ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Happy Birthday to Me…and Bernadette and Tommy and Bill and Kelly

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Happy Birthday to Me…and Bernadette and Tommy and Bill and Kelly
A week in the life of actor, writer and music director Seth Rudetsky.
Bernadette Peters
Bernadette Peters Photo by Kurt Sneddon


As the leading lady in I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road sang, "This is the day I was born…" That's right, it's my birthday! And if you've read a Playbill at a Broadway theatre this month, you'd know from my article that it's also the birthday of William Finn, Kelly Bishop, Bernadette Peters and Tommy Tune! Telling people that my birthday is February 28th always brings on the inevitable, "Wow! One more day and you'd only have a birthday every four years!" ARGH! One more day and it would have been [AUDIO-LEFT]March 1st! My question is: do people born on March 1st have to endure "Wow! One less day and you'd only have a birthday every four years"? No. I'm sure it's only people born on the 28th that have to deal with chronic babbling. I wonder if Tommy, William, Bernadette and Kelly have to endure that comment perpetually? Hmm…. I guess their Tony Awards comfort them.

Speaking of Tony Awards, I wrote in my last column about how I spent a few days staying at Marissa Jaret Winokur's house in Los Angeles. We were, naturally, discussing her Tony Award and I love how she once had it set up: it was displayed on a shelf and her brother had hooked up two lights that shined on it. The lights were connected to a Clapper (as in "Clap on…clap off"), so Marissa said any time she wanted to cheer herself up, she would just clap twice and suddenly her Tony was fully illuminated. Brava!

I was thinking about birthdays from my past and the first one that had a Broadway theme was in 1980, when my sister took me to brunch and then a matinee of Sweeney Todd. What a great present! And speaking of seeing Sweeney Todd at a young age, I was so happy after the Betty Buckley concert last week at Reprise because a nice guy introduced himself to me and told me that he recently brought his young daughter to New York City. He said that because he read the article about me in the L.A. Times, he decided to get her hooked on Broadway by taking her to see regular Broadway shows and not just "kid shows." Thank you! I'm sure his seven-year-old enjoyed Agnes of God. (Had to go back to the '80s to think of a show that even I think is inappropriate). Back to 1980; By the time I saw Sweeney Todd it had been out for a year, so I already had the lyrics memorized from the cast album. I was so obsessed, I had to go back and see the new cast when they began (George Hearn and Dorothy Loudon). It was right when they started their run and I was thrilled when Dorothy forgot some of the lyrics during "Worst Pies in London." The only thing more exciting is when they had to stop a preview of Into the Woods because the set started falling. Live theatre!!!!

One of the more depressing birthdays I had was while I was in high school. It was a Monday, I think, and no one called me that night because everyone was glued to the TV set. If you recall, Feb. 28, 1983, was the final episode of "M*A*S*H." P.S. was that the original "dramedy"? Was it funny? Dramatic? Neither? Both? Anybody? Another birthday found me playing piano for Grease understudy rehearsal on Broadway. I didn't mind going into work because rehearsal for that show was fun. Plus there always something I could gossip about later. A.K.A. when Maureen McCormick joined the show as Rizzo we were all mortified when someone on the creative team said, "Marcia! Enter from stage left." Followed by the uncomfortable correction of "I mean, Maureen." Nothing, however, topped the time that one of the bigwigs told the cast that Adrienne Barbeau was coming to the opening night party. There was a cast meeting and instead of being announced as "Original Rizzo, Adrienne Barbeau," she was touted as "Original Rizzo, Adrienne Baboo." Of course, the late great Jason Opsahl had to push it and kept saying, "What?," so it would be repeated; "I said, we're very excited to welcome Miss Adrienne Baboo. What? Adrienne Baboo!" Brava. Bravoo?

Andrea Martin

February 28th is also the day I began rehearsals in 1996 for Andrea Martin's one-woman show at the Public Theater called Nude Nude Totally Nude. I'm doing her new show now and that means I've been playing for her for the last 15 years! And she still sasses me. Recently she was commenting about how I'm always reading a new book whenever she sees me. "Wow, Seth, you must be some sort of savant, a genius in some area in your life." Then she looked at me again and said, "…not socially." I love a good bust!

Speaking of being busted, let me tell you about my trip to The Groundlings in L.A. If you don't know, it's the school of improv that so many amazing people have come out of: Ana Gasteyer, Kathy Griffin, Lisa Kudrow etc. I went to see their Saturday show which was hi-lar. There was one sketch where two of the women had on wigs and outfits that made them look so un-sexy. It was a Learning Annex-type class about being confident in order to land a man. I was obsessed when one of the ladies teaching the class said, "When I was growing up my father told me, 'You are not attractive. But if you act confident, you'll confuse people.'" Hi-lar. Then, even though I don't love Spider-Man jokes because they're so prevalent right now, there was a great sketch showing a play where they now take safety very seriously due to the injuries happening on Broadway. Essentially, it was a major fighting scene where all of the kicks and punches were not only done in crazy slow motion but they also would land three feet away from the person they were supposed to make contact with. Plus, when one of the actors was supposed to fall down after being beaten, they would fall incredibly slowly in order to allow two stage hands with headsets to run out and place an enormous pillow on the stage where their heads would land. So awkward! The bad part was, I was with Jack Plotnick and we had to run out before the show ended. I grabbed his coat quickly and fled before we'd be seen by the actors onstage. A few days later, he mentioned that Juli left his coat in his car. When he described the coat, we realized it wasn't Juli's. Right after we realized that he got a call from someone in the audience whom we were sitting near and he happened to know. Turns out, when I grabbed Jack's coat I was actually grabbing someone else's coat! And the gentleman informed Jack, in rather stern words that the coat had the keys to his Mercedes in the pocket. And the guy had to get the car towed… and it cost him $250! I only heard Jack's side of the conversation and it sounded like this, "I'm so sorry! (Pause.) Yes, of course you can get the keys back right away! I'll be home tonight and you can come by anytime. (Pause.) Mm-hm. Yes. What's your address?" I'm sure the part of the conversation I didn't hear was, "You expect to come by your house for the keys you had the nerve to take!?!?! Drop them off at my place ASAP." Anyhoo, it all worked out. A.K.A. I left for New York the next day.

Seth and Varla Jean Merman

I interviewed Varla Jean Merman (real name: Jeff Roberson) at my Sirius/XM "Live On Broadway" show and I asked him about playing Mary Sunshine in Chicago. He did the show on Broadway as well as on the road. He said at one point there was an actress playing Roxie Hart who was, in his words, "extremely broad and over-the-top. Even by my standards." There's one moment where Roxie meets Velma for the first time and this particular Roxie would add 90 seconds of heavy breathing and ooh-ing and ah-ing. His imitation of it sounded crazy. One night, he was backstage, and he called our mutual friend, Kristine Zbornik (currently playing Roz in the 9 to 5 tour). Her machine came on and when he heard the beep, he held the phone up to the speaker backstage. He recorded all the crazy sounds coming out of the Roxie and then he promptly hung up. He didn't speak to Kristine for a few weeks and finally he called her and asked if she got his message. When he described what it was she was furious. Turns out, she thought that one of her elderly relatives had called her… and had a stroke! Seriously. She wound up calling them all to see if they needed help. Speaking of Varla, I saw the first NYC showing of his film "Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads" and there are so many laughs! On March 14, I'm going to New Orleans for a special screening that's also a benefit for the New Orleans Foundation for Entertainment Development and Education. Come by and have something deep fried! 

And finally, what would a column be without something about my belting obsession. Here's my latest Sony Masterworks Deconstruction: Melba Moore's amazing singing in the original Hair. Yes, the first show I saw as a child, though not on my birthday. Enjoy it and 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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