ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Surviving Concert Chaos and Dishing with Debra Jo Rupp

By Seth Rudetsky
November 18, 2013

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

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Hello from Dauphine Street in New Orleans! I'm staying at the lovely Dauphine Orleans hotel and sitting in the outside courtyard writing this. It's November but it's the South, so no coat! Don't tell my mother. (If you don't get that joke, you're not Jewish.) I'm here doing my Broadway@ series with Patti LuPone. This time there will be a star onstage and stars in the audience! Patti said some folks from "American Horror Story" are coming and I'm very excited to meet that coven of witches. Speaking of the Broadway@ series, the Sutton Foster concert we did together Provincetown is about to be released on SethTV.com. Here's the highlight reel. I love this screen shot from when we sang "Summer Nights" together!

So, this week I flew back from Tampa and did Disaster! the next day. Speaking of which, we got video footage from opening night and Jack put together an amazing highlight reel. I can't stop watching it! Look: DisasterMusical.com. Tuesday morning I had to get up early to catch a 7:45 AM ride from NYC to the Westbury Music Fair where I was hosting/playing for a Broadway concert in the afternoon. At 7 AM that morning, I got a text from one of my singers who suddenly got sick! Yowtch! I had 45 minutes until we left. I then remembered that George Dvorsky (who did the first production of Disaster!) does a lot of concerts so I knew he'd probably have repertoire ready to go. I then had the chutzpah to text him at 7:10 AM. He later told me he never has his cell phone on, but forgot to turn it off the night before. As soon as he heard it chime he thought (Jackie Hoffman-style), "Who died?" He called me back at 7:20 AM and told me he could do that concert. Yay!

He asked me what time it was that night. I then broke the news that it was in the afternoon. There was a silence, then he explained he was at his house in Pennsylvania. Also, he was expecting a delivery and had to stay there until it came. He hung up and I thought about the 2,400 ticket holders who expected five singers! Who the hell else would be up at this hour, have a lot of material and be able to do it with no rehearsal? Ten minutes later, George called me back and told me that a neighbor was going to wait for his delivery and he was going to drive to NYC, stop by his apartment for music and a suit and then drive to Westbury and make it for the 2 PM show. Yay! The rest of the singers then got into the luxurious limo that the booker (Tony Rende) had gotten for us. It was enormous. We probably could have fit 15 people in the back. For rizzle! Or as Adrienne Barbou probably said, "For Rizzo".

Anyhoo, as we were driving one of my singers (who shall remain nameless!) very, very politely asked if we could pull over because she wasn't feeling 100%. She was so polite, I assumed it wasn't that big of a deal so I casually asked the driver to go to the side of the road for a moment. Well, as soon as we pulled over, she ran the hell out of the limo. I didn't see or hear anything, but I think I know what happened. She got back in, mortified, and soon we were on the Long Island Expressway again. Thirty minutes later, we heard another softly-intoned, "If you don't mind, would you please pull over to the side?" Yet again, the politeness was in direct contrast to how much she needed to purge. After the second time, she laid down on the back seat and shut down emotionally until we got there.

Seth with Debra Jo Rupp
Photo by Maryann Lopinto
We then all piled out (she felt much better!) did a sound check, George got there before the show and the whole thing was great! One of the highlights was Emily Skinner doing her amazing Mae West song "Come Up and See Me Sometime," which you can watch here when she did it on my SiriusXM show). Afterwards, I hauled out the Mae West joke Kevin Chamberlin told me a few years right after he did Dirty Blonde. This shows how quick Mae West was: One day Mae was walking thru a casino in Las Vegas and a guy yelled out, "Hey, Mae! I'll lay ya ten to one!" She turned around, fluffed her hair and said, Mae West-style, "It's an odd time... but I'll be there."

On Thursday, I had Debra Jo Rupp at "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," and she was such a great guest. I had never met her before but I thought she was hilarious the first time I saw her on "Seinfeld" as his assistant who wants to make sure he "doesn't freak out." Her story was very inspirational to me. She moved to New York in the 70's and got a job as a bookkeeper to satisfy her mother who made her promise to never wait tables. However, she always took acting classes and went to auditions. I asked her how she was able to go to an audition in the middle of the day while holding down a full-time job and she said she made a lot of trips to (she added very heavy air quotes) "the bank." But, I asked, I'm sure she went to open calls which take a really long time... how did she pull that off? "Boy," she said with frustration, "the lines at the bank today were so long!"

She kept auditioning for theatre and not getting anything... for years. And I mean years. From college graduation to well past her 30th birthday! I asked how she persevered and she told me that it was because of the classes she took. Every time a teacher or student would make a positive comment about her acting, it would give her hope for a few months. Finally, there was a play called A Girl's Guide to Chaos written by Cynthia Heimel for Teri Garr that was about to have a workshop, but Teri wasn't available. Debra Jo's acting teacher was the director so he told the playwright that he had a great woman to do the workshop. Debra performed the role, and when Teri saw it she told the playwright she couldn't do what Debra Jo did... so Debra Jo got the New York production! That was her first big break... at age 36! She then did Cat On A Hot Tin Roof on Broadway... keeping her bookkeeping job, just in case.

Finally, she did what most 40-year-old actresses do. She went to Los Angeles. Seriously. At the age when most women are drummed out of TV and film, Debra Jo decided that she should try to break in. Turns out, her instincts were right. She got a string of roles (most notably Phoebe's [Lisa Kudrow] younger brother's wife on "Friends." Then she was offered an audition for a TV sitcom called Teenaged Wasteland. She turned it down. Three times. When they asked again, she finally went for it. Her agent told her that the studio specifically asked that she "be funny." She was like, "It's a sitcom! What has everyone else been doing?" She auditioned as the Mom and did her version of how she thought today's moms were. Then she found out the show took place in the '70's! They loved her because, apparently, her idea of a modern mother was 30 years in the past!

"Teenaged Wasteland" then changed its name to "That 70's Show" and ran for years. She loved it and was able to use her TV money to build the house of her dreams. She was hilarious describing the building of it because she insisted the whole thing be wheelchair accessible. Why? Because, she said, she wants to keep it forever and wants to make sure if she ends up in a wheelchair later in life, it's ready to go. Seriously! She said she drove the builders crazy because she'd look at the plans, shake her head and say, "I'll never be able to make it around that corner." I love it! Right now, she's starring in Becoming Dr. Ruth at the Westside Theater and loving being back in New York doing theatre. I knew Dr. Ruth as the sex advice lady on the radio from the 80's when I was a kid on Long Island, but I didn't know she lost her whole family in the Holocaust and was a sniper in the Israeli Army! You can get tickets at becomingdoctorruth.com.

Disaster! is going great! We've just added a special Friday matinee on the day after Thanksgiving as a matter of fact. This week, Kerry Butler and Katie Finneran came to the Wednesday matinee. It was so cool to have two great comediennes in the audience on the same day and we took a disaster pose pic after. Take a gander... 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.)