ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Conquering Broken Pianos With Patti LuPone, Unbroken Circle Reviewed in New York

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25 Jun 2013

Patti LuPone
Patti LuPone
Photo by Ethan Hill

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


'Allo!' Sigh. Sadly, I won't be hearing that missing "H" for a while because I'm on my way back from London. The entire experience was thrilling.

Let me go back to the beginning. On June 15, I flew to London with my good friend Jack (because James had to be in the opening of Unbroken Circle). On Sunday, I had a tech rehearsal at the Leicester Square Theatre for the first of seven shows I'd be doing with Patti LuPone. Leicester Square is in the heart of the West End of London (ye olde theatre district) and the area is like Times Square — very touristy with lots of cafes/restaurants everywhere and the requisite M&M store.

The show I was doing with Patti is in the format of the Broadway series I started in Provincetown (that I now do in New Orleans and, soon, Santa Monica). Essentially, there's no set patter for the artist. Instead, there's a mini-interview between every song. It's always unscripted, but usually the singer will want to have a sense of the song order. Patti doesn't even want to know the song list! She loves being surprised, and each show would begin with her coming onstage and having to recognize the introduction I'm playing so she'd know what to sing.

The biggest difference in the show format was because the theatre asked me to begin with an opening act so there could be an intermission (or interval, as the Brits say). Before I left, I asked my computer whiz friend, Kris Monroe, to help me put together some of my favorite deconstructing videos including Leslie Uggams singing "June is Bustin' Out All Over" and the Osmonds singing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof. I hoped the Brits would find the videos funny, and right before opening night, I sat in my dressing room and tried to think of some jokes I could say to introduce myself.

Right before I went on, I was backstage with Murray, Patti's dresser. I ran my opening jokes by him and he laughed, so I was pretty relaxed when I went onstage. I walked and said, "I know some of you are asking, 'Who is Seth Rudetsky?' Or if you're cockney, you're asking, 'Oo is Seth Rudetsky?' Or, if you're really cockney, 'Oo is Seff Rudetsky?'" Thankfully, that got a delish laugh. Then, I told the audience that I'm a Broadway radio host and, since I knew that Elaine Paige had a musical theatre radio show in England, I told them I'm essentially the American Elaine Paige...but just a little taller. That got a crazy laugh and the rest of the act went phenomenally. We had the "interval," Patti and I came out and I started the opening vamp to "Everything's Coming Up Roses." Of course, she sounded great, and the show was off and running.

Before I say what happened next, I want to mention the Chatterbox I did recently with Broadway music director/arranger/orchestrator Stephen Oremus (Wicked, Kinky Boots, The Book of Mormon). He told me about the first time he presented his arrangements of Tick, Tick...BOOM! to the producers of the show and to the family of Jonathan Larson. He was a nervous wreck and to add to it, the pedal on his piano broke. I was so sympathetic during the interview and kept saying how much I hated when a pedal broke. It's a nightmare to play anything because you can't sustain the notes.

Patti and Seth recreate their reaction to the broken piano

Cut to London. In Patti's show, I was playing what looked and sounded like a baby grand but it was, in fact, an electric piano. Everything was fine for the first few numbers but then, you guessed it, the pedal broke. What's so crazy about that whole evening is that it reminds me of the actors I interview who talk about going on big auditions in their twenties. They always say that they really didn't know what was at stake because of their lack of experience, and it made them very relaxed. Well, the same was true for me. I had no idea that the opening act I whipped together and the entire Patti show was being reviewed by every major London paper! I was just acting like it was a show for my closest friends.

When the pedal broke, I didn't care about reviews. My only concern was being judged by one of the audience members, the brilliant Marc Shaiman. Marc is in London because he and his partner Scott Wittman have written the score to Charlie and the Chocolate Factory, and I didn't want him to think I had bad technique. So, right before "I Dreamed a Dream," I spoke directly to him from the stage and told him to be aware that I had to try to make the accompaniment sound pretty and connected by using finger legato. Right after the song, I decided to stay with the Les Misérables theme and hauled out, "Come To Me (Fantine's Death)," which I had asked Patti to re-learn. Near the end it becomes a duet with Jean Valjean and I asked the audience if anyone knew the role. A guy in the front row came bounding onstage and, turns out, he sounded great! Patti put on her glasses so she could read the music and he sang it while standing next to her. At the very end, when she's supposed to die, she lifted her glasses and faced him. Somehow, he knew exactly what she wanted him to do and the audience watched him reach forward and, with his two fingers, close her eyelids. It was hilarious!


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