ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: What Show Tune Did You Sing in High School?
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Ahhhh. I can relax a little. Last Monday I launched SethTV.com, I combining it with a benefit for the Chesapeake Bay Academy and there was a lot to do to get the show ready. Usually, when I do a benefit, I book the singers and have them sing a great song. Deliciously simple. This required all the performers to sing a song from a role they did in high school. But I knew that if they just sang the song as is, it would be enjoyable for 20 seconds and then become a live version of Ambien. So, every song had a concept attached and that's where the headachy-ness came in.
The first episode of my reality show is all about me doing a fundraiser — and how last-minute and panic-stricken I am throughout the whole process. Last Monday was no different. I was photocopying music up until the last minute and solidifying concepts up until "places" was called. But it all came together! The whole show began with Christine Pedi singing a song from her first show, Godspell, which she did at her all-girls high school. She gave us a sample of "Save the People" up the octave with the horrible soprano straight tone she used as a 15-year-old. After a few measures, she stopped and asked me who my ideal female cast would be and she then did her amazing imitations to create an all-star version of Godspell. She did Patti LuPone singing "Day By Day" and then Judy and Liza doing "All For The Best." It was perfect to have Liza do "Don't forget that when you get to Heaven you'll be blessed. Yes! It's all for the best!" She also did a hilarious version of Bette Davis doing the finale, which was simply a Bette line-reading on "Oh, God, I'm dying." Then "Oh, God. I'm dead."
Next up came Norbert Leo Butz. He told everyone that he was too embarrassed at first to do theatre in his school because he was a jock, so he would go to neighborhood all-girls schools and volunteer himself. He literally called it "making the rounds" because he rented himself out to so many of them. First he did his Harold Hill for us and sang a jazzed-up version of "The Sadder But Wiser Girl." So good! Before the concert, I asked him to sing "I'll Know" from Guys and Dolls (because he played Sky Masterson), and I emailed him to tell him that my friend Melissa agreed to sing it with him. When we began rehearsal, I brought Melissa onstage. He got so excited because he didn't realize that "my friend Melissa" was, in fact, Melissa Errico! He kept telling her that he had no idea she was doing it and that he was thrilled. Then, as soon as she sang her first note, he interrupted and said, "I can't believe I get to stand here and listen to you sing this!" My initial concept was to have Melissa tower over him because Norbert was an especially short leading man in high school. He actually still is, but he told me that people don't realize it when they've seen him in shows. He said that fans have met him and been shocked that he's only 5-feet-7-inches tall. They've told him "You looked so tall in Rent and Wicked." He said, "Yeah, that's because Daphne Rubin-Vega is really short and Kristin Chenoweth is even shorter. Of course I look like a giant next to someone who's 4-foot-10!"
When Norbert came to rehearsal he asked me if we could do his concept for the number. He based it on the fact that through many years of high school, he was a major stoner! Nowadays he never does anything of that nature, but back then his friends would say, "If weed were a woman, Norbert would marry it." Wowza! That night, Norbert told the audience that when he played Sky he was very method-y and found all these moments in the text that related to his pot addiction. He then sang the song as he did back then. And the crazy thing is, there actually are so many lines that relate pot! Sky says, "You've got this guy all figured out. Right down to what he smokes." Next, he actually tells Sarah: "You're talking about love. You can't dope it like that." Dope it like that? WTF? Norbert also added his own amazing touches. When he got to the lyric "And I'll stop. And I'll stare…" he added a hilarious stoned-style, staring-at-nothing moment for 15 seconds. And, of course, by the end, the two of them sounded so phenomenal together.
Next up was Christopher Jackson from In the Heights, who told us that his first onstage role was in Oliver! as The Artful Dodger. He was the only black kid in the show and sassily commented that casting him as a thief was racist. He gave us "Consider Yourself" once through, sung as he did as a kid (with a Cockney accent) and then he performed it as he would as an adult…R&B style. It sounded great and completely inappropriate.
Next, Corbin Bleu came onstage and sang a song from way back when he was in high school. Five years ago. I knew he had gone to a performing arts high school (with Fergie, FYI!) as well as attending Debbie Allen's dance school, so I asked him to do a song in which he could "bust a move." He did "I Can't Stand Still" and not only danced great, but his body looked amazing. I told him how in shape he looked and he said, "You should have seen me months ago," which I took to mean "I was so out of shape and I'm so proud of how far I've come." He actually meant, "You should have seen me months ago because I was in better shape." Hm. "Thank you" would have sufficed.
Susan Blackwell came onstage and told everyone that when she was in high school she was cast as Anita in West Side Story, causing her to "hit the tanning bed pretty hard and spray my blonde hair black with Halloween bullcr*p." She launched into "A Boy Like That" but spoke over every musical break and it was hilarious. At one point she informed us, "Because my high school was so small, they had to cast most of our gang members from the middle school. So, in the second act, when Anita nearly gets raped by the Jets, I was so much bigger than most of Jets, it looked like I could have easily raped them." At the beginning of the song, she told the audience that if they were shocked she played Anita, just wait 'til they find out who played Maria in another high school production. During the part where Anita sings "Just wait and see, just wait Maria! Just wait and see!" she sang "Just wait and see who played Maria, just wait and see!" and the audience suddenly heard a high soprano singing "Oh, No Anita no! Anita no!" sung by…Lisa Lampanelli! That's right! Lisa "sang" some more and then took a break to tell the audience that she went to high school in Connecticut, even though she is Italian, she was cast as the Puerto Rican Maria. She said, "That's because Italians are the Puerto Ricans of Connecticut." Brava!
Melissa Errico came back onstage and told us of the many roles she played at French Woods Summer Camp including the title role of Evita at age 11! Who was her Che, you ask? Why, it was that fiery Latino, Jason Robert Brown! Jason Roberto Brown?
Melissa's mom would always mail her costume pieces. Melissa remembers singing "Don't Cry For Me, Argentina" in her mother's nightgown. She asked, "Why? Was Evita supposed to have woken from bed?" Then she told us that she played the sexy, sexy role of Carlotta in Nine when she not very much older than the title age. Well, she was 14.
Finally, Mandy Gonzalez came out and told us about playing Maria as a teen in The Sound of Music. Her high school rehearsals consisted of her teacher plugging in a TV and playing the movie. The cast was told to copy what was onscreen. Seriously! Mandy played Elphaba last year in Wicked, so at the end of her rendition of "I Have Confidence" we immediately segued into "Defying Gravity" because the songs have a similar "I-still-got-it" attitude. She sounded so great on her soprano and then thrilling on her high crazy belting! And the whole thing was filmed and will be shown on SethTV.com so feel to sign up ASAP!
Right after the performers, I screened an episode one of my reality shows and it was so much fun to actually hear a whole crowd react to the show as opposed to just James.
In other news, does anyone have a sequel to my book they can lend me? Mine was due June 1. If not, peace out!
(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.)
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