ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Ritz in Retrospect
By 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."
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.
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!
Danny Burstein talked about one of his first gigs when he met Tony Randall. Danny told Tony that he wanted to teach one day and Tony said, "What would you say is the most important thing to teach about acting?" Danny said, "Reacting." Tony said, "Ah…it is listening!" Danny said that listening is part of reacting and Tony said, "Don't contradict me you *#$%!!" This was not said angrily…it was said with a dry Tony Randall line reading. He then said, "It takes ten years to learn how to listen correctly." Uh-oh. I better start soon! Tony said that he was thinking of starting an acting company in New York and Danny told him that he'd love to do it if it ever happened. Years later Tony called Danny and invited him to be in his National Actors Theater and that was his Broadway debut!
The whole benefit honored Michael Patrick King who was the executive producer/director of "Sex and the City" (he's now directing the movie) and "The Comeback" (with which I am obsessed!). Michael talked about theatre people versus television/film people and how there is so much financial reward in TV/film. He said that theatre people's rewards are always emotional and spiritual (as opposed to financial) and unfortunately they turn that against themselves and feel that they're doing something wrong. I really loved hearing that. Why do some people consider an actor more successful for having a role on a headache-y sitcom as opposed to doing a brilliant show for low buckage? I remembered turning down an audition for a TV show that I probably would have gotten last year so I could do Torch Song Trilogy at the Gallery Players in Brooklyn and get paid in train fare…but I don't regret it! It was amazing for me!
This week at the Chatterbox I interviewed the incomparable Rosie Perez. She was hy-sterical! What a story teller...and what a life! She grew up in Brooklyn and always wanted to be the next Jacques Cousteau (who knew?). She was studying biology in college but, because of her sassy dancing in clubs, she started getting hired to choreograph major hip hop stars. One night she was at a club and saw Spike Lee having a "big butt" contest onstage. She was so annoyed, she got onstage and started making fun of it and the club owners went to throw her out! Spike intervened and said it was meant to be that they met and told her to call him to be in his next film! She had only done one play at her Catholic school and never thought of being an actress but she showed up to audition for the casting person, who immediately asked her if she had a monologue. Huh? She certainly didn't. The casting person told her to make one up about the character. Rosie asked for a description. "Well," the casting person said, "she's a poor Puerto Rican, on welfare, with kids and — " "OK!" Rosie cut her off because she didn't need to hear anymore, she knew exactly who that was. Rosie started talking as the character, basing her on her aunt…but was so nervous that she started crying. Uh-oh! She thought fast and feigned that it was part of her monologue, holding her imaginary baby closer…telling him it would be all right. She got the part in 'White Men Can't Jump,' filmed it and went back to working as a choreographer. People were annoyed that she was late sometimes for rehearsals, so the record company got her a driver. An intern named…Sean "Puffy" Combs!!!! He was her driver and he'd always tell her to watch out because he was going places. Apparently to the Royale theatre to star in A Raisin in the Sun.
Rosie then got a job choreographing the fly girls for the TV show, "In Living Color." She wanted to cast Jennifer Lopez but Marlon Wayans wanted another girl who was then fired two weeks later. Marlon still said no to Jennifer, so Rosie put her job on the line to give her the gig because she knew that even though Jennifer wasn't a great dancer, she had incredible star quality. She was right! (Although…"Gigli"? Anybody?)
Rosie really wanted a role in "Fearless" but couldn't get an audition (even though she had done two films at that point!). Her agents said that her only option was to go to an open call, so she did. She remembers that her number was 83. She was waiting so long that she drank too much coffee and as soon as she walked in the room with the director she got "Montezuma's revenge." She asked where the bathroom was and found out that it was right in the room….separated with only swinging French doors. She was mortified. "I ran the water, I sang… I did everything I could to create some noise." She was so devastated that she started crying. Finally, she got herself together, walked out and the director, Peter Weir, said, "Ah! Now you look perfect!" She hadn't done anything but cry and have an incredibly upset stomach but the casting director looked at her as if to say "Go along with it" and Rosie thanked Peter for noticing how she changed her look. The role was of a Catholic woman whose baby is killed in a plane crash. He asked Rosie to pray and say the "Our Father," so she said it like you do if you've done it your whole life in Catholic School…incredibly fast. After the audition, her agent called her and said, "I don't know what you did, but the director loved you!" She found out that she was the only auditioner who prayed like a real person. Everyone else prayed like they were in a movie. Rosie got the gig…and an Oscar nomination. This is yet another example of someone feeling that they're right for a role and not giving up til they get it! Brava, Senorita Perez!
OK…back to The Ritz. I was thinking about what I will miss. I loved showing up and seeing my friends in the dressing room. We had so many stupid running jokes that made me laugh. Jeffrey Thomas who played the "snooty patron" always accused me of trying to sabotage him when I would give him advice about how to sing his song in the talent contest. He first started calling me "Sabotina," then changed it "SaboTina Yothers." "Family Ties"? Anybody?
Also, there's something so nice about doing something during the day and suddenly thinking, "Wow! In so-and-so hours, I'll be on Broadway!" It was a delicious constant in my life and something to always look forward to. And I'll miss the bizarre rituals. Rosie asked me to remind her that she had to unstrap her shoe in the middle of the medley so it would fly off when she kicked. So, right at the end of scene one, we'd see each other in back of the bathhouse set and I'd say a rhyme to help her remember: (pointing to myself) "I'm a Jew, (Pointing to her strap) don't forget your shoe." This turned into me just pointing to her strap saying "shoe" and her pointing to me saying "Jew." Then after a month we graduated to just pointing at each other without saying anything. And finally, the last eight weeks it became a contest to see who would point first. I'd sneak around the corner of the set before my first entrance and find her getting her wig adjusted with her finger already pointing at me. The only times I won were when she was distracted by talking to Lucas Near-Verbrugghe or when I once did my quick change super fast and got to the back of the bathhouse before her. It sounds moronic but it became an important part of my night!
Ah, well…I'm sad to see the show go, but so happy I got to make my Broadway debut in such a great company of actors doing such an incredibly fun show. I'll always remember the image of the company bows on the last show. While we were dancing our curtain call to Donna Summer's "Last Dance" Kevin Chamberlin turned around and there were tears streaming down his face. If a veteran like that can be devastated, so can I!
OK…this week I'm psyched to see the Actors Fund performance of Mary Poppins and my friend Anika Larsen starring in her new theatre company's (JARADOA) production of Serenade. Hopefully, that will get my mind off the closing so I don't spend each night in my apartment putting on my unitard while trying to recreate what has ended…and, quite frankly, considering the way I look in said unitard, what never should have been!
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