ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Patti LuPone Remembers Les Miz High Note; Heidi Blickenstaff Recalls Mermaid Low Note

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07 Jan 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.

Hello from Jet Blue Gate 14. The one right after Gate 12. That’s right, I just noticed there’s no Gate 13! It’s very interesting to me that superstition is so strong here in the U.S. that there are many buildings that don’t have a 13th floor, and JFK opts out of Gate 13. Cut to, if my flight were leaving from Gate 13, I’d immediately buy a bus ticket.

Anyhoo, I’m on my way to New Orleans to start the Broadway Series that Mark Cortale and I are putting together at NOCA. Tonight (Jan. 7) is Patti LuPone, and then I’ll be with Sutton Foster, Megan Mullally, Audra McDonald and Betty Buckley. Speaking of Patti, she guest-starred on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show, and we had plenty to talk about! Naturally, we discussed the Les Miz film and specifically her memories of playing Fantine in the original London cast. Turns out, as soon as she got to England, she got a cough that didn’t go away til she came back to the States. She remembered that she would cough so hard, she’d see stars…and I don’t mean Linda Evans (I tried to think of a signature ‘80’s star). Even though her cough was chronic, she never did it onstage due to what she called “Dr. Broadway.” If you don’t know, that’s the expression that implies that sickness magically goes away when you’re onstage. Of course, in her case, it was “Dr. West End.” Or, more specifically, “Dr. Royal Shakespeare Company.” Patti also had been in a relationship with someone in New York in the mid-80’s, but right before she began Les Miz, they broke up. She thinks that the break-up and the coughing actually helped her interpretation because just like Fantine, she was, as she says, “broken-hearted and consumptive.” Perfect!

Patti also had a great story about her input into the score. She was rehearsing “I Dreamed a Dream” and remembers she was thinking, “How do I land this song?” She got to the part where Fantine sings “… as they turn your dreams to shame.” Well, turns out, originally Fantine stayed on the same note, and it was the orchestra that did the long ascending line up a fifth. Patti asked the composer whether she could sing the ascending line instead, and he said yes, and thus was born one of my favorite parts of the song. And, on a side note, I haven’t seen the Les Miserables film yet, but I am getting crazy from everyone excusing certain (supposedly) not great singing by saying that people are “acting” the song instead. To me, that statement says people can either sing or act a song. As anyone who has seen a great Broadway star knows, you can do both! Here is a clip of the concert I did with Patti in Provincetown, and watch her amazingly moving acting yet phenomenal well-placed high notes!

David Bedella
Last Thursday, I had a great Chatterbox with David Bedella, who is an American who lives in London and a winner of the Olivier Award for originating the role of Satan in Jerry Springer: The Opera. And speaking of which, when he was at the Olivier Awards, the winners before him were being very blasé in their acceptance speeches. Everyone was acting like it wasn’t a big deal to win and/or not wanting to sound like a show off, which is very British. Well, when David won, he said he was very American and therefore made a heartfelt speech. After the awards, he was approached by Dame Judi Dench (!) who thanked him for changing the tone of the evening. She said that after his acceptance speech, everyone turned, and suddenly the subsequent winners started treating the evening with the proper respect and reverence. David calls the moment being thanked by Dame Judi as “his Oscar.” And I assume he calls his Olivier Award, his “Olivier Award.”

A few weeks ago, I had a Chatterbox with the cast of [title of show], who just released the CD of their newest musical Now. Here. This., a show that played last spring at the Vineyard and dramatized/musicalized various key experiences they had as children. I asked Hunter Bell for details about his segment where he’s in a teen modeling competition. Yes, a teen modeling competition. He told us that his parents had just gotten divorced, and he had moved to a new town in Georgia and was about to start a new school. When he saw the ad for a modeling competition, he was thrilled because he figured it would be his ticket out. Why? Because he knew that when he won, he wouldn’t have to go to his new school. Why? Because he’d have to be in Paris. He doesn’t know why he assumed his modeling would start in Georgia and immediately segue to Paris, but that is exactly what he thought. The night before the big day, Hunter still had lots of his clothes in boxes because his family hadn’t finished unpacking. He was having a breakdown because he had to find his amazing pair of Lee jeans to wear on the runway. On the day of the big event, his father took him to the mall where the competition was being held, and Hunter soon discovered that he was the only boy participating. Did that make him feel awkward? Hardly. He thought it meant less competition. Yes! Finally, they called his name, the music started, and he walked up and down the makeshift runway that was set up. Did he nail it? Yes! The winner was announced...and it wasn’t him. He was supremely disappointed, but when he looks back on the experience he’s actually moved because on the way home, instead of his dad asking him, “What were you thinking?,” his dad told him he did a good job. Very sweet. Of course, I feel bad that Hunter lost, but I’m even more devastated that there’s no video footage.

Speaking of photographic evidence, I was on SiriusXM recently talking about my first professional job ($50 a week!) where I played an orphan in Oliver at the Northstage Dinner Theater. Cut to, I got a Facebook message from Michael Battari and his partner Ronald Case, who told me that they did the costumes and sets way back when! And then he sent me some photos! That’s me on the top of the stairs (of the very cool rotating set) holding buckets of milk because I also played the milkmaid (changed to milkboy) in “Who Will Buy.” And if you look downstage left, the knife grinder is the man who later on played the Phantom for more than two years…Davis Gaines!

Seth (on the stairs) as the milkboy in Oliver!


Heidi Blickenstaff
Heidi Blickenstaff from Now. Here. This. was also at the Chatterbox, and I asked her about doing The Little Mermaid. She was offered the stand-by position for Sherie Rene Scott (Ursula, The Sea Witch) but she didn’t want to be offstage every night, so they offered her a role as Carlotta, Ariel’s maid in Act Two. When she was negotiating her contract, she told them that [title of show] might move to Broadway and, in case it does, she needed to be able to leave The Little Mermaid. She thinks they agreed right away because they thought there was no way that a little Off-Broadway musical with four people would come to Broadway. Cut to, [title of show] opened on Broadway, and she left The Little Mermaid. While we were talking about the show, Hunter asked her to tell us about the crazy contradictory line she had to say. Heidi sighed and told us that as Carlotta, she was Ariel’s cheerleader and positive influence in Act Two. But, in the middle of the act, Ariel had to sing a song where all hope is lost. There wasn’t any character close to Ariel who could give her an impetus to sing such a sad song, so it fell to Heidi. Heidi remembered that she was given the negative line to say to Ariel during tech in Denver. Since she was used to collaborating on [title of show], she had no qualms about stopping rehearsal and yelling out into the darkness, “Hi! Can I ask a question about one of my lines?” Silence. Then… “Yes, Heidi?” Heidi smiled and said, “I just don’t think my character would say something like this to Ariel. It kinda goes against what I told her a few scenes back. I don’t think it makes sense.” Silence. Then, in a professional tone, “Heidi, just say the line and leave." Never a clearer direction hath been given.

So, Hunter and Jeff laughed when they told me about being in the Broadway audience and first hearing “Carlotta” encourage Ariel to pursue her dreams no matter what and then a few scenes later dourly inform Ariel, “For us, dear, dreams don’t come true.” For the record, Heidi told us that they’ve been workshopping a new script of the show (she’s playing Ursula) and not only is the line gone, but so is Carlotta! I guess she did say the line and leave…the entire show!

Right now, I’m in my beautiful hotel room. So New Orleans-esque; big shutters on the door, a ceiling fan above the bed and a heated swimming pool outside. Delish! I’m only in the middle of season two of "Downton Abbey," and someone next door is blasting the season three premiere. I want to bang loudly on the wall and yell, "Lower your effing TV!," but I’m scared that Patti has the room next to mine! 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.)