ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Flubbing Lines, Remembering Oberlin

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Flubbing Lines, Remembering Oberlin
A week in the life of actor, writer and music director Seth Rudetsky.
Andrea Martin
Andrea Martin


Back from Canada and on the way to L.A.! I'm leaving Wednesday with James and Juli for a California vaca and then to play for Betty Buckley on Monday at a fundraiser for Reprise! However, before my delicious tan comes, I had to deal with freezing-ness last week. On Thursday, I flew up to Toronto to do Andrea Martin's show and I shared my flight with Peter Flynn, who's directing Andrea's show. Andrea always jokes about her "rider." A rider is what celebs [AUDIO-LEFT]send out with their shows and it tells the theatre what provisions they want. We saw a rider for one Tony Award winner that stipulates the star wants a variety of fresh organic berries after every show. And, speaking of fresh, I've heard that Barbra Streisand wants a fresh toilet seat put in every dressing room she's in. Peter and his wife Andrea (Burns from In the Heights) are obsessed with Faye Dunaway's rider during the tour of Master Class. It apparently demanded a pound (!) of Canadian bacon be prepared after every show, for Ms. Dunaway's consumption. First of all, a pound? Was she on Atkins at the time? Second of all, Peter and Andrea play a game with their theatre friends where they ask "What's your pound of bacon?" meaning, "What would you love to have, when you're on tour, that's outlandish but would be fabulous?" Peter said he'd love to demand a flight home after every show so he can always sleep in his own bed. Delicious.

The one thing Andrea Martin should have in her rider after Thursday's performance is a teleprompter. She's never had a problem with lyrics before, but suddenly during her opening number, she got to the bridge and blanked out. Instead of asking me for the lyric (I'm playing the piano onstage) she decided that any noise is better than no noise and just started singing the word "Ah." Relentlessly. She held it, took a breath and then started again. Over and over again. Added to that was a crazy walk in a low crouch which looked like a chicken in a deep plié. I have no idea what the audience was thinking but I knew I had to put a stop to it. But how? She wasn't asking me for the lyrics. Finally, I just yelled out the words for her. Unfortunately, she was in the middle of a never-ending "Ah" so she didn't hear it. So instead of her starting the bridge, the audience got to watch the awkward moment of her turning to me and asking "what?" I repeated the lyric and she finally started the bridge. Peter, Andrea and I were obsessed and couldn't stop re-hashing the whole thing in the car ride home. Her good friend, Victor Garber, was there and also obsessed. The next day, he sent Andrea a video from some old Russian TV show and suggested she might want to add it to her show. It's a singer who never actually sings words… AKA Andrea. 

Christine Andreas
photo by Matthew Blank

Speaking of forgetting words, Peter told me about doing a Lyrics & Lyricists concert at the 92nd Street Y, hosted by Kitty Carlisle Hart. Every host gets to sing a song after the first act break and Kitty told the director she'd be singing "I Could Have Danced All Night." He told her that Christine Andreas would be singing it in Act Two. Instead of thinking of another song, she simply told him that people would love to hear it twice. Really? Anyhoo, Peter said that the beginning section was a major challenge for her, lyrics-wise. She'd sing craziness, but finally launch into "I could have danced all night…" and save it. It was essentially: "Bed, Bed, there's nothing like a bed. It's time to sleep but I will not be there. Sleep, Bed, it's bed and sleeping both, etc…." The cast got used to hanging out backstage and hearing a crazy version through the monitor and then the correct lyrics when the verse began. Until, the final performance. The intro played and, out of the blue, she sang, "Bed, Bed... I couldn't go to bed. My head's too light to try to set it down."

Suddenly Karen Mason came up to Peter and said, "She's got it! Let's go watch her do the song." They ran to the wings to watch Kitty's triumph. She sang, "Sleep, Sleep, I couldn't go to sleep. Not for all the jewels in the crown." Hooray! Peter and Karen grinned at each other with the subtext of "Kitty got through it and now it'll be smooth sailing." Then Kitty began the main section with a firm: "I could have slept all night…" And cut.

Lance Horne
photo by Robb Johnston

This week I interviewed composer/lyricist Lance Horne, who has a new CD out. He was a composition major at Juilliard and I asked him how kooky his pieces were in college. When I went to Oberlin, my freshman-year roommate was a composition major and one of his "pieces" was a colored mobile. You would know what notes to play depending on which way the wind blew the mobile. If you saw blue, you played a C, red meant a D sharp etc. Suffice it say, I needed a pair of earplugs from age 17 to 18. Lance said he never wrote such obscure pieces in Juilliard. His taste was quite different. As a matter of fact, in his freshman year, he got musicians, dancers and actors together and they put on a Sondheim revue. Sondheim? In a classical conservatory? I wasn't shocked by what happened next; he was promptly called to the dean's office. Juilliard is like Oberlin in that there is very little respect given to musical theatre. And that's being polite. When I was at Oberlin, the only musical theatre being done was by students, as an extra-curricular activity, and we weren't allowed to use the theatre. Even if it was empty and no productions were using it. We were paying $20,000 a year in tuition (this was in the '80s) and we had to put on full musicals, with full orchestras, in a room. Literally, a room. It was a space at the Student Union that was big enough to put up a platform for a makeshift stage and place the orchestra next to it. Why was anything "makeshift" at $20,000 a year?!?! My recollection is that the most of the classical music teachers and drama teachers at Oberlin hated musical theatre. Cut to: even with such opposition, it's the alma mater of amazing musical theatre alum like Will Chase, Judy Kuhn and John Kander. And P.S., I still loved Oberlin. It was a community of bright, artistic people who believed in social justice. I just read that Rick Sperling, who directed the production of Runaways that I music-directed at Oberlin back in '86, started a great theatre program for kids in Detroit called Mosaic Youth Theatre. What I love is that the discipline they're taught to use while performing theatre pays off in other aspects of their lives. According to their website, even though Mosaic students are disproportionately minority and from low-income families, 95 percent of Mosaic's Youth Ensemble members graduate from high school and go on to college. Which, P.S., is dramatically above the national average for young people from similar backgrounds. Brava! 

Seth (right) with Brent Barrett
photo by Robb Johnston

I also interviewed Brent Barrett who's playing Billy Flynn in Chicago right now. On Facebook, Harvey Fierstein recently posted Brent's Tony Award performance in Grand Hotel. I asked Brent how thrilling that night was and he said it was more nerve-wracking than thrilling. Turns out, the stage where the Tony Awards were that year was super-slippery and he and Michael Jeter had no idea if they were going to go sprawling across the stage. And furthermore, the number featured Michael Jeter hanging onto the bar and completely flopping his body around. In the Broadway show, the bar was attached on either side of the stage to something sturdy backstage. During the Tony Awards, the bar was held up by two actors! So, Brent and Michael Jeter had to pretend like they were leaning against the bar, but in reality they could only place half their weight against it! Yikes! And yet, the performance is fantastic; watch it!  Speaking of Grand Hotel, I deconstructed David Carroll's brilliant singing on the CD. I'll never forget sitting in the balcony with my friend Eric Woodall and hearing that last note live. It's one of my favorite memories of Broadway. Listen to him! 

Back to Broadway. Jennifer Simard just started rehearsals for the musical Sister Act and posted on Facebook how much she loved her fellow nuns. Her status was: "Jennifer Simard‎'s always wanted a sister...now I have 18 of them. And they are kind and loving. Thank you Sisters." Of course, it took two bitter crones like Jen Cody and me to immediately comment on her sunny disposition: I posted, "Get back to me during 10 out of 12's" (meaning horrible tech rehearsal week) and Jen Cody wrote, "Ahhhh…the first weeks of rehearsals…cut to— ." I love how Jen didn't state what it cuts to, it's simply inferred.

On the home front, my niece Eliana is devastated that she can't come up from Virginia and see Chris Jackson's CD release party Feb. 15 at the Canal Room. And speaking of Eliana, after we saw Wicked recently, my sister Nancy made me laugh by turning to her during intermission and asking, "What are you doing? Are you mourning the wicked? After you were specifically told not to?" And finally, back to Peter Flynn. He and Andrea have an adorable son named Hudson. Hudson is super-talented and, even though both Peter and Andrea have dark hair, his is blond and curly. Peter said that periodically Brooks Ashmanskas will look at Hudson, then at Peter and say, "I have only one word about the father of Hudson: Norbert Leo Butz." 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 be contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.)

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