ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Faith Prince, Lea DeLaria, Jerome Robbins and a Duck

By Seth Rudetsky
July 30, 2012

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.



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I can't believe it's about to be August! That means it's less than three months until a big event on Broadway that I'm involved with…but can't announce quite yet. Let me start this week's column with last Wednesday, July 25, when I did "Seth Speaks" with Lea DeLaria, who was a hilarious guest. She told us that she began doing stand-up in San Francisco in the '80s and her stage name was simply "Big Fat Dyke." She wound up being a hit but had to get rid of the stage name and go back to being Lea DeLaria because when she'd walk down the street people would yell from their cars, "Big Fat Dyke!!!" She didn't know if they were fans or if they were harassing her. In the late '90s, she flew in from California when she was asked to audition for On the Town — and she got the role of Hildy, the brash cab driver. She only had experience doing TV and film so when they started dress rehearsals she told someone, "I can't wait to see what the make-up person does with my make-up!" She then found out that Broadway ain't like TV, and the make-up person's name was Lea DeLaria. The show opened in Central Park and she and her manager hiked it down to the New York Times building at 2 AM to get the review on the night it came out. Lea said she started reading the first paragraph and saw that it was about her. Then the second. Then the third. At this point she sat on the sidewalk to keep reading. There were seven paragraphs lauding her! Here it is. Soon, "I Can Cook, Too!" became her signature song and she was asked to sing it at many events, including the big Leading Ladies concert at Carnegie Hall. Lea was freaked out to be performing with so many big stars until she saw Audra McDonald backstage. Audra walked by and told Lea that she was a nervous wreck. Lea then thought, "If a Tony winner is nervous, then it's OK that I'm nervous," and that made her calm down. I remember that night because I played for Audra! She did a version of "Down With Love," the climax of which I arranged. We first ripped off the Barbra Streisand version of the song but changed the middle where Barbra mocks a medley of love songs. Instead, we interpolated a medley of Barbra's love songs to mock and then at the end I added a shout-out to the love song Audra sang when she won her first Tony. She was a brava! Watch! Lea then went on and sassed her song. Andrea McArdle was standing backstage listening to Lea bring the house down and when she came on to sing, she complained about having to follow something so fabulous. She then passed Lea backstage and Lea introduced herself. Andrea stared and said, "You're Lea?" Lea said, "Yeah." Andrea then said, "I thought you were black!" Speaking of Andrea and Lea, they're both performing tonight at 54 Below!

And speaking of Audra, Lea said she knew she had to share a dressing room at Carnegie Hall with one of the other ladies and hoped it was with Audra. Because she's a fan? Lea said, "No, because she's HOT!" Lea's wishes weren't exactly granted. She didn't get to share a dressing room with Audra, but she did get to share one with another great lady of the theatre, but one who is perhaps not as "hot": Elaine Stritch.

Seth with Varla Jean Merman and Faith Prince
Speaking of dressing rooms…on Thursday I flew up to Provincetown and did two shows with the fabulous Faith Prince as part of the Broadway Series at the Art House. We used the same dressing the Jeff Roberson (AKA Varla Jean Merman) uses to get ready for his/her show. The subject of the Off-Broadway musical Lucky Guy came up because Jeff starred in it last year and always jokes about how proud he is that he made the actual cover of the New York Times…even though the article was a picture of him as Varla with the headline: "Lucky Guy loses at least two million dollars." Faith then told Jeff that she did an earlier version of Lucky Guy in the '80s…and, turns out, they both played the same part! (See the picture of me with the first Miss Jeannie Jeannine and the last.)

At our show, Faith and I told the audience that we know each other very well even though it was our very first time doing a whole evening together. How do we know each other so well ? Because we spent every Monday night, for years, in the same group therapy! We started back in '91 on Wednesdays and I remembered that we changed it to Mondays when she got Guys and Dolls. Now that I've done a lot of Broadway I told her that I couldn't believe she was in this major hit show, with tons of pressure, and she spent her one night off in group! She laughed and said that her husband Larry asked her the same thing. He would say, "Can't we go away to the country for a break each week?" She told him she felt that if she didn't dedicate herself to group, the two of them wouldn't be together in five years. She wound up staying in group every Monday and they've been together for 25 years! Brava!

Faith went to Cincinnati Conservatory of Music and when she graduated she was voted "Most Talented." But it still took her ten years to get to Broadway! When she first moved to New York, her mom came to visit and Faith took her to see a little Off-Broadway show called Scrambled Feet. I saw that show when I was a kid and loved it. It was like a precursor to Forbidden Broadway, with comedy songs and quick black-out sketches. Faith went to see it because her college friend, Jimmy Walton, was the understudy and he was going on. The show starred three men and one woman, and at intermission her mom turned to Faith and said, "You would be good in this show." Since her mom was not a Mama Rose-type, Faith really listened when her mom would say something like that. As opposed to my mom, who would take me to Ain't Misbehavin' and ask me why I didn't audition. Back to Faith. During Act Two, she watched and imagined herself in the show and decided she was right for it. After the bows, there was a question-and-answer session with the cast because theatre students from Colorado were there. Faith, who is normally very shy, suddenly got up the courage to raise her hand. When she was finally called on, her question was, "Do you need another woman?" The actor onstage was taken aback but then asked her "Do you sing?" "Yes!" she answered. Then, since everyone in the show had to play piano (they accompanied each other), the actor asked if Faith played. "Absolutely!" she said.

Nathan Lane and Faith Prince in Guys and Dolls.

Evelyn Baron, who was starring in the show, was leaving to do the Boston company and they did need another woman. He told her to leave her picture and resume with the stage manager, she auditioned and got the part! The one thing I forgot to mention is that it starred three men, one woman and one duck. Seriously. The duck's name was Hermione and her understudy was Fred. The woman in the show would come out in an evening gown, start singing an operatic song and then the duck would come onstage. The song would then switch to a lament about never performing onstage with children or animals. Well, throughout her nine days of rehearsals, Faith was trained on how to scoop up the duck at the end of the number. She was told to scoop with her arms wide because the duck had a six-foot (!) wingspan. Cut to Faith's first night in the show. Everything went perfectly. Then she began her opera song, the duck came onstage and suddenly made a beeline for her hemline and grabbed onto her thigh… and bit it! Faith freaked out and flung the duck away from her. Of course, the duck then took off in flight over the audience… with its full six-foot wingspan! Faith stood onstage helpless and screamed, "Will someone please get the duck?!" Finally, the men in the show came onstage (in their tuxes for the final number) and scooped up Hermione and brought her backstage. Faith was devastated because it was her first Equity job and she was sure she would be fired. After the show, the producer came into her dressing room. He had tears streaming down his face, and instead of firing her, he told her it was the funniest thing he ever saw and asked her if she could do it every night! After that, they changed the blocking for the number and had the duck chase Faith around as she sang!

I also asked Faith about the first Broadway show I saw her in — Jerome Robbins' Broadway. She reminded me that people auditioned for months and months, and, even though most Broadway shows rehearse six weeks, they rehearsed for six months! I've heard a lot of stories about Robbins being mean, so I asked her about her experience with that. She remembered rehearsing the scene before "You Gotta Get a Gimmick" where she was Tessie Tura, the stripper. It was now the fifth month of rehearsal. As the scene was being done, she heard Jerry Robbins snapping his fingers in the back indicating they needed to move faster. She stopped, turned to him and said, "No. This moment needs a pause to get the laugh." He told her no, it didn't. She said it did. He told her it didn't. Finally, she said, "Well, sir, there's no way I'd know that because we've been rehearsing the same thing over and over again for months and months with no audience!" Paul Gemingnani, the famous music director, turned to her and said, "You have the balls of God." Rehearsal ended and, like the duck fiasco, she thought she'd be fired. That night, Debbie Shapiro was throwing a Christmas Party. Faith showed up and the first person she saw was…Jerry Robbins. They looked at each other and finally Faith said, "Merry Christmas." Jerry looked at her and said, "Merry Christmas, Faith." Then he continued. "And listen… the next time we have a fight, can we talk about it right away? Because I've been upset all day long." Turns out, the show should have been called Jerome Robbins: Softie.

The whole concert was filmed and will soon be SethTV.com! And, speaking of which, the trailer for episode four of "Seth's Reality" is now up on my site; take a gander and what's coming up

And now I must finish my YA novel's sequel, which is almost two months late! I recently proudly posted on my Facebook wall, "Just finished Chapter 15 of my sequel." My friend Tim then commented: "Is it June 1st yet?" Busted. And 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.)