ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: What Broadway "Angel of Music" Was Driven to High School in a Cop Car?

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

Seth at <i>Not Since High School</i>
Seth at Not Since High School (Photo by Monica Simoes)

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Wow! Last night was amazing! I put up a show called Not Since High School which was for Juli's after school music program. Why after school? Because there are basically no arts anymore during the school day. Apparently, the kids have to do academics all day long so they don't have time in the school day for music, theatre, etc. Here's my question: In high school, my school day went from 8 AM to 3:15 PM and we had time for chorus, chorale, special chorus, band, orchestra, theatre... and there were tons of kids from my class who went to Ivy League schools. How come they were able to combine academics with the arts but nowadays there's "no time"? It makes me crazy. Regardless, I'm accepting what is (for now) and at least trying to help what little music programming exists. I will give details about the show, but let me first start at the beginning of the week!

On Wednesday, my niece Eliana came to town with her friend Sarah and I took them to see the matinee of Cinderella. It was Sarah's first Broadway show (!) and she loved it. The cast is so great! And the onstage costume change from the rags "Crazy Marie" wears into the gown the fairy godmother is wearing and Cinderella's dowdy clothes into her ball gown are amazing! On a side note, I was reading one of my old columns and there's a whole section devoted to me getting my first iPhone and then promptly returning it because of the non-stop misspellings that happen because my fingers are too fat and the fact that the battery runs out crazily fast. I wrote that my iPhone lasts as long as August: Osage County. Yes, three hours makes a lengthy play, but a short battery life.

That was written in 2008 and I still spend every day complaining about my spelling errors and the horrific battery life. Today, I charged my phone all night and it ran out of battery at 11:30 this morning!!! Anyhoo, Cinderella was about to begin and, not surprisingly, my iPhone screen was black. I ran to the stage door, hoping I'd see someone I knew who would charge my phone. I didn't. But Jeff Pew, a sassy ensemble member who was coming down the stairs, told me he was a fan and asked to take a selfie with him. I, in turn, begged him to charge my phone! He plugged it in somewhere in the wig room and I came back during intermission to get it, only to find that he and Todd Buonopane (who's great in the show, FYI) used my iPhone to take crazy shots of themselves throughout Act One. How immature! And exactly something I would do.

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Backstage at <i>Cinderella</i>
Backstage at Cinderella

After the show, we all went backstage and the girls got to take a photo with the leading ladies. I saw the hi-larious Nancy Opel, who plays the wicked stepmother and is getting ready to do Honeymoon in Vegas. As I was chatting with her, I realized we were in the Broadway Theater, the same one she made her debut in as the understudy for Patti LuPone in Evita back in 1980! As she was learning the stepmother role for Cinderella, someone was describing where the area is to cross the stage and she told them she needed no further instruction because she had done it many, many times back in the day. Of course, we laughed about her Evita uterus fall. If you don't know what I mean, watch this " Obsessed"!  On "Seth Speaks," my SiriusXM talk show, I had Julia Murney and Kerry Butler. Kerry talked about graduating from high school and hearing that Blood Brothers was coming to Broadway. She had seen the show in London and loved it. She begged her agent to get her an audition, and she got one! After she tried out, she gushed to the director that she "loved the show so, so much" and her dream would be to "just watch the show every, single night." Well, cut to, she got cast as the swing, so her job was to watch the show every single night!

Julia was on my show to promote Not Since High School and, turns out, she went to the same middle school where Juli is going now. She was in the school's big choir (which no longer exists!) and heard someone singing a Christmas song that was being done in the concert. Julia started singing along. The choir teacher heard her and asked how she knew the harmony. Julia didn't know she was singing harmony. She was just singing what she knew from listening to the Muppets Christmas Album! Nonetheless, the choir teacher loved it and had Julia sing the harmony line with another girl at the concert... and it was Julia's first time singing a solo in public. She found out she was a good singer because she was in a school chorus.

This is my point! If we don't have school choruses, bands, etc., it will be much harder for kids to find out what they have a natural talent for! One of the fun things about Not Since High School is hearing the inappropriate shows high schools do. Julia had one of my faves: Her high school, filled with teenagers, decided to do Follies. Follies, as she describes it, is a musical about people "past middle age" who are coming to grips with their life. Not surprisingly, Julia sang the "I've seen it all, I've done it all" song "I'm Still Here"... when she was 17. She went to NY's Performing Arts High School and they hadn't yet completed building the school auditorium. So they performed Follies in the school lobby. Why? Because it had an enormous grand staircase that they used as the set! Perf!

James Snyder
James Snyder (Photo by Monica Simoes)

On Thursday, I interviewed James Snyder, who's starring as Idina Menzel's husband in If/Then. He grew up in California and did the Los Angeles production of Rock of Ages before it came to New York. After it was a hit in L.A., they workshopped the show in New York and he wound up getting an audition for the lead in Cry-Baby. He had to audition five times (!) and on his final callback, he remembers waiting outside the audition room with the casting director, Bernard Telsey. Bernard asked why he hadn't seen him at auditions before. James told him that he had actually auditioned for Harispray in L.A. a few years before. Bernard thought for a moment and then said, "Oh! You weren't very good back then, were you?" And one minute later, James had to go in for his audition. Of course, all he heard in his head was "You weren't very good back then, were you?" James had the script in his hand and started to read his audition scene. After a page, he lost his place. Ah! He asked to start again. They told him it was fine and he began again. And lost his place. And began again. And lost his place. After the fifth time, he threw the script on the floor and was like, "F*ck it, I'll do it by heart." People at the audition loved the aggressive throwing of the script and told him later that's what got him the part! He now thinks that psyching him out was Bernie's plan all along! That show had so much great stuff in it... and spot his sassy dance moves on the Tony Awards! 

James mentioned he played Harold Hill in high school and I immediately asked him if he could do Not Since High School (even though the show was in four days). He said yes and re-learned "Trouble." For that moment during the benefit, I asked if anybody in the audience had done The Music Man. Hands went up. Then I asked if people knew the album really well. More hands went up. I then invited them all on the stage to sing back-up for James. It was so fun!!! People knew it really well, and except for some horrific upstaging from certain onstage townsfolk who thought they were auditioning for the upcoming revival, it went great!

Now here are more details from the show: The first singer I brought up was Keala Settle from Les Misérables who said they don't have theatre in schools in Hawaai, but she used to always sing to two of her Mom's records: Grease and The Sound Of Music. She would put on her Mom's sassy boots, stand on the couch (not the cushions, the actual top of the couch) and use the sheepskin hanging on the wall as her backdrop. When she would launch into her song, her mother would always yell at her to stop because Keala didn't "understand what the song was about." I then had Keala sing the song that, for some reason, her Mom didn't want her to sing when she was six years old: "There Are Worse Thing I Could Do."

LaChanze
LaChanze (Photo by Monica Simoes)

Then came Jose Llana, who talked about playing Tony in high school. Since he's Philipino, he wanted to look more like the standard "American" Tony so he dyed his hair brown. Well, he has black hair, so he used the scientific theory that if he put blond dye on it, the color would land in the middle, AKA brown. Unfortunately, it turned his hair orange. He got an emergency appointment at the "Hair Cuttery" and got it to a normal-ish color. He told us that his Maria was not Hispanic. As a matter of fact, she was a blonde Southern Baptist. He recalls that her version of a Spanish accent was a reliance a excessive rolling of R's. Jose said that the video his Mom took of the show is incredibly shaky. Because there was an earthquake throughout the show? No. Because every time the Maria did her horrific Spanish accent, his Mom would start giggling uncontrollably and the camera would shake. Hi-lar! He sang both Tony and Maria's part (with her accent) in "Tonight."

Next up was LaChanze, who recreated her high school role of Lola from Damn Yankees. However, I decided to have her do a tip o' the hat to her Tony-nominated performance in Once On This Island. At the end, she kept repeating "Give in," which is what's written. And then, right at the end, she sang "Waiting for life to give i-i-i-i-i-i-in!" Emily Skinner took the stage next who recalled that when she was six, her school produced Really Rosie so she could star in it. Yes, she had a star vehicle producer for her in first grade. She said that it's no surprise she has such a heightened sense of entitlement. PS, she totally doesn't. Of course, she was fantastic and you can watch her singing it hereMario Cantone took the stage next. I would love to reprint what he talked about, but this is a family column. He was hilarious, but everything he said was rife with cursing. Of course, halfway through his tirade, he noticed kids in the front row. And then continued on in the exact same vein. One tiny example of what he said referred to him playing Nicely-Nicely in his school's  Guys and Dolls. He saw the all-black production on Broadway and flipped out over Ken Page. He wanted to sing it gospel-style like Ken. Mario saved his voice during rehearsals and on the night of the show, he let it wail. The theatre teacher had a fit because he sounded so completely different during the performance and told Mario he had a lot of nerve. Mario claims he responded, "F*ck you, you f*cking pedophile!" That's just a smidgeon of the his onstage sass!

James Monroe Iglehart in <i>You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown</i>
James Monroe Iglehart in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown

James Monroe Iglehart, the Tony Award-winning Genie from Aladdin, came up next and talked about playing Charlie Brown in his high school's production of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown. His mother told him, for some bizarre reason, that if he shaved his facial hair, it would grow back in a crazy way. So, James said that the kids in the audience saw a Charlie Brown who was black and had a full beard. However, what he loves about kids is as soon as he said "I'm Charlie Brown," they immediately believed it.

Christine Ebersole came onstage and talked about being in high school but not performing onstage. She was a violinist in the school orchestra. During one performance of Finian's Rainbow, she was so entranced by what was happening onstage that played the violin... during a non-musical moment. That made her realize she wanted to go from violinist to actress. Cut to: two Tony Awards. She sang a gorgeous version of "How Are Things in Glocca Mora" from the very show where she played her unintentional violin solo.

Next: Jerry Dixon and Emily Skinner. Emily volunteered to sing Liesl opposite Jerry who played Rolf. Yes, he was a black guy in high school playing a Nazi Aryan, but the school solved it by telling him to wear a blond wig (!) and full white make-up. When his mother found out, she put an immediate kibosh on the make-up, but gave a thumbs-up to the wig. Check out the rehearsal footage

Jerry Dixon, with his blonde wig, and Emily Skinner
Jerry Dixon, with his blonde wig, and Emily Skinner

Sierra Boggess came up next and said that if it weren't for her theatre teacher, she never would have graduated high school. She was a terrible student and the only thing she liked was theatre, which got her through school. I asked for an example of being a bad student and she quickly said she was the girl who was brought to school in a police car. What!?!?!?! No further details were offered. She sang "If I Were A Bell," and I commented that the situation Sarah Brown is in is similar to the one she plays in The Phantom Of The Opera as Christine Daae. Both are uptight women being seduced by a man. I asked for someone to stand next to her as she sang and brought out Norm Lewis who is currently playing her Phantom. He just stood there as she sang "If I Were A Bell" and right at the end, he suddenly yelled, "Sing! Sing for me!" and we segued to the end of "The Phantom of the Opera" where she hit all of her high notes. It was amazing!

Finally, the Tony Award-winning star of Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Jessie Mueller took the stage. She started high school by doing ensemble which she said taught her how to be present and how to listen. Soon, she started getting lead roles and ended Not Since High School singing a fantastic version of "Happily Ever After," recreating her high school triumph as Princess Winnifred in Once Upon a Mattress. We made $10,000 in ticket sales, auctioned off fantastic donated items for $2,000 and three people bid on co-hosting my SiriusXM show for another $9,000! Because Jacob Langfelder let us have 42West for free and got us a Yamaha piano donated, we were able to give all the money to Juli's middle school! It was an incredibly thrilling and satisfying night. And next year I want to do it again in a larger space and have it benefit all New York City public schools. Brava to all the amazing Broadway performers who donated their time and high notes!

(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.)

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