ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: "You Were Wonderful! The Show Stinks!" Remembering Elaine Stritch's Sassiest Moments

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21 Jul 2014

Barbara Walsh and Seth
Barbara Walsh and Seth
Photo by Robb Johnston

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

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I'm doing a big, fat show Aug. 24 here in New York at the amazing new 42West on 42nd street. The show is called Not Since High School and it features Broadway folk singing songs from roles they played when they were way too young to play them. The last time I did it, Norbert Leo Butz sang Harold Hill, Mandy Gonzalez sang Maria Von Trapp, Susan Blackwell sang Anita (!) and Lisa Lampanelli sang Maria (!!). I just started booking this year's show and so far I have Julia Murney, Emily Skinner, Sierra Boggess and Christine Ebersole! The whole evening will help Juli's public school get some music programming. Schools are cutting the arts all over the place and now her school only has music after school! This money will help pay for teachers and instruments. The show is also hilarious! Watch the highlight reel from the last time I did it and get tix here.

The last week has been filled with people recounting their personal Elaine Stritch stories but, sadly, I never worked closely with her. I mainly have other people's interaction stories from my years doing my "Chatterbox." Here are my favorites: Barbara Walsh was playing Joanne in the revival of Company on Broadway. She met Elaine at a fancy Broadway luncheon and as soon as Elaine saw her, she said, "You're too young for the part." Barbara was confused because she was actually older than Elaine was when she played the role. Regardless, at the end of the lunch Elaine told her, "I'm gonna come see the show, but I won't tell you when because I don't want you to be nervous knowing I'm in the audience."

Cut to: Elaine showed up wearing a white suit with a white cap and sat in the fifth row. Basically, if a lighthouse could get a ticket to a Broadway show, then Elaine was that lighthouse. The nice part is that afterwards Barbara was backstage after the show and heard, "Where's Barbara? Where's Barbara?" in that signature growl. Elaine found her, held her face in her hands and told her how wonderful she was. Someone then asked for a photo of the two of them, and suddenly Barbara was confused because she didn't hear any joke being told. Why was she thinking a joke was told? Because right at the moment the picture was taken, Elaine threw her head back in laughter. That's right. Apparently, Elaine preferred to take all photos with her signature At Liberty head-thrown-back, mouth-agape pose. Brava for knowing what works! PS, here's Barbara doing "I'm Breaking Down" from her Tony-nominated performance in Falsettos (with Grey Gardens composer Scott Frankel at the piano!).

Pamela Myers, who played Marta and sang "Another Hundred People" in the original cast of Company told me that she and Elaine remained great friends since the '70's. One day, Elaine was visiting and saw a photo of Pam's son standing next to Pam's mom who was around 90 years old when the pic had been taken. Elaine glanced at it and said, "Your son looks great! But Pam... not your best photo." Speaking of Pam Myers, here's my deconstruction of "Another Hundred People!"

Known for her candor, here are two of my favorites Elaine "tell it like it is" comments. My friend Mairi Dorman-Phaneuf plays cello in lots of Broadway shows, the most recent being The Bridges of Madison County. She met Elaine during A Little Night Music and she recently posted this memory on her Facebook wall: "Over dinner once, Elaine was asking about the show I was playing at the time, which was in previews, but seemed likely to tank. Trying to lead with the positive, I told her everyone agreed the costumes were fantastic, to which she replied, 'The costumes? You're telling me about the costumes? Oh honey, if it's down to the costumes, you're screwed.'" Direct but honest! If you want to hear some of Mairi's beautiful playing, here she is in the small ensemble playing for the book trailer my sister wrote (and sings). So good (and creepy)! 

 

The cast of The Ellen Burstyn Show, 1986
 

Megan Mullally became friends with Elaine during "The Ellen Burstyn Show." Ellen played Megan's mom and Elaine played Ellen's mom. When Megan starred in Young Frankenstein, she gave one of her opening night tickets to her husband and the other to Stritch. Megan remembers taking the final cast bows to wild applause and turning to walk offstage and get ready for the big swanky cast party. There was Elaine, who had somehow left the audience, gotten backstage and walked to the wings by the time the bows were over. Megan was standing in full costume with her gown and Bride-of-Frankenstein wig on when Elaine grabbed her and said, "Megan! You were wonderful!" Followed immediately by "The show stinks!" Megan was like, "Can't I take off my costume first?" If you want to hear this story live and hear Megan belt up a storm, get the full concert we did together! Here's a preview.

I only worked with Stritch indirectly when I wrote my very first opening number for the BC/EFA Easter Bonnet Competition. I re-wrote the lyrics to "Food, Glorious Food" and changed it into "Hats, Glorious Hats." The whole song featured lyrics about various hats on Broadway and all the performers did signature Broadway hat dances choreographed by a young upstart named Kathleen Marshall. After the non-stop hat references, there was a pause and Stritch walked onstage. I was conducting and I loved watching her know exactly how to work a crowd. As soon as she entered, she got crazy applause and she turned to look at the dancers, blank-faced, holding her stare forever until the applause died. She then turned around and got another laugh. She finally began her famous "Ladies Who Lunch" line and knew to pause after "Does anyone..." so she could receive another enormous laugh and applause. It added three minutes to the number and it was amazing. Watch

And finally, I've been doing non-stop deconstructions to lead up to my Deconstructing Broadway appearance in London August 10. On the day she passed away, I did a deconstruction of my favorite moments of hers from Company. Watch

Last Thursday, I had John Rubinstein on "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," and I immediately asked him about his father, Arthur Rubinstein. For those who don't know, he was considered one best pianist in the world. Here he is playing one of my favorite pieces, Rachmaninoff Concerto number 2 in F Minor. 

Turns out, John was born when his dad was 60 years old! When John was a kid, he took piano lessons and his dad would have him perform for whoever happened to be visiting... AKA Bernstein, Stokowski and every single 20th-century classical music titan. Seriously! I asked John what these celebrities thought of his piano playing, and he said they enjoyed it as much as anyone who has to watch their friend's child perform for them. John felt he wasn't a great pianist but knew he was a good musician. He thinks now that he probably should have been a conductor. But one day when he was a teen, the famous conductor Stokowski heard him play the piano and suggested he play something from an orchestral score. Stokowski plopped down a giant score, with tons of staff lines and asked John to play it. (If you don't know, many of the instruments in an orchestral score are in different clefs, meaning you have the transpose them all as you play; the trumpet one step, the French horn five steps, the bass down the octave, etc.) John panicked and couldn't do it, and that's what scared him from ever being a conductor. He then decided he wanted to be an actor and didn't want to go to college. John's parents were completely against skipping school and took him their friend to talk sense into him.

Of course, in keeping with his childhood, their friend was none other than Sir Laurence Olivier. They all went out to eat and Arthur told Laurence that John intended to skip college and enter show business right away. He asked Laurence to give him some advice, AKA convince him to go to school. Well, instead of extolling the virtues of a good education, Sir Olivier instead turned to John and simply said, "Hit the streets, boy!" Backfire! Here's John telling that story

John was good friends with the late, great Barry Moss who recently passed away but spent many years as an incredibly succesful Broadway casting director. Back in the '60's, he wasn't a known casting director yet, but he did have the chutzpah you need to be successful. Barry thought John would be a great replacement for Joel Grey in Cabaret so he called Hal Prince's assistant and told her emphatically that John should have an audition. She immediately listened to him because of who he was. Actually, because of who he sort-of said he was. That's right, instead of clearly saying, "This is Barry Moss," he muttered his name a little so it sounded like "This is Barry Morse," who was a famous actor at the time! She knew that anyone Barry Morse recommended had to be good, so she called John and offered him an audition! John went in and got a call-back where he had to put on the creepy emcee make-up. After the call back, he received a letter from Hal Prince (how cool is that?) where he told John that he was the best person who auditioned (!), but he looked too young for the role.

John did wind up going to college after all (UCLA) and afterwards, he got a lead role in a film called "Zacharia" opposite Don Johnson. The same producers were working on the film version of Cabaret. John again asked to be the emcee but they told him they already cast Joel Grey. However, they told the director, Bob Fosse, about John so Bob asked to see him for Pippin. He came over to John's house in LA and they read through the script. The crazy part of the story happens after Fosse left. That night, as John and his wife were going to bed, they heard a knock on the bedroom door. John was about to continue with the story to me when I interrupted because I didn't understand why he didn't go into a full panic when he heard someone in his house! He explained that it was before people were scared all the time. Huh. I guess nothing scary ever happened pre-1972.

Anyhoo, the bedroom door opened and it was Bob Fosse again. He came back to tell John to learn the Pippin music and come to the New York audition. Apparently, that information couldn't have been relayed on the phone the next day. Anyhoo, John showed up at the audition and there were hundreds of guys waiting to go in. Why? Because the audition call was "Any male between the ages of 18 and 35." No other specificity. John went in and sang... and Fosse offered him the part on the spot. I'm sure it was then wonderful to be one of the hundreds of people lined up to audition for a role that was already taken.

Anyhoo, John did the show for a few years and moved back to Los Angeles where he was offered a nice part on the TV show "Family." It was a seven-year contract and, unlike today, he told us that actors didn't want to be tied down to television. So, he passed. He then got a phone call from all the powerful people involved (including Mike Nichols!) asking him why he didn't want to do to role. He told them that he felt because he wasn't part of the immediate family, he'd only be in a few episodes per season and he wanted to do other work. They then promised him he'd be the lead story in every three episodes. But, he then explained, how could he do a film or a play if he had to go back and film every few weeks? They then offered to film all of his episodes in a row so he'd be free to do whatever he wanted after that. He then decided to push it and explained that he had started scoring films and wanted to continue doing that so they told him he could write the music for the TV show. Seriously! He said he's never, ever had a negotiation like that since. But that's how he got to play Jeff Maitland and write this theme song. He's starring right now in Pippin, but this time he's playing the dad, Charlemagne. He's leaving Broadway in a few weeks and doing it on tour, so go see him in NY or on the road.

This weekend I'm with Adam Pascal in Provincetown (tix at PtownArtHouse.com) and then next week I'm at the Woodlawn Theatre doing Deconstructing Broadway in San Antonio and, of course, every Tuesday I'm teaching my auditioning Master Class here in NYC! Watch my "5 Worst Audition Mistakes" videos here and sign up for the class here.

(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.)