ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Backwards & Forwards

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Backwards & Forwards
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Eve Plumb and Florence Henderson
Eve Plumb and Florence Henderson Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Happy Birthday to Me! I'd like to take that title from a terrifying(ly bad) eighties teen slasher flick and turn it into a Broadway extravaganza. How about: Happy Birthday to Me… and Tommy Tune, Brent Barrett, William Finn, Kelly Bishop and Berndette Peters. That's right, all of us were born on Feb. 28! For those of you that wonder what I did on my birthday, you should know that I always have a four-to-five week birthday celebration because I hate the pressure of having to enjoy one day. So let me say that my birthday began with a little brunch at my house yesterday, and I plan to end it with a birthday Seder.

OK, here's a weekly recap: [AUDIO-LEFT] Monday began with the annual Broadway Backwards benefit for The Center and Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. When we first began doing it a few years ago, it was in a little room at the Center (nickname for the Gay/Lesbian/Bisexual and Transgender Community Center) on 13th Street. This year, it sold out the Vivian Beaumont Theater in Lincoln Center! The concert features women's songs sung by men and vice versa. This year, Florence Henderson was the host, and she began the show by singing that old chestnut, "Shipoopi." Richard Kind then came on as a government official and told Florence she had to stop because it was wrong and against the law. Richard was fun-nee. At one point Florence repeated one of her lines, and he busted her with "Aren't you off book?" Then he got back into character and said disgustedly, "I know your type. Six kids." Pause. "And a gay husband." Snap! Florence was hauled to jail, and the show became sort of a dream sequence of what she'd like Broadway to be. There were so many great performances. Julia Murney sounded fantastic on "What Is it About Her" from The Wild Party, and Doug Sills did a brilliant "I Could Have Danced All Night." First of all, I was so impressed that he did all three verses and was able to make them all different and interesting. Also, I loved that the number was done completely as is with no cuts, so the servants condescendingly sang to him, "I understand dear…it's all been grand, dear…but now it's time for sleep." Who were they? And why were they making a man in his forties go to sleep? It made no sense/was hilarious.

My favorite performance was Len Cariou and Lee Roy Reams singing "I Remember It Well," which is from Gigi and usually sung by an old married couple where the husband is recalling how they first met and constantly being corrected at every turn by the wife. At one point it goes:

HE: We dined with friends…
SHE: We dined alone…
HE: A tenor sang…
SHE:A baritone…
At the concert, they sang:
LEN: We dined with friends
LEE ROY: We dined alone
LEN: A tenor sang
LEE ROY: (spoken) It was Lauren Bacall. (sung) A bass-baritone.
Brava tip o' the hat to their stint in the original production of Applause!

Before the show I was backstage in Aaron Lazar's dressing room and was chatting with his dressing roommate, Tony Goldwyn. When Bob Bartley (the director) asked him to do the show, Tony said he wanted to, but he'd be out of town working up until the concert, so he wanted to do an easy song. Bob readily agreed. Cut to - the "easy" song Bob assigned him was "Conga" from Wonderful Town, which has a ton of lyrics… and they're all in a list. Example: What do you think of our rhythm bands, monkey glands, hot dog stands? What do you think of Stakowsky's hands? Then What do you think of our Native Squaws? Charles C. Dawes? Morton Laws? What's your opinion of Santa Claus? I told Tony that all the references were from the thirties so nobody would know if he messed them up anyway. It reminds me of "I'm Still Here" with its non-stop name-dropping of things that are only recognizable if you're past age 70. Who in the audience nods with recognition when the lyric mentions "Bebe's Bathysphere?" Besides my mother. All of us got to use the Lincoln Center dressing rooms and before I talk about them, let me go back to New Year's Eve. James and I went to David Friedman's party and partook of his fabulous toilet. First of all, the seat itself is heated and on top of that, there are various buttons to push that aim water at all areas of your underside. Then there's a button to push that aims a dryer! James and I were obsessed and dying to get one 'til David told us it cost around $1,500. We then realized we were going to stick with our K-mart, off-the-rack toilet seat. Well, imagine my delight when I discovered that the toilets in the Lincoln Center dressing rooms are all David Friedman-style! No wonder Danny Burstein is still in South Pacific. Who'd want to leave? And that's obviously why they announced the August closing of South Pacific this week. People need at least six months to detox off those bidets.

Back to the actual show: One amazing moment happened while I was offstage. Bob Cuccioli was onstage with Ann Harada and company singing "Paris Original" from How to Succeed. Lots of us were watching the show from the wings and when the chorus of the song began, I heard someone singing along right in back of me. I then turned around and saw it was…Michele Lee! Rosemary from the original run of the show and the film humming the tune she sang 48 years before! It was such a delicious Broadway moment.

Florence Henderson
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

As I mentioned before, Florence Henderson was the host, and the fun part was, she was also my guest at the Chatterbox. Turns out, she was the last of ten children, and her father was 50 (!) when he began having kids. James and I did some calculation, and that means her father was born in the 1860's. Holy Abraham Lincoln! She was very poor growing up but was able to come to NYC to study for one year at the American Academy of Dramatic Arts because someone from her hometown sponsored her. That's where she learned to get rid of her thick Southern Indiana accent. Before she began her second year of school, she auditioned and got cast in the chorus of Wish You Were Here… alongside Phyllis Newman! Then she auditioned for the national tour of Oklahoma! It was an old-school audition in a Broadway theatre (as opposed to a rehearsal studio). After she sang, the man in the audience said that he wanted his partner to hear her sing later on that day. "Who's your partner?" Florence asked. "Oscar Hammerstein," responded Richard Rodgers. Yowza! After her callback, they offered her the role of Laurie, but she didn't know anything about the show. She asked Richard Rodgers, "What's Laurie like?" And he said, "She's a lot like you." Aw! Florence told us that after a year on the road, she got the opportunity to do a screen test for the part. She then glared and said, "I obviously didn't get the film. It went to that b*tch, Shirley Jones!" She then told us she was joking, and they were actually good friends. Speaking of good friends, she and Richard Rodgers were very close throughout his life, and she sounds fabulous singing his music. I did a re-creation of the deconstruction I did in Broadway Backwards, which features Florence singing "The Sound of Music." She's brilliant! Watch! http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/

After Florence did the tour, she auditioned for her first leading role in a Broadway show and got called back many, many times. Finally, she had her final callback and went home to visit her family in Indiana. When she got there, she suddenly got a telegram from the producer, David Merrick. It said, "Come back to New York…Fanny!" What a great way to find out you got a title role in a show! She played opposite Ezio Pinza and told us about opening night. Mary Martin had done South Pacific opposite Ezio, and she was about to open in Peter Pan. She sent him an opening-night card saying, "I hope your Fanny is as big as my Peter." Wow. They were dirty back in the fifties!

I do a comedy show called Deconstructing the Brady Bunch Variety Hour and mentioned it to Florence. She asked me, "Why are gay people so obsessed with that show." I replied, "Have you ever seen it?" No response. So I continued: "The outfits? The song choices? The plotlines?" She concurred. If you don't know what I'm talking about, here's a clip from my show: http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/2009/03/01/deconstructing-the-brady-bunch-variety-hour/ .

Tonight I'm playing in a big benefit for the children of Haiti at Joe's Pub. There is a fabulous line-up, and it was put together by the great composing team of Stephen Flaherty and Lynn Ahrens, and it's music-directed by Randy Redd. Go to Joespub.com for tix. I think Kecia Lewis-Evans is going to re-create her amazing "Mama Will Provide" from Once On This Island. Yes! On Friday I fly to Dallas' Watertower Theatre to do my Deconstructing Broadway show and a master class. You can get tickets and register for the class at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/. The delicious part is the show and master class are both selling well and James is coming along to visit his grandma. The headache-y part is our flight leaves at 7 AM. From Newark. I essentially have to go to bed now in order to get enough sleep to wake up that early. So, on that note, peace out!

* 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 contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.

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