ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Shields & Yarnell, Ann Hampton Callaway & Barbra, Michael Cerveris & Tommy

By Seth Rudetsky
September 24, 2012

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



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Wah! I'm on the flight home from Provincetown. This weekend was my last performance until New Year's Eve. James and I came up for the weekend with Juli to celebrate Juli's 12th birthday. We stayed at the lovely Grand View Inn, which was great because it had a giant freezer where we kept Juli's Ben and Jerry's ice cream cake. At the end of my show (where I deconstructed 1970s variety shows) the whole audience sang "Happy Birthday" and we served them ice cream cake and an enormous sheet cake, too. I recalled spending my 12th birthday at a depressing bowling party and was mildly resentful of Juli the entire time. Speaking of '70s variety shows, on Saturday afternoon a man came over to me and asked me what Shields and Yarnell clip I was planning on using in the show. I told him it was one from "The Sonny and Cher Show," where they're dressed up as Sonny and Cher. He then revealed that he was the director/choreographer for the "Shields and Yarnell Variety Show"! How arbitrary is that? He just happened to be in Provincetown last weekend. Do you remember Shields and Yarnell? They did everything in full mime. As soon as he told me who he was I suppressed my urge to mime serving him a cup of coffee and I assume he suppressed his urge to mime taking it from me. I then suppressed my urge to mime "running out of batteries" and I assume he suppressed his urge to wind up the pretend crank on my back. And now I'm hoping you're suppressing your urge to click to a new website due to my unfunniness.

Ann Hampton Callaway
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On "Seth Speaks," I had the fabulous Ann Hampton Callaway who's performing her all-Barbra show at 54 Below and then touring it everywhere. She loves Barbra like I do, but unlike me she's actually written for her! Barbra heard some of Ann's songs and loved her lyric writing. Through her "people," Barbra asked Ann to put lyrics to a song that someone else had written the music for. Ann decided to write what she thought Barbra was feeling toward her then-fiancé James Brolin. Barbra loved the lyrics and asked Ann to make a recording of the piano part because she was having a "gathering" in a few days. Turns out, Barbra wanted a recording of the piano track so she could sing along with it. Why? Because the "gathering" she was having was actually her wedding! That's right…it just worked out that Ann happened to write a theme a song about Barbra and James Brolin and then happened to finish it two days before their wedding. Barbra told her later, "It's lucky you wound up singing it in my key!" Here it is, on youtube. And if you don't realize my obsessed with Barbra, watch this youtube clip video.

I also interviewed Bob Fass on "Seth Speaks." Bob is a fascinating guy who's the focus of the new documentary "Radio Unnameable," playing at Film Forum in Manhattan. Back in the early '60s, he asked WBAI if he could have a radio show that started at midnight and lasted through the night. They told him that there was nothing on TV or radio during those times because nobody was awake. He told them that there is actually a whole bunch of people all around the city doing the night shift! They gave him a show (which lasted for 40 years!). The documentary features actual recordings from his shows because he saved them all. And they're really amazing. There's one with his buddy Bob Dylan (!), who came on the show and someone called in to say, "I love your songs…but I wish your voice was a little better." He had Arlo Guthrie come on and debut his new song called…"Alice's Restaurant"! He was the predecessor of so many radio shows (including mine) because he didn't want his show to have any particular style. He played whatever music he wanted. He was the first to have live phone calls from people. Plus, he didn't have a call screener. He just answered the phone. One of the calls was from a man who wanted to commit suicide. As they spoke, Bob found out the guy had already taken a ton of pills and was in the process of falling asleep. This happened in the days when tracing a phone call took hours and the tracing itself could only pinpoint a certain area of town. Bob kept the guy on the phone the whole time and after a few hours, the guy fell asleep. You can actually hear him deep breathing on the air. Bob kept yelling his name to wake him up but the sleep was drugged so he couldn't be awakened. Finally, the call was traced but there was no way to know exactly where the guy lived, so Bob put a record on the radio at a crazily high volume so it'd heard through the guy's apartment door! The police were then able to find him, the man was saved and he wound up getting a job writing sexy letters for Penthouse. I was shocked! Not because the man's life was saved, but because I always thought those letters were real. Not cool.

Michael Cerveris
Photo by Robb Johnston
My guest at the Chatterbox was Michael Cerveris, who's currently starring as Peron in Evita. We went back to his first big break, which was playing the title role in the La Jolla Playhouse production of Tommy. Well, when the show was going to Broadway all of the cast members had to audition again. Rude. Michael felt a lot of stress about the audition, and, on top of that, he had a cold. He was living in L.A. and the producers agreed to fly him to NYC for the audition but, probably to save money, they got him a flight that was actually going to San Juan but had a layover in New York. When Michael got to the airport he told them that he would be leaving the plane in New York and they told him that he would be allowed to do that, but his luggage would have to go to San Juan! It was a Sunday and he tried to track down the people who bought him the ticket but he was only able to reach Des McAnuff who told him to buy a new ticket and he'd get reimbursed. Michael finally got a flight, but it left much later. So, he arrived in New York with a cold and completely exhausted. The next day, he warmed up at the music director's apartment but found out when he arrived that there were cats and he's allergic. So, now he's exhausted with a cold and severe allergies. He started the audition by playing for himself on guitar and after two songs they asked him to sing from the show. Well, by the time he got to the second song ("I'm a Sensation") he had no voice left. At all. The creative staff had seen him do the role so they knew how he could sing, but there were lots of producers there who hadn't seen him and were decidedly not impressed. Michael resigned himself to not getting the role and a few days later Des and Pete Townshend asked him out to dinner which Michael assumed was a consolation prize. It wasn't until way into the dinner that Pete said casually, "It's so funny that we saw hundreds of people for this show and the one person who gave the worst audition of all is getting the title role." Michael then realized he had the part! He played it on Broadway and then starred in the German company for a long run.

The biggest adjustment for Michael in Europe was the getting used to the crew in Dusseldorf. Michael said the crew people weren't trained like in New York. They were just guys who applied for a job in a variety of places (restaurants, factories) and the one they happened to get was at the new theatre being built for Tommy. They had to be firmly told that since they were in charge of dangerous things like making sure Michael was flown on and off the stage safely, they had to promise to not be stoned before or during the show. And they weren't versed in musical theatre…at all. During the first run-through, the girl playing Sally Simpson had to run backstage really quickly to get to the other side. She wound up banging into a stagehand who was standing in the way. The guy was told not to stand there because Sally had to make a quick cross. The next night she ran backstage again and…slammed into the same guy. Why? Well, he was told the night before not to stand there so he moved. The night before. He wasn't informed that he couldn't stand there the next day. In other words, he was shocked that the show stayed the same each night! If he ever saw my comedy show, he'd know that certain shows never change. I've been telling the same old chestnuts for years.

Speaking of old chestnuts, this week I'm flying out to Morristown, TN, to do my deconstructing Broadway show. If you're a Southerner, get tix here

And watch the new "Playbill Obsessed!" video that I did with Liz Callaway (the aforementioned Ann's sister!). She's always playing an innocent on Broadway, but in real life she is constantly sassing me (and singing amazingly).

Finally, come see me and Andrea Martin Oct. 9-11 at 54 Below! We're always talking about our mutual obsessesion with food and she recently texted me about a Food Inspection Grade she was ignoring. "Even the airport bakery's Grade C (i.e. rats) won't stop me from getting a croissant." Brava! Happy fall 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.)