ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Billy Elliot Beatboxes, Patti Does Eva and Ahrens and Flaherty Chat About Rocky

By Seth Rudetsky
May 13, 2013

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



As May moves forward, we are getting closer and closer to the first preview of Unbroken Circle (the play James wrote that's transferring Off-Broadway on May 29). We finally agreed on the poster (take a gander on the left) and we put up the new website: UnbrokenCircleThePlay.com. More details as the date draws nearer and my ulcer grows larger.

Tonight (Monday) I'm playing piano for a fundraiser for the local public middle school in my ‘hood. So many great people are performing, including one of my favorite male singers ever, Norm Lewis. If you haven't seen me "kvell" over him, take a gander. He's planning on seeing Harry Belafonte at the 92nd Street Y at 8 PM, but time timing worked out deliciously because the benefit is at the (bizarre) time of 6:30 PM. One of the other performers is Giuseppe Bausilio who played Billy Elliot on tour and on Broadway. Here he is in action. He's from Switzerland and just started speaking English four years ago but crazily has no accent! He's doing the "Electricity" dance from Billy Elliot but since I only have a piano there, he's going to provide the percussion himself. That's right, he'll be doing that enormous ballet dance while beat boxing. Come see us tonight at 6:30 PM! Get your tickets here.

This week I rehearsed with Patti LuPone for our London shows. We had the best time working on new songs. First, she sang though a song she performed when she got her first Tony nomination: "Nothin' Up" from The Robber Bridegroom. So good! Then I asked her to relive her days as Nancy in Oliver (P.S. I do mean days…that revival closed super quick) and sing, "It's a Fine Life"! I decided to put it in a key where I could hear her belt high but didn't tell her it was a high key. I decided I didn't tell her it had a C sharp; how would she know? Cut to, after belting the high note, she ran to the piano and kept playing notes 'til she found the one she had just hit. When she realized it was a C sharp she then proceeded to call me names not suitable for a family newspaper. The good news is that she didn't ask me to change the key. Yay!

LuPone in Evita.
Photo by Martha Swope

Then, I told her that a guy who's playing Magaldi in the UK tour of Evita said he'd be coming to the show and thought it would be fun to come on stage and sing the scene in Evita that leads into "Buenos Aires." Shockingly, Patti told me we could try it in rehearsal. It is one of my favorite moments in the show and has the crazily high phrase, "Screw the middle classes!" We ran through it in the rehearsal studio and my producer was there with a writer from the Huffington Post (who's doing a story on us). They both almost had a breakdown hearing Patti sing it and demanded that she does it in the concert.

Afterwards, I was speaking with the writer and I totally identified with him because he was obsessed with the album while he was growing up, yet never go to see Patti play the role, just like me. He was always excited when she'd sing, "Don't Cry For Me…" in concert but so disappointed that there were so many other sections of the show she didn't have in her repertoire. He forced himself to accept he would never hear her sing "Eva and Magaldi" live. So, for both of us, to finally hear Patti sing it in front of us, after thinking it would never happen, was amazing! Also, I love all the Fantine music in Les Miserables not just "I Dreamed a Dream." I made her sing the high E flat in "You let your foreman se-e-e-e-e-end me away" and the entire Fantine deathbed scene! Ah! I am so excited for this concert! Fly to London and get tix for us here.

I had Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty come to the Chatterbox again because we only got through half of their career at their last appearance. We backtracked a little and talked about My Favorite Year and I mentioned how it was Andrea Martin's Broadway debut. Lynn said that they wrote a song for her that was getting no laughs…and, ironically, it was called, "Professional Show Business Comedy." Ouch. On the day the critics came, they brought Andrea into a room to try to fix the number. The only rules they had to adhere were; choreographer Thommie Walsh said that there were three clowns who had to be in the number and Andrea's co-star was great in his role but they knew he wouldn't be able to learn a whole new number in one day so his part had to be minimal. Stephen and Lynn gave Andrea all these different props and asked her to go to town. She did all these funny things (including being a gypsy with a tambourine) and her solo section in the middle took shape.

Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens

Then, they came up with the theme of the number—they decided the backstory was that Andrea and her song partner were an old Vaudeville duo but he never let her get the punchlines. She finally takes control and uses the song to get her revenge by tying him up and takes center stage. How did Andrea tie him up? With the help of three clowns (satisfyng Thommie Walsh) and since her co-star was bound and gagged, he didn't have to learn any new lyrics or dance steps! Perfect! Cut to: Andrea winning a Tony Award. Brava!

After discussing all of their theatre triumphs, I finally had to ask them about their upcoming musical…Rocky. I boldly asked them how they would explain themselves to people who think they're selling out. And explain they did! First of all, they told me that the original film was basically an independent movie, not written to be a big Hollywood blockbuster. It all began with Thomas Meehan who was working on it with Sylvester Stallone. Sylvester had gotten various Hollywood hitmakers (similar to Diane Warren) to start writing the score, but nothing was working. Thomas told him he needed a real musical theatre writing team and called Flaherty and Ahrens.

Stephen grew up in working class Pittsburgh and when he saw the movie in the ‘70's, he felt it was about his neighborhood. He and Lynn wrote some songs and went to Philly to perform them. Stephen knew there was no way he could sing the role of Rocky in front of the actor who played Rocky, so they hired a singer to do it. They said that not only did Stallone have tears in his eyes during the songs, but he then slammed his fist on the desk and proclaimed, "That's the way to write it!" The show rehearsed in Germany for a Hamburg premiere and Stephen and Lynn said it was bizarre to work on a new show and make changes while it's being performed in another language! Lynn would write English lyrics and then someone there would write them in German. They wouldn't translate it literally (or else it wouldn't rhyme) so they'd have to be translated back so Lynn could approve them. What a (German word for) headache! They said the final fight sequence is incredible and creative but wouldn't give me any info about how it's done. Sheisse!

Laura Benanti
Photo by Robert Trachtenberg/NBC

I had Tony Award winner Laura Benanti on "Seth Speaks" (my SiriusXM talk show) and she was hilarious as usual. She said she's living in a small apartment in Los Angeles that's filled with recently divorced dad and 20-year-old college kids, so on the weekends, the elevators are filled with the wafting smell of pot and children muttering, "I hate my Dad." I bragged about having Laura and Steven Pasquale on my radio show years ago when they were just friends and psychically knowing they were going to have a relationship. I told her I'd never seen so much sexual tension. Laura quipped, "Well, now we're married so there's no sexual tension." The Lockhorns? Laura is gearing up for her performances at 54 Below and I'm going to see her with James. Get your tix here.

Such a beautiful singer and such a fantastic actress. And, as I've said for years, so funny! Here she is with me demonstrating all the things we hate about haughty sopranos: back-phrasing for no reason, speaking a note because you can't actually hit it, glaring at the pianist for no reason, following the rhythm and sacrificing the acting in the process, added high note that's held too long and physicalizing the cut-off: watch! And here's the fabulous Obsessed I did with her.

I hope I'll see you in New Orleans this Saturday the 18th when I do two shows with Audra McDonald! Get your tickets here.