ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Robe, Please, for the Ritz

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Robe, Please, for the Ritz
Let me get my costume ordeal, I mean "fitting," out of the way.
Xanadu's Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman performed at the Chatterbox.
Xanadu's Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman performed at the Chatterbox. Photo by Paul Kolnik


Since The Ritz takes place in a 1970s bathhouse, I've been preparing myself for a skimpy costume. And by "preparing," I mean binge eating. Two weeks ago, I got the call for the fitting and even though the costumes are by William Ivey Long, the fittings were at a sassy place in the garment district run by a lovely woman named Jennifer Love. I asked her how many people meet her and make references to a.) Jennifer Love Hewitt and b.) Jennifer Convertibles. She said often to "a" and never to "b." What? Jennifer Convertible Sofas were a staple of my childhood commercial watching alongside ads for Mousetrap and Gnip Gnop. Anybody?

So, even though I was joking around, I was also preparing myself for the depression of being squeezed into a towel and parading about. I was, however, not prepared for the pleasant surprise of seeing a long, white bathrobe hanging on the costume rack. Ah! I thought, I'd feel comfortable wearing that on Broadway. I could show a little chest and, if the audience is lucky, a little gam.

Unfortunately, my fantasy was short-lived because I was suddenly asked to try on a pair of underwear. "To wear under the bathrobe?" I asked. Oh, these costume people are such purists, I thought Ñ even though my underwear wouldn't be seen, they wanted to make sure I had on a nice, tight pair. I was informed that the underwear might be worn under the bathrobe, or it might simply be worn. By itself. With nothing else. Isn't that against Equity rules? Subjecting an actor to love handle viewing by a general audience? I slowly stripped off my clothes a la Coco from "Fame" and put on said underwear. The "good" news is that I could fit all of my fat over the top and sides of the underwear. Excellent. Surely this is the worst part, I thought. Then ÑÊ Flash! That's right. Photos had to be taken Ñ front, side and back(fat), so that final decisions could be made on who in the cast should wear a towel, a bathrobe or just underwear. At least that's what I was told, but I know that those photos are going to be shown the next time there's a William Ivey Long game night. They'll be passed down a long line of costumers Ñ from a chortling Bob Crowley to a guffawing Willa Kim. Well, I guess it's my karma for my Streisand youtube clip.

This week I also had the pleasure of interviewing the two comic cut-ups from Xanadu, Mary Testa and Jackie Hoffman at the Chatterbox. They're laugh riots singularly, but together are a melting pot of hilarity. Mary talked about working with Bill Finn on the early Marvin Trilogy and walking home from Bill's apartment late at night. She and Alison Fraser would walk closely together because the West 80s in those days were not so safe. Around 1 AM, they passed by a hotel residence and an elderly man was having trouble working the door. Mary wanted to help but Alison warned her about the rough element in the neighborhood. Mary told Alison to calm down Ñ it was a very old man! She approached gingerly and helped the man with the door. She then asked if he wanted anything else. "Yeah," he growled, "Gimme some ____." Hmm Ñ how do I repeat this? Let me just say that he was interested in what Mrs. Lovett accuses Mrs. Mooney of "popping into pies." 'Nuff said. Jackie talked about her first audition in New York. She went to an open call for Merrily We Roll Along and the casting director looked at her photo and said, " Ñ I don't think so, Jackie." Mary immediately said that should be the title of Jackie's next show at Joe's Pub. Brava.

Then Mary talked about being the swing for Barnum. She had to cover all the ensemble women and they all did circus tricks. She wasn't nervous going on for any of them, except Sophie Schwaab (who later went on to play Rosabella in The Most Happy Fella revival).

Sophie was a world champion twirler Ñ and suffice it to say, Mary was not. One day Mary arrived at the theatre and was told she was on for Sophie. A hush fell over the theatre. Firstly, she had to wear a pink unitard. Please don't get any ideas, William Ivey Long. Secondly, she noticed that the backstage area was extra crowded. That's right. Word got out and crews from other shows flocked to the theatre to see what was gonna happen on that stage. Mary said that the big number was "Come Follow the Band" and normally Sophie was in front, leading a parade and doing trick after trick. Twirling three batons with one hand, throwing them up in the air, doing a cartwheel and catching them all, etc. Well, Mary knew she had to do something, she couldn't just stand there and sing, so she just twirled one baton at a time, threw it in the air and watched it land across the stage. But she made it look like an amazing trick, by pointing with a flourish to where it landed. As in, "I didn't catch it on purpose, instead, look how far I can throw it stage right!"

Jackie talked about being offered the final Hairspray reading (she played the female character track Ñ Prudy, the jailer, the gym teacher etc Ñ ). She loved the reading so much but felt she'd never get it on Broadway because her career refrain had been "I don't think so, Jackie." She finished doing the reading and, on her way out, told Marc Shaiman that she hoped Lea DeLaria had a great time playing it on Broadway. He assured her that she'd play it on Broadway, and, I do think so, Jackie, she did!

Broadway was a little terrifying to her, though. She was so used to doing Off-Broadway that she called one of her friends freaking out when she heard that she would be wigged. "I don't know how to put on a wig," she cried.

"There are people there who do it for you, Jackie," her friend explained.

"Every time?" she sobbed.

I asked Mary what her time was like being Liza Minnelli's understudy in The Rink. She said that the first time she went on was on a two-show day, July 4th , because Liza checked herself in to The Betty Ford Clinic. That made Jackie quip "Hey, what are you doing between shows? Ñ Rehab!"

Mary played the show for two weeks while they rehearsed Stockard Channing to take over the role. And then it played an additional two weeks. Ouch. Mary said that Chita Rivera is very in the moment when she performs, but likes to have everything she does pre-planned and almost choreographed. Mary is the opposite. She likes to change things up. Finally, one day, Mary did something different and it caused Chita to change the way she had always done a particular line. "I got you!" Mary teased to Chita after the show.

"You did," Chita said, admitting to changing a moment in the show. "And it didn't work!" Busted! They had different acting styles, but still, Mary said that Chita was phenomenal to work with.

This week I also had an audition for Spamalot. I had to learn "You Won't Succeed on Broadway," which is fun-nee, and they also told me to bring my own music just in case. I got to the audition five minutes before it began and realized I didn't have my regular audition song. I did what every New York actor does when he needs music ASAP, I placed an emergency call to Michael Lavine. He has everything ever composed and he'll send it anywhere. Within one minute, he was faxing my old chestnut to Chelsea Studios. He's amazing. A little while ago when I was in P-town, I was doing a show for Family Week and realized I didn't have the music that Mariah Grandy (Les Miz) was singing. Michael was driving in from Williamstown, but told me that if he rushed home and went up to his apartment before returning his rental car, he'd be able to fax it to me in 45 minutes, I'd have the stage manager get it and Mariah would be able to sing it as the 11 o'clock number. He got it done and Mariah brought down the house. I don't know if we should focus on the praise he deserves for keeping Broadway music alive, or the derision I deserve for being so mind-bogglingly irresponsible twice in ten days.

And finally, I saw Grease Ð the show that started it all for me, Playbill column-wise. I was asked to blog about the reality show earlier this year and that's what led to this weekly column. So I sat and watched it with a fond heart. It's also the show I played piano for the longest on Broadway, so I watched it with a lot of eye rolling and "if I never hear this song again Ñ " But let me say, it was so fun to see Max and Laura live! Sort of like a musical theatre version of "Broadway Danny Rose." And I was super impressed with the voices of Lindsay Mendez (who played Jan) and Daniel Everidge (who played Roger). They interpolated some sassy high notes in "Mooning" that made me totally look forward to getting the CD in the fall. And brava Jenny Powers as Rizzo. I worked with her last summer at the Perry Mansfield New Works festival in Colorado and I was busting her for always playing nerdy soprano roles. She told me that's not really her, and boy was she right. She looks so gorgeous in the role and her acting and singing is delish. And I know my Rizzo. In my Grease days, I saw Jody Watley, Debby Boone, Rosie O'Donnell, Maureen McCormick, Tracy Nelson, Sheena Easton and Brooke Shields. Oh, yeah, and MacKenzie Phillips, Joely Fisher, and Linda Blair. You know, I do a lot of joking in this column, but I ain't joking now. Those women all played Rizzo. Don't get me started on the Vince Fontaines I've seen. OK, you did. Cousin Brucie, Joe Piscopo, Donny Most, Mickey Dolenz, gymnast Dominique Dawes. Oh, wait. She was Patty Simcox. Ow, my head hurts.

OK, that's it for now, I have to go to bed. Rehearsals for The Ritz begin tomorrow! Note to self: Buy highlighter/look over script/schedule lipo.


(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

The company of <i>Grease</i>.
The company of Grease. Photo by Joan Marcus
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