ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Playbill Cruise With Christine Ebersole, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andrea Martin and Debra Monk

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Playbill Cruise With Christine Ebersole, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Andrea Martin and Debra Monk
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky, just back from a Playbill Cruise of the Mediterranean.

Seth, Andrea Martin and James
Seth, Andrea Martin and James


Hello from Lufthansa flight 463. I'm on my way back from the inaugural Playbill Cruise and it was a brava! We boarded the ship on Tuesday and the delicious part about the Regent line is that every room has a balcony. Speaking of delish, I did non-stop eating but somehow Andrea Martin wound up losing four pounds. How does she know she lost? From obsessively weighing herself everyday. Unfortunately, it took an incredible effort from her to actually see [AUDIO-LEFT]how much weight she lost because she can't see well without her glasses and, naturally, she took them off when she weighed herself because she didn't want the added poundage. Seriously. She would stand on the scale and completely contort her upper body down to the ground to get her eyes as close as possible to the scale readout. Not since Cirque du Soleil.

A word about the Playbill Cruise. The ship itself held around 700 passengers and around 130 of them were Playbill passengers. So, everybody on the boat saw the main shows that the Playbill performers put on, and then there were special shows and events just for the Playbill passengers.

Elizabeth, James and Seth

Therefore, Andrea was nervous about doing her show because it was the first time she had an audience that just happened to show up. Every time we've done this show before, people have come because they're fans or, as Andrea said, someone they know forced them to come. Because it was such a general audience, she was nervous that her show wouldn't work. I, of course, fixed her with my signature Bea Arthur blank-faced stare every time she mentioned that she was nervous because I knew her show would be amazing whether or not the audience was familiar with her ouevre. Nonetheless, she still was nervous and cut to: not only an entire audience crazily laughing and applauding non-stop throughout the show, but two standing ovations at the end. And the cruise director, Lorraine, told us she has never seen a show on a cruise get a standing ovation. Speaking of Lorraine, every day she made a video that played in our rooms and she was always in a great mood with a big, big, big smile on her face. Andrea used her to get some new Edith Prickley material. She came out as Edith at the end of the show told everyone that she was the new cruise director. "That's right. Lorraine didn't make it back to the boat in time after Pisa. But don't worry. She's right behind us, swimming as fast as she can. Smiling all the way." Of course, Andrea had to add a joke for Edith about some of the crazy food choices on board. "I know you haven't seen much of me lately. That's because I had some of those sugar-free cookies from the buffet. I've been stuck for the last two days on the poop deck!" Not since Rodney Dangerfield… The next show was Debra Monk's chatterbox. I interviewed her for an hour and she sang three songs, including "Everybody's Girl" which she did in Kander and Ebb's Steel Pier. P.S., when she first came to New York, her name was Deborah Monk but her agent made her change it. Why? Because he said Deborah was wa-a-a-a-a-ay to long to fit on a marquee. She immediately changed it to Debra. She told us it took only 36 years for it to actually get on a marquee.

Before she moved to New York, she got her masters degree. Why? Because her college professor told her she'd want one in order to teach since she'd probably never work. Yay? She got her degree and moved to NYC where she worked as a waitress for a couple of years. She and Cass Morgan became friends and decided to help each other out. Since Cass is such a great musician, she helped Debra with singing and since Deb had so many years of theatre school, she helped her with acting. They decided to write some songs about waitressing and, one night in a benefit, they were teamed up with some guys who were writing about working in a gas station. It was a you-just-got-your-chocolate-in-my-peanut-butter moment — a perfect combination — and that was the beginning of Pump Boys and Dinettes. The show started at the West Side Arts Theater and, after fantastic reviews, moved to Broadway where it was Tony-nominated as Best Musical! One year later, the show closed, and, in a testament to how hard the business is, after writing and starring in a Tony-nominated musical, Debra still didn't have an agent. Since then, she's worked non-stop, and after I interviewed her, even her close friend Andrea Martin was shocked by how many amazing projects Debra's been involved in. I had forgotten I saw her in the Off-Broadway play Woody Allen wrote (one of the acts in Death Defying Acts). She kindly reminded me of her very first line in the show: "What's the difference between sushi and p---y?" Pause. "Rice." If you want to see Deb and Cass Morgan reunited, they're going to be singing a song from Pump Boys and Dinettes tonight along with performances by me, Lillias White, Kelli O'Hara, Emily Skinner and more to benefit the Weston Playhouse in Vermont.

The next show on the cruise was the amazing Christine Ebersole. She began with songs that she's done throughout her Broadway career and from her various shows at the Cinegrill and Café Carlyle. Then I got up and we did a Chatterbox/performance section all about Grey Gardens. She told us about the people who bought the house from Little Edie. Christine said that Little Edie looked around the dilapidated mansion and told them with a casual air, "All it needs is a coat of paint!" Christine added, "…and then the piano fell through the floor." She sang "Another Winter in a Summer Town," "Will You" and "Around the World." Not only did she sound fantastic and completely transform into the character, but what I was most impressed with was the fact that, yet again, the audience didn't necessarily know her, but whenever there was a pause in the music, there was absolutely silence in the house. The audience was riveted.

Seth and Christine Ebersole take photos of each other in Pompeii.

The final big show featured Brian Stokes Mitchell. But it almost didn't happen. I'm obsessed with this story because it's so twilight zone. Stokes had to do some concerts in Cincinnati so he was scheduled to join the cruise in Corfu, Greece. He first flew to Athens and then got on his flight to Corfu. He had been traveling for many hours and took a delicious nap on the plane. When he landed, he went to baggage but didn't see his bags anywhere. He couldn't find any info on which baggage carousel had his luggage so he asked someone for help. The man asked where his flight came and stokes said, "Athens." The man looked at him and said, "You're in Athens." Stokes thought there must have been a language barrier so he repeated in a clearer voice, "My flight came from Athens." The man then repeated, "You're in Athens." Stokes backed away and went to a woman who looked more official. He repeated his signature, "I just flew in from Athens," and she repeated the now oft-repeated statement, "You're in Athens." Stokes didn't know if he was out of his mind or if he was still asleep on the plane. Then he thought that maybe he slept so deeply that he never got off when it landed in Corfu and the plane then made its return trip to Athens. Finally, he gave his flight number and found out what happened: when the flight got to Corfu, it started to circle because of bad weather. Finally, it was forced to go back to Athens! Stokes didn't wake up until the plane landed and missed all the information about the flights diversion. But, the cruise was about to leave Corfu and now there was no way to catch it. Playbill president and publisher Phil Birsh and Judy Perl from Judy Perl Cruises arranged for him to fly to Dubrovnik (natch!) and then have a driver take him to Cotor, our next stop. He got on the boat in the afternoon, and despite non-stop traveling, sounded amazing in his show. His voice is so solid. And, I had forgotten how riffy and jazzy he can be. Recently, he's been playing old-school leading men roles and singing legit, but on the cruise, he hauled out two Porgy and Bess songs and sassed them out. Speaking of which, Norm Lewis was originally scheduled to do the cruise (with Audra McDonald) but they both had to cancel when they got Porgy and Bess. Norm was overjoyed because he said it was the first time Stokes has ever replaced him!

Speaking of Corfu, Deb Monk, Andrea Martin, Christine Ebersole and her husband and my family went on an excursion together. The tour guide on our bus was torturous to my ear. First of all, she had no inflection to her voice. No words in a sentence had any emphasis. Most annoyingly, though, she linked every two to three words with "uh…" So, it sounded like (in thick Greek accent) "Corfu is full of uuuuuuuuh many stories that uuuuuuuuh are part myth and uuuuuuuh part fact and uuuuuuh." I thought I was the only one having a breakdown, but then suddenly Christine turned around, looked at us and went "Uuuuuuuh." We were all like, "I know!!!" We could not stop obsessing. Then the tour guide coughed softly a few times and there was silence. I looked at Andrea and whispered, "She died?" She obviously didn't, but the thought of that launched Andrea into an amazing imitation where she flatly spoke a few words with a Greek accent, went "uuuuuuh," coughed quietly and then closed her eyes as her head dropped to the side. It was so hilarious because it all had the same low energy. Andrea said, "She died as boringly as she spoke." Doing these excursions was like traveling with my 7th grade class, maturity-wise. Andrea also came with us to the Leaning Tower of Pisa. It was built to be the tallest bell tower in Italy. When we got there, though, we noticed it wasn't as tall as we expected. Andrea was disappointed and said it was like when you read a Match.com ad that says Handsome, writer/director, brown hair/hazel eyes, 6'3' and he shows up and is 4'2."

On our last night, we were docked in Venice. It also happened to be Juli's birthday. We spent the day shopping at Juli's favorite mask store and that night Phil Birsh took us all out to dinner at a stunning/delicious restaurant. Fantastic! Before dinner we took a real Venice gondola ride. We were told that the gondola could only fit three people, but we wound up getting one for six so Juli, James' mom, James, Deb Monk, Andrea Martin and I all got to be together. It was so crazily beautiful. I keep thinking how cool it is that when Juli gets older she can say, "When I turned 11, I spent my birthday in Venice."

O.K., the flight took off hours ago and there are still many hours left! Don't forget to watch my Playbill Obsessed video with Michael McElroy. I'm literally laughing through the whole thing.

Now, I'm going to finish my book and, as the unfunny refrigerator magnet says, but I actually mean: "My diet starts tomorrow!" (Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can be contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.)

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