Onstage & Backstage: Disaster! Brings Back Performances of Broadway Past

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: Disaster! Brings Back Performances of Broadway Past for BC/EFA (Watch Here!)
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth interviews Clifton Davis and finds the incredible story behind Jennifer Simard’s scene-stealing song in Disaster! Plus, more songs from Broadway greats to raise money and the upcoming schedule of post-show performers.
Jack Plotnick and Seth Rudetsky
Jack Plotnick and Seth Rudetsky

First of all, I’m so excited because later today I get to meet and interview Toni Tenille from Captain And Tenille! She’s just came out with an autobiography, and I can’t wait to talk about all of her amazing songs…especially “Muskrat Love” which is featured in Disaster! Toni is coming on Seth Speaks, my Sirius XM talk show.

Speaking of which, I just had Carmen Cusak from Bright Star on the show. I totally see why people are obsessed with her. She reminds me of Jessie Mueller…really unique voice and so natural. When she began talking I found her accent so bizarre. When I asked why I found out it’s because she grew up in Texas and then lived in London! What the-? She sounds like Dame Dolly Parton. Also! She has the nerve to be a soprano (she played Christine in Phantom in London) as well as a full belter! Here she is as Elphaba singing “The Wizard and I.” I love how on the last note she does a foreshadow to the final riff in “Defying Gravity.” Brava!

My other guest was Clifton Davis. What a fascinating guy! He grew up on Long Island, but never saw a Broadway show. He wound up working at ABC in the video department. In his early 20’s, he went to see The Apple Tree, and, literally, his whole life changed. He decided Broadway was what he wanted to do and quit his job. Seriously! From seeing one (1) show! If you’ve never seen Apple Tree, here’s a fun clip of the brilliant Barbara Harris who won the Tony Award.

So, Clifton left his job with some money saved up and auditioned for Hair. They liked him, but told him he needed some experience and he should do summer stock. He totally agreed…and then, sitcom-style, asked what summer stock was. He wound up doing stock in New Jersey (for basically no salary) and learned about performing. The next time he auditioned for a Broadway show, he got it! The David Merrick production of Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey! He was in the ensemble and understudied Cornelius. I told him that I had heard Pearl Bailey could be a cranky-ass, and that there was something like a stoplight backstage where you’d see the color green to know she was in a good mood, yellow for “Watch out” and red for “Do not go near her!” He laughed and said they didn’t need a stoplight backstage—it was on her face! You’d just look at her and know when you had to stay the hell away! But still he liked her…although he was terrified to go on as Cornelius. She didn’t want to perform with an understudy and was ruthless with them.

Finally, near the end of the run, he went on for the first time. AH! He was waiting for her to destroy him…but halfway through she came up to him and said, in an understated way, “You’re all right.” He was so happy!! Here is that entire cast on the 1968 Tony Awards performing “Put On Your Sunday Clothes” and Pearl Bailey singing “So Long Dearie.” P.S. Someone tell the train bell in “Sunday Clothes” to shut the F up! It completely overpowers the singers!!! Why does it have it’s own body mic!?!?

Next up he did Two Gentlemen of Verona on Broadway…and got a Tony nomination! I don’t have any good footage of the original production, but here’s the version they did in the park a few years ago. It has Norm Lewis sounding amazing and dancing up a storm and it’s also the first time I saw—and became obsessed with—Rene Elise Goldsberry. They are both SO GOOD!

Anyhoo, while Clifton was doing Hello, Dolly! he was fooling around on the piano with a melody and someone told him he should write music. One day he was in Vegas at the Frontier Theatre seeing The Supremes, and he got to go backstage. He immediately went to the piano and asked them to listen to a song he wrote for them called “Here Comes The Sunrise.” They told him they wanted it on their next album! When he went to Hollywood to sign the contract a producer stuck his head in the door and introduced himself as Hal Davis, who produced the Jackson 5. Clifton yelled, “Do you have three minutes!? I wrote a song specifically for Michael Jackson!” He played Hal “Never Can Say Goodbye,” to which Hal said, “That’s a smash!” and bought it!

Clifton then got to be in the recording studio with tween Michael Jackson and teach him the song! Throughout the years, Michael always told him it was one of his favorite songs and, sadly, Clifton also sang it at Michael’s funeral. What a talent, and what a loss.

When Disaster! ran off-Broadway, Jennifer Simard (who plays the nun with the gambling addiction) sang “Signed, Sealed, Delivered.” It happens to be at the moment when she decides to give in to the temptations of a slot machine and use the money she’s been raising for the Orphan’s Fund. The song brought down the house and Jennifer got a Drama Desk and Drama League nomination for her performance. Well, right before we began rehearsals for Disaster!, we found out that we couldn’t get the rights!

First of all, imagine how we felt…and then imagine how much “fun” it was telling Jennifer! Well, before we told her, James, Jack and I decided we should first find a replacement song. We listened to tons of music and I settled on “Heaven Knows,” recorded by Donna Summer because she sings about how she’s “never gonna leave you” (the slot machine) and she references heaven, which I thought was great for a nun. James, however, kept looking for another song, even though I told him I had decided. One day, while he was listening to ’70s music, we were at Starbucks and he asked me, “What about ‘Never Can Say Goodbye.’” I immediately said “That’s it!” I knew the Michael Jackson version and loved it and that’s what I planned on doing. Then James, typical style, kept researching (even though I told him I had settled on a version) and he found the amazing uptempo Gloria Gaynor version, which I had never heard.

I decided to merge both of them. So, the nun starts out small and intimate…and then suddenly launches into a disco song when she sings “Don’t wanna let you go!!!” I called Jennifer, dropped the bomb about her old song but immediately told her I’d send her the version of “Never Can Say Goodbye” I wanted to do. Of course, at first, she was trepidatious…but the song wound up suiting her better!!! Why? Well, “Signed Sealed Delievered” is a fantastic song, but it’s all about someone who’s totally given over. “Never Can Say Goodbye” is all about the struggle of wanting something but knowing it’s not good for you, so it allowed Jennifer to play the tension throughout the whole song of giving in and then resisting. To me, the ordeal of replacing the song is such an inspiring story for artists: Often, when I have to change something (part of a script, re-edit my book, etc.) I think, “I can’t! It’s never going to be good! I’ve got nothing!” and this experience made me realize you really can actually make something better!

One of Jennifer’s reviews called her performance of the song “The Funniest Four Minutes on Broadway.” So thrilling!!!

And finally, we’re continuing with the post-Disaster! concerts to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS and they’re so much fun! Tuesday night we have Brian Littrell (from the Backstreet Boys) singing with his son Baylee, who’s starring in Disaster!

Wednesday we have Matthew Morrison joining his old Hairspray buddies Marissa Jaret Winokur and Kerry Butler (who plays the feminist reporter in Disaster!) AND they’ll be accompanied by composer/co-lyricist Marc Shaiman! Soon we’ll have Tituss Burgess and Vanessa Williams! Come see us by going to DisasterMusical.com.

Last week we had:
Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega singing from Rent (on the very stage where they first performed it on Broadway!):

20 years after they first shared the Nederlander stage, Adam Pascal and Daphne Rubin-Vega reunited last night to sing "Light My Candle" for our #DisasterRelief fundraiser for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tonight, catch Max Crumm and Laura Osnes bringing you some "Summer Nights"! DisasterMusical.com

Posted by Disaster - On Broadway on Wednesday, April 6, 2016

Laura Osnes and Max Crumm singing from Grease:

It may have been cold last night, but Max Crumm invited Laura Osnes to bring the Disaster - On Broadway some "Summer Nights" for #DisasterRelief benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Tonight: Rosie O'Donnell in a performance you'll never forget! Join us: DisasterMusical.com

Posted by Disaster - On Broadway on Thursday, April 7, 2016

Rosie O’Donnell singing a parody I wrote using a song from Grease:

Last night, Rosie O'Donnell joined us for a VERY special #DisasterRelief performance with her own Donald J. Trump version of "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" from Grease! #PrepareForDisaster

Posted by Disaster - On Broadway on Friday, April 8, 2016

Andrea McArdle singing “Tomorrow” from Annie:

Last night, we welcomed the incomparable Andrea McArdle, original star of Annie, to perform "Tomorrow" for #DisasterRelief benefitting Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS! Tonight, DO NOT miss Jeremy Jordan reprising a familiar role he made famous on the Nederlander stage after the show! DisasterMusical.com

Posted by Disaster - On Broadway on Saturday, April 9, 2016

And Jeremy Jordan singing from Newsies (which also played at the Nederlander!):

Last night, Jeremy Jordan brought the house down with his #DisasterRelief performance of "Santa Fe" from Newsies. We are doing this every night with different artists to raise money for Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. Join us: DisasterMusical.com

Posted by Disaster - On Broadway on Sunday, April 10, 2016

Peace out til next week!

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
Today’s Most Popular News: