Onstage & Backstage: Going Backwards in Time With David Burtka to His Near-Death Experience in Peter Pan

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: Going Backwards in Time With David Burtka to His Near-Death Experience in Peter Pan
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
David Burtka
David Burtka


Happy Post-Thanksgiving! I began the week doing David Burtka's show at 54 Below. The concept came from his husband, Neil Patrick Harris, who emailed me and asked me to music direct. His idea was to start the show with the final number and work the show backwards, ending with the opening number. He called it the Merrily We Roll Along of cabaret acts, or as someone in the audience who saw it and isn't as Broadway-savvy, the "Momento" of cabaret acts.

The hardest part of doing the show as having rehearsals with Neil because he's been down in New Orleans filming "American Horror Story: Freak Show," but he flew back and forth enough to get the show into delicious shape. It wound up going really well and the audience loved figuring out the clues throughout the show that referenced what had happened (aka what was about to happen since the show was reversed).

I interviewed David at my "Chatterbox" the week before and found out that he grew up Detroit and performed a lot as a kid with the Peanut Butter Players, alongside Celia Keenan-Bolger and Sutton Foster, who also happened to be his first girlfriend! When he was 11, he was cast as one of the Darling kids in Peter Pan and got to fly! Unfortunately, he apparently didn't think enough happy thoughts during one performance because at the end of Act One, his harness snapped! He said that as the curtain came down, the audience saw his body come down first and then bounced! He landed on his knee and his face and they had to rush him to the ER. He wound up being OK and re-joining the show a few days later, but right after he fell, word got out to his school and the story turned into:

A. He fell into the pit
B. He had 48 hours to live
C. He fell into a tuba
Or my favorite
D. A trombone went through his neck

Those are all now plot lines for "American Horror Story: Marching Band."

Marian Seldes and Burtka in <i>The Play About The Baby</i>
Marian Seldes and Burtka in The Play About The Baby

His first big gig in NYC was Children Of Eden at The Paper Mill Playhouse and then the national tour of Beauty and the Beast. At the end of the show, there's a scene where he (as the beast) and Gaston are supposed to fight, climb up the castle stairs and finally Gaston falls to his death. Well, during one of the first performances David was doing, the castle didn't come on... hence no stairs. There's actually a contingency plan with a modified fight which is supposed to end with the Beast aggressively pushing Gaston offstage. But David was a replacement who never got a full rehearsal process so he didn't know what to do. He simply stopped and waited for the castle to come on. Gaston, however, kept going with the contingency plan, which looked bizarre because David wasn't fighting him. So, basically, the Gaston moved around a bit onstage and then he fled offstage. Or as I put it, "He died by exiting stage right."

David wound up getting two Edward Albee plays, the first being the Off-Broadway production of The Play About The Baby. The show began with him entering totally naked (!) and within minutes his co-star would come onstage, reveal her boob and tell him to "Drink, drink" which he would then do. Not surprisingly, he said he never saw so many people leave a theatre that fast! Many members of the audience would stay but then come up to him afterwards and tell him they didn't "get it." David told us that if you asked Edward, "What is the play about?" he would say, "It's about an hour and a half." Helpful? You decide.

When Sam Mendes was casting the 2003 Gypsy revival, they were looking for a Tulsa who had lots of straight play acting experience and, after eight months of auditions, they called in David (who had recently been on Broadway in another Albee play The Goat, or Who Is Sylvia?). David had one Gypsy audition, one call back and got the gig! He loved doing the show and wound up becoming great friends with Kate Reinders, who played June. They spent lots of time together backstage since they don't appear in Act Two. She also wound up introducing him to Neil Patrick Harris and now he and David are married and have two kids! If you missed David doing Gypsy, here's a video. You can see the whole "Chatterbox" on SethTV.com and, speaking of my "Chatterbox," come this Thursday from 5-6 at Don't Tell Mama! It's with cutie/talented Jeremy Jordan! Details here!

This week was Thanksgiving, and we had much to be thankful for! One of our dogs, Scooby, is over 14 and had a stroke around two years ago. Since then, her back legs have gotten weaker and she'll have periodic seizures. But she's not in any pain and loves going for walks and hanging out with us! She just walks a little slower and we have to carry up and down stairs. Last Friday, she had a small seizure and didn't leave her bed the entire night. That's never happened before. On Saturday morning, we tried to get her up but she couldn't stand. Her legs were like wet noodles. We took her to the vet who always jokes that Scooby has "20 lives" because she's been doing so well despite her medical problems. Well, this time, the prognosis was basically if she doesn't improve in 48 hours, it may be her time. We were very depressed and the next day we called and we were told there was no improvement. We went to visit her and she was in a cage and not standing. James and I both started to accept she wouldn't get better. We read that you can get a sling for your dog if she has difficulty walking. You hold it underneath them to help them along, but if the dog can't stand at all, then it's a different story. You have to make sure you turn the dog over every six hours to prevent sores and her quality of life becomes horrific.


It was Sunday night, and James thought it was wrong to keep her in the hospital if indeed it was her last night on earth. The vet told him that there was a doctor who did euthanasia at home. James told me he walked to Scooby's cage and tried to communicate with her psychically, asking her what she wanted. He feels she told him she just might surprise us. That reinforced his feeling she should be home. If she was going to make any improvement, it would probably happen where she was comfortable. So, he carried her back to our apartment, and she was there when I got back from David Burtka's rehearsal. Soon she was able to move around as we kept the sling underneath her and by the next day, we saw her drinking water. By the water bowl. In other words, she got out of bed by herself and walked right over. By the day after that, she was completely back to normal! If anything, she's in better shape then when she's been! What would have happened if she stayed in the hospital? She was in a crate and they probably wouldn't have tried to have her move around as much as we did. They would have told us there was no improvement and that the humane thing to do would be put her down. Instead, she's on her bed right next to me as I write this. Bravo James and brava Scooby!!!! She's on her 21st life! Speaking of brava, I'm so happy for my friend Colleen Ballinger. She created the character of Miranda, who is a haughy no-talent constantly making videos of herself singing and telling people not to leave mean comments, which they always do. If you've never seen her, here is the "Obsessed" I did with her. Well, I'm not the only one obsessed with her; not only does she get hundreds of thousands of views on every video she posts, but she recently did an episode of "Comedians in Cars Getting Coffee" hosted by Jerry Seinfeld! Here's the episode which Jerry does with Colleen as Miranda and here is an interview with Jerry and Colleen.

I was so incredibly moved reading it; he is basically the last mega-star of TV, a la Lucille Ball, and his clear and concise praise of Miranda literally moved me to tears. To think she went from making these videos for her friends to being praised by one of the most successful comedians ever is so thrilling to me.

This weekend I'm flying out to San Diego to perform in a benefit for the San Diego Human Dignity Foundation honoring George Takei. I'm doing a show with the hi-larious Andrea Martin. Come see us! Details here. And speaking of hi-larious, come see Gypsy of the Year! It's Monday Dec. 8 and Tuesday Dec. 9 in the afternoon at the New Amsterdam Theatre and the show is always thrilling and star-studded! I'm hosting for the sixth time and you can get tix at BroadwayCares.org. Peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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