jackie Hoffman who does a great bit about children's books by celebrities. She says this is the entire book: "Can you make a funny face? This was and that way? That way and this way? Both ways and sideways? By Jamie Lee Curtis." Varla did a section of her fairy tale show where she rages about how messed up fairy tale characters are. Cinderella is a "liar", according to Varla. "She had to pretend she was a rich lady to get into the ball." Then she claims she could actually be like Cinderella. "I can do that!! I can easily pretend I'm someone else. Just ask anyone at the Chase bank on 50th Street." Then she busts co-dependent Belle from Beauty And the Beast. "Before Belle fell in love with the Beast, do you know what their first date was?" she asks. "He imprisoned her!" Finally Varla takes on Ariel from The Little Mermaid for trying to change who she really was. "The prince didn't want to marry her because she smelled like a fish. And why did she smell like a fish?" Pause. "Because she was a fish!"

So, as Disaster! began its first rehearsal, Unbroken Circle announced its run is concluding at the end of this month. I went to go see the show last week with Andrea Martin and we were both blown away by new cast member Marianne Tatum. Andrea told me that she could "never, never" learn an entire role in a week. Well, Marianne did and she was great! Unbroken Circle began performances Off-Broadway back in May and is going to close Oct. 27. We also just found out that the first regional production is going to be in San Antonio, which is perfect because the show takes place in Texas! You can get tickets, info and watch videos at UnbrokenCircleThePlay.com. And with that, 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.)