ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: How a Young, Sweaty Zach Braff Got His Big Break

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04 Jun 2014

Patti LuPone in <i>Anything Goes</i>
Patti LuPone in Anything Goes
Brigitte Lacombe

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

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Hello from Delta flight 1748, Detroit to LaGuardia. Last night I did a Broadway @ show with Patti LuPone at the Berman Center, and it went great! I had her sing so many of my faves: "Come To the Supermarket In Old Peking," "Buenos Aires," "Trouble" (from The Music Man) and "Grin and Bear It" which is a song written for "Smash" that I heard her sing at the Carnegie Hall salute to Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman.

I also had her do "Anything Goes" (obsessed with her last high D) and before she sang, she told us that a few days before she auditioned for the 1988 production, she was getting her picture taken. She told the photographer about her upcoming audition and he gave her the last professional photo taken of Ethel Merman! Ethel was sporting a huge smile and her hands were framing her face, a la Judy Garland. Patti went to her audition and was asked to do the first Reno Sweeney scene. She turned her back and when she whipped around to face the audience for her first line ("Billy! Billy Crocker!") she put the enormous photo of Ethel over her face!

I love the image of director Jerry Zaks sitting in the audience and hearing Patti yelling Reno's lines from behind Ethel's mug. So bizarrely funny. Spoiler alert: She got the gig. By the by, when I say, "I had her sing such-and-such," I'm serious! Patti likes to be surprised by what songs I choose and she doesn't know what she's going to sing until I start playing the intro! If you've never seen the kind of show I do with her, get thee to SethTV.com/patti. It's an entire concert where she sings so many amazing songs including "As Long As He Needs Me," "Meadowlark" and "Rainbow High" from Evita!

Norm Lewis

And now let us discuss #Norm Lewis. I met Norm back in 1989, right after college. Norm had just moved to New York and was non-equity and I was music directing Joseph and the Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat. To this day, I remember his audition for various reasons. First, he chose to sing "Before The Parade Passes By," which is a woman's song. I gave him a brava because I thought it was a bold choice. However, he had just done ensemble in the show and the music he handed me to play was the full ensemble part. In other words, instead of seeing the melody in front of me like normal sheet music, I saw music divided into soprano, alto, tenor and bass. Instead of a playing for a person's audition, I felt like I was having a music brush-up rehearsal for the ensemble. But then he sang and I loved it. You would have loved it if you had heard it. And you can! He put that song on his CD (!) and I deconstruct it here

He was, of course, cast in the show and we've worked together many times since then; the following summer when he was in the ensemble of My Fair Lady, the Hearts and Voices hospital shows I do for patients with AIDS, the very first month I did "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox" back in 1999, the Playbill Cruise, the Actors Fund Dreamgirls, Chess and Hair concerts and tons more. My point is, we've been working ever since the beginning of our professional careers. So, when I went to see him starring in The Phantom of the Opera and heard his distinctive voice on the title song, it's no surprise that I immediately felt my eyes fill with tears. I was so, so proud of him. And he sounds so amazing! You have to, have to, have to see him play this role. It's such a perfect match vocally because he's always had a combination of an operatic/pop voice and the title song is operatic yet has electric 80's pop drums... literally the same combination!

Zach Braff
Photo by Robb Johnston

I had him on "Seth Speaks" and reminded him of another gig we had in 1996: It was an outdoor concert in Battery Park and I had him and Kate Chapman sing "The Phantom of the Opera." During the part where she's singing the obligato at the end, he spoke the signature Phantom lines but "made it his own" as we say. He started with "Sing!" then moved on to "Sing for me," and finally as she got near the high note he hauled out "You better sing!" Werk!

Throughout the years, Norm told us he's often heard from younger black actors who've told him that he's been an inspiration to them by being a successful Broadway actor, so he's decided to put together a concert at Carnegie Hall where he's going to honor those who have paved the way. It's called The Black Stars of The Great White Way Broadway Reunion: Live the Dream and I haven't seen a longer title since I was on MTV's "Legally Blonde: The Search For The Next Elle Woods." I advise you get your tickets asap here

On "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox" I had the smart/funny Zach Braff, who's currently starring in Bullets Over Broadway. He told us that he grew up in New Jersey and hated sports. His father did community theatre and watching his day play Horace Vandergelder (opposite Norm Lewis as Dolly?) made him fall in love with theatre. He started going to theatre summer camp (Stage Door Manor) and loved it! As a matter of fact, his love segued into a Broadway-themed Bar Mitzvah. First, take that in. Even I didn't have the nerve to try that one.

Let's hear what it consisted of. He told us that there were various actors scattered throughout the reception hall dressed as signature Broadway characters AKA a cat from Cats. They remained frozen on top of tables as the guests arrived. Then, the entire room filled with the song "Let's Hear It for the Boy." At that point in the story, I reminded Zach that Footloose wasn't a Broadway show in the '80's. He completely concurred and told me that the entire Bar Mitzvah was filed with mixed metaphors, and I loved how easily he analyzed the inappropriateness. He described the next inappropriate pairing as thus: When the song got to the actual lyric "Let's hear it for the boy," Zach made his entrance with his family and the Broadway characters unfroze and started doing the robot. So amazing!

Seth with Zach Braff
photo by Robb Johnston

Later on, Zach realized what a horrible gig it was for the actors. The lack of respect manifested itself when one of his friends tied a spoon to the tail of the guy playing the cat. I could add a joke at this point, but why? The description itself is enough.

He was auditioning for things when he was young and actually got cast in "Manhattan Murder Mystery" as Woody Allen and Diane Keaton's son. Getting a Woody Allen film meant so much to him because his family is completely obsessed with the film "Annie Hall." On the day he shot, he was in his trailer on the set completely panicked to have to act with Woody and Diane Keaton. Someone knocked and told him that the director wanted to run lines with him. Ahhhh. Only the director. That he could do. He walked into the director's trailer and suddenly remembered the director was Woody! AH! Diane Keaton was there, too. There he was, completely obsessed with "Annie Hall" and he's playing their son! Woody told him that they wouldn't say the exact lines and he should just try to keep up. Woody and Diane started and were doing their amazing "we've worked together for twenty years" riffing and Zach was desperately trying to find openings to say his lines. He hilariously compared it to playing Double Dutch!

Zach went to Northwestern for film because he knew he wanted to be a filmmaker one day and moved to New York afterwards, where he worked as a PA on video shoots. Once they were doing a shoot for Mariah Carey. The song was called "On the Roof" and they were, quite literally, filming on a roof. However, the elevator in the building didn't work so Zach had to make tons of trips carrying the props up tons of stairs. While climbing yet another horrifically long staircase to the roof he told the other PA, "I hope her next song is called 'In the Lobby.'" Still got it!

Braff with Marin Mazzie in Bullets Over Broadway.
Photo by Paul Kolnik

He told us that he was constantly driving in a van, scouting props all over New York for shoots. Often he'd tell the other PA to double park and he'd run in for an audition. It was a nightmare because his bosses would constantly ask why it took two hours to get one prop from ten minutes away and he'd never get cast in anything because he'd show up, dressed like a PA and sweating/panting. He did, however, wind up getting work doing Shakespeare at the Public Theater, working with amazing people and finally decided to move to LA to do film and TV. Though he was there for a while, he wasn't getting cast in any roles. He said so many of the sitcoms were not funny and he isn't the kind of actor who can take a mediocre script and make it work. His only income was from being waiter.

Finally, he read the script for "Scrubs" and immediately loved and understood the humor. He had numerous auditions and finally got it. Immediately, he decided to quit waitering but his father warned him that there's a big chance a pilot won't be picked up. Zach told him he had learned how to live so frugally that he'd be able to to take the salary he made for the pilot and live off of it for a year and half!

The show ran for years and in the middle of it, he wanted to write and direct a film. However, nobody in Hollywood would fund it. Finally, he was talking with a real estate guy who was going to split the budget with someone they needed to find. The guy looked closer at the numbers and told Zach that there was a lot of waste. He proposed that Zach cut a few million off the budget and he would fund the whole thing himself. That's what Zach did and that's how he made "Garden State." It got into Sundance and was the first film to be bought by two studios!

Harvey Weinstein and Sony both loved it, so one bought it domestically and one bought it for international distribution. It's a great lesson for people struggling. Nobody wanted that film but Zach persevered, got it made and it became a hit. Now he's loving doing Bullets Over Broadway but said it's the hardest thing he's ever done. Although, he did do a full musical episode of "Scrubs." Watch

Well, this Thurs at the "Chatterbox" I'll have the composing team behind A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder and you can get ye olde info at Sethtv.com. And on Tony Night, I'll be in a suit because I just got hired by "Entertainment Tonight" to do their coverage! You can watch it next Monday night. Until then, 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.)