ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: How Anika Larsen's Xanadu Debut Almost Became a Zanna, DON'T!

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30 Jun 2014

Seth with Andrea Martin
Seth with Andrea Martin

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

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This summer I'm going to do something I haven't done before: a weekly master class. Yes, I've done master classes in many places (i.e. Montreal, New Orleans and other French-sounding cities) and yes, I've done events on a weekly basis (i.e. "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," starting a new diet) but I've never done a weekly master class in New York City. They're happening every Tuesday and the exciting news (for me) is the first Tuesday (July 8) is already sold out! Get info and sign up here

Well, another summer, another Broadway series at the Art House in Provincetown! I'm, yet again, sitting on the deck on the beautiful Anchor Inn after having spent 20 minutes petting Ginger and Molly, the two labs that live here. This weekend featured Andrea Martin who was, of course, hilarious. As part of the show, I got to do one of the sketches I've always been obsessed with. I was the Catherine O'Hara part... watch! We talked about her time in Pippin and Andrea said that she first turned down the role of Pippin's Grandmother. She didn't want to play a little old lady singing the song vaudeville-style like it's been done before. Then she heard that Diane Paulus was going to be working with Les 7 Doigts de la Main, which is a Montreal circus troupe.

Andrea has always been fascinated by the circus and was very intrigued when she heard that. She decided to have a chat with Diane and listened to the song over and over again before her morning phone call. She told Diane her idea that the audience could go back in time with the grandmother and see what it was like when she was a young circus performer. Diane loved the idea and Andrea agreed to do the show. Andrea said she wanted to do an old-school circus act but didn't know exactly what it would be. One day Gypsy Snyder (the director of Les 7 Doigts de la Main) told Andrea she knew what would be perfect: a high flying trapeze act! Andrea was thrilled... and secretly devastated. Turns out, back in the '80's, when she was filming "Club Paradise," she brazenly decided to do her own stunts. One of them involved parasailing high above the ocean... and the rope broke! Ever since then, she's been terribly afraid of heights. Yet, she also knew that a trapeze act would be perfect in the middle of her song. So, she learned how to fly on the trapeze, high above the stage, with no net... and never told anyone that she is terrified of heights!

Martin in Pippin.
Photo by Joan Marcus

Was she afraid the entire time she did it? Well, Andrea said that they would run the trapeze section before every show and she was, indeed, scared every single time. But when she was on the trapeze during the show, in character, she was never scared. Along the same lines, Chita Rivera told me that she never felt worthy to make her entrance in Chicago, where she'd rise up in an elevator as the vamp of "All That Jazz" played. She thought it was such a thrilling entrance that someone more glamorous/famous/diva-ish deserved it. So, while the Chicago overture played, she would to tell herself she was Sophia Loren or some other sexy superstar and that mantra would give her the courage to rise on that elevator and start singing, "Come on babe, why don't we paint the town?"

Speaking of Chita, she was a big reason Andrea went into the business. Andrea told us that she would vacation in Puerto Rico and her family saw Chita do her sassy 1960's club act. Andrea is Armenian and was considered extremely ethnic where she lived (Portland, ME). When she saw Chita, she thought that if someone who was dark like that could have a career performing, than so could she. And, speaking of "All That Jazz," here's a fun video I found of Chita sassing it during the original run of the show when she was a guest on Sammy Davis Jr.s' "Sammy and Company." 

Going back to entering a Broadway show on an elevator, I had recent Tony nominee Anika Larsen (Beautiful: The Carole King Musical) on "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox." She was Kerry Butler's understudy in Xanadu and her first entrance was coming up from under the stage on an elevator. She told the audience how scary it is being an understudy and explained that the word itself shows how unprepared you are: "You are literally 'under' 'studied'." After I heard that word etymology breakdown a la a Stanley Kaplan SAT course, I explained to the audience that Anika went to Yale and always has an academic bent to her conversations.

Anika Larsen

Regardless, she was very nervous when she first went on for Kerry. The character spends most of the show on rollerskates and Anika felt that if she fell, the audience would then be nervous for her throughout the show and would not feel comfortable laughing. So, when she was standing underneath the stage waiting for her entrance, she was getting increasingly more terrified. Her fellow actors made entrances on the elevator before her and after most of them left, she was waiting for her cue and began to think through what would happen if she simply got off the elevator and left the theatre. The stage door wasn't very far, and it would only take her about 45 seconds to exit to 44th Street, but she realized that there was no way the Broadway community wouldn't know about it. She wondered how much it would affect her career if everyone knew that she was the girl who fled Xanadu while in full costume. This whole thought process happened within seconds and the next thing she knew, she was onstage. Of course, she has no memory of how the show went (panic blackout) but she knows for sure she didn't fall. Here's my Playbill "Obsessed" with her where she sings some sassy Xanadu.

I saw Anika in Xanadu (three times!) but I first met her when she was starring Off-Broadway in Zanna, Don't. First, take in the fact that she was in both shows. Now, let me recommend that original cast album. It's so good! I love the script, songs, cast and it was so well-directed by Devanand Janki. I'm incredibly excited that tonight (June 30) is a reunion of the original cast at 54 Below! There are two shows and you can get tix at 54below.com. And here's a little video highlight from last Thursday's "Chatterbox" with some Zanna, Don't cast members. 

I asked Anika about Beautiful and she told us a harrowing tale of forgetting lyrics. It was during previews and happened during her first entrance. She plays Cynthia Weil and she shows up at the famed Brill Building to show off her amazing skills by singing "Happy Days Are Here Again" with self-penned lyrics. Jessie Mueller, who plays Carole King, started playing the accompaniment and Anika launched into the first verse. Suddenly, when she got to the second verse... nothing. She couldn't remember the lyrics. What to do? She thought maybe if she started it again, she'd remember. So, she turned towards Jessie and said with Cynthia Weil-confidence, "Let's start again from the top!" Anika began again and tried to think of the second verse lyrics while she was singing the first verse lyrics which is basically impossible. So as she approached the second verse she had no idea what was going to happen. Would she literally ask Jessie to start the song again? Would that keep happening again and again? Would the show be so long that night that would have to change the name to Beautiful: The Epic Carole King Musical in the Style of Nicholas Nickleby? Suddenly, the second verse was about to begin and her mind was blank. Then, at the exact moment that she was supposed to start singing, the correct lyrics flew out of her mouth. Yay muscle memory! The number ended and Anika was shocked that the audience applauded as enthusiastically as they always did. Huh? Didn't they hear her ask to start over? Didn't they know she forgot the second verse? Then she realized, because she stayed in character, the audience thought it was part of the show. Brava!

Of course, I know a horrific version of this story: A conductor I know was doing a Broadway show and an actress onstage forgot some lyrics. She pulled an Anika and said, "Let's start this again from the beginning," but nothing happened. The number kept going. Uh-oh. She then repeated it and, again, the orchestra kept plowing forward. Why? Well, he though she had been kind of headache to work with throughout the run of the show so when she stated she wanted to start the song again, he pretended not to hear! Twice! Eventually, she started to sing again near the end of the show (because she realized she had no choice) and, unlike Anika, I assume the audience, indeed, did notice her mistake. Back to Anika: Her lyric blankness hasn't happened since, but she does run the lyrics before the show every night.

Well, this week I'm in town for a few days and then I hightail it back to Provincetown for three shows with Cheyenne Jackson! Info is here PtownartHouse.com. Come see us and 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.)