ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: On the Playbill Cruise With Roger Bart and Ana Gasteyer
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
This is the final week of Disaster! Get thee ASAP! Last week we had Goldie Hawn come to the show with Hoda Kotb from "The Today Show," and this week Ana Gasteyer, Jane Krakowski and Lewis Black are coming. So excited! WNYC radio aired a show with the critics from the NY Post (Elisabeth Vincentelli) and TimeOut NY (Adam Feldman) talking about the current season. At the end, they both recommended seeing Disaster! which Elisabeth called "probably one of the funniest shows playing right now" followed by Adam calling it "the funniest show I saw last year!"
Right before I was to take over, the show closed. Excellent. But then I was immediately offered a gig as a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" so it all worked out! I finally got to work with Roger in 2001 on The Producers, where I played in the pit off and on and conducted once in a while. Speaking of which, when he auditioned for that show, he was going in for the role of Franz Liebkind, the Nazi (played Brad Oscar). As soon as he walked in, Mel Brooks yelled to Susan Stroman, "He's too short!" Hence he was cast as Carmen Ghia. He had to wear a black catsuit in the show (!) but he thought it made him look like he had a belly. That's why his signature stance always included his hands across his stomach.
He told us that he had gone to Rutgers and, after he graduated, he went to this big audition where you sing/act for three bigwigs who can then cast you into various regional theatres. He was not cast in anything. Instead, he got letters from all three telling him that he should not pursue theatre. Yowza! Regardless, he wound up getting the role of Tom Sawyer in the national tour of Big River and then taking over the part on Broadway in the mid '80's. Speaking of taking over, he took over Norbert Leo Butz's spot on the cruise because Norbert got a TV pilot. Nevertheless, that didn't stop a passenger from approaching Roger and raving that she loved him in Big Fish. He smiled and said, "I think you mean Big River." I love that he figured out a way to have it make sense. He then decided, for the rest of the cruise, to call himself Norbert Leo Bart.
When Roger was first cast in Big River, he was a replacement and director Des McAnuff gave him a move to do in the middle of the song "Hand for the Hog." Roger didn't want to copy the original actors' moves and really pushed to create his own. It was not taken well, and after the rehearsal process was over, Des asked where Roger went to school. Roger told him that he graduated from Rutgers and Des said he was going to write to the theatre there and tell them that they messed him up. Reverse recommendation?
Regardless, Roger wound up getting along great with Des, who then cast him as Tom Sawyer. (Roger took the blocking he was given without comment.) Roger has a very impish sense of humor and hauled it out when he was doing Big River. One night he was offstage talking to a fellow cast member and Roger suddenly feigned a panicked look on his face and told the guy that while they were talking, the guy had missed his cue. The other actor ran out for the scene he thought he was late for... but instead he had entered a scene early... the scene that featured two actors on a raft. So when the guy ran out and stood in the middle of the stage, it also meant he was standing in the middle of the Mississippi River. I'm sure he now thinks it's funny... 30 years later.
Roger also talked about his friendship with Jonathan Larson. They were very close and, apparently, that's why Adam Pascal's character was named Roger! Roger actually remembers Jonathan running up to him one day and, because they were both struggling financially, he complained to Roger that they were constantly just trying to pay #rent. He literally said "everything is #rent." When Jonathan was writing Rent, Roger did demo tapes of some of the songs and he remembers being in the recording studio with a bunch of friends and they didn't really know how to end the title song, so they did their version of rock singing and slid off the end of the last phrase ("Cause everything is…re-e-e-e-ent!"). It was just a lark to do that slide but when Roger went to see the Broadway show, suddenly it was in the score and the whole cast did it!
After Triumph Of Love, he got cast as Snoopy in You're A Good Man, Charlie Brown. As most of you know, Kristin Chenoweth became a huge star from that production and, boy, was it apparent backstage. Roger said that he would arrive at the theatre and there would be an enormous pile of TV and film scripts sitting near the stage door for her. He'd ask, "Anything for me?" Silence. Roger wound up winning the Tony Award for that show and afterwards he was listed on theatre sites as as "Tony Award winner Roger Bart." Then he did The Producers where he was nominated for his role as Carmen Ghia, but Gary Beach won. Suddenly, Roger started being listed as "Tony nominee Roger Bart." He doesn't understand why he was demoted. Doesn't his Tony win still count?! Roger mentioned that he wasn't even nominated for his role in Young Frankenstein, so I told him from now on I'm going one step further down and simply listing him as "Equity member Roger Bart."
After Roger's show was Ana Gasteyer's big concert. She was, of course, so funny and also sang really great songs. I'm now officially obsessed with her version of "One Mint Julep". Watch her do it in concert... she goes up to sassy F's!
Speaking of her sass, there was one day when both James and I wore khaki shorts and Disaster! t-shirts. We totally didn't know we were wearing the same thing until Juli pointed it out at breakfast. Ana commented that she was happy to see we're on the slow slide towards dressing alike and on the even quicker slide towards putting comfort over fashion. Brava! During her show, Ana told the audience that her mother recently commented that Ana was "developing into a very handsome woman." Ana immediately called her friend and told him the story. He told her that when he was in high school, his English class was reading "Pride and Prejudice" and someone in the book was referred to as a handsome woman. They asked the teacher what that meant and she paused and finally said, "Barbra Streisand is a handsome woman."
Ana then realized that she and Barbra shared so much. First she reminded the audience that Barbra played Fanny Brice in Funny Girl on Broadway, The West End and in the film version. Ana bragged that she did it at the Pittsburgh Civic Light Opera. Same thing. She also pointed out that Barbra permed her hair for "A Star Is Born" and "The Main Event." Ana grew up in humid Washington, D.C. and spent her childhood with a hairstyle that she referred to as "God's perm." Speaking of Funny Girl, I worked with Ana when she got that gig and something happened to us that we still refer to up until today. We did an Obsessed video about it... watch!
That night I got to interview Tommy Tune. I have so much respect for him! I asked him about the brilliant number he staged for Grand Hotel called "We'll Take A Glass Together" with the charecters of the Baron and Otto. Tommy first told us about casting the role of Otto, the man who's on the verge of death and wants to spend time at the beautiful grand hotel before he dies. They were having trouble finding someone for the part and Tommy remembered seeing Alice In Wonderland starring Meryl Streep at the Public Theater and loving the guy who played the dormouse. They tracked him down (Michael Jeter) and found out that he was working as a receptionist. Tommy brought him in to audition and Michael was incredibly nervous and told him that he didn't sing. Tommy had him sing "Happy Birthday" while holding his hands (they were shaking), and Michael got the gig.
Tommy told us that he felt like he had to make that song a tap number because that's what the audience expected in one of his shows, but it wasn't working. At the time, his mother was very ill and Tommy would fly to Texas on his day off and visit her. He told her about his trouble with the number and she asked about the time period that it took place. He told her that the show was set in the late 20's and she suggested that he highlight the dance craze from the flapper era. She slowly got out of her sick bed and got up the energy to demonstrate some 1920's moves, which Tommy showed us. And that's why he decided to make the number a Charleston. As for one of the other signature moves in the song; Michael Jeter was joking around in rehearsal and jumped over the bar and Tommy loved it and put that at the end of the number. Watch!
Ah! My column is up and I'm only up to Tuesday on the cruise! More in my next column including Christine Pedi's snorkeling craziness, James' irresponsible swimming, shows by Liz Callaway/Judy Kuhn/Lewis Black/Brian Stokes Mitchell... plus details about my "Chatterbox" with Jefferson Mays!
(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.)
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