ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Mystery of a Music Director and Saying Goodbye to Unbroken Circle

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28 Oct 2013

Seth Rudetsky
Seth Rudetsky

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

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Greetings from Amtrak. I'm on my way back to NYC after doing Deconstructing Broadway at a synagogue (!) for a cantor's ten-year anniversary. 'Natch! Whenever I'm in at a Jewish function, I remember the classic mortification I experienced with my niece, Rachel Sarah. Both her and her sister Eliana go to Yeshiva, and I'm always pretending I know what they're talking about when they mention Hebrew phrases, because I'm too embarrassed to be 1,000 years older than them and have no idea what they're talking about.

So, one day when my niece was 8, I was on the phone with her. I asked the requisite "How's school?" question and she responded that this year they had to learn neesach. Hm….I knew it was some prayer but I didn't know if it was for during Shabbos or after Shabbos so I decided to simply be supportive. I said, with great authority, "That's OK! You're smart. You can do it!" She was silent for a moment and then randomly told me that her neighbor gave her a pear. Awww! I was reminded of how children are fascinated by the simplest things and thought back to my uncomplicated youth and specifically my early 20's when I rented a Prospect Heights ground floor with a backyard. I smiled nostalgically to myself and told her, "When I lived in Brooklyn, I had a peach tree!" Again she was silent until I finally heard a nervous, "Here's Mommy." Strange.

The phone was then handed to my sister who asked me, annoyed, "What were you saying to her?" What the — ? I had been proud of the way I supported her fear of learning new prayers and my support of her love for fruit, so I proudly repeated my part of the conversation. Then I found out why our interchange felt vaguely stilted. Turns out, when I asked Rachel Sarah how school was, she didn't inform me that "this year we have to learn neesach." No, what she actually told me was "This year we have to wear knee socks." That's right, my terror at having to understand yet another Hebrew word made me mishear the simplest of sentences. And what was my response to her having to wear knee socks? The weirdly unhelpful, "That's OK! You're smart. You can do it!" Why so condescending? Who can't wear knee socks? It takes no skill. Naturally, she was miffed but continued on. Her next sentence related to her first one so instead of saying the random "My neighbor gave me a pear…", like she was a child from the 1920's who proudly got an orange for Christmas, she actually told me, "My neighbor gave me a pair." As in a "pair" of knee socks. And what was my response? The bizarre and uncalled for, "When I lived in Brooklyn, I had a peach tree." And on that note, I'm out. And so was she.

On "Seth Speaks," my SiriusXM talk show, I did a special hour focused on music directing. Rider University has added a degree in Musical Theatre (piano). One of the teachers, Nathan Hurwitz, came on the show and I decided to have him join a few active and successful Broadway music directors: Steve Marzullo, Stephen Oremus and Ted Sperling.  Steve, Stephen, Ted and I all grew up playing piano and being interested in Broadway, but none of us really knew what music directing was.

It's unbelievable to me that only Rider University and Shenondoah College have any kind of program for Brodway music directing... and Shenondoah hasn't even had anyone graduate yet. There are degrees for all other aspects of theatre — costume design, lighting design, technical theatre — but the way most people become music directors is to have a degree in something related to it. I have a piano performance degree from Oberlin Conservatory but my degree focus was totally on classical piano, not Broadway. The way I got around it was to study some pieces that had the essence of show tunes... like playing "Rhapsody in Blue" for the concerto competition. (I'm still devastated that I made it to the finals but didn't win.) During "Seth Speaks," I wound up comparing being a music director to being gay, because it's something you feel you are, but something that's very off the mainstream... something you have to find out about for yourself through bits and pieces of information.

Steve Marzullo
What is a music director, you may ask? It's the person that's in charge of the music! They oversee all the music aspects like orchestration, vocal arrangements, dance arrangements and do the day-to-day conduction of the show. Often, they take on some of the other jobs. (Ted and Stephen have won Tony awards for orchestrating, and Marzullo is the vocal arranged for Disaster!.) We all found out that we all had similar childhoods playing piano for school shows and performing in them... sometimes at the same time. Marzullo was the pianist for his school production of The Pajama Game, but also played Heinzie and, because he danced, was one of the three dancers in "Steam Heat". Why was Heinzie in that number? Ask his Connecticut high school theatre teacher. I myself recalled doing Can-Can, my first musical at Oberlin, where I was the pianist in the orchestra but, at one point in Act Two, ripped off my black pants to reveal tights and quickly ran onstage to do the Apache dance. Stephen Oremus played Arvide in his High School production of Guys and Dolls but immediately, after each scene he was in, had to take off the enormous bass drum he carried and quickly walk down the stage staircase, in full view of the audience, to play piano for every song.

Speaking of doing things in full view of an audience and harkening back to musical theatre being the step-brother to classical music, I was conducting A Little Night Music at Oberlin and couldn't find a harpist willing to do the show. Finally, I got one but she told me she had a rehearsal scheduled during one of the performances. I told her it was fine without getting more details, because I was so happy to have anyone willing to play.

To set up this image, let me also tell you that Oberlin had no interest in musical theatre and would only allow us to do musicals in a room at the student union. That's right, there was no stage on the entire campus that we could use for one weekend... even though tuition in the '80's was $20,000. (Still annoyed? Yes, sir.) So, during these full musical productions, the audience would be on one side of the room and the performers and full orchestra on the other. There was no pit. And there was no entrance/exit for the performers, just the main doors to the room. So, in the middle of Act Two, the harpist for A Little Night Music indeed had another rehearsal and had to leave. AKA, she had to walk out the main doors in front of the entire audience... while wheeling her harp! No, not while carrying her tiny flute case. Once again, during a scene. While wheeling her harp.

We also talked about the arbitrariness of getting music director work on Broadway. Marzullo had met Stephen Flaherty a few times, and one night Marzullo decided to go out and ran into Stephen. They chitty-chatted and Flaherty asked him what he was up to. Marzullo told him he was working as a pianist on Broadway but was interested in new projects and Stephen told him that he and his writing partner Lynn Ahrens just lost their music director for the reading of a new musical they were doing. Marzullo wound up doing it, and the show went to Off-Broadway and then to Broadway! He told us how arbitrary it was because he almost didn't go out that night and if he hadn't, he never would have wound up music directing the fantastic Once On This Island. Watch the fabulous performance the show did on the Tony Awards featuring the brilliant Lillias White and LaChanze. 

Speaking of White, she's coming to the opening of Disaster! next week. We have previews this whole week, and next Monday is our official opening! The show has so many moments I look forward to doing onstage and what makes it even more enjoyable for me is the fact that the entire cast sings back-up throughout the entire show. So while Jennifer Simard is onstage belting "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" (she plays the nun), we're in the wings, watching her and singing all that sassy harmony. It's so much fun! Go to our website DisasterMusical.com and click the tab for "celebrity disasters" to watch all the disco ball accidents we've done with Broadway celebs: Andrea Martin, Santino Fontana, Laura Osnes, Ann Harada, Jane Krakowski and Billy Porter.

Seth waits backstage at the synagogue

This week was the final week of Unbroken Circle and our amazing producer, Mary J. Davis, had a closing night party at her apartment. There are two pictures on the side of this column: One of the cast party, which was happening simultaneously while I was "backstage" at the synagogue waiting to go on. Take a gander!

Disaster! plays Mon, Tues, Wed and Friday so I'm able to do shows out-of-town over the weekends. On Nov. 9-10, I'll be in Tampa, Florida at the Straz Center. Come see me deconstruct Bea Arthur, Barbra and, my new favorite, The Osmonds singing Fiddler on the Roof! Get tix/info here 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.)