ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Broadway's 101 and Roger Bart

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Broadway's 101 and Roger Bart
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Roger Bart and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox.
Roger Bart and Seth Rudetsky at the Chatterbox. Photo by Christie Ford

The show began with the Gypsy overture played by nine musicians and then after 16 measures, I stormed onstage and told the audience not to settle for the new-style small Broadway orchestra. PS, I wasn't joking. Some orchestras on Broadway really just have nine people! And, as I say in the show, that's the size of "The Brady Bunch" including Alice. Not including Oliver. Remember him and his bowl cut? Anyhoo, I then brought on a full orchestra that played the whole overture and it was thrilling! It's so delicious to hear a full string section. The hard thing about Monday is that we teched all afternoon and then did a 7 PM show…followed by a 9:30 PM show! I was getting really tired by the second show but felt that if I complained I'd be like those people who say, "It's so hard for me because I want to spend time relaxing at home with my handsome husband but our tickets to Hawaii are non-refundable."

I did a section of the show on riffing and told the audience that I had once conducted a benefit where the woman singing "Don't Rain On My Parade" ended the song with this amazing riff. I then demonstrated the riff and heard crickets. I waited a minute and said, "That's odd...it always brings down the house when Lillias White does it….trust me!" At that moment, the "Don't Rain on my Parade" vamp began and Lillias came out onstage…and did indeed bring down the house! She is such a fantastic performer because her riffs are so musical and from an acting choice. As opposed to certain pop singers whose subtext is either a. I'm amazing, or b. that note is too high for me so instead of sustaining it, I'll hit it for a nanosecond and then riff off of it. I don't want to mention any full names, but let me just say, you're not fooling me, Mariah C. If you wanna see some Broadway 101, there are tons of clips on Youtube.

Last weekend I went down to the Village and saw Junie B. Jones, which is the Theatreworks/USA show playing at the Lucille Lortel Theatre. Peter Flynn directed, Devanand Janki choreographed (the same team who did Broadway 101) and, not surprisingly, the show was great. Marcy Heisler and Zina Goldrich — of "Taylor, the Latte Boy" fame — wrote the score, and the brilliant Jen Cody stars in it. Jen is such a great comic actress. She also played me as a little boy in Broadway 101, and if her role in Shrek doesn't work out for her, I see a bright future as a drag king. The musical version of "The Year of Living Dangerously," anyone? No one?

At Junie B. Jones Norbert Leo Butz was four rows ahead of me sitting with his kids, and then right next to me was Brian D'Arcy James with his daughter Grace, meaning that both the original and replacement casts of Dirty Rotten Scoundrels were in the audience.

On Thursday I interviewed Young Frankenstein star Roger Bart for the Chatterbox. He grew up in Princeton and then moved to Savannah, GA. His father worked for a paper company, which, Roger says, had a large part in ruining the Savannah River. Roger has a mortifying childhood memory of wearing a T-shirt that said "Trees Are Renewable." Hmm….I have a mortifying childhood memory of wearing purple plastic jazz pants, leg warmers and white Capezios. Who's more mortified today? Probably me because my outfit still exists in living motion on the videotape of me jazz dancing to Gloria Gaynor's "I Am What I Am." Roger said he loved performing in madrigal groups in high school, and when he's doing Broadway cast recordings, he can always tell who's been in a high school madrigal group because they know how to blend. I asked him if he shows up to recording sessions in ye olde madrigal outfits and he asked me if I meant a "madri-gown." Brava on that term! Roger Bart, get thee to a renaissance fair stat!

I was shocked to find out that Roger's uncle ran Paramount Pictures with Robert Evans (!) and made the films "The Godfather," "Rosemary's Baby." He's now the editor of Variety. I asked Roger if he used that connection, and he said that his uncle was able to get him an audition for Juilliard, but they told Roger he'd have to repeat his first two years of college and he was too eager to graduate so he stayed at Rutgers. Speaking of Rutgers, he was classmates with Kevin Chamberlin and remembers taking theatre class and spending a long time studying period bows. Of course, he figured he'd never need them. Cut to 15 years later, he was co-starring opposite Kevin in Triumph of Love, and every night they ended the show with Restoration bows! Hmm…perhaps Roger's next play will employ mask-work or "pass the pulse."

Roger had a manager after college who got him an audition for Big River and said if it didn't work out, he should go in for "Star Search." He wound up getting the first national of Big River and was relieved he didn't have to go in for "Star Search"… but I was disappointed to hear that. Was anyone else obsessed with "Star Search"? First of all, I want to know who coined the expression "spokesmodel"? The same people who did "nanny-gate"? And remember the acting category? We'd actually sit through two different actors doing the exact same scene twice! Ah…it was a simpler time. And, a more boring one.

Roger was cast as Tom Sawyer in Big River and got to take over the role on Broadway. He admits that he was decidedly not well-liked amongst the cast, probably because of his practical joking. He was backstage during the show one night and sat down on an extra inflated whoopee cushion that he had planted. Instead of the laugh he expected, his dresser said, "You are such an (name that is not repeated in polite company)." Then he was talking with another actor who had an entrance at the same time he did, and Roger kept the conversation going until the last second and then started to go out onstage. But, he was just pretending. It was way too early for their entrance! It was still the scene before their entrance, where two people are on a raft, and the other actor walked out into the middle of the Mississippi River. He stood there awkwardly, got glared at by the King and the Duke who were on a raft… and then fled, prompting him to a. bruise Roger's arm b. call him the same word that the dresser had first coined.

Roger became good friends with Jonathan Larsen and recorded many demos for him, including all of Superbia and the first three songs of Rent. Roger played "Roger" on the demo and when Jonathan asked him to audition for the actual role, Roger declined because he felt he would never get it and didn't really want to play it. Roger felt that Jonathan was an idealist who wrote his heroes as incredibly noble, and Roger wanted to play someone with more of a sense of humor. Later on he regretted not auditioning when Roger was doing the not well-received King David. That was the first show at the restored New Amsterdam Theater and Roger remembers looking across 41st Street at the crowds for Rent and feeling like he was literally on the "wrong side of the street."

Roger was cast as Cousin Kevin in the first national tour of The Who's Tommy and credits Wayne Cilento with helping him dance for the first time. He said that it was a nightmare at first.

ME: What was hard about dancing?
ROGER: (immediately) Moving. (pause) Moving my body to rhythm.

I love how it's the literal definition of dance. On the first day of rehearsal Wayne taught the cast the "dance vocabulary" (i.e. steps and the style that would be used throughout the show), and Roger said that he went into a fetal position. When he left rehearsal, he thought he would never go back. But the net day, Lisa Mordente (who was assisting…and is also Chita Rivera's daughter!) brought him into another studio and taught him the dances really slowly and was able to get it and sass it! That's why I constantly advise young kids studying the theatre to get thee to dance class now! I always say: Fifth position now negates fetal position later.

Roger is not a fan of kids who work in theatre and would essentially torment the little Tommys. He was supposed to roll Tommy in a garbage can, and the centrifugal force would keep the kid against the side of the can. Roger would stop it while the little Tommy was at the top of the can so he'd essentially fall from the top to the bottom. I'm curious to know what it sounded like when a nine-year-old called Roger the term first coined by the Big River dresser.

In The Secret Garden Roger was in charge of the wheelchair that the little boy character used, and he would always keep it a little further back than the boy thought so the boy would be about to sit and then stumble backwards. Maybe Roger should try out for the Bette Davis part in the remake of "Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?" Roger defended himself by saying he would overhear horrible conversations between child actors and their parents. During The Secret Garden, one little boy asked him mom for a dollar. She told him that she had just given him a dollar on the last break. He replied, "Mom, who makes the money in this family?" and the mother sheepishly gave him the money. Ouch!

I thought Roger was fantastic as the Harlequin in Triumph of Love, and he said that the rehearsal period was crazy because F. Murray Abraham would quit the show every day right at around 5:50. Then, that night, he would call the director, Michael Mayer, and rejoin the show. Speaking of Michael Mayer, he pushed for Roger to get the role of Snoopy in You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown because it was a toss up between Roger and another actor. That's why Roger was so thankful to him in his Tony speech. And, speaking of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, whenever my friend Jack Plotnick wants to bust theatre people for abbreviating show titles, he'll say pretentiously, "That was back in '91 when I was doing "Good Man."

Roger said that it was hard show to get laughs in "Good Man" because it was really old-school sketches. At one point, one of the gang says "Hi, Snoopy!" and he's supposed to lament, "Nobody ever calls me sugar lips." (Silence). He said that he tried to solve it by beginning the scene by licking his genitals but that idea shockingly had the kibosh put on it asap. One of the ways he did get a laugh was when he would sing a really pretty phrase in the show… and immediately follow it by frantically gnawing on his arm. I remarked that the sound he made while gnawing was similar to the noises he'd make when he took over the role of Leo in The Producers, and he agreed. He said he always feels that you should add mouth noises for foreign audiences because even if they don't understand the show, they'll get that. We then segued to him playing Carmen Ghia and said that Mario Cantone originated it in the workshop, but passed on the show because he was planning on doing Assassins that year…which unfortunately got cancelled because of 9/11. The scene he had to audition with had written that when he opened the door, he should say "Yesss." At the audition, Roger took that idea but expanded it and held the S out for 30 seconds, like he wound up doing in the show. At the audition Mel Brooks laughed so hard that he turned purple. However, when Roger first tried it in rehearsal, Nathan Lane said sassily, "I can't wait to see that bomb in Chicago." But, the second time they ran it, Nathan played the "Where is that noise coming from?" bit, and the two bits combined made the moment always land.

When Roger did the workshop of Young Frankenstein, he wasn't Dr. Frankenstein, he played Igor. Then he got the call offering him the lead role! Everyone was giddy offering him the role, and they expected him to scream, "Yes!" But, instead, he told them that he wanted to think about it. He said that it was a tough decision because he's a major Marty Feldman fan, and he was so excited to play a role originated by him. Also, Roger loves playing the kind of role where you come onstage, get the laugh and the audience always wants more. But he decided to challenge himself… and now he loves it.

Last week I also did the reading of The Road to Qatar, the show by David Krane and Stephen Cole, who were commissioned to write a musical to take place in the largest domed soccer stadium in the world in Dubai. The reading went great, and Brad Oscar and I are going to do one of the songs tonight at Jim Caruso's Cast Party (at Birdland). The whole reading was a blast from the past for me. It featured the multi-talented Mary Birdsong, whom I first met in the mid-eighties when I was still in college working at the one-week-stock, Surflight, and she was next door, singing, at the ice cream restaurant, Showplace. Also, the brilliant character actor Ray Wills played the Arabian director, and I first met him in the first show I did right after of college, Kiss Me Quick Before the Lava Reaches the Village. And, the stage manager was John Sullivan, whom I first worked with when I took off fall semester during my junior year and was an intern at The Equity Library Theater. There were so many eighties references around me that I was waiting for Alf to walk in with a Rubik's cube. But apparently he's still non-Equity. I'm not surprised. I went to my mom's house for both Passover Seders. Everything was at it was always is. The same story of Passover, the same delicious, traditional meal and the same jokes I've been peppering the Haggadah with since time immemorial. AKA, whenever the name Nahor came up, I acted offended and said, "Who you calling Nahor?," and whenever bitter herbs were mentioned, my sister and I would emphasize the word "bitter" and point to my mom. Ahh…tradition.

Okay, Chag Sameach everyone and next year in Jerusalem!


(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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Mary Birdsong, Ray Wills, Brad Oscar and Seth Rudetsky at the reading of <i>The Road to Qatar</i>.
Mary Birdsong, Ray Wills, Brad Oscar and Seth Rudetsky at the reading of The Road to Qatar.
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