How Yul Brynner Occasionally ‘Opted Out’ of His Number in The King and I

Seth Rudetsky   How Yul Brynner Occasionally ‘Opted Out’ of His Number in The King and I
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from Judy Kuhn’s time in King and I, Paul Castree’s crazy audition for Tommy Tune, and more.
Yul Brynner in The King And I.
Yul Brynner in The King And I.

I’m sitting on a deck and listening to the ocean waves in beautiful Nantucket! I’m here with Christine Ebersole because we’re launching the Broadway series I usually do in Provincetown at Dreamland in Nantucket tonight. We did a small preview of our show last night and I told the audience that I had never been here before but I felt like I had because I’ve read every Elin Hilderbrand book. (She lives on Nantucket and all of her books take place here.)

Seth Rudetsky 7.23.18

Last week in Provincetown, I was at a bookstore and a man in front of me had her latest book. I didn’t even know there was a new one! I got so excited, asked him where it was located in the store, and was told it was the last copy. Furious. Well, cut to the post-show reception, I met Elin Hilderbrand!!! She told me that one of her friends heard me talking about her during my SiriusXM radio show so she was not surprised I mentioned her during my show. She told me she’s going to drop off her new book for me and she’s going to give me the galleys to the book that isn’t even published yet! OMG! Take that, stranger at the Provincetown Book Shoppe.

Last week began with Judy Kuhn who sounded fantastic! Here’s a Facebook Live video of Judy and Beth Malone, her co-star from Fun Home, singing “I Know Him So Well” from Chess. Talk about #StillGotIt!

I asked Judy about her early career and she told us that her first big job was touring in The King And I with Yul Brynner. Judy said that Yul would do a proper bow only if he got a standing ovation. He would come onstage for the curtain call in a king-like fashion, stand center stage with his hands on his hips, glaring, and when the audience finally stood, he would bow. If they did not stand, he would instead bow to the cast. Meaning, he would turn around and show his butt to the audience. #Burn!

Seth Rudetsky 7.23.18

Another peccadillo he had was arbitrarily deciding to cut “A Puzzlement” on certain nights. But no one would know until the last minute. Judy and the other ensemble members had an entrance right after the song but they’d always have to be in the wings before the number, waiting for a sign from the stage manager telling them if Yul was opting out. If so, they’d have to immediately enter. Since when do classic songs in shows become optional? “Munchkins! We’re gonna skip ‘Defying Gravity’ tonight. Proceed directly to intermission!”

Speaking of optional songs, here’s something about optional notes: This is one of my absolute favorite singers, Orfeh, in a hilarious Obsessed! we filmed years ago. In it, we recreate the night she couldn’t hit a high note during Saturday Night Fever and covered up by simply pointing to a high note in the air. Watch!

P.S. Orfeh is back on Broadway as the sassy sidekick in Pretty Woman!

Speaking of amazing singing, you’ll remember James and I put up Concert For America on June 30. Keala Settle, who originally sange the song for the movie, flew in from L.A. to perform “This Is Me” from The Greatest Showman, but couldn’t get to the theatre for soundcheck. I felt like we needed to run the song with a vocalist in order for the backup people and band to hear it once. I sent an email to my backup singers and asked if anyone could sing it for sound check. Kris Roberts, who’s in Beautiful and had been recommended to me by Michael McElroy because she sings with the Broadway Inspirational Voices which he runs, emailed me back. She wrote that she’d ‘give it a try’. End of story is she sounded SO AMAZING that I had to bring her on my radio show to recreate it! Here’s the interview with her and then her doing the number. Holy cow!

This week also happens to be the birthday of my good friend Paul Castree on July 25, so I thought I would share his first New York audition story, which is also my favorite “First Audition in New York” story. He was living in Rockford, Illinois, (where he had gone to high school with Marin Mazzie, Jodi Benson, and Joe Mantello!) and had just finished working at Opryland. Tim Schultheis (now an amazing photographer who did my 8x10!) was living in New York and told Paul that, according to Backstage, the Bye Bye Birdie tour with Tommy Tune was looking for "tenors with Midwestern looks." (Paul has a crazy high voice and bright orange hair). New York City? Paul said it was like someone saying, “There are some great rocks on the moon, come get them!” Nevertheless, after much pressing, Tim convinced Paul to fly to New York for the open call. Two days later, at 8AM, Paul showed up at Equity in his “audition” outfit, which consisted of jeans, high top sneakers and a multi-colored shirt he got at Kmart.

Stuart Howard was casting and asked all the non-Equity people who were auditioning to come into the room and line up. It wasn't for a firing squad, but close to it. He pointed at a few of them and asked them to stay…and the rest got a “thank you very much.” Paul didn't even know there was such a thing as “typing” people and was so thankful that he dodged that bullet. It would have been really fun to fly across the country for $650 to be at an audition for ten seconds and get thank-you-very-much’d.

They asked the men to dance and, afterward, Paul was asked to stay and sing! He showed the pianist his song (“Magic Changes” from Grease) and the pianist shook his head and told him that the casting people didn't want anything from Grease. Paul was devastated because he had nothing else in his book, but decided to mask his devastation with blank-faced confidence. "That's what I've prepared and that's what I'll be singing." He wasn't sure if he was going to get his 16 bars thrown back in his face, but instead it momentarily stunned the pianist and Paul used that opportunity to walk center and nod politely. The pianist started playing, Paul sang and he was then asked to read! Yes! The only goal Paul had set for himself was to be able to sing at a real New York audition, and he'd reached it. Everything else was now delicious icing on the cake.

Seth Rudetsky 7.23.18

Stuart Howard asked him to read for the role of Hugo Peabody. Paul worked on it in the lobby and came back in and gave it the reading of his life. He was selling it to the back row. One minute into his high-energy read, Stuart put up his hand and said “Stop! Paul…this isn’t children’s theatre.” Ouch. I guess his version of high-energy had the essence of “M’lady! The moat is being crossed by a fire-breathing dragon! Everybody…clap if you’re scared of dragons! I can’t hear you!”

Anyway, Paul toned it down and was then asked to hang around. A whole bunch of other guys came in and lined up for Stuart. They were all dressed in New York dance audition outfits: black pants, black shirts and black dance shoes. Stuart announced that they all should come back that evening for a call-back at the Uris Theatre with Tommy Tune. He then looked at the guys in their various hip audition outfits and lambasted them. “Didn’t you read the breakdown? We want guys with Midwestern looks! I want you all to go home, clean yourself up, change your outfits and come back looking like him!” He then pointed at Paul. That’s right! His Kmart shirt paid off!

Paul found his way to the Uris (now the Gershwin), which, incidentally, was where he saw his first Broadway show (Sweeney Todd) when he was in high school. And now he had returned, but this time he was backstage…auditioning for a multiple Tony Award-winner! Paul waited backstage while the ladies lined up onstage. Paul assumed that all Broadway callbacks happened on a Broadway stage. He didn't find out until later that normally they happen in a little rehearsal room and they pretty much only happen on a Broadway stage in Lifetime movies about Broadway.

The ladies each had to do a tap combination while Tommy Tune stood in the audience at their foot level and critiqued their tapping. Can you imagine the pressure!? It’s like singing of front of Idina Menzel as she stares at your larynx. Tommy would watch and say “Um…you missed a sound on the second flap,” and make them do it again. All the ladies danced and sang and then Paul saw a few come backstage and get their bags. Suddenly the remaining ladies onstage began screaming and hugging each other. “What’s going on,” Paul asked one who was running by him in a tizzy. “We just found out we got the gig! We’re going on tour! I have to call my mom!” Paul was in shock. He thought today was the first of many auditions. Turns out it was the day of the final callback. He would find out by the end of the day whether he got it or not!

Next, a bunch of guys went out to the stage and pretty much the same thing happened. Some guys left and the others celebrated getting the gig. Soon, the only ones remaining were Paul and two other guys. They talked amongst themselves and after weighing rumor and innuendo, decided that the two roles left open were Hugo understudy and Harvey Johnson. That meant that two of them were going to get a gig! Paul felt pretty good about his chances...two out of three! All three of them came out onstage and had to read for Hugo then sing, “Hello Mr. Hankle, this is Harvey Johnson…” and crack their voice on the high note. After they sang, they awkwardly stood there while and Tommy Tune, Stuart Howard, Gene Saks (director) and the Weisslers (producers) discussed them in the audience. Paul felt incredibly awkward. He tried to look pleasant and not aware that he was on display. Sort of a combination of professional/serious-about-his-art yet fun-to-work-with and eager for the job, yet not needy/desperate. In other words, more subtext went into his standing there than into his actual reading of the scene. Finally, Stuart Howard slowly approached from the back of the audience. This was it. One of them was going to be sent backstage and the other two would get the gig. Stuart looked at them all and said…. “Thank you very much.”


The three of them had “decided” backstage that two of them would get the gig, and all of them being sent home was not in the equation. Therefore no one onstage budged. Finally Stuart said, more pointedly, “Thank you! We’ll be in touch.” A.K.A. We won't be in touch. All three started walking off the stage in a depression. Paul couldn’t believe how close he had come just to have it all end so depressingly. They were all walking slowly and Paul was the last one to exit. Right when he got to the wings and was about to walk backstage, he heard Stuart stage whisper, “Paul!” Paul looked over his shoulder. Stuart beckoned him back onstage. Paul walked back in a state of shock. What now?

Finally, Paul got center stage. Stuart looked at him squarely and said, “Paul. We’d like to give you your Equity card and have you go out on tour with Tommy Tune to understudy Hugo Peabody and play the role of Harvey Johnson.” Paul was so overjoyed yet emotionally and physically exhausted that he immediately collapsed his body into a compact, tight ball. He said he didn’t explode…he imploded.

He did the tour (with Ann Reinking as Rose, Susan Egan as Kim, Marilyn Cooper as Mae, and Marc Kudisch as Birdie) and met one of his best friends, Jessica Stone who played Ursula. Can you imagine? Flying in from the Midwest for your first New York open call and by the end of the day having your whole life changed! How thrilling is that?

Paul also said that for every amazing story about getting a gig, there's the parallel story for someone else who doesn’t. Later on, Paul wound up working with one of the three guys who stood on that stage with him. That guy’s version of this whole story was: “I went to call back after call back. Finally, at the final one, this red-headed kid from the Midwest appeared out of nowhere and got the gig!” The good news, he’s gone on to be the brilliant Tony Award-winning choreographer of the future In the Heights, Hamilton, and Bandstand: Andy Blankenbuehler!

And on that note, Happy Birthday, Paul! And, peace out!

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