ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Audra McDonald's Bad Hair Day, Frances Ruffelle's Solo Show and Molly Ringwald as an Annie Orphan

By Seth Rudetsky
May 20, 2013

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

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Unbroken Circle starts previews on May 29th. So exciting/terrifying. The play was inspired by a photo James had always seen as a child. It's his mother's grandmother at age 12 with her family; she's staring straight ahead with a blank, wide-eyed stare. He was always haunted by her face. He later found out she had been sexually abused by her stepfather during that period and it eventually led to her giving birth to three sons…including James' grandfather. James just had Greg Roderick edit a fantastic video that shows the original photo of James' grandma from 1912. In the video, James shows pics of his family and talks about how the play evolved. Watch it here...so cool!

I am writing this watching Juli (age 12) have a private gymnastics lesson with former Billy Elliot star Giuseppe Bausilio (age 15). I've never felt older and less stretched out. I flew in this morning from New Orleans. My cab picked me up at 5 AM, and I went to bed at 1 AM the night before. Luckily, I was able to sleep on the plane. Of course, as soon as my head would fall forward, I'd wake up. So I was able to sleep for two hours, broken down into five-minute increments.

I was in New Orleans doing two shows with Audra McDonald as part of my Broadway Series at Nocca (produced by Mark Cortale). Audra and I had a great time and she sounded beautiful, despite having just done a concert the night before in Baton Rouge and having sung in a huge gala at Lincoln Center the week before. The gala was filmed for PBS and Audra told the New Orleans audience they had to watch it if only to see her crazy hair. She had decided to do that concert without an intermission, which backfired on her 'do. Not having a break meant she had no time to go backstage and touch up her hair which was having major issues because it was so hot onstage. She told everyone that her hair both fell and rose: "That's right. The straight hair fell…and the 'nap' rose."

McDonald in A Raisin in The Sun
photo by Joan Marcus

Audra told some great stories about doing A Raisin in The Sun. First of all, this was the production that she starred in with Sean Combs AKA Puff Daddy AKA P. Diddy or, as Patti LuPone would say, "Are you off to rehearse with Cheese Doodle?" Turns out, Sean is an incredibly hard worker and would rehearse all day and then rehearse at night. Would he rent a rehearsal studio, you ask? No. He'd rehearse on the set. What set, you ask? The set he had built in his apartment! That's right, he had it entirely replicated so he'd be able to rehearse the play whenever he wanted! Speaking of performance, Audra said that there were always a few women in the audience who would sit in the front row, certain that they'd be going home with him after the show. There'd be non-stop stretching, leg crossing, leaning forward and boob adjusting throughout the show.

But at least those ladies would stay mostly silent because during that run, one never knew how verbal the audience would be. Very often, Audra would hear someone in the audience say full voice, "Oh, man! You lost the money?" The worst was at the end of the show one night...Spoiler alert! (Is it considered a spoiler if the show is 60 years old?) Anyhoo, there's a beautiful moment when Phylicia Rashad's character is finally moving out of the cramped apartment she's shared with her family. She walks to the door and suddenly stops. Then she turns around and sees the plant that's been there the whole show. It's barely alive because of the lack of sunlight in the apartment but it's continued to survive—a metaphor for that family. She walks back from the door, picks it up and leaves. Well, one night Phylicia looked around her apartment and walked to the door. Before she even had a chance to turn around, someone yelled out, "Don't forget your plant!"

Audra and daughter Zoe
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Audra and I also chatted about Ragtime and (another spoiler alert) the end of Act One when Sarah is killed. Audra would fall to the ground and then cast members would lift her up above their heads and carry her off. Well, one night when they lifted her, her wig got caught in the button of somebody's costume. And then it fell off. She was carried off with just a wig cap on. Audra said people were like, "Poor Sarah. She's dead. And she wore a wig!" Right after she was carried off every night, she'd have to immediately get in the coffin for the funeral song.

If you don't know, sometimes when a show is having a long run, practical jokes start to be played. Audra said that she'd often get into the coffin only to find out that she was laying on somebody's beeper (remember, this was late 1990's). During the long Act One finale, someone in the cast would arrange for one of the understudies to stand backstage and call the beeper. Her imitation of trying to play dead while something is vibrating non-stop underneath her was hi-larious.

We spoke a little about the Sondheim Porgy and Bess flap but I will go into more details with her this summer when we perform our show at the Art House. One of the things she mentioned about that show was her daughter's response after seeing it in Boston. She was so excited for Zoe to see it…although she forgot she played a cocaine-addicted prostitute. Afterwards, she asked Zoe what she thought and Zoe said it was awkward. Why? "Well, Mom...you did some awkward things." Audra then asked Zoe if she wanted to see the show when it came to Broadway, and before she finished the sentence, Zoe quickly and simply said, "No.”

Speaking of children, I had Frances Ruffelle on Seth's Broadway Chatterbox and she said that she left the Broadway production of Les Misérables because she got pregnant. Her daughter is now a British pop star (Eliza Doolittle)! Frances didn't expect to play Eponine in America because she wasn't one of the British cast members offered a transfer. But on a Saturday, Cameron Mackintosh called and told her they couldn't find a Broadway Eponine and asked if she could fly to the USA on Monday to start rehearsal. However, there were some important people coming to the West End production a week later so she had to rehearse in America for a week and then play it in London a week later.

I asked her where she liked playing it better and she said here in America. Why? "Because people liked me on Broadway." If you don't know, the London reviews for Les Misérables were terrible and Frances didn't get any accolades. (Patti LuPone won the Olivier for playing Fantine.) However, when she did the New York production, she won the Tony Award! Here she is in 1986.

Seth and Frances Ruffelle "being Eponine"
Photo by Maryann Lopinto

She originally auditioned for the role by singing a Piaf song and I asked her to do it again at my Chatterbox. You can watch the whole interview and see her sing her audition song at SethTV.com. So good! And then this Wednesday, I'm going to see her do her show at 54 Below! And I did an Obsessed with her where she talked about staging "On My Own" for the first time. She has long arms and didn't know what to do with them when she sang, so she wrapped them around herself because she felt so awkward. Cut to, that became the signature Eponine pose! But it only happened because she didn't know what to do with her "monkey arms"! In the video, I have her create what other poses she might have done had rehearsals been different. Watch!

Last week on "Seth Speaks" I had Molly Ringwald, who just came out with a jazz album! Turns out, she began as a singer and was in the West Coast premiere production of Annie when she was a little girl. She told me she was cast as Kate, and I immediately mentioned that we Annie aficionados know that it's one of the least-featured orphans, but it pays off because Kate is also the orphan who understudies Annie. Then Molly told she didn't understudy Annie. Ouch. I had no way to spin that. Essentially, she was the least featured orphan with zero pay-off. Of course, she got her pay-off a few years later when she starred in the first of her many John Hughes films: "Sixteen Candles." Here's one of my favorite scenes

Apparently, the story goes that writer/director John Hughes didn't know her, but had a copy of her 8x10 photo. He hung the picture up for inspiration and wrote the movie in one weekend. Then, when he had auditions, he asked the casting people to bring in the girl who was his muse, and Molly got the part! As opposed to dancer Mitzi Hamilton whose story was immortalized in A Chorus Line in the Val monologue and song ("Dance: Ten, Looks: Three") but when the role was finally cast for Broadway, it went to Pam Blair. Here is Pam in the original production!

This week I'm also going to 54 Below to see Laura Benanti. And I have the copy-edited version of the upcoming sequel to "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan" to read through. I thought I would do it all in New Orleans but I got distracted by the almond croissants. So good! Before you read the sequel, buy the original book. And you can get it autographed here. And while you're at SethTV, watch the new Broadway Game Night episode with me, Tim Cross, David Turner, Kate Shindle, Anika Larsen and James Wesley. So fun! All the clues have to feature the letter B so it's a lot me making sure everyone knows I'm on an episode of "Bunheads." Some people found it funny, others who shall remain nameless tried to initiate divorce proceedings. Watch the trailer here. 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.)