ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Ritz in Retrospect

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10 Dec 2007

Rosie Perez and Seth Rudetsky.
Rosie Perez and Seth Rudetsky.

And so it ends. The Ritz played its final performance Sunday Dec. 9. Thank goodness it was a great show that day. My number in the second act went great! OK…here come some details. I never wanted to be totally clear about certain aspects of the show so I wouldn't ruin it for people coming to see it, but now I can describe some stuff to you all.

First of all, in Act Two there's a talent show at The Ritz bathhouse and my character, Sheldon Farenthold, was a contestant. A word about my character's name. Rosie Perez, playing Googie Gomez, was the host of the talent show, and on more than one occasion Rosie would make a mistake with my introduction and introduce me not as Sheldon Farenthold, but as Sharon Farenthold. Was she implying I was a drag queen? I was dressed as a guy, so was I a drag king? Transgender? Pre-op? Post-op?

Anyhoo, in the script it says that Sheldon sings a burlesque song while popping balloons attached to his body. Our hilarious director Joe Mantello decided to change it to be very au courant. Since the play takes place in the mid-'70s, Pippin would have been a Broadway hit at the time. As soon as I got cast, Joe said he wanted me to sing "Magic to Do" and have all these white gloved hands somehow around me. (The original Fosse choreography had Ben Vereen surrounded by all the people wearing white gloves, and because of the cool lighting, all you could see was Ben and the floating gloves.) I thought that William Ivey Long would construct some black apparatus I'd wear with gloves coming out of it a la Carol Burnett wearing the curtains in that "Gone With the Wind" sketch. Instead, at rehearsal our assistant choreographer, Michael Lee Scott, suggested that they put white gloves at the end of the skeleton of umbrellas. The umbrellas were constructed and when I opened them up in front of everyone, it looked hilarious! Chris Gattelli choreographed me spinning them and doing some "Liza with a Z" choreography and Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer lit me amazingly...which makes sense since Jules did the original Pippin!

I made Sheldon vocally unstable and decided to hit the high note ("Join us…Co-o-o-ome and waste and hour or two") in a horrible mix while changing the vowel from "come" to "coom" like singers do when they need help "placing" a note. After running it though, I thought that the number needed one more joke and Jason, the assistant stage manager, and I came up with having a reveal of two white gloves placed on the butt of my black unitard, a la Barbra Streisand in "The Owl and the Pussycat." It worked! I have to say that the number was always so much fun to do…especially because all I had to do was open up the umbrellas to get a laugh. Prop humor can be deliciously easy.

The other thing I didn't write that much about in the column was the Googie Gomez medley. Chris, Joe and I put it together and it was a conglomeration of Broadway hits done completely inappropriately. While we were in my apartment, Chris said he wanted to do the "39 Lashes" from Jesus Christ Superstar, and I had said that I wanted to do "Sabbath Prayer" from Fiddler on the Roof. I suddenly said, "Why don't we combine them?" and I played the funky "Heaven on their Minds" vamp from Superstar while singing "Sabbath Prayer" above it. Then Chris and I decided that the back-up boys would punctuate the song by whipping Rosie.

ROSIE: "May the Lord protect and defend you."
BOYS: (whip) One!
ROSIE: "May he always shield you from pain."
BOYS: (whip) Two!

It seemed so bizarre and too much our specific sense of humor that we thought for sure it would get cut, but, turns out, it went over amazingly every night! There was one section that was cut early on because the number was too long but I must admit that I miss it. At one point, the boys touched Rosie suggestively and she said, "No touching the merchandise! You gotta pay cash for that! That's right…it's cash for the merchandise, cash for the button hooks…etc."

That is correct! We did a funky version of "Rock Island" from The Music Man! And…it was cut.

The most stressful/successful story is that Joe wanted the medley to begin with something grand and regal. We finally came up with "Bali Ha'i." Unfortunately, we wound up being denied the rights! I wasn't upset because I totally understood why. South Pacific is about to open at Lincoln Center and I think they felt that it would be weird for an audience to watch that beautiful song in their production but have a part of their brain remember Googie Gomez mangling it. But the problem was that we kept thinking we were gonna get the rights and didn't find out that we definitely didn't have them until two days before the first preview! Well, that was the same night that Rosie got her end of Act One wig. It was a red perm and she was joking around during tech singing, "The sun'll come out…tomorrow." Joe ran up to me and said, "What if Googie opens the medley with a solemn 'The sun'll come out…manana!'" We tried it out on the cast and it got an enormous laugh…much bigger than the one for "Bali Ha'i!" It was one of those situations where a barrier actually made things turn out for the better. But there was one more problem. The Ritz was supposed to happen in 1975. Joe asked me when Annie was on Broadway. I told him that it opened in 1977. He turned to the cast and mock announced, "The show now takes place in 1977!" But then someone in the cast suggested that perhaps Googie saw a workshop of Annie and that's where she got the song. Problem solved.


Top: Seth, Lucas Near-Verbrugghe and Kevin Carolan at understudy rehearsal; Bottom: Seth, Andréa Burns and Kevin Carolan rehearse the finale.

OK, let's go back to the beginning of the week. I did a benefit called "Gimme a Break," for The Transport Group theatre company. It's a show where each person tells of their first break and then performs something related to it. Anne L. Nathan was so funny talking about being a young character actress. While she was in High School, she played 'em all. The Grandmother in Pippin, Mama Rose in Gypsy and the role that every young girl dreams of: Fraulein Schneider in Cabaret. However, she told us that her first break was getting the role of Bloody Mary, the wizened sage, in South Pacific. "What was impressive is that I just turned 13." Agreed! She then proudly said, "I will now sing that song that I used to book Bloody Mary." I was obsessed with her using the verb "book" for a school show. Brava! (And brava for her version of "Don't Rain on my Parade." She's still got it!)

Lin-Manuel Miranda, the brilliant writer/star of the upcoming In the Heights talked about how he always looked forward to doing the 6th grade musical at his elementary school. But by the time he got to be old enough, the teacher, Miss Ames, couldn't decide on a new show that was appropriate for kids. So she decided to do a "best of the last five musicals." They did a half-hour version of each show: Oklahoma!, Bye Bye Birdie, Peter Pan, The Wizard of Oz and West Side Story. (P.S. a half-hour times five is two and half hours!) Lin then brought his teacher Miss Ames to the stage (really!) and then proceeded to do a medley of his roles in each one (Cowhand, Birdie, Munchkin, Capt. Hook and Bernardo). It was hilarious…including his singing both statement and responses "I like the city of San Juan" and "I know a boat you can get on" because he was the only Puerto Rican!


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