ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Cruising With Anika Larsen, Plus Don't Tell Mama

By Seth Rudetsky
July 16, 2013

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



Oy! I just finished one cruise and in a few weeks I'm going on another cruise. I've said it before and I'll say it again: My personal shopper is the worst!

The weird thing about this cruise is that it directly conflicted with Unbroken Circle. The first conflict was Anika Larsen being booked as one of the cruise performers for the week. She plays James' sister in Unbroken Circle and got a great mention in the Daily News review: "Best of all is the thoroughly natural Anika Larsen, as Ruby's daughter Edna. She is a woman who has been damaged but, despite everything, remains unbroken." Here she is, sounding amazing on the cruise

We resigned ourselves to putting on an understudy for the week but decided that, since we were only doing Wednesday shows, James and Juli would fly to Bermuda on Thursday and join the cruise for the last few days. But the more we thought about it, the more we began to feel bad that Juli had to miss any of the cruise...to perform a great role in an Off-Broadway play. (Turns out, her personal shopper is the worst, too.) We finally decided to put her understudy on and Juli was thrilled. Then we added a 7 PM  show Thursday and a 1:30 PM matinee Sunday. James did the Wednesday and Thursday shows, arrived Friday afternoon in Bermuda, sailed one day with us and then he, Juli and Anika got off the boat Sunday with enough time to make their 1:30 PM curtain.

It was weird to do so much of the cruise without James, but it was fun to be there with both of our moms. One night, Anika came out to dinner with us and my mom was regaling her with stories about people "not getting her jokes." Example: My mom was at the movies with her coat on the seat next to her. A man came by and asked if he could sit where her coat was. She said, "Sure, but you'll have to hold my coat in your lap." Silence. She couldn't understand why he didn't find it hilarious. I explained it's because she does her "comedy" totally blank-faced and there's not a hint of humor attached. It's Meisner technique realness.

Another "joke" that no one got happened on one of our first cruises together, after my mom tripped down a flight of stairs. She was fine, but they still rushed her to the onboard doctor. When the officials from the boat came and asked her what happened, she said, blank-faced as usual, "A steward pushed me." Shockingly, no one laughed. She then followed that comment with, "Bi-i-i-g lawsuit." Again, crickets. Anika, however, couldn't stop laughing during her stories. Then James' mother, Elizabeth, chimed in and said she could be just as blank-faced.

Cut to: We got on the elevator with four people we didn't know and Elizabeth suddenly turned to my mom and said, "You need to start doing what you're told!" My mom immediately took the bait and fired back with, "You've been incredibly rude to me all evening and I won't stand for it." That's right, they decided to play a full improv scene on the elevator to try to "outreal" each other. I was mortified.

Soon, everyone in the group wanted to get in on the act. Juli practiced the dialogue she wanted to do with me. I was actually impressed by her writing.

She wanted me to ask, "Where were you last night?!"

And she'd fire back with, "I told you! At the casino! Now, off my back!"

Like mother, like son
When the time came, however, Juli was too scared to do it because, thankfully, she has some semblance of shame. However, Elizabeth had created a monster: My mom became obsessed with using the elevator as her own Second City and every time we got on, we never knew what inappropriate comment she was going to haul out to try to make us play a scene. Soon, and I'm not joking, Elizabeth started taking the stairs to avoid my mother trying to rope her into The Groundlings. On the last day, Elizabeth had an enormous suitcase and still insisted on lugging it down the stairs rather than share an elevator with the star of "Whose Line Is It Anyway?"

Speaking of my mom, she showed up to one of the cruise shows wearing the same shirt I was wearing! I had no choice but to recreate the "Arrested Development" moment where Lucille Bluth and her son Buster pose on the cover of a magazine to promote the article "Why I Want to Marry My Mother."

This week I'm getting ready to go to Provincetown with Audra McDonald for shows July 21-22 as part of my Broadway series at the Art House (for tix, get thee to PtownArtHouse.com), and we were talking about the Dreamgirls concert I did with her for the Actors Fund. At first, it was going to happen while she was pregnant, but she went into early labor and was suddenly put on bed rest until she gave birth. She had to lay in bed, on her side, for four months!

She was also told not to gain too much weight but wound up becoming obsessed with cheeseburgers from a local diner. As soon as her husband would leave, she'd check to make sure he was really gone, then have her assistant call the diner and order up cheeseburgers. Then she would open all the windows to get rid of the smell and light incense. When her husband came home, she'd haul out the routine of, "All I had today was a salad." Speaking of Audra, she's coming on the Playbill Cruise to Tahiti next year! 

Seth and Juli on Hair Night
Back to this week's cruise: One day Anika Larsen was talking about her stint doing Rent and we remembered that in those days you pretty much couldn't audition if you had any theatrical experience. People would have to erase their theatre credits to be taken seriously for that show. I guess they wanted "real" people and rockers, not trained performers. The problem was, those people with no theatrical experience also had no technique. Anika said that during one of the tours the sound person was having a breakdown because he thought there were audio problems, so he listened to people's individual body mics to figure out which ones were malfunctioning. Turns out, of the 15 people who sing "Seasons of Love," eight weren't singing at all!

We also had a night dedicated to Hair and I spent some time chatting with Will Swenson about playing Berger. At various times during the show, the cast would go into the audience and schmooze/hug/dance with people. I asked what that was like, and he said it was a mixed bag. He'd approach some people and they'd be really into it, but he recalled another time when one person said, "Don't come near me! I will sue you!" I get it. When I'm in the audience, I love to actually be in an audience and not be a part of a show. I'm not saying I threatened to sue Will when I saw Hair, but suffice it to say that my sister is a lawyer and I made sure I had her on speed dial. Look at the photos of Juli, my mom and me during Hair night. Who looks more like a drag queen?

Seth's mom on Hair Night

This week I have the fantastic Rachel Bay Jones from Pippin at the Chatterbox, so come by Don't Tell Mama on Thursday at 5 PM. If you miss it, get thee to SethTV.com! We just added tons of old Chatterboxes (Kristin Chenoweth, Cheyenne Jackson, Jane Krakowski) and there are more to come! And here's a video of CBS's "OMG Insider!" piece on Unbroken Circle. They interview James, Eve Plumb and me and they show clips from the show. I love hearing the audience laughing (it was the very first preview)! 

(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.)