ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Catching Up With Christine Ebersole and Backstage Stories With Rachel Bay Jones

By Seth Rudetsky
August 20, 2013

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

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I'm back in Provincetown! I'm writing this from the deck of the Anchor Inn Beach House as I watch throngs of people walk along Commercial Street. I remember writing my first weekend here in Provincetown,  and I can't believe it's already the end of August!

I performed with the lovely Christine Ebersole, whose beautiful tone is as stunning as ever. Her concert is a combination of songs highlighting shows she's done as well as songs she just happens to like, as well as hilarious scripted patter and three interview segments led by me. She started the show with "I Got The Sun In The Morning" from Annie Get Your Gun, a show she never did, and followed it with a song from a show she did do…but not as an actress. Back in high school, she was a violinist and was playing in the orchestra for the school production of Finian's Rainbow. She became so fascinated with what was happening onstage that she suddenly played her violin…during a scene. That's when she realized she didn't want to continue doing shows under the stage. She told the story and then sang a glorious version of "How Are Things in Glocca Mora?" PS, I got an e-mail from a fan telling how much he loved that "Irish song" and asking if the name was "Kookamura." Close!

Christine and I chatted about her early career and how, in the ‘80's, she auditioned for the TV show Love, Sydney. She didn't get the gig, but Dick Ebersol (no relationship) saw her tape and, even though it was a serious scene, thought she'd be right for the cast of "Saturday Night Live." She was on it the year that Joe Piscopo and Eddie Murphy joined, and I asked her how scary it was to do a live show each week. She remembers it being not that difficult because she was used to doing theatre and, since it was filmed in a small studio, she couldn't really sense that millions were watching.

However, one night, she was singing a Christmas parody song and they had fake snow falling on the set. She opened her mouth to sing and suddenly inhaled a paper snow flake. It lodged in her throat but she had the ol' "The show must go on" mindset and resisted the overwhelming urge to get that flake out, even though it was choking her. That's dedication. I asked her if she's had time since then to cough it out (it's been 30 years), and she said yes.

Speaking of TV, she was just cast on American Horror Story and is flying to New Orleans this week to have her portrait painted. She has no script or any idea of what her storyline is. As a matter of fact, she only knows that she's playing some sort of a good witch because she read it online! Near the end of our show, she did "Around The World," one of my favorite Grey Gardens songs. Here's my deconstruction! After that song she closed with "Beyond the Blue Horizon" in which she sings soprano, operetta-style, and ends on a high C!

We went to dinner after the show and I asked her, "Is it hard for you to sing all those beautiful high notes after doing all low singing in the Grey Gardens song?" She answered, with a shrug, "Apparently not!" Brava on the honesty!

Christine's first show was Saturday at 7 PM and at 5:15, I decided to get some exercise by taking a scenic bike ride out to the ocean. There's a long bike path in Provincetown that's through a wooded area and goes up and down hills. Well, I rode all the way out to the airport and at 6 PM, I decided to turn back. I noticed my bike felt weird. I had a flat tire! And the show was at 7! I started the walk the bike and realized that at my current speed, I'd arrive at the show after it began. I decided to ride it with the flat until I got to the parking lot by the beach, and try to hitch a ride to town from there.

I finally arrived and approached various cars, asking for a lift. Finally, two men agreed to drive me to town and I couldn't decide how to thank them. Free to tickets to Christine Ebersole's show? Guest DJ'ing on my SiriusXM radio show? Hm…would having a Broadway personality in their car be payment enough? I mulled this over as I got the bike hoisted in the their van and sat in the back seat. I decided to lead gradually to the reward I was going to give them so I could really build it up. I leaned forward in my seat and asked with a big smile, "Are you Broadway fans?" They responded, "No." Silence.

Rachel Bay Jones

I did an "Obsessed" recently with Rachel Bay Jones, who is fantastic in Pippin. She told me that her last Broadway show was Women on The Verge of a Nervous Breakdown as the understudy to Patti LuPone (!). When she got the job, she was warned by a friend to make sure Patti never saw her looking at her. So, Rachel was at all the show's rehearsals and spent the entire time trying to learn the blocking and songs without ever looking directly at Patti. For six weeks!

Since Patti had concert dates coming, Rachel knew she'd be going on and needed to watch the show from the wings. But when Patti would come offstage, Rachel would flee so Patti wouldn't see her. One night, Patti came into the wings after a scene and Rachel fled and forced her body into a corner to hide. She suddenly felt a hand on her shoulder. Uh-oh. Rachel turned around and there was Patti. Patti immediately told Rachel to make sure she watched the show every night from the wings and then told Rachel they should meet in Patti's dressing so she could give her tips on the show and tell her what sections were tricky, etc. In other words, Patti couldn't have been friendlier and more helpful. Rachel was so relieved but completely irritated she spent weeks watching rehearsal with her head turned at a three quarter angle and her eyes shifted all the way to one side for no reason!

Another "Chatterbox" on SethTV features Rory O'Malley and Julie Halston. Julie regaled us with tales about Money Talks, a play she did years ago that ran a solid five performances. Once in a while, someone will approach her and say proudly, "I saw all five performances of Money Talks!" Julie starred with Helen Gallager and Dolores Gray, the latter of which had a lot of issues with her lines. Dolores played a character named Phyllis and Julie played Claudia. Dolores, however, kept addressing her as Carla, another character in the show. She'd often say "Hello, Carla," Julie would glare and then Dolores would say, "I mean, Claudia." On the first preview, Dolores took it a step further because Julie was wearing new earrings as part of her costume; Dolores said, "Hello, Carla," followed it her signature "I mean, Claudia," and then walked closer and added, "Julie! I love your earrings."

Julie also told us that the phone featured heavily in the show, but Dolores often didn't know where it was. One night it rang and rang while Dolores looked onstage for it. By the tenth ring, Helen Gallagher came onstage and yelled, "Pick up the phone!" Dolores then picked it up and said, "Why hello, Phyllis," which prompted to Helen to re-enter and yell, "You're Phyllis!!!!"

I saw Varla Jean Merman's show at the Art House in Provincetown, which was hysterical as usual. Christine Ebersole and her husband were next to me and were laughing the entire time. The whole show was about fairy tales and at one point, Varla told us that she was considering re-writing classic children's books. She showed slides of different hilarious titles and my fave was a picture of Varla laughing right next to a picture of her blank-faced/shut down. Instead of "Polar Express," it was called "Bi-polar Express." Here's a classic video Varla and I did a few years ago based on Lionel Ritchie's Hello. I play the blind student! 

Last Thursday, I had the amazing Ann Hampton Callaway and her sister Liz on "Chatterbox," where they sang up a storm. Make sure you see their fantastic show Sibling Revelry at 54 Below starting next week! Ann came to Unbroken Cirlce that night and I was obsessed with her laugh. If an oboe can guffaw, I heard it. After the show, we took photos on the set and Ann suggested we pose as a dysfunctional family, a la the theme of the show. We all hit a pose, except her! That's right, the person who thought of the idea got distracted one second later and started chatting with Eve Plumb.

This week I have Peter Joback (Phantom of the Opera) at the Chatterbox and then I head to Ptown to do shows with Megan Hilty, Megan Mullally Patti LuPone. Get tickets at PtownArtHouse.com. Happy almost end of summer 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.)