ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Daphne and Priscilla

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Daphne and Priscilla
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Daphne Rubin-Vega
Daphne Rubin-Vega Photo by Aubrey Reuben

In the middle of the week, I recorded a radio commercial with Jackie Hoffman about how much I love Xanadu. It was super-fun. I'm hoping that someone hears it and makes us the new "Stiller and Meara" of the airwaves (remember their hilarious commercials from yesteryear?). The Xanadu folk cut one of the hostile jokes, though. I wrote a section where I laud Tony Roberts for being in "Annie Hall" and then. . .

JACKIE: (needily) I was in Legally Blonde!
SETH: Ooh! I love that film!
JACKIE: The sequel.
SETH: (pause) Oh.

I love ye olde clarification devastation. Here's one of my favorites that went horribly wrong: I used to have a sketch with my comedy partner Jack Plotnick where we played high school kids that were obsessed with theatre. Jack was an overweight girl in love with theatre and with me, and I was the just-about-to-come-out boy obliviously mean to her.

JACK: I just tried out for Fiddler.
ME: Great, Becky. You could play Tzeitel.
JACK: Really?
ME: Uh-huh. Grandma Tzeitel.

Well, during one show I must have been tired because I totally ruined the joke: JACK: I just tried out for Fiddler.
ME: Great, Becky. You could play Grandma Tzeitel.

Speaking of sequels (Legally Blonde), how happy am I for Patti LuPone and the cast of Gypsy! Not only should Gypsy be on Broadway every year, but so should Patti! The last big splashy musical she did on Broadway was Anything Goes in 1988! And, no, Sweeney Todd does not count. The only thing big and splashy about that show was coming out of Judge Turpin's neck. I mean an old-school belt-it-out musical! Welcome home, Patti!

This week I interviewed Daphne Rubin-Vega for my Sirius radio show. I thought it was very cool that she was born in Panama and then moved to New York. That's probably the same way people feel when I tell them that I was born in Jamaica and then moved to Long Island. At first they think I'm an exotic island specimen till I clarify and tell them Jamaica, Queens. There's usually an uncomfortable silence followed by a subtle glance at a watch. Anyhoo, the first Broadway show that changed her life was The Me Nobody Knows, which was the early-70's Spring Awakening…as opposed to the late 70's Spring Awakening, which was Runaways. My sister Nancy did The Me Nobody Knows in high school, and there's nothing like seeing a group of 1970's Jewish Long Islanders put away their Frye boots long enough to sing about how hard it is growing up in a slum. I think Nancy wore overalls to look "poor" and left one strap hanging off her left shoulder for street cred (foreshadowing leading lady Donna's look in Mamma Mia!). Daphne went to the High School of Performing Arts and majored in art. PS, Irene Cara made the High School of Performing Arts famous and was in The Me Nobody Knows. Daphne, with her Latin looks, said that Irene Cara was the only role model she had because Irene was a "citizen of the world." Irene was also my role model but more because she danced on a car and got to date LeRoy. Even though Daphne was an artist, she always wanted to perform and when she was nine years old she bought a Backstage (the newspaper that lists auditions) and saw there was an audition coming up for a children's theatre. She showed up ready to book it and was devastated that children's theatre means that it's for children, not that it has children in it!

Daphne went to NYU's film school and wound up being six credits shy of graduating...but ended up in a girl group called "Pajama Party." Her look included braces, a nose ring and pink hair. Why didn't it catch on? Anybody? Nobody. Pajama Party opened for Menudo and Milli Vanilli…all the big "M" groups of the 80's. (AKA two).

Daphne told me about getting Mimi in the workshop of Rent, and I asked her to describe to me what it was like right after Jonathan Larson died. She said that it was supposed to be their first performance, and they didn't want to cancel the show, so they decided to just do a table reading. Well, Daphne said that it became really hard to do it that way. She asked me, "How do you do 'Out Tonight' sitting down?" My question is: "How do I do it standing up?" At least sitting down I can keep the top button of those signature pants mercifully open. Daphne said she got up on the table during the song (tip o' the Irene Cara on the car) and by the end of Act One, the whole cast was on its feet. During intermission, director Michael Greif ran backstage and said, "Let's do the second act for real!" Everyone got into their costumes and make-up and Daphne said it was the best way to exorcise the grief and show their love for Jonathan.

She said the hardest thing about that whole period of Rent was losing her anonymity, being watched when she wasn't onstage. As I get older, I also find that I've been losing my anonymity… and by "anonymity," I mean "high notes" and "hair."

Her next Broadway show was The Rocky Horror Show when she played Magenta. She said that a lot of the cast walked around naked backstage. Yowtch! What other kind of Broadway show is like that — besides the Mary Martin cast of The Sound of Music? Equity was called many times because everyone from Mother Abbess to Rolf to Gretl were constantly sitting around, smoking and lettin' it all hang out. That, obviously is a lie, but do you know that the original kids were all nominated for Tonys… under "Best Featured Actress"? Did the boy who played Friedrich put that on his resume?

AGENT: Kid, the good news is you got a Tony nom. The bad news is, from now on, you gotta pretend you're a pre-op.

I interviewed another Latina actress this week, In the Heights's Priscilla Lopez. What a career! Her first audition was at the Broadway Theatre for the role of Baby Louise in the original production of Gypsy. She saw the girls ahead get in a line, and she watched as the casting person told a few to stay. There was one girl who got typed out and started crying immediately. Priscilla vowed that she would not cry. She lined up with her group of girls…and was typed out. She remembered her vow and didn't cry…in the theatre. She was able to hold it in while exiting, but as soon as she stepped outside, she started crying like the "Leave Britney Alone" guy.

Priscilla Lopez and Seth Rudetsky
photo by Christie Ford

She then started taking dance classes because a guy from an amateur TV show came to her apartment, touched her foot to the back of her head and said "this little girl could be a star," which is a line in A Chorus Line…but it's not Morales who says it...it's Kristine. Priscilla also said she's the one who said she walked around as a kid saying "I'm gonna be a movie star," which is Bobby's line in "Hello Twelve." The script mixed and matched many lines and stories. As a matter of fact, Donna McKechnie told me that Maggie's story in "At the Ballet" is really hers. As a child, Donna would "dance around the living room" pretending she was dancing with her father. Ironically, as a child, I would dance around my living room...pretending to be in A Chorus Line. Every time I ask Priscilla about something in A Chorus Line, she always says, "It's all true!" The weirdest thing was that even though she was essentially playing herself, after a while she had to separate and play the role of Morales. There's a section where Morales doesn't want to talk about herself to Zack and he says, "Don't you want the job?" And she says, with much need, "Sure, I want the job!" One night, she didn't feel that needy and said it with a little more maturity and confidence, and that's when Michael Bennett told her that she was no longer playing herself. He said, "Even though you are growing as a person, Morales isn't. You have to freeze her in this moment."

Back to her childhood, she did indeed go to the High School of Performing Arts and, devil's advocate-style, I asked her why she couldn't just improv with the rest of the class! She said she remembers being on "that bobsled," and she felt the rest of the class was faking it, pretending to feel the snow and the cold. She really didn't feel anything and thought that either she could lie…or she could tell the teacher she wasn't feeling it. She hoped that by telling the truth, he would teach her how. But, alas, she became the class pariah when she admitted she felt "nothing." The horrible part of the story is that "Mr. Carp" did indeed die, but what's not in the show is that he killed himself!

As soon as she graduated, she got her first Broadway show: Breakfast at Tiffany's with Mary Tyler Moore and Richard Chamberlin. It was not the Spring Awakening of the late 60's — more like the In My Life. She remembered one review that said "Even Dr. Kildare can't save this show." Ouch! Then she did Her First Roman (more on that later) and Henry Sweet Henry. That was her first Michael Bennett show, and she "fell in love" with him at the audition. She still doesn't know why. She said that he was short, and he had moles all over his face, but she was mesmerized. She said that he'd put his arm and talk to you like it was the most important and private conversation of your life. He asked her to be the swing, and she said yes. She literally thought it meant sitting and swaying glamorously on a swing onstage. She didn't know it meant understudying all the girls in the ensemble…including future Chorus Line cast member Baayork Lee and Pia Zadora! Priscilla heard that Pia's name was fake, and she had based it on her mom always saying, "Look! Pia's adorable!" Say it out loud. It sounds like Pia Zadora!

Priscilla heard about a new show coming to Broadway called Hair and traipsed down to the Public to try out for it. She walked in and saw the whole creative staff behind the table in a very, shall we say, loose state. She didn't know what the show was about, so she decided to sing her signature audition song. She nodded at the pianist…and… "Raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens…" She did not get it. Priscilla then did the national tour of The Boyfriend and inherited Sandy Duncan's costumes. Inside one of the hats someone had written, "Sandy Duncan, the Texan Grasshopper." Priscilla crossed that out and wrote "Priscilla Lopez…the Puerto Rican cockroach." When Priscilla got back to NY, she heard that they were having auditions for Follies and now that she had played various leads, she wanted to show Michael Bennett that she wasn't just a chorus girl. She auditioned for Follies with…a song from The Me Nobody Knows! Shout out to Daphne Rubin-Vega! Michael wound up offering her a part in Company…she was the standby for Donna McKechnie and then took over the role. Priscilla thinks that "Tick Tock" is the best dance that Michael Bennett ever did. I must call her attention to the deconstructing I do of "Turkey Lurkey Time" on youtube and then we shall discuss.

While she was backstage, she saw a C-U-T-E guy. She found out he was a sub trombonist and realized she had to work fast! There was a Coke machine right outside the pit, and she kept going over to it and bending down to make her selection. One thing led to another…and 36 years later, they're still married!

After Company, she heard they were looking for a new Fastrada for Pippin. She thought she could do the part but knew that Fosse would have a hard time believing her as John Rubinstein's mother…especially because she and John went to high school together. She didn't want to leave it to Fosse's imagination, so she had a friend who worked at NBC do some old age make-up on her, and she had another friend who worked at Pippin steal Leland Palmer's Fastrada wig! She literally walked into the audition in full costume, hair and make-up. She felt like an idiot standing around all of her peers and thought, "I'm either going to be the laughing stock of Broadway …or I'm going to get this gig!" She came onstage in her crazy get up, did the number, which she had choreographed in front of her mirror at home and when she finished, Bob Fosse ran up to the front of the house, slapped his hand on the stage and said, "Now that's what I call a well-prepared audition!" She got the gig, but soon had to deal with what she called the "Nazi Dance Captain." Every time Priscilla was onstage, the dance captain would be in the wings, taking notes. Every finger move, every eye direction, every aspect of her performance was scrutinized. Priscilla used to pray for Fosse to come and free her. Finally, Fosse watched the show and Priscilla realized why the dance captain was such an ogre…because Fosse was a bigger one!

Right after that began the infamous tape sessions with Michael Bennett that eventually led to A Chorus Line. The Tonys were hard for Priscilla because she really wanted to win. When Kelly Bishop's (Sheila) name was called, she said it was like a truck hit her in the stomach. But, it was also the total opposite because she was best friends with Kelly, so she was incredibly happy for her. As a matter of fact, at the Shubert Theater they had side-by-side dressing rooms and they had the wall knocked down so they could be in the same one! The good news is Priscilla won a Tony for the fantastic show (I saw it twice) A Day in Hollywood/A Night in the Ukraine. In Act One she played an usherette at Grauman's Chinese Theater (listen to the fantastic Jerry Herman song "The Best in the World"…I'm obsessed!) and in Act Two, which is essentially a live Marx Brothers movie, she played Harpo Marx. Unfortunately, to this day, she's still devastated that she was so frazzled when she won the Tony, she forgot to thank Harpo Marx. She actually got hate mail about it! (Sending hate mail is what people had to do before they could just post on a theatre chat board under the name "Priscilla'sUngrateful432.")

Now it's time to get back to Her First Roman. It's my favorite onstage mishap (I highlighted it in my book, "The Q Guide to Broadway"), and I made Priscilla save it for the end of the Chatterbox. In order to wear a wig, the chorus girls had to pin wig caps to their hair, and because Priscilla's hair was short, it was hard to attach the caps. She found out if she stuffed some clothes underneath the wig cap, it would give something for the cap to be attached to. She'd stuff anything she could find; underclothes, socks, whatever…it all worked. She taught this trick to the other chorus girls as they were applying the leg paint to themselves that made them all look Egyptian. Well, in Act Two there was a funeral procession where all the ladies walked in a solemn line around a coffin. Priscilla happened to look up at the dancer in front of her during the procession, and saw that she had taken her advice. Unfortunately, as Pricilla marched in the solemn funeral, she saw that the dancer didn't tuck all the clothes in, and swinging freely from underneath her wig, was a large white bra. Priscilla wanted to laugh, but of course, couldn't, because it was supposed to be a sad scene. She tried to suppress it, but all that did was cause incredible pressure…which resulted in her peeing onstage! She couldn't stop and was mortified that it was also causing her leg makeup to run in rivulets to the stage. Soon she was even more horrified because the stage was raked. A raked stage means that the back is tilted up and it lays in a diagonal towards the audience. Well, what comes down must go further down, apparently, because soon the pee was running downhill and overflowing from the front of the stage to the pit! I'm obsessed thinking about those poor musicians sitting in the pit wondering what was dripping on them. Hopefully, they felt some comfort in knowing it was from a future Tony Award winner!

My big Actors Fund show, Broadway 101, is coming together! I had my first rehearsal last week with Andrea McArdle and decided to film it and show it online. There's a link on my website (www.sethrudetsky.com), and you must watch the section where she mentions that she just did Evita. I immediately launch into "Rainbow High" and make her sing it (including the modulation!). She's still got it! Speaking of Evita, there's a section of Broadway 101 where I show the audience what a quick change is like, and last year the fabulous Natascia Diaz did it for me. Well, this year Natascia is the Spider Woman at Virginia's Signature Theater so I had to get a replacement. I wanted someone whom I was dying to hear sing Evita, and I got her….Julia Murney! Julia's joining Broadway 101, and I can't wait to hear her belt the E in "Buenos Aires" (go to ActorsFund.org for tix). By the way, when I say belt the "E," I mean the note "E." I don't mean that she'll somehow sing "BuEnos AirEs." I don't even know what that would sound like…but it couldn't be any worse than a certain film version I was only able to sit through half of. Look for more of Broadway 101 rehearsals on my website (Jonathan Groff's is coming up).

Finally, don't forget that this week is Sherie Rene Scott's concert for BC/EFA (BroadwayCares.org). Go see this brilliant entertainer and support a great cause! And when you have a moment, download The Me Nobody Knows. It's not just for Latinas…Long Island Jews love it! Peace out!

(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.)

Previous 1 | 2

Seth Rudetsky interviews Priscilla Lopez
Seth Rudetsky interviews Priscilla Lopez Photo by Christie Ford
Today’s Most Popular News: