Debbie Allen Reveals On-Set Fame Secrets and How It Led Her to a Tony Nomination for West Side Story

Seth Rudetsky   Debbie Allen Reveals On-Set Fame Secrets and How It Led Her to a Tony Nomination for West Side Story
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from Stars in the House and highlights from his live concert with Judy Kuhn.
Debbie Allen in <i>Fame</i>
Debbie Allen in Fame Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios

It’s Juli’s birthday week/month. I’ve raised Juli since she was six and I’ve given her the time-honored Rudetsky tradition of celebrating birthdays for an entire month. So, yes, September 22 was her actual birthday, but we’re going to dedicate Thursday’s Stars In The House to her! There’ll be lots of B'way people dropping in and telling hilarious stories about their past experiences with Juli…like Marissa Jaret Winokur taking her bra-shopping for the first time, Anika Larsen giving her the “birds and the bees” talk, and Christine Pedi swimming with Juli in Tahiti during a Playbill cruise and getting stung up by a school of something in the sea.

There are so many Stars In The House episodes I want to write about plus interviews for Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show and my podcast all about high school that I am so behind on all the things I want to put in the column each week. I feel like Lucy in the chocolate factory with all the chocolates going by faster and faster. Going back to the reunion of the film Fame from weeks ago, one of the things I found out that shocked me was the Debbie Allen actually played a student in the school! I always thought she was a dance teacher in that classic Leroy audition scene with “Red Light,” but turns out she’s an upperclassman assisting the dance teacher. The same as how Boyd Gaines is an upperclassman assisting the acting teacher during auditions.

As a matter of fact, Debbie’s character was supposed to be Coco’s student nemesis! There was supposed to be a big number in McDonalds with Debbie sassing it up while wearing a fierce red dress and Coco ragging on her. Around two weeks into film rehearsal, the director (the late great Alan Parker) came to Debbie and said that he already had a ten-hour film and had to start cutting stuff...and her number was gone. She was devastated…until he agreed she could keep her dress! #LemonadeFromLemons

Debbie Allen in <i>Fame</i>
Debbie Allen in Fame Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Studios Inc. All Rights Reserved.

That film not only led to her starring on the TV show for years, it led to something else: Debbie remembers entertaining Gene Anythony Ray (Leroy) between takes by doing a character with a Spanish accent. Well, she was overheard by Joanna Merlin who played the main dance teacher. Joanna had a second career as a casting director and when she heard Debbie’s accent, she asked her if she wanted to audition for Leonard Bernstein and Jerome Robbins to be in the West Side Story revival. Debbie got the role of Anita and a Tony nomination. And all because she was messing around between takes! Here she is doing “America” on the Today Show!

Debbie also mentioned that at one performance, right before she went on for her big number “A Boy Like That,” a pipe fell backstage in the wings and hit her on the head! It REALLY hurt, but she was able to get through the scene and song. Leonard Bernstein was in the audience and didn’t know what happened, but right after the performance he came backstage and told her that he loved her performance that night because he could really sense her inner hurt and pain. Inner!?!?

Jennifer Simard in <i>Disaster! </i>
Jennifer Simard in Disaster! Jeremy Daniel

We also had a Stars In The House dedicated to people who work in other aspects of the theatre besides performing and Broadway house manager David Calhoun was featured. He was hilarious! He happened to be the house manager at the Nederlander when Disaster! was there. He loved the show and especially all the songs he had grown up listening to. One night, a very elderly looking woman was being seated. He heard her say she was so excited to her the songs because they were from “her generation.’ He was like… ‘Wait…she’s in my generation? I look that old!?’

He was also telling us that as a house manager, you often have to calmly deal with irate audience members. One night when he was working at the Marriott Marquis Theatre during Thoroughly Modern Millie, an audience member came up to him during the show and demanded a refund for the entire college group he had brought with him. Why? Because the man was offended by the interracial relationship between the Asian character of Bun Foo and the white character of Miss Dorothy! He not only wanted his money back but he wanted to know what show to see that wasn’t offensive. David mentioned Beauty And The Beast but that was kiboshed because there was “bestiality”. Rent was obviously out and finally the man asked David whether or not he should see Chicago. David paused and then said… “Maybe that’s for you. God luck!”. I’d love to know how long he lasted there!

“Come on babe, why don’t we paint the -”
I DEMAND A REFUND!

The new season of my podcast Seth Rudetsky’s Back To School just began a few weeks ago starting with Martin Short, Wayne Brady, Rosie Perez and this week’s guest Maureen McCormick. The show is all about celebrities’ high school years. It was so fun talking to Maureen who was playing a high school student in the ’70s while she actually was a high school student. However, the real Maureen was not the high school sweetheart like Marcia Brady. Maureen said she wasn’t particularly lucky in love in her high school years at all. She told one story about a boy she was dating who lived in another town. Her friend offered to drive her to visit him…and on the way he told her that her boyfriend was dating another girl! Maureen was outraged! “I know where she lives. Wanna go there?” her friend asked. Maureen said YES!!!!! They got to her house and started honking up a storm. Finally, the girl came out and Maureen confronted her. Soon, they found out that were both, indeed, dating the same boy. End of the story: they both broke up with him and they immediately became great friends. And that friendship has lasted to this day… 45 years later!

You can listen to all of my Back To School podcasts here.

And finally, I did a live concert with Judy Kuhn. Man, that voice! She can sing amazing high soprano like Cosette in Les Miz and Amalia in She Loves Me, yet belt up a storm in Chess and Pocahontas. Usually, my concerts are only available when they’re live and then once more the next afternoon, but Judy’s concert is streaming on demand. It’s so good! Here she is doing the song that was written for her when she starred in Chess. In the original key!

Watch the whole concert at TheSethConcertSeries.com and peace out!

Correction: It was Joanna Merlin, not Joanna Gleason, who co-starred in Fame. Playbill apologizes for the error.

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