ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: High on the Morrow

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: High on the Morrow
It was the best of weeks, it was the worst of weeks.
Karen Morrow
Karen Morrow

Not really, but I did see A Tale of Two Cities. There are some great voices in that cast! Essentially, every song ended with someone belting a soprano high note, and it was usually a guy. I hope the water backstage is infused with Throat Coat. I interviewed some of the cast at my Sirius Live On Broadway Show, and Natalie Toro (who plays Madame Defarge) told me a terrifying story. She was in the midwest playing the lead in Henry Krieger and Bill Russell's Everything's Ducky when she started to feel like she had the flu. She felt sicker and sicker and finally went to the hospital. Turns out, she had spinal meningitis! Yowza! The fun part was when she found out how it's spread. Suffice it to say, she thinks that she met a fan at the stage door who didn't consider washing his hands a high priority. She's fine now and, thankfully, it obviously hasn't affected her ability to belt. My next interview (Wednesday at noon at the Times Square Information Center) is going to be with three of the lady leads from Young Frankenstein. I recently found out that I'm supposed to call it The New Mel Brooks Musical: Young Frankenstein. Isn't that a little wordy? Also, at what date can I stop using the word "new"? Is it forever there? In that case, I'm dying to see The New Andrew Lloyd Webber Musical: The Phantom Of The Opera.

Monday night, I did Celebrity Autobiography, which is a show where people read excerpts from real celebrity autobiographies. I always read Star Jones' bio, "You Have to Stand for Something, Or You'll Fall for Anything". Hmm…I'm sure she agrees strongly with that title, and it's not just witty, meaningless word play. Anyhoo, I was backstage with everyone before the show, and I was so excited to see Alan Zweibel. He was a writer on "Saturday Night Live" when it first began and wrote a book called "Bunny Bunny" — about his friendship with Gilda Radner — that I loved when I first read it. I got him to autograph the book and talk about Hewlett High School, of which we are both alums. He, too, had Mrs. Jaffe for AP English and his scars are still fresh. Remember? She's the one I wrote about in a past column who told me, in front of the class, "Seth! You're useless, you're fruitless and what's more, I don't like you." Maybe she should have learned that honesty isn't always the best policy.

When we were backstage on Monday, Alan walked over to Matthew Broderick, gave him a pat on the shoulder and said, "By the way, belated congratulations on 'Ferris Bueller.'" Brava! Speaking of which, Matthew was late because he was coming from the dentist. He told us that he was on his motorized scooter rushing through Central Park, and the 72nd Street exit was closed off. He was so late that he tried to sneak through it because it leads right to the venue…and he got stopped by a cop! The cop walked over to him and Matthew took off his helmet, waiting for the, "Oh, my God, you're Matthew Broderick!" moment. Matthew said that he wished he had long flowing hair to reveal as the helmet came off, but he didn't. Regardless, the cop saw his face and had no reaction. He then asked for his license, saw his name and remained duly blank-faced. Matthew said, "I know I made a mistake, but I'm rushing to go do a play!" The cop said, "What play?" Uh-oh. Does he say, "Celebrity Autobiography"? Hmm…he realized that it wasn't actually a play. But then what is it? An act? Performance art? He remained silent as the cop glared. Matthew finally stammered, "Uh…I do a lot of plays." That cop asked, "Like what?" Matthew offered, "The Producers?" The cop shrugged and said he never heard of it. What the-? This was in New York, people! Surely, the cop heard about the Inner Circle Tickets that cost $450. If that wasn't a crime, what was? Regardless, how could you have lived in New York and not have heard of The Producers? Unless, the cop was used to hearing it called, The New Mel Brooks Musical: The Producers. Finally, Matthew told him that he also does movies. Matthew said he wasn't trying to get out of it because he's famous, but he was trying to prove he really was rushing to do a show, and not because he was totally reckless. The cop asked, "What movies?" Matthew decided to go for the big guns and said, with trepidation, "Uh…'Ferris Bueller's Day Off'"? That, he had heard of, and the cop let Matthew off without a ticket. If you reenact this story, remember that Matthew just came from dental surgery, so half his face was "Novacain'd" and immobilized adding to him sounding desperate and crazy.

On Wednesday I saw All My Sons which, more than once, I've called My Three Sons by accident. I think John Lithgow is a great actor, and it was great to see him giving a sassy dramatic turn — even though he busted me the first time I met him. Kelli O'Hara got him to be a guest on my Chatterbox, and I introduced him as John Lithgow, pronouncing it like "ow." He came onstage and told me it was Lithgow, like "oh." I immediately told him that the "w" at the end of his name should make it "ow," and he asked me how I pronounced "rainbow." Busted! I've been a fan of Patrick Wilson since we first worked together on Barry Manilow's Harmony in the summer of 1997. Act Two began with Patrick having his shirt off, and Act Three ended with us getting married. Well, I don't know if that was in Arthur Miller's script or the result of the trance-like state I went into after seeing Patrick in the half monty. I was disappointed, though, that there was no singing in the show. I'm always frustrated when a great musical performer does a straight acting gig. (Still annoyed about Barbra's stint in "Nuts." Where was the belted theme song?) Speaking of which, on Thursday I was leaving therapy…uh, physical therapy, that is…and I ran into Raúl Esparza on the corner. It was his opening night for Speed-the-Plow, and I asked him if there was any singing in the show or at least a mega-mix at the end. He said he'd love to do a Mamet mega-mix but was nervous they'd be arrested for too much profanity. I wonder if there was one in the eighties version. It would have involved Madonna in a body mic right next to her mouth, yet lip-synching per usual, a pointed cone bra and an inappropriately used water bottle.

I was thrilled at my Chatterbox this week because I got to interview old-school Broadway beltress, Karen Morrow. She grew up in Des Moines, and both of her parents were opera singers. When she was three, her parents had a party, put her on the piano bench, and she sang "God Bless America" with pretty much the same voice as Kate Smith. Even though she knew she could sing, she didn't know much about Broadway, so she decided to major in Economics. Then she heard Susan Johnson "Ooh, My Feet" from The Most Happy Fella and heard how similar their voices were, and Karen realized she could do Broadway. I grew up obsessed with Susan Johnson and The Most Happy Fella. I have a tape of myself singing "Ooh, My Feet" when I was three years old, and it then became my audition song when I was 12. Karen got to work with Susan many years later in Follies and said that she was so thrilled and moved that she cried every day. Susan told Karen that for the opening night of The Most Happy Fella, Frank Loesser gave her an amethyst tie pin (the lead character, Tony, gives a waitress an amethyst tie pin instead of a tip in the first scene of the show). For the opening of Follies, Susan gave Karen the tie pin Frank had given her!

At the end of college, the famous choreographer Eugene Loring came to her school with his troupe of dancers. He heard Karen perform and told her that she had what it took to make it. He convinced her to move to L.A. and promised her that she could perform with his troupe as the lead singer. She got the okay from her parents and moved to the West Coast. She showed up at Eugene Loring's studio and…he didn't remember her! Devastating! She then hightailed it to New York.

As opposed to Betty Buckley, who got a great part in 1776 within hours of arriving in New York, Karen arrived in Manhattan, went in to audition for Subways Are for Sleeping… and got typed out. That's when they stand you in a line, and the auditioner points and says, "You, you and you stay, everyone else thank you very much." She got an appointment with an agent and as soon as she walked in, he asked her the existential question, "So…who are you?" Karen was dumbstruck. The agent shook his head and said, "From day one, Doris Day knew who she was." But then her friend got her another agent audition, and she went in and wasn't asked a moronic Jean-Paul Sartre question. Instead, she sang. After her first song, the auditioner got on the phone. Rude? Hardly. He said into the receiver, "Honey, listen to this," held up the phone and had Karen sang again. Turns out, his wife was his partner, and they both signed her.

Her first big audition was as a last-minute replacement for JoAnne Worley in the Off-Broadway show Sing Muse. She got hired on the spot (!), and as she left she mentioned she was hopping on the subway. The producer stopped her and said, "Subway? Take a cab…you're gonna be a star!" He then handed her five dollars. In those days, that could have paid for a cab ride back to Des Moines. After that, she did the national tour of The Unsinkable Molly Brown as the standby for Tammy Grimes. She got to take over the role but didn't know how to handle doing a lead eight times a week. She thought she was supposed to go out with the cast after the show every night and par-tay. Suffice it to say, after a month of the show, her voice had timbre of a young Joe Cocker.

After she toured, she got her voice back and decided she wanted to be thinner, so she went to a blood doctor to help her lose weight. She later found out that the weight loss potion he was injecting her with was speed! I guess "blood doctor" should read "pusher." Regardless, she loved her new bod and auditioned for Richard Rodgers for a revival of The Boys From Syracuse. He said, "I would love for you to do this role…but you're just too thin!" That's a statement that has ne'er been said to me. She still wound up getting the gig, and they had to pad her to give her some girth.

I asked her about shows she didn't get, and she remembered being at the final callback for 110 in the Shade. She was sitting backstage with Gretchen Wyler…and suddenly, in walked tall, beautiful Inga Swenson with no makeup on and a long, flowing braid. They knew they were sunk. I never realized that my main competition at auditions was the person with no make-up and the long braid. That must be why I keep losing all my gigs to Willie Nelson.

Karen had two auditions in the mid-sixties. One was for a show that there was a ton of buzz for, and the other one had very little advance chatter. Karen decided that the one with all the talk had nowhere to go but down, and the one no one talked about had nowhere to go but up. And, that's how she wound up taking I Had a Ball, which gave her a signature song and a brilliant "Ed Sullivan Show" performance on film forever. The show she decided against was Kelly, which wound up running for 1 (one!) day! If you've not seen her brilliant rendition of the title song on "The Ed Sullivan Show," you must go to my website and watch the whole thing (SethRudetsky.com). It's the epitome of a great Broadway performance. FYI, her waist looks like it's 16 inches, yet her agent at William Morris said she was too heavy. Who was her agent? Lara Flynn Boyle? Right now, Karen lives in L.A. and teaches a wonderful musical theatre performance class. Go to her website and watch the videos and listen to the belting (www.KarenMorrow.com)! On Friday night, I hightailed to Cipriani on 42nd Street, which is a gorgeous, cavernous event room that used to be the Bowery Savings Bank. Andrea Martin asked me to help out at a benefit for the Children of Armenia Fund (COAFkids.org). It's a great organization that helps the poorest villages in Armenia completely re-build their schools, hospitals and irrigation systems, which fell into complete decay as soon as the Soviets left. Andrea was the host and told the audience, "I know we're going through some hard economic times, but let's forget about that tonight. And what better way to forget hard economic times than by having dinner in an abandoned bank!" Brava. The multi-talented Bill Irwin performed one of his baggy pants clown acts, and Andrea opened the show with "Come on-a My House," which was originally sung by Rosemary Clooney but was written by two Armenians! I told Andrea that we needed a big finale to end the evening, and I would be in charge of finding someone. Well, of course, just like how I did my AP English papers, I waited 'til the last minute. I emailed the fabulous Mary Bond Davis (the original Motormouth Maybelle from Hairspray) and spoke to her around 3 PM that afternoon. She showed up a few hours later totally decked out and brought the house down with Amanda McBroom's "The Dieter's Prayer" (i.e. "Lord, let me think..that Tofu's a food. And not something you made up…while in a bad mood"). Watch this link of her as Motormouth. I love when she rips her pants off! http://bluegobo.com/production.php?var=10216&mode=P&vid=0

Tonight I'm hosting a salon for BC/EFA. Essentially, people pay money to come to a beautiful apartment on Central Park South to eat up a storm, mingle with celebs, and watch them perform in the living room. Fun! Andrea McArdle, Chris Noth, Anthony Rapp, Bebe Neuwirth and more are coming! I'm, of course, obsessing about the delicious food and how I can surreptitiously do all my hosting from the buffet area. Visit www.broadwaycares.org for ticket information. Tomorrow night (Tuesday, Oct. 28) I'll be at the Huntington Barnes and Noble reading from my books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights." If you're on Long Island, come see me, unless you're Mrs. Jaffe.


(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.sethrudetsky.com.)

(l.-r.) James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Karen Morrow and Paul Castree
(l.-r.) James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Karen Morrow and Paul Castree Photo by Mark Sendroff
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