ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Texas to Disaster!
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
I'm on a flight home from Houston because I was down here for a big high school/college theatre festival called TheatreFest 2012, a project of Texas Educational Theatre Association. They take theatre seriously in Texas. A local woman told me (in full Texas twang) "It's football, cheerleading, then theatre." Brian Stokes Mitchell was supposed to perform the first night, but he suddenly got strep throat. So, at the last minute, Donna McKechnie flew down and did a fantastic interview with David Michaels (I know him from his producing of West Coast Actors Fund events). The kids went crazy for Donna, especially when she ended by performing "The Music and the Mirror." She's still got it!
On Saturday morning, I did a reading of my new book ("My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan") at the Blue Willow Bookstore and it was so fun! The book existed for years only on my computer, and now, suddenly, people are reading it and writing to me about it. I love the fact that even though it's considered a "young adult" book, so many adults are reading it. I'm telling anyone who loved my earlier novel "Broadway Nights" to get "Awesome/Awful" because it's essentially a prequel. The leading character is pretty much exactly the same, just 20 years younger. They don't actually have the same name, but apparently I'm only capable of writing one lead character (neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight Jew) and I'll stick him into whatever genre I'm writing. Next up: A science fiction book featuring a neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight Jewish scientist. Then a period romance featuring a neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight country squire.
On Saturday, I also did Deconstructing Broadway for the festival. Before I performed, David Michaels interviewed Alice Ripley. He talked about her show-stopping performance as Amy at the Kennedy Center production of Company. When she was first working on "Getting Married Today," she was doing very over-the-top Carol Burnett-style physical comedy including hanging from the set and singing a whole verse upside down. She happened to try out that staging at a rehearsal attended by Stephen Sondheim. Afterwards, he told her simply: "Don't do that…just sing the song." Alice was happy to get that advice. Just hearing the story gave me an anxiety attack. She also felt that she did the right thing by going so far in rehearsal. She feels you have to go all the way in one direction to know what it's like — and then you can tone it down. Because you've had the experience of pushing it, it adds to your performance. She remembered doing Side Show and having her director, Bobby Longbottom, come backstage and tell her that her big second-act solo had to be cut. He was, literally, on his knees (!) apologizing. She, however, was thrilled. "Are you kidding me? Thank you! One less difficult song to sing!" But, because she had the experience of singing the song during previews, she could add that experience to her character's journey. She also told the students to always have some sort of creative outlet. While she was playing Diana in Next to Normal, she began to focus on playing the guitar in her spare time to bring her back to herself. She then performed a song from Next to Normal on the guitar, but it was one of the husband's songs. She told us that singing it really helped her see his perspective in the story. Then she sang a song she wrote that's coming out as an iTunes single on Valentine's Day, and the crowd went wild. Visit her website for deets!
Drew and I met to discuss various plot elements, but we're both Pisces and there was a lot of procrastination and dreaminess. Plus, he was working a full time job and we were on opposite schedules. Cut to: It's mid-February and I'm in Palm Springs playing for Audra McDonald at a fancy benefit for Desert AIDS. They gave me a great hotel room so I invited one of my best friends, Jack Plotnick, to stay with me. He loves being creative, so he asked if he could brainstorm the show with me. I was telling him various ideas and he was loving them. Then I told him the show was scheduled to happen in three months. He had a panic attack and forced open my computer so something could actually be written. We became a team. By April, Jack and I had written the show, with Drew adding extra hilarious material. Then I began casting. I wanted to replicate another aspect of Charles Busch and decided to surround myself with friends onstage, so I called/emailed/texted people I've known forever and asked to play different parts. All the roles are archetype disaster-movie roles. To name a few, I was able to get Anika Larsen (who I've known since she was doing Zanna, Don't and I was doing Rhapsody in Seth) to play Sister Mary Downy, the nun with the gambling addiction; Kathy Fitzgerald (who I met when we were both doing The Producers) to play Shirley Summers, the older lady with the heart condition; and Lauren Kennedy (who I've known since I interviewed her right after she understudied in Side Show) to play Jackie Sylvestri, the lounge singer who has terrible taste in unavailable men. And, a la Charles Busch, I gave myself a great part! That's right, I cast myself as Professor Scheider, the disaster expert. For director-choreographer, I asked Denis Jones. I first met Denis when he was in the ensemble of Grease! and I was playing in the pit. He danced in tons of Easter Bonnet opening numbers that I wrote, and also danced in my 2001 Dreamgirls benefit concert. Plus he came to my mom's house on Long Island for Thanksgiving. Of course, he was dancing back then so he just had non-stop coffee and three cigarettes, but it was still a festive meal.
In November, I went out to lunch with James and was complaining about having to take the show to a regional theatre when he suddenly pointed across the street: Yes, the theatre where I first saw Forbidden Broadway and then did Forever Plaid would be perfect for Disaster! I called my manager Orin Wolf, who also produces, and he agreed to help us get the show going.
We began rehearsals on Jan. 16 and I have never felt more like I was in a Mickey-and-Judy film. Jack told me a theory that when you try to put something creative out into the universe, every day something will try to stop it. BOY was he right. Among the obstacles: we got news that we suddenly needed thousands of dollars we didn't know we needed. And we had to get approval from various unions or we'd have to shut down. That sort of thing. It's been crazy. Yet, so much fun. First of all, we're doing a show in a theatre that seemed crazily cramped with a four person cast, yet we're a 15-person cast! We're doing full production numbers so close to the audience that if I didn't have such an awful extension, I'd kick someone in the teeth. And we not only have everyone on stage performing, we also have a full rock band. Now I know what my Grandmother felt like in steerage when she came here from Russia.
Last week, we started rehearsals on Monday and did our dress/tech (and first run-through) on Sunday afternoon, leading up to the 7 PM curtain. Suddenly, in the middle of Act Two, we found out that we hadn't properly timed the tech and we had to leave the stage so the theatre could set up and prepped for an audience. Not only had we never, ever run the show, but we had never done the last 20 pages of Act Two with any props, costumes, band, etc. While we were backstage waiting to go on, Kathy Fitzgerald tried to cheer us up by saying, "It's like summer stock. You know, where you put up an enormous show in 10 days!" Lauren responded simply, "But we didn't have ten days." Ouch.
Well, the show went so well. I watched the audience while we were doing the finale ("Hooked on a Feeling") and was terrified that I might see a sea of blank faces. But even though our first show ran long, they were all smiling. We hadn't "lost them" as we say in the "desperate-to-get-approval" business.
We're only playing 'til the end of February. For more information, visit www.DisasterMusical.com. Come see every disaster that rocked your local movie screen in the 1970s, and hear every song that you danced/cried/made-out to in the 1970s! And my horrible, unflattering '70s hairstyle!
(Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can be contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.)
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