ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Be a Lion…Or a Hand Model

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Be a Lion…Or a Hand Model
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, Seth Rudetsky and James Monroe Iglehart
Derrick Baskin, J. Bernard Calloway, Seth Rudetsky and James Monroe Iglehart


My dog, Maggie, has round worms. Don't ask me how I found out, but let me just say it happened during a walk, and it highlighted that old adage that what goes in must come out. And cut.

This week the good news is, I finally finished my young adult novel! When my literary agent told me that there is a big market for young adult books with gay leading characters, I thought I was being punk'd, but nonetheless I started writing one. I wrote the first three chapters, and a big publishing company became interested in signing it but told me I needed to finish it first. [AUDIO-LEFT] That was three years ago. Finally, in November, I forced myself to sit in front of the computer and, a couple of nights ago, it was done. I feel so relieved. It's like when you have a horrible report for AP English hanging over your head and you finally hand it in. Ahhh. Of course, for me that was usually followed by a bad grade and angry teacher comments in which she'd underline the most hostile parts, but the initial relief is the same.

This week at the Chatterbox, I interviewed J. Bernard Calloway, Derrick Baskin and James Iglehart from Memphis. Immediately, I asked J. Bernard what was up with the name "J. Bernard," and he said there was someone else in Equity with his name so he had to change it. It reminded me of when Billy Porter got Miss Saigon years ago. There was another "Billy Porter" in Equity, so he had to change his first name to an initial and add his second. Thus he became "W. Ellis Porter." Unfortunately, not everyone knew he wanted to be called Billy, and once in a while someone would yell for him at rehearsal with a loud "W. Ellis! W. Ellis!" Ow. The only thing more awkward than that name was the six foot raked stage they had to dance on.

Speaking of awkward names, when Audra McDonald joined Equity, she thought you had to be official on the form and give your full name. She didn't know you were supposed to write down what you wanted to have listed in programs. That's why when she won her first Tony Award, she was Audra Ann McDonald. Anybody remember that time in the mid-'90s when people called her "Audra Ann"? Thankfully, she's now plain ol' W. Ellis McDonald. All three guys from Memphis have been friends in real life since before they were doing the show on Broadway, and both James and J. Bernard tried out last summer to play the Lion in the City Center Encores! concert of The Wiz. James was laughing remembering the night right after the audition. He went to see J. Bernard in The Good Negro. After the show, they were chatting, and James told him how great he was in the show. Finally, James had to say, "Um…I just found out. I got the lion." J. Bernard gave him a big hug and congratulated him. They walked a little more, and suddenly he grabbed James by the collar and started shaking him, screaming, "Motherf*****! You stole my part!" Brava on his honest reaction.

Derrick didn't move to New York to be a Broadway performer. Yes, he wanted to be in the arts, but not specifically Broadway. Actually, as I write this, I don't even know if his initial chosen vocation is considered the arts. Essentially, he moved to New York hoping to be a jingle singer…and a hand model. Take a minute for it to sink in. A "jingle singer": I guess because it's still the '70s and there are tons of jingles on the air. And a "hand model": I guess because when you're young, you either want to be a movie star or a hand model. It's a phase we all go through. Thankfully, he didn't get very far and somehow auditioned for Rent. He got tons of call backs…but never got the gig. But, it made him realize he wanted to perform…and not just with his lovely hands. He remembers his audition for the role of the comfort counselor in Spelling Bee. He sang "I Have Nothing," but one minute into it, he heard someone behind the table laughing. It's certainly not a comedy song, so he was a tad mortified. But turns out, it was the composer William Finn who was laughing because he loved Derrick's voice so much and was thinking how fun it would be to write for it. Derrick got the gig and said his biggest thrill was singing on the Tony Awards. Unfortunately, he got sick, and was totally hopped up on Contact and cold remedies during the awards. He remembers his voice feeling really closed off before he sang, but when he got up for his solo section, everything opened up. Then, as soon as they went to commercial, it closed back up again. Listen here to how great he sounds!

I'm very excited because my sister Nancy and her family are coming to visit me soon. We're going to see In the Heights as per usual (they for the third time, me for the ninth.) The sad news is that my sister's mother-in-law just passed away. But that hasn't stopped my sister Nancy's sass. After the funeral, Nancy and her husband Allan were receiving people at their house. Nancy was greeting people at the door to make them feel comfortable, and one guy walked in who has never been friendly to her. He looked at Nancy greeting him and wanted to make a hostile comment about her not looking sad. He got the rudeness of the line correct, but not the content, so he wound up saying, "Boy. That's a pretty big smile for someone who just died." Nancy calmly busted him under the guise of clarification with a friendly, "Actually, I didn't die. My mother-in-law did. But I'm sure Allan will be glad to see you." I'm completely obsessed.

I coached a lot this week, and I had a coachee who went to the Hair open call. She got there at 5:30 AM…and was number 400! It reminds me of the crazy open calls that used to happen for Rent. My friend Paul Castree went to one of the first ones and was shocked that so many people came who were not at all right for the show. He remembers that the line was crazily long, and standing right in back of him was a 67-year-old woman…with tap shoes. What choreography in that show features pull backs and wings?

I saw Roundabout Theatre Company's Present Laughter featuring a fabulously talented cast and starring Victor Garber. It also features the dry, amazing line-readings of Tony Award winner Harriet Harris. I was trying to remember when I first met her, and I realized it was during an early workshop of Thoroughly Modern Millie. I was the music director and she was Mrs. Meers. She was panicked about singing for the first time in a show. Cut to: She later won a Tony Award for the role! FYI, she was not the first Mrs. Meers, although she was the first female. That's right, when we did the initial reading, Mrs. Meers was played by Edward Hibbert! In drag. And, another FYI, Muzzie was played by Christine Ebersole. This was back in the mid-nineties and I remember Christine telling me she wanted to leave L.A. and come back to Broadway. Cut to; she now has two Tony Awards. And who's the person with zero Tony Awards? The narrator of this story. You know what they say: Those who can, win. Those who can't, narrate. And 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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