ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Laughter Is the Best Medicine

By Seth Rudetsky
December 15, 2008

Attention, all Texans!

I will be in Dallas next Saturday doing a musical theatre workshop at the Watertower Theater. If "y'all" want to come, go to watertowertheatre.org.

Let me first talk about the fun stuff from last week. Monday and Tuesday was the 20th annual Gypsy of the Year competition, and I had an amazing time hosting it. Right before the show began, I saw Harvey Evans. Every time I see him, he tells me that he's retired, and then I see him kickin' up his heels at another gig. Last year, after I lamented him stopping his sassy singing/dancing, he was totally featured dancing around Central Park in the film "Enchanted" and then doing the same number on the Oscars. Of course, his recent version of retiring was standing backstage, waiting to star in the opening number. Essentially, he's had more farewell tours than Cher. At this point he needs to acknowledge that he is the perpetual Gypsy of the Year…he'll never stop gigging!

After the opening, Tyne Daly and Jonathan Hadary took the stage and told the audience that they were the first hosts of Gypsy of the Year 20 years ago…right after they opened in Gypsy. They remembered someone from the Phantom company doing an anatomically correct "Dance of the Seven Veils" and, as Tyne put it, "every time you thought it was over, off came another veil." After that, Jonathan said, BC/EFA started to screen the acts before they went onstage. They then introduced me, and I came out and chitty-chatted with them. I asked Jonathan why he was bald in a recent photo I saw, but now sported a full head of hair. Is he the Ted Danson of Broadway? He said that he played a role a few months ago where the character was supposed to be bald, and Tyne advised him to shave his head because she felt he would hate wearing a wig cap all summer. Tyne was advising from her own experience because when she turned 50, she wanted to begin what she called the second half of life the way she began the first half…completely hairless. And, so she shaved every hair on her body…except her eyebrows. Jonathan took her advice, but it backfired because he got a review saying that he was wearing the worst bald cap ever made. God made his bald cap! I then mentioned to Tyne that since the musical Gypsy is constantly revived, we should probably assume that it will come back again in a few years and, by the law of averages, someone sitting in the audience will probably be playing Mama Rose. Any tips? She turned out, glared and advised, "She is not a monster!" and stormed off. She's still got it.

Daniel Radcliffe (Harry Potter!) was there and is such a fan of musical theatre. He was watching the opening number rehearse and stood there with his eyes wide in awe, mouth hanging open. Before he went on for the Equus sketch, he was standing backstage, shirtless, next to me. This time, I was standing with my eyes wide in awe, mouth hanging open.

Tyne Daly, Seth Rudetsky and Jonathan Hadary
photo by Lindsay Lavin
Onstage I did my signature deconstructing bit where I compare Patti LuPone's amazing modulation in "Rainbow High" to Madonna singing the same thing in the film version, and Daniel told me that his father saw me on Monday and went home that night and kept playing each version back and forth. Yes! I appeal across the pond! I also deconstructed how Friedrich in the original production of Sound of Music sang the "la" in "Do Re Mi" and couldn't belt it, so he did it in a headache-y head voice. Later on, Christine Baranski passed me backstage and muttered, "You're right, you know. About that 'la.' It always bothered me." Yes! I do appeal to Tony winners!

At the end of the show, the cast of [title of show] did a brilliant piece about the first Broadway show Susan Blackwell saw and the first one that Hunter Bell saw. One of my favorite moments in it was when Susan described her show with its signature tag line: "Angels in America…a gay fantasia on national themes." And, then Hunter revealed what show he saw: "Annie…a Gay Fantasia on National Themes."

All in all, the show was thrilling, and I was so excited and proud to be asked to host...and the whole thing raised $3.5 million. Yay, Broadway!!!!

On Wednesday, I interviewed Greg Jbara from Billy Elliot—The Musical at my Sirius XM Live on Broadway show. We've known each other since we did Forever Plaid together on a national tour…and by "national tour," I mean Baltimore and San Diego. Anyhoo, he's playing the dad now in Billy Elliot and loving it. He had moved to L.A. and said he wouldn't be doing New York theatre because his kids go to school there, and it's too hard to take them out…but then the writer's strike happened, and he was living off his savings, and they asked him to audition for Billy Elliot. He loved auditioning for Stephen Daldry because Stephen spent so much time with him, having him try scenes all different ways. At one point, he's supposed to discover Billy in a ballet class and pull him out of it, and Stephen asked him to imagine himself showing up at the class and all the little ballet girls were holding Uzis. That image was to help Greg feel that the girls were actually dangerous, but I could get the same feeling by just imagining a line of Young Cosette wannabes at an open call: ten-year-old girls holding Uzis are not as scary as ten-year-old girls holding 16 bars of "Castle on a Cloud."

Greg is loving the show, except that recently the giant puppet of Maggie Thatcher that flies in during the opening of Act Two got stuck on the stage. So, during his big, dramatic number that followed, he was totally upstaged by an oversized Maggie Thatcher being slowly lowered and hauled off the stage by the crew. He said he can usually see audience members wiping tears from their eyes, but instead he saw rows of them pointing and laughing. And, that's the fun of live theatre…and by "fun" I mean humiliation.

Also, at my Sirius/XM show was my Saturday radio co-host, Christine Pedi, who's currently doing her show, Christine Pedi's Holly Jolly Christmas Folly at the Laurie Beechman room (see ChristinePedi.com for deets). I asked her about the amazing imitation of Elaine Stritch she did in Forbidden Broadway sung to "Zip" from Pal Joey: Stritch! / All my co-stars yell out "Put on your shoes" / Stritch! / "Who the hell drank all the booze?"

Christine did that song in a performance of Nothin' Like a Dame and Elaine was going to appear onstage after the number and bust her. Christine was called to Stritch's dressing room to discuss how it should be done. (In Stritch's voice): "Christine! After the number, I want to take a long bow to the right, a long bow to the center and long bow to the left. Then go to exit stage right and I'll be there. I'll stand nose-to-nose with you and back you into the wing." Well, Chris did the number, did the bows and went to exit…but Stritch wasn't there. What to do? She just decided to keep exiting. She kept walking, and Stritch didn't appear! When Christine was one inch from walking into the wing, Stritch appeared. So, now instead of backing her across half the stage, Stritch set it up so she was able to back Christine across the whole entire stage. Christine was walking backwards and nervous she'd back into the pit. Christine demonstrated for us how Stritch helped her by muttering sotto voce, (in Stritch voice), "That's it…a little to the left...that's right….don't veer…" all under her breath while maintaining a glaring face. Hilarious juxtaposition. Christine just got a great NY Times review, so get thee to her show!

On Thursday, I interviewed Haydn Gywnne who plays the dance teacher in Billy Elliot. Turns out, she didn't think she'd ever pursue acting and worked as a teacher in Italy. Finally, she acknowledged she wanted to be a performer and moved back to England to give it a try. She got into a theatre school, but right before she began, got cast by Alan Ayckbourn in his company. She then made her musical theatre debut in Ziegfeld, one of the West End's notorious flops, directed by Joe Layton. I asked for a scandalous story, and she said I'd have to take her out and get her drunk for details. Since I'm not in the habit of getting ladies drunk to get my way, I segued to her first hit musical, City of Angels. She was the sassy secretary in the London debut and got to sing "You Can Always Count on Me." The show got amazing reviews, but didn't hit it off with the public and therefore closed very quickly. What's annoying is that it won the Best Musical Olivier Award, which would have helped ticket sales tremendously, but it opened right after the deadline for that year's awards, so it didn't win until almost a year after it closed. That and a nickel will get you on the subway. Or should I say, that and a ha'penny will get you on the Tube. She got a lot of work on television (or "telly" as she called it), and I didn't understand how that was possible since I thought there's only one channel in England. I asked and didn't get a straight answer. Regardless, she tried out for Billy Elliot using her song from City of Angels. Then they asked her if she could dance. She told us she couldn't decide whether to act British and say she couldn't dance at all, or be what she called American, and claim she was an amazing dancer. She finally told them that she didn't have training, but picked up steps very well. The choreographer took her out of the room, and she mentally prepared herself for a vigorous dance call. He asked her to do something like "Walk, walk, touch" and then took her back to the audition room and told the rest of the creative team that she passed. Wow. Maybe the original concept for the dance teacher was more along the "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane" type, aka sitting in a wheelchair. Anyhoo, she got the gig and loved doing it. She heard that it might move to Broadway and was interested in doing it, but didn't want to appear too eager. "I finally asked Stephen… but I was incredibly British about it, so I said something along the lines of, 'If this goes to Broadway, would I be wrong in assuming I might be considered for the role or would I not?" He gave her a firm but friendly, "No"… but because of the British double talk in her question, she didn't know if he was saying she was wrong in assuming she would go or wrong in assuming that she would not go. She didn't find out she was going to Broadway until a few weeks before rehearsals began!

At one point during the interview, I was showing some video from the show that featured one of the young Billy Elliots doing some crazy ballet steps, and I coyly asked her if I was too old to play Billy. She gave me a firm but un-friendly, "Yes"…and then followed it with "But you're not too tall." Brava on the sass!

Okay, here's the depressing part of this week. James said I should call this column "A Very Special Episode." I'm writing this from Houston because a couple of days ago, James' mom discovered that she has uterine cancer. It was completely unexpected. She had been getting all of her regular check-ups but something was missed and it got very advanced. As hard as this has been for all of us throughout this ordeal, lots of hilarious things have happened. The day we heard the diagnosis, we were on our way to see an apartment. I quickly called the realtor and had this conversation:

SETH: Hi. I'm sorry about the last-minute notice, but we can't come today. James' mom just discovered that she has cancer (now crying), and we're both trying to figure out what to do. We just got the call a few minutes ago.
REALTOR: What?
SETH: Oh. Um….well, we can't come today because James' mom found out that she has cancer (crying again). We have to cancel because we've got to go back to our apartment and —
REALTOR: What?
SETH: Did you hear what I said?
REALTOR: Most of it.
SETH: OK. So, like I said, we're going home to figure out what to do.
REALTOR: So…do you wanna see it tomorrow?
SETH: Um…I don't know.
REALTOR: Because it's really a great space.
SETH: We'll get back to you!

I assumed he didn't hear the cancer part and just the canceling part, but then got an email saying he was sorry she had cancer, but we should definitely get the apartment. What was he saying "what" to?!?! Why is he crazy?

Okay, that was craziness number one. Next. When his mom was visiting for Thanksgiving, she saw a hat on my wall that my high school friend Kevin Gerber made for his store. Kevin has his own hat line (Kevin Todd), and one day Liza Minnelli came into the store and bought one. He had her autograph one of the ones in his store and then gave it to me because he knew I'd appreciate it more than he. James' mom saw it hanging on my wall and admired it, so I decided to bring it to Houston to give to her, but because I didn't want it to get crushed, I decided to wear it to the airport… even though I looked crazy. I figured I wouldn't run into anybody on my way to pick up Juli from school to catch our flight. Of course, a half block from my apartment I hear, "Seth!" That's right…It was David Hyde Pierce running across the street to tell me how much he enjoyed Gypsy of the Year. He saw the hat and said, "I didn't know you were orthodox." Oy. I then ran to the school and immediately told Juli how great she'd look in the hat and promptly put it on her. When I arrived in the hospital bearing my gift, Elizabeth (James' mom) was shocked I would give it away and asked me, "Are you just giving this to me because you know I'm dying and you'll get it back soon?" Still sassy. She has to get radiation and chemo, so we're now going to jumpstart our apartment search so she can move in with us and get her treatment at Sloan Kettering.

The next crazy thing that happened was James and I got a hotel to stay in for the night, and when we approached our room, it looked like the light was on. Did the maid clean it and forget to turn it off? James opened the door…to a room already occupied. Yay. Thankfully, the occupants weren't in bed with a shotgun aimed towards us (it is Houston, after all). We got the key to another room and at 5AM I heard loud running right outside our room and then "Don't Move!!!" followed by a weak, "I'm not moving." It sounded like a woman was being arrested outside our door. Then for 20 minutes I heard "Ow! I can't breathe! Too tight!" I suddenly thought, what if she's not being arrested but being kidnapped? Of course, selfish-style, I fell back to sleep. Then, at 7 AM, someone banged on our door. "Who is it?" we called. More banging…then silence. We called James' mom, who said that our hotel was a notorious "cat house." What's happening? We literally checked into "The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas?" The front desk told us that the woman arrested was roaming through the parking lot, trying all the car door handles and was finally caught by the police. That info was followed with, "She must have been on some good stuff because they had to hog tie her to get her into the car." And cut! We got our money back.

I'm on my way back to New York to do my Sirius Wednesday talk show with Forbidden Broadway cast and Raul Esparza, and then I'm gonna meet up with James in Dallas to do my workshop and then come back to Houston for the holidays. I will keep everybody updated next week. And, not to end with an old chestnut, but…hug someone you love today!

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(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.)