ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Back from the Boardwalk

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Back from the Boardwalk
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.

Harvey Evans
Harvey Evans Photo by Aubrey Reuben

I'm writing this sitting next to James, Juli, my intern Chris and his boyfriend. As I type, some of the others are watching the film "Paul Blart: Mall Cop," and James is reading the newspaper. Hmmm….I'm thirsty. Maybe I'll have some chilled water or Diet Coke. Or maybe I'll just look at the scenery out the window. How are all these opposing activities possible you ask? Because I just did my show at Trump's Taj Mahal in Atlantic City, and they transported me to and fro by an enormous stretch limo!

[AUDIO-LEFT]I was nervous that the audience would resemble an AA meeting where everyone was still working on the first step, but they were actually great. I hired Chris to supervise the tech for my show, and he made the lights look amazing. Juli joined me onstage during rehearsal of the "Writing on the Wall" section, and I gave her a lesson on how to deconstruct (mainly "point to the high note"). Watch it here: http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/

The week began with me spending an amazing evening watching a Michael Bennett salute by the group called "Dancers Over 40." It featured a panel of original dancers from all of his shows plus his collaborators; Baayork Lee and Bob Avian. There were so many amazing stories told, and I was most impressed with how Michael could take a show that was a mess and turn it into something fabulous. Harvey Evans spoke about how the prologue of Follies was not working at all, but Michael kept re-staging it, over and over again. Finally, on the last day the show was in Boston, the newest prologue was put in, and it was stunning . The Follies people talked about the number "Who's That Woman" in which the older Follies ladies would haul out a big tap dance. Turns out, none of the ladies had actual taps on their shoes because they weren't the best dancers. So they would "tap" onstage, and there would be dancers backstage wearing tap shoes doing their exact steps. What I loved finding out is that it was mainly men doing the steps! Steven Boockvor said he and the others crammed themselves in a tiny room backstage that had a microphone, and they each figured out who would take the solo sections (I love the thought of the guys saying, "I'm Alexis Smith, then you be Yvonne DeCarlo, then I'm Dorothy Collins"). The Follies cast members lamented the book problems of the show, and Bob Avian remembered how he and Michael asked Sondheim to keep writing more and more recitative sections so that there could be less and less book. Then we watched a video of the original show featuring the amazing Ethel Shutta singing "Broadway Baby" leading to the end of that section of the show. Bob remembered Michael Bennett asking Sondheim to write an ending that combined "Broadway Baby," "Rain on the Roof" and "Ah, Paris," and Sondheim said, "But those songs don't go together." Michael said, "I know… but can you do it anyway?" And, of course, it worked and it's thrilling. Here's a clip of it http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=N4RWgDw3Wh4

"Dancers Over 40" asked me to come to the evening and do a deconstruction of one of my favorite Michael Bennett numbers, "Turkey Lurkey." It was so fun to talk about it in front of some of the original dancers like Kelly Bishop. If you've never seen my deconstruction, take a gander. The staging is unbelievable ! http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/2008/09/24/deconstructing-turkey-lurkey/

Speaking of which, Kelly, who was the original Sheila in A Chorus Line talked about the first workshops of the show. She said that Michael worked linearly and wouldn't move on to the next number until he had finished the one before. She remembered that right before the presentation of the show for Joe Papp, they still hadn't staged the finale. Instead of choreographing it from scratch, Michael just pieced together steps he had staged for the Milliken Breakfast Show, which was a big industrial in the 70's. Kelly remembers Michael saying, "Let's do the wedge, and the kickline…" and it wound up being perfect because "One" is supposed to be a number featuring quintessential classic chorus dancing. Brava on last-minute choreography! Speaking of "One," I've done a string of videos for TonyAwards.com which highlight a Macy's contest where you can videotape yourself singing to try to win a ticket to the Tony Awards. I took the character I created for the Legally Brown videos I did with Lin-Manuel Miranda (I'm essentially a hostile/uninformed vocal coach) and I coach Broadway performers who want to win tickets. I took the songs that Macy's got the rights for and called up the original performers. So, I give a coaching to Priscilla Lopez on "One," Andrea Burns on "96,000," the kids from South Pacific on "Wash That Man," Norm Lewis on "Stars," Andrea McArdle on "Maybe" and because Robert Preston is no longer with us, Hunter Bell on "Trouble." I cannot believe the passive/aggressive comments I got away with. In one video, Andrea McArdle starts belting "Maybe" and I immediately put my hand over my ear and yell, "Ow!" Then I ask, "Um…Andrea…I assume you've seen the Annie? Well, in the first scene, Annie is cradling the littlest orphan in her lap and trying to sing her to sleep, correct?" "Yes…" Andrea replies. I then ask, "Then why are you yelling?" I demand that Andrea sing the song up a fourth…and in her soprano voice. Horrible. I didn't really plan what I was going to say to everyone, but it seems like I'm continually mystified that each person has ever been on Broadway. I think I based that bit on my one of my Legally Brown coachings. Derrick Baskin comes to coach with me and mentions he's in The Little Mermaid. SETH: (Confused) You are? Who do you play?
DERRICK: One of the Sherie Rene Scott's sidekicks.
SETH: Huh. I don't remember you. At all. Uh…maybe you were out the night I saw it?
DERRICK: Maybe. When did you see it?
SETH: Opening night.

Anyhoo, take a gander at my rudeness. http://www.cbs.com/specials/tony_awards/video/?pid=1Gi3i3F8GQZZKZ8Fp0RSRLejWO_VnIVr&vs=Default&play=true

Kelly Bishop
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Back to more Michael Bennett. Kelly Bishop did the first two workshops of A Chorus Line, and it looked like the show was never going to happen. She was going through a divorce and needed money and vowed she was never going to do chorus again. She got offered a supporting role in the national tour of Irene and took it. She was hilarious telling us that she really didn't want to do "that old show," plus it was the second leg of the tour, so it didn't hit any of the cool cities like San Francisco or Chicago. Suddenly, right when she began the tour, she heard a rumor that A Chorus Line was going to happen. PS, this was before the internet, so that rumor had to work hard to travel all the way to Denver. She was devastated she had signed a six-month contract and would not be able to do it if the show happened. Michael Bennett called her at her hotel and asked what she was doing. She explained she was under contract, and he mulled it over then said he'd call her back. When she got to the next city, Michael told her that he spoke to the producer and she should call him. She then told us that this was a testament to Michael's manipulation skills because as soon as the producer answered the phone he said, "Kelly! I would never do anything to hurt your career!" Obviously, he had gotten an earful from Michael. Kelly got out of the contract because Michael bought her out…meaning he had to pay her producer what she would have made for all of those months. Kelly said it was an incredible ego boost to know that this theatrical genius thought she was so valuable that he'd spend his own money to get her into his show. The tag of the story is that she remembers warming up for A Chorus Line a few weeks later. She said it was very "Luigi"…meaning they were stretching to bongos on the stage, and they were all mellow and too cool for school. She recalled that at one point Michael sauntered up to her in the middle of the warm-up, put his head on her shoulder, whispered, "I just got the bill for Irene" and sauntered out.

Steven Boockvor (who was the basis for Al in A Chorus Line) talked about getting busted for fooling around onstage and, turns out, the great director/choreographer Graciela Daniele was able to crack him up onstage without the audience seeing her doing anything remiss. They were both in a freeze for a long time during one segment in Follies, and she would drip drool out of her mouth…but only on the side away from the audience! Excellent salivary skills! Steven also remembered playing Zach in A Chorus Line and whenever Paul would do his monologue about being gay, Steven would recall being at the original taping session where Nicholas Dante told that same story, pretty much word-for-word, which was turned into the Paul monologue. Steven would sit in the back of the house and cry because it was so moving. One night, he felt a hand a hand on his shoulder. It was Michael Bennett. Suddenly, Michael whispered forcefully in his ear, "Zach would not cry during this!" Steven was mortified and never cried again. It's great to get a note from the director, but why did it have to resemble the last scene from "Friday the 13th," where terrifying Jason leaps out of the peaceful lake?

Here's my "Don't Judge a Book By Its Cover" story of the week. I was at a gym I don't normally go to, and I ran into a friend who shall remain nameless, but suffice it to say he's been nominated for a Tony in the not-too-distant past. I was complaining about my gut and admiring how great he looked. Without missing a beat, he told me not to be jealous because he was wearing Spanx! That's essentially a girdle that holds in your butt and stomach. I was bewildered and asked him, "You're wearing Spanx? To the gym?" He nodded and told me that in the morning he knocks on neighbors' doors and finds someone to help him into it. I walked away in a daze and then ran back to him to ask if he ever takes a shower at the gym. He said he covers himself with a towel and takes off the Spanx in the shower. "Wait a minute," I asked. "I've been in the locker room and those towels are crazily small. How can you get them around your body?" He immediately explained that he took Velcro from the costume room of the Broadway show he was doing and sewed it to two towels so they fit around him. I was impressed. What dedication! So the next time you admire someone's fabulous physique, don't give him a compliment til you're literally standing next to him naked.

Attention, Washingtonians! I'm coming to D.C. on Monday, June 7 for Deconstructing Broadway and to do my Master Class for audition songs. Check for tix and register at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/. Until then, Spanx for the memories. Anybody?

* 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.

Michael Bennett and original <i>Chorus Line</i> cast members
Michael Bennett and original Chorus Line cast members Photo by Martha Swope
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