Attend a concert led by Seth Rudetsky and you’re guaranteed two things: crazy personal stories and unparalleled musicianship. Rudetsky possesses the uncanny ability to pull “inside Broadway” anecdotes out of stars—as evidenced in his weekly Playbill column.
On December 2, as he returns to New York City’s Town Hall with his Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway series, the musical director/MC/accompanist/head of sassafrass will bring that to the stage times two. For this concert, Tony nominee Megan Hilty and Tony winner Jessie Mueller, who recently starred in the made-for-TV movie Patsy & Loretta, join him for an evening of duets. (Click here for tickets.)
“He’s so funny and hyper-intelligent,” Mueller says. “There’s nobody like him.
“Also,” she adds, “he talks so wonderfully fast that before you know what he’s done you’re already answering the question. He’s already gotten it out of you.”
“He’s so good for two reasons,” Hilty continues. “First of all, we’re actually really good friends with him, so it sounds like really good friends are talking to each other because they are. Second of all, he knows so much about the industry that he knows what questions to ask. It’s not just blanket statements like ‘What do you want to play in the future?’ He knows exactly what’s happening backstage on these things and he can get us to tell stories we wouldn’t normally tell in our own concerts.”
Those stories don’t just make for a fascinating evening, they impact the music. “It makes us sing them in a different way because we just started bringing up old memories,” says Hilty. And because Seth chooses songs during the show, the spontaneity leads to singular moments.
Here, we do our best Seth impression, asking Mueller and Hilty to reveal tales of their pasts. From their childhoods singing around the house to the roles they never thought they’d get (Hilty’s is a doozy), get to know these leading ladies even better than you think you do:
What was the show that was a formative experience for you?
Jessie Mueller: I remember seeing Gypsy when I was pretty little, probably six. I just remember being so transfixed by that show—the singing, the Mama Rose character. I loved the strippers, which is, you know, slightly inappropriate at that age, but they were so funny. It was such an exposure to a type of person that I—in my little life experience—had never come across. I think also there was something in that show because there are kids in it and young performers.
Megan Hilty: Jekyll & Hyde. It came through Seattle, where I’m from. I just remember sitting there thinking, “I want to make people feel like this.” The other one was Into the Woods. Someone gave me the cast album, the double CD with all the lyrics in it. I feel so bad for people that don’t have that experience because I love getting those albums and looking at the lyrics and reading along with it and imagining the whole thing in my head. We were honoring Bernadette [Peters for Thespians Go Hollywood] and she started singing and it was like everything in my body stood at attention. Her voice physically resonates in a really special place in all of us.
What is an onstage mishap you’ll never forget?
Mueller: I don’t remember what show it was, but I lost a petticoat once onstage. I had that moment where I was like, ‘Oh, it’s around my ankles.’ And then you have to figure out how you’re going to get it to come with you wherever you need to go or if you can go upstage or whether you should just bend down and grab it.
Hilty: They had me try out fight wands on Wicked all the time, when they were trying to design a new fight wand. They’d give a new one to me like every couple weeks. There was one of them that I didn’t practice with because I guess I’d gotten a little cocky. I was twirling it onstage and I was like, “Wow, this thing’s really light.” We looked down and it was gone. It had flown into the audience. Luckily, it landed in one of the aisles. Everybody was dying laughing. A nice man gave it to me.
What about a backstage tradition you’ll always remember?
Hilty: The funny thing about Wicked is that you’re not with everybody. They preload you in the bubble and they send you up and you’re just hanging out in the Gershwin. There is one spot between all the curtains up there where you can look down and you’re looking at one seat. I always got tickled by that. I would always wave to that person—they couldn’t see me—but if it was a hard day or something, I’d be like, “This one’s for you.”
Mueller: There was a one fun thing we used to do during Beautiful. Erik Hansen, who ran crew on the show and was also one of the head carpenters, he would hand me a yellow legal pad prop right before I went on for a scene so I could look like a decent actress, engaging in an activity before the scene. I had about 20 seconds before the scene started. They’d give me a word or two and then I was supposed to pretend to be writing a song about it. That was my songwriting practice every night, and there were actually some pretty good ones.
If you could go back to one role you’ve already played for a single night, to what role would you return?
Mueller: Julie Jordan. I feel like I could have kept doing that. It was such an experience getting to sing that music with that orchestra every night. It was very free.
Hilty: Gentleman Prefer Blondes without a doubt. We had such great plans for that. Then I got a TV show in L.A. Ever since that, I was like, "Oh man." It’s not a regret, but we’ll never get that some momentum with that show ever again.
Have there been roles that you didn’t really think you were right for, you auditioned anyway, and then you were surprised to receive the offer?
Hilty: Smash was really a big one for me. Everything made sense until I read that Ivy was a triple threat. That she’d been in the ensemble for years—at least a decade. And I was like, “No, no, no thank you. That means this person is way more talented than I am.” I cannot dance to save my life and I don’t want to put myself through dance calls because the ones I’d gone through are not pretty. I was like, “I’m not doing that in front of this insane team of people.” Luckily, they hired Josh Bergasse, who made it look like I knew what I was doing. But I told my manager, I was like, “I can’t audition for this.” I was terrified when I got it. There was a lot of smoke and mirrors.
Mueller: All of them? Drood… Loretta, I was like, “Wait, what?”
But Jessie, the versatility of your voice is so impressive. Is your voice naturally flexible or have you had to work at the malleability of it as an instrument?
Mueller: I mean, God gave me the voice he gave me, but I think I’ve always had fun being malleable and flexing it and trying to figure out what it could do. I was always mimicking people when I was little and I was always fascinated by people’s voices, whether it was singing or accents. I think a person’s voice is so informative to who they are and how they see the world. That’s how much they want to be heard or don’t want to be heard, how much of them they put out there or how much they hold back. When I approach something from a character point of view, that’s why things end up sounding different. Which is actually one of the challenges of doing concert work because—and I’ve talked about this in my shows with Seth, we joke about it—my mom used to say when I was tiny, “Well what does Jessie sound like?” I still feel like that sometimes. Someone will hand me a song or I’ll have to learn something and I’ll freak out a little bit. I’ll go, “Well, how do you want me to sing it? What do you want it to sound like? What’s the style?”
Jessie, you come from a family of performers. What was it like growing up all performing, and still doing so now? Especially with the holidays coming up.
Mueller: To me it just seems natural. I believe in our younger years there was a production of The Nutcracker that was performed in front of our Christmas tree. Maybe not with the stellar dancing that one would expect from these things. I have no idea what [we would do] now. Now we just all want to be in our pajamas and eat good food and relax. We don’t really want to perform when we’re having time off.
And Megan, you and your husband Brian Gallagher are both performers and you perform together with your band. Are your kids into it?
Hilty: My daughter is very much into the singing and performing. We have this little landing or two steps that go down into her bedroom. It looks like a little stage. One day she sat us both down in different parts of the bedroom and she walked up on the little stage that isn’t a stage and she said, “Ladies and gentleman,” twirling this thing around. And then she looked at us and she goes, “You’re supposed to clap.”
What was it like working together as Patsy Cline and Loretta Lynn?
Hilty: When I heard they’d asked her to do it I was like, “I’m going to bully her into it.” I texted her and was like, “Please, please, please do this with me.” She’s like, “We’ll see.” The first time we really hung out was my first night in Nashville and we went out to dinner, and it was just easy.
Mueller: We just clicked quickly. I think because of the relationship we were exploring… I don’t know if life imitated art or art imitated life, it just sort of had this flow. We kind of are Patsy and Loretta. I see in retrospect, there are a lot of similarities. Megan, she’s so strong, but she’s a nurturer. I’m a little bit like Loretta, I like to take care of everybody sometimes at my own expense. But it was such a joyful experience.
Hilty: [This concert] is just going to be a big love fest. I’m sure Seth is going to have some kind of trick up his sleeve and get us to do something weird—in a wonderful way.
This concert series raises funds for Sandy Hook Promise. Seth Rudetsky’s Broadway continues February 3 with special guest Patina Miller and April 13 with special guest Brian Stokes Mitchell. Visit TheTownHall.org for more information.