ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Tale of Two Seths

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: A Tale of Two Seths
It was the best of times. It was the worst of times. It's one of the most beautiful Memorial Day weekends in recent memory. I've had strep throat since Friday.
Harvey Fierstein and Seth Rudetsky.
Harvey Fierstein and Seth Rudetsky.

Here's the deal: Thursday night I began to feel sick. When I woke up Friday I assumed I had gotten strep from Juli (James' daughter), who had it a week-and-a-half ago. I had a fever and hightailed it to the doctor. Of course, Murphy's law-style, the strep test came back negative, and I had no fever. That was literally the only five-minute period in the last four days where I haven't had a fever! I don't know why it happened right at that moment, but it made me look like a crazy person. He said not to worry, whatever I had would go away. I guess it did, if by "go away," he meant get progressively worse where I'm now on Tylenol with Codeine so I can sleep…and it's not even working!

The next morning James checked my throat with a flashlight, and let me just say that the only thing in recent memory whiter than my left tonsil is Hugh Jackman's 2004 Tony Awards performance of "One Night Only." I called my doctor and said that I must have strep, and since I'm allergic to penicillin, he gave me a Z-pack. He assured me, though, that I wasn't contagious anymore. But I felt terrible, so I had to cancel my afternoon tickets to Sunday in the Park With George. Devastating. Well, at least I could nap the whole afternoon. Really? Keep reading. Since James' mother is in town, we went out for a quick lunch, and then they all went to the South Street Seaport. I got back to my apartment to discover that James had my keys! Yay! It's fun to be locked out of your apartment with a fever and a white sweater on your tonsil. I had keys to James' apartment and slept there. By Sunday, I was determined not to cancel any more tickets, so I forced myself onto the subway and saw the amazing Gypsy. I'm so glad the show came to Broadway. People are always commenting, "Why do we need another revival of Gypsy?" My comment is, "Why did it ever close?" It should have stayed running since 1959. It was so fantastic to see and hear a full orchestra again after having to suffer through various revivals with orchestra reductions, yet ticket inflations. And I loved that the audience was completely silent during the overture because it wasn't used as a section of music to settle the audience so the show could then begin — it was the beginning of the show. The cast is fantastic. How great to have Patti LuPone back in an old-school musical. I remember thinking what a long wait it was between Evita and then Anything Goes, but that was less than ten years! This has been 20! I know she did her own show on Broadway, and plays and Sweeney Todd, but I'm talking old-school, high belt, stand on zero and tear-it-up musical comedy.

Side note: Speaking of standing on zero, I was lecturing to some school kids about Broadway with a bunch of cast members from Phantom and explaining to them that Broadway shows have numbers on the edge of the stage so people know where to stand so they don't block each other/bump into each other. The cast members told me that Phantom doesn't use them! I was aghast and then thought that maybe they didn't need them for dance formations. But I was then informed that there are indeed formations, and the cast is told things like "Line your body up to the slight crack you'll see upstage" or "Make sure you land that jete where the stage paint is slightly lighter." I heard it's a nightmare for the swings because they're not familiar enough with the stage to know where the crack is. Attention Phantomartistic staff: It's been twenty years! I'll paint the numbers on for you — it'll take me five minutes! The lighting guy from Phantom said that Tony Walton didn't like to have literal numbers on the stage, so he'd theme them to whatever show he was doing. During Guys and Dolls, they were all cards, and during Forum they were all Roman numerals. In other words, V was actually 5, prompting Nathan Lane to have a breakdown during rehearsal and say that there was no way to find your number unless you had a classics degree.

Okay, back to Gypsy. Laura Benanti was so fantastic. Her "Little Lamb" made me cry, and not out of boredom, which was always my reaction as a child listening to the cast album. The only time I'd ever lift that needle faster was when "Henry Street" came on my Funny Girl album. But Laura's version was so moving, and she managed to be totally emotional but not sacrifice her sound. I wasn't aware of her technique or anything, but I also wasn't thinking, "Ooh…that would have sounded good if only she were able to sustain it, or that would have sounded great, but the crying made it impossible for her to add vibrato, etc." And I've told her time and again how obsessed I am with her mooing when she's the cow in Dainty June's Farmboy number. It's such an amazing take on it. She doesn't try to be a cow at all. The subtext is, "I have no awareness of performing; I just have to say this syllable in rhythm." Every time she mooed I'd start crazily laughing and then have to shove a Halls in my mouth because it made my throat hurt.

Patti got a standing ovation after "Rose's Turn," and I think it was the first time I've been in a Broadway theatre where a standing ovation has happened in the middle of the show. Unless you count Good Vibrations, but the standing was then followed by walking out. Even though Dr. Clements said I wasn't contagious, I was too scared to go backstage afterwards, so I sent James with his mom, and he congratulated Laura for her brava-ness. James complimented her on the last scene of Act One, where she so clearly showed the devastation of June leaving with Tulsa, then the joy of finally being a family, then the horror of witnessing Rose's steely denial. James said that he learned from me to be specific in his compliments after he sees someone in a show. Let me teach you all my theory: The most annoying thing is to not say anything. I've been with so many Broadway friends who'll run into fans who'll say, "I saw you in your show last week." Silence. Finally my friend will have to awkwardly ask, "Did you like it?" Devastating. Then people will also say, "You were great in your show!" Hmm, you'll think, that's a nice compliment….but it'll be followed by, "and we got a parking spot right away…that was great!" I guess they're both comparable. I've found that celebs love knowing which specific moment you loved, like "Nice vibrato on the E vowel!" or "Sassy beveled leg while standing in the background!" Specifics, people, specifics! Also, I hate when someone says to me, "You were the best one in it." It implies that everyone was awful, but out of the awful people, you were the least awful. Thanks?

This week at Sirius radio, I had the ultimate pleasure of interviewing one of my idols, Harvey Fierstein! I asked him about his early Broadway experience, and he said that his mom would bring him from Brooklyn to Broadway all the time when he was a kid, and he actually got to see Merman in Gypsy! As a kid, he wanted to be an artist. When he was 15, he was asked to help out a local theatre group and make posters. Then they asked him to help out by being in Barefoot in the Park where he got reviewed by Backstage. In that issue there was a notice that said that Andy Warhol was going to do a play at La MaMa. Because Harvey was an artist, he worshipped him and decided he had to audition. It was an enormous open call. Harvey did Juliet's balcony monologue and was the only one cast…as a manic lesbian maid. He did the show at La MaMa but was too young to go with it to London. The director, Paul Morrisey, felt bad for him and said that he'd cast Harvey in his next film, "Flesh." Harvey got so excited, went on a major diet and lost 60 pounds. He showed up for the first day of shooting and Paul said, "What am I supposed to do with you?" Harvey asked what he meant. Paul said, "The only thing you had going for you was that you looked like a freak…a fat kid in a dress. Now you look normal" … and unceremoniously fired him! Hmm…maybe that's why I haven't gotten any film work…I'm too skinny! Well, not to worry. Since my strep throat, I've been "treating myself" every night with a full-out chocolate malted. Stand back, Hollywood, here I come! No literally…stand back, I need room.

Speaking of Hollywood, "What Happens in Vegas" just came out, and it's the film I actually did get cast in and then had to ixnay because I couldn't take off two days from The Ritz. Has anyone seen it? It's too painful for me to see. That could have been me up there, saying two unimportant lines to Ashton Kutcher. Instead, I said two unimportant lines in The Ritz (per act). Back to Harvey.

He recently got a New Dramatists Lifetime Achievement Award, and they showed a clip of Harvey on "Sesame Street" singing "Everything's Coming up Noses." Afterwards, Arthur Laurents, who was sitting nearby, turned to him and said, "Not bad." That, of course, prompted Harvey to write a note to Patti LuPone, "Please enjoy your run. I'm next." Then Patti started sending over boxes of chocolates she'd get from fans…with her name crossed out and Harvey's written in. But she'd eat half the box first. Then Harvey sent her a bowling bag filled to the brim with his 90's CD of himself live at The Bottom Line called "This Isn't Going to Be Pretty." He wrote, "Dear Patti, Would you mind hawking these in the lobby?" She wrote back, "Dear Harvey, Thank you so much for sharing your talent. I've given one to each member of the cast. As a matter of fact, we're canceling the matinee today so we can have a listening session. And if anyone shows up for the show, we'll make them listen to it." Harvey then wrote back, "Thank you so much. And by the way, I wasn't kidding." And, he attached another whole bag of CDs! Then Patti took a cactus that she got as a gift from someone (referencing the beginning of Act Two of Gypsy) and sent it to Harvey with his CDs taped all over it with ugly red tape. That was what I saw when I walked in his dressing room. An enormous cactus covered in red tape and CDs. I thought it was a tasteless present from a fan, but when I found out it was from Patti, I exclaimed, "It's beautiful."

I talked to him about A Catered Affair whose CD just came out, fyi! He plays the uncle of a bride who wants to have a small wedding. He's outraged because he thinks he's being excluded because he's gay. I had heard at La Jolla that his character was totally anachronistic in the 1950's, and I was happy when I saw it on Broadway because it seemed so real to me. I assumed it was overhauled. The family knew he was "gay," but the word wasn't used. He had a very close male "friend," and he was a "confirmed bachelor." Then I found out that that's how it was at La Jolla! So what was anachronistic?! Were people saying there weren't gay people in the 50's? Ever hear of the Mattachine Society? Annoying!

Harvey told me that he feels one of the most pivotal moments of his career was when he was performing the second part of Torch Song Trilogy By the way, the only reason it was in three parts is because he got the first act booked at La MaMa, and it was normally so difficult to get space there, his director told him to say it was a trilogy so he could get the next dates lined up. Brava! Anyhoo, after he performed the second part, an older woman named Mrs. Gettleman, who came to all of his stuff, approached him. She had on a turquoise suit, Brooklyn beauty parlor-styled hair, and a rose from her backyard pinned to her lapel. He turned, and she hit him on the arm. "What!?!" he exclaimed. "Write a part for a mother so I can play it!" she told him. That gave him the idea for a third part of the show, and he gave her the role. She changed her last name and became…Estelle Getty! And, had he not written that act, he believes the show never would have come to Broadway and his career never would have become what it became. Because everyone identified — not with the disapproving mother, but with him! Apparently, everyone's parents disapprove of something, and that allowed the audience to identify with Harvey's character. No one ever said to him after the show, "That's me and my son." They always said, "That's me and my mother." Brava Harvey and brava Mrs. Gettleman!

Finally, he told me about the celebs he met backstage at Torch Song. He freaked out when he heard that Merman asked for tickets to Torch Song Trilogy. Or, specifically, she called a press agent friend of his and asked for tickets to "that trigonometry thing." Afterwards, she came backstage and, because she hadn't read this column on how to greet a celeb backstage, Harvey was forced to ask her, "What did you think of the show?" The Merm responded with her signature candor. "Ah, I thought it was a piece of s***. But the rest of the audience laughed and cried, so what the f*** do I know?" He loved it. His other idol (and mine) also came backstage during Torch Song...Barbra Streisand! He said that they chatted about Broadway, and Harvey feels that he and Barbra are opposites. For him TV and movies are a great way to make money, but his heart lies in the theatre. He told me that to him doing a movie is like going to a job in an office. He feels you can have a great office job, but theatre is where he lives. Barbra did Broadway, but it was never what she wanted. She loves to get it right and then move on to the next thing, plus she always wanted to reach as many people as possible. We should have seen the writing on the wall when she accepted her Emmy for "My Name is Barbra." On the pink four- CD set, she includes her Emmy speech, and she talks about how many people saw her television special and that she did the math and figured out that in order to reach that many people she'd have to do Funny Girl for 63 years. My question is, Why didn't she do Funny Girl for 63 years? She stopped doing it before I was even born. And, whenever she does sing Funny Girl songs in concert, it's always the one I'm not interested in hearing. Come on, already! Ixnay "Don't Rain on my Parade," and haul out "Private Schwartz." And, quite frankly, the last time she sang one of my other faves, "Coronet Man," she responded to "Mrs. Gould."

His other favorite backstage star was Richard Chamberlain. Harvey told him that he'd always had a crush on him, and Richard agreed to act out a scenario Harvey had always fantasized about. Harvey left the room, waited ten seconds, Richard turned out the lights and lay on the couch. Harvey walked in, said, "Honey, I'm home" and kissed him! Hmm…I thought. That was the fantasy? I'd call that the preamble to the fantasy.

All right, I'm out. This week I'm finally gonna see Sunday in the Park With George and then interview Jenna Russell at my Chatterbox! And, I'm going to go to beautiful Feinstein's on Sunday night and see the brilliant Emily Skinner sing up a storm: feinsteinsatloewsregency.com for tix! But first, some throat-coat tea, two Halls and a delicious malted. Purely for medicinal reasons. *

(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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James visits Laura Benanti backstage at <i>Gypsy</i>.
James visits Laura Benanti backstage at Gypsy.
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