ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Momentous Week
By Seth Rudetsky
The strike is over…and my show is closing. As Equity giveth, so it taketh away. The Ritz was supposed to close on Dec. 2, but we've been extended til Dec. 9, so at least I've got one more week of slinking around in a unitard, but it's not enough. Wah. Sad Face. COL ("Crying Out Loud"). Let me get my mind off of it by recapping a momentous week.
Monday night I saw back-to-back shows. Franc D'Ambrosia (the longest running Phantom) was at the Thalia Theater (in Symphony Space) and he sang up a storm. Three-quarters through the first act, he decided he needed a sip of water and someone brought it onstage for him. After he drank a little, he said it was the first time that he's ever had water onstage. What? His show is an hour-and-a-half long, and it's mostly singing! What is he? A camel with vibrato? How can he sing so much and never need to wet ye olde whistle?
Anyhoo, I immediately hightailed it with my boyfriend to see the wonderful Victoria (Vicki) Clark. A, she looked gorgeous, B, she sounded it. She sang all the songs from her new CD ("Fifteen Seconds of Grace") with an 11-piece-band. She said that everyone thought she would just use a piano/bass and drums, but she wanted it to sound like her album, so she got all her musicians to haul it to the beautiful Samuel Kaplan Penthouse. It was such a New York night to be surrounded by such a stunning view with NY celebs left and right and be inches away from such a glorious singer. The title song from her CD is beautiful/devastating to me. Then for her encore she did "Fable," and as soon as it began, my boyfriend had to pull me back because I was leaning all the way down my aisle to see if Kelli O'Hara would start crying at the beginning of the song or at the end. There was also something so sweet about seeing Ted Sperling play for Vicki because they went to college together and here they are, years later, both at the top of their careers, still working together as old friends.
On Tuesday, I got to interview Little Mermaid star Sherie Rene Scott for my radio show on Sirius. I asked her about the Rene, and she said she had to add it when she joined SAG because there was another Sherie Scott, but not in Equity. But then it got annoying having two professional names, so she kept the Rene. She grew up in Kansas and knew when she was very young that she wanted to be in New York. When the show Tommy was first performed, it played at The La Jolla Playhouse. When it transferred to Broadway, they kept the whole cast and only replaced the girl who played Sally Simpson. Sherie got the gig. Even though she was thrilled to make her Broadway debut, she said that it was incredibly difficult to walk into a rehearsal with a cast who all knew each other and was mourning the loss of a beloved cast member…and you were the person replacing that cast member. Fortunately, by the end of the day, they accepted her and she l-o-v-e-d that cast. That's where she met Norm Lewis, and now they're both The Little Mermaid. She said that her agent called her and said that they wanted to see her for Mermaid. Sherie said that she was firm with her agent and told her that she was sick of going in for roles that she was too old for. She said that she was a little long in the tooth and didn't look good enough in a bikini to play Ariel, and her agent said, "Stop before you go any further. It's for the sea witch." Sherie was mortified and wondered why she hadn't learned her lesson because a year before that embarrassing phone call her agent called and said she had an audition for the Broadway version of Mary Poppins. Sherie said, "I know you don't want to hear this, but I don't think I'm age appropriate to play Mary Poppins," and yet again her agent cut her off and said, "Don't go any further…it's for Mrs. Banks."
Sherie said that she went through three months of auditions for The Little Mermaid (not the title role). I asked her if she memorized the songs, and she said that it wasn't the kind of audition that she hated…where you go to a rehearsal room and sing for ten people behind a table. It was the kind where you go to someone's apartment and sing around their piano. How civilized! She said that her character has three songs, and the show has ten new songs! I can't wait to see it!
Thursday I interviewed Bernie Telsey, casting director extraordinaire, at the Chatterbox. Turns out, he began as an actor! He was Matthew Broderick's understudy in Brighton Beach Memoirs…out of town. He was replacing an understudy who got a TV show. It was explained that if the TV show wasn't picked up, the guy would come back and Bernie would be ixnayed. And that's what happened. Wah. Sad Face. COL. So Bernie never got to understudy it on Broadway.
I asked Bernie about casting Rent, and he said when he got the demo tape of the show (with songs sung by Jonathan Larson), he asked the NY Theater Workshop if they'd consider not doing it! Before you think he has no taste whatsoever, let me just say that everyone I've interviewed who was in that original cast said that the demo sounded horrible because even though Larson was a genius writer, his singing on the demo was not up to snuff. Taye Diggs was the first person they cast in the show (coming right from Lincoln Center's Carousel), and the hard role to cast was turning out to be Roger. Bernie finally had one of his people comb the Village Voice for those ads where people offer rock 'n roll voice lessons, and they asked the teachers to send in any of their students who were interested. Bernie said that the next day, the lobby was filled with a mélange of kooky looking people…and Adam Pascal. They prayed he could sing...and he was amazing (even though he couldn't perform with his eyes open…rock star style). Thank goodness everyone loved him, and Adam got the gig.
I told Bernie that so many actors think that they "blew" an audition and asked him what he considers to be a bad audition. Bernie said it's when an actor isn't prepared — when they don't understand what the role is or don't know their material. Obviously, one sometimes gets material the last minute and you can't know it well, but you still have to be on your gig. I informed him that actors are not fond of casting directors because we think that casting directors are keeping us out of auditions, but he said that he'll usually always bring someone in if the agent or actor is passionate about being seen. He actually hopes that every actor that comes in gets the part which, FYI, is a nice thing to know when you're feeling nervous walking in the room. He then ended the show by showing a video of himself from his acting days playing a nasty gossip columnist on "The Guiding Light" and a hilarious commercial he did where he played a priest. I vaguely remembered seeing it. He was nervous that the food he was eating was so delicious, it was sinful. The tag line was "So delicious, it has to be a sin." All I can say is, a Jew from Long Island playing a priest? That has to be a sin.
All right, on to the big show. Around a week ago, I got a call from Jeffrey Seller telling me that when the strike ended, there was gonna be a big celebration. He asked for some song suggestions that said Broadway and Xmas, and we talked about "There's No Business Like Show Business" and "We Need A Little Christmas." I begged him not to do one of those events where everyone stands onstage and sings in unison. "Get some amazing stars," I pleaded. "Like Bernadette or Angela Lansbury." He said that Bernadette was a great idea, but Angela wouldn't happen because she lived in L.A. A few days later, he called back to tell me that Bernadette said yes, and I remembered that Angela had just seen The Ritz and was therefore in NYC. He called her and she said yes! He then asked me if I would conduct the orchestra! Of course, I said yes, and asked how many strings would be in the pit. Jeffrey didn't know what theatre we were using, and he finally got back to me and said it would be at the Marriott Marquis, and they didn't use any strings in that pit. I said that we had to have them… and he totally agreed! Phew! I would have hated to go on strike during the end-of-the-strike celebration.
The first amazing thing was that I got to have a private rehearsal with Angela Lansbury. She didn't have any handlers with her, no assistants…just her. And, of course, my boyfriend begged to be there. She first thought that the song should be one step down….but after singing it through, she said that we should try it in the original key…and she sounded great! It was like hearing the record I listened to obsessively…but live and right next to me! I asked her if she ever thought of doing an act (can you imagine the stories she has?), and she said that she can only sing as a character, not as herself. I began to fantasize about her coming back to Broadway in a musical. Can you imagine how thrilling that would be? She's still got it!
This all happened last minute (late Thursday afternoon for a Friday show), and the people in The Producing Office literally worked til three in the morning getting everything together. I showed up Friday, and there were a ton of Broadway people on the Drowsy Chaperone set, and I had the delicious orchestra in the pit. I went onstage to teach the two songs because there were new lyrics by Avenue Q's co-lyricist/composer, Bobby Lopez. The end of "There's No Business Like Show Business" was a brava: "But now we're back in business and we're feelin' good/'Cause Broadway's doing what Broadway should/If only we could say the same for Hollywood!/Let's go on with the show!"
Bob Martin hosted the show as the character Man in Chair from The Drowsy Chaperone. He talked about how hard the strike was on him. "I mean, how many times can a single middle-aged man see How the Grinch Stole Christmas? Once. Once is the answer. And even then, the ushers keep a pretty close eye on you."
Then he moved toward the refrigerator and asked the audience, "Can I offer you a soda? Or as they say in Canada, 'Can I offer you a soda?" There's actually not much difference between us and our pacifist neighbors to the North. Well… I guess the pacifism." He had trouble opening the fridge and asked for help...and out walked two stagehands. The audience loved it and then they all opened the fridge and Bernadette Peters walked out…looking in her early thirties. Has she aged since Mack and Mabel? She sang the beginning of "Show Business" (sounding amazing…including at the 10 AM sound check). Bob Martin said he loved it…but was hoping for "Anything You can Do"…but since they're from the same album, he was okay with it. Then Bernadette opened up the fridge and someone representing (almost) every Broadway show paraded out…in full costume. It was a spectacular image that should be re-created somewhere….Tony Awards anyone?
By the way, Bernadette brought her own conductor, Marvin Laird, to conduct her solo section of "Show Business…," and I asked Marvin how long he'd been working with her. Turns out he met her on Gypsy — not the one she did in 2003 — the one in the early 60's! Bernadette was the Agnes understudy. That's a long working relationship. Brava to both of them. Marvin wrote the hilarious musical Ruthless, which gave Britney Spears her Equity card (she was Laura Bell Bundy's understudy), and he also wrote for Siegfried and Roy in Vegas! He told me that the first time he went over to their house, they were swimming in a pool with a bunch of tigers. I thought he meant that the tigers were roaming around the pool area, but he said that the tigers were swimming in the pool with them!
Everyone sang "Show Business," and then Bob heard another knock. He was annoyed and it wound up being his neighbor…Bob Saget, also dressed as Man in Chair. Saget said that he heard music coming from the apartment and wanted to borrow Bob Martin's record of Gypsy. Bob Martin said, "You just can't go to somebody's apartment and ask for their recording of Gypsy…without specifying which one! Merman? Tyne Daly? Angela Lansbury? I also have a bootleg of Linda Lavin." Bob Saget asked for the Lansbury one, and Bob Martin got the album out of his bookshelf. The album he was holding was obviously not Gypsy because no one had thought to put the real record on the set, so Bob ad libbed "I keep it in a Dean Martin Album cover" and shuffled Bob Saget out.
Then another knock…and in walked Angela Lansbury, which garnered an immediate, spontaneous standing ovation. C'mon people! Anyone Can Whistle, Mame, Dear World, Gypsy, Sweeney Todd…history! She led everyone singing "We Need a Little Christmas," and I couldn't believe the seat I had. I mean, it wasn't a seat, but when you're conducting a show, you're so close to the actors onstage it's like being in a special front row. It was thrilling! I'm so glad that it's been preserved on video online, and we've been playing it non-stop on Sirius.
Okay, this week I'm performing in that super fun benefit that The Transport Group does every year. It's called Gimme a Break, and Broadway folk talk about and then demonstrate how they got their first break. I'm talking about how I turned "Deconstructing 'The Brady Bunch Variety Hour'" into a career. I'll write next week..after my final performance. Wah. COL.
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