Onstage & Backstage: How Did Charles Busch Get a Manicure From Rita Moreno?

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage & Backstage: How Did Charles Busch Get a Manicure From Rita Moreno?
This week's look into the life of Seth Rudetsky reveals how Sarah Uriarte Berry nailed an audition in Italian... without speaking a word of it!

Happy Fall! This month I'm a-travelin' to San Fran and Scottsdale with Darren Criss with Deconstructing Broadway. And I just got asked back to Largo in L.A. for Nov. 23! All info here.

I had a great week of theatre! First, I interviewed Sarah Uriarte Berry from Taboo, Next to Normal and The Light In The Piazza on "Seth Speaks," my SiriusXM radio show. Right after Sarah graduated college she got a summer stock job doing Cabaret. She was one of the "Two Ladies" girls and Richard Jay Alexander saw her and immediately asked her to come to a Les Miz audition to cover Eponine on the road. When she went to the call, she "stupidly" told them she also sang soprano and thus became the understudy to belty Eponine as well as "hit a High C piannisimo" Cossette!

Sarah Uriarte Berry in <i>Taboo</i>
Sarah Uriarte Berry in Taboo Photo by Joan Marcus

While she was on the road, her boyfriend (now husband Michael Berry) got cast on Broadway. Sarah then wrote a letter to Richard Jay. Not an email, people. This was the early 90's. She hand wrote a letter on paper, put it in an envelope and used a stamp. She admits it was so long ago, the stamp might have cost ten cents.

Regardless, she wrote that she'd love to join her boyfriend on Broadway and Richard Jay immediately called her, told her to do the opening of her tour in Salt Lake City, have her understudy Eponine costumes sent to New York and four days later she was on Broadway! I asked her the difference between the road and Broadway and she said the theatres on the road are much bigger than most Broadway houses. Sometimes the theatres are conference centers and you're looking out at an audience very wide from side-to-side. On Broadway, everyone is stacked upwards in the audience. Also, the dressers on the road are doing the show for the first time in every city as opposed to the dressers on Broadway who really know a show because they get to do it eight times a week. Sarah remembers being on tour, doing quick changes and hearing:
DRESSER: (in a Southern accent, slightly panicked!) I don't know what's next! Which costumes is next?
SARAH: The rags!
DRESSER: (full panic, looking at the Les Miz costume rack) Which rags!?!?

I asked Sarah about her role in The Light in the Piazza and she told me she auditioned but they neglected to give her the scene she had to read in Italian. Instead of asking her to take it home and learn it, they told her to go into the hallway, "look it over" and read it. She doesn't speak Italian! She said music director Ted Sperling came into the hallway with her, told her what everything meant, gave her pheonetic pronounciations and line readings and she did it. And got the part! They asked her if she could hit an E above high C and she said yes. Then, on the first day of rehearsal, they told her they didn't mean an E above High C….they meant an F. Sarah said it doesn't sound like a big difference, but it is! She could not hit it. They did a read-through of the show and she had to opt of the note. Kelli O'Hara sang it instead. She was mortified. But she practiced and she sounded amazing when I saw it! Listen!

I also had one of my idols, Charles Busch, on the show. He just came out with a book filled with amazing monologues from his many, many shows! So many characters! You can and should (!) order it here. I asked him about who he idolized, and he said he had always loved Zoe Caldwell since he was young. He saw her in a Broadway show when he was 14 and somehow wound up in her dressing room after the show because "things were much looser in the 60's." He told her he wanted to go into acting and she held his face in her hands and said very grandly, "You have the face of the actor!" Yay! She then followed it with "Not that that means anything." Yay?

Years later he heard from someone that she was a fan of his work. He was thrilled! Then he got a phone call in his apartment from her (!) telling him that she was going to come see him in his show, Red Scare on Sunset. However, she wasn't going to tell him when. Well, cut to, one night he had a really quiet audience. He hauled out all of his tricks to get a reaction. Silence. After the show, who came backstage but Zoe Caldwell. OY! Charles said she approached him and told him that she thought he was talented. But, she continued, "You were pushing! You were mugging!" She then, he said, did a rather unflattering imitation of him. Ugh! She ended by saying "You are too gifted to resort to that!" Of course, he was devastated. But, he prides himself on not saying to himself, "What does she know?" Instead, he took her words to heart. And since then he told us he's been on a 20-year quest to play things as real as possible. Yes, it's heightened and comedic, but based in reality. And if the audience isn't responding, he doesn't get bigger, he gets more real. Brava! Here's one his great scenes from "Die Mommy Die!"

Also, James and I have recently discovered and become obsessed (15 years after everyone else) with "Oz." We watch one to two episodes per day. Seriously! Everyone we know is on it: Harold Perrineau, BD Wong, Katie Finneran, Sandra Purpuro, Steven Wishnoff, Natascia Diaz, James Palacio, Betty Buckley, Patti LuPone and, lo and behold, Charles Busch! He has a great role and I asked him how it happened: Charles said he mentioned to his agent, in passing, how he loves "Oz" and wouldn't it be fun to be on it? Suddenly, he gets a call that the creator, Tom Fontana, wants to write him a role! Tom asked him about himself and Charles said that he can't play "street." But, Charles told him he could play sweet on the outside and diabolical on the inside. So, Tom wrote Charles a role where he befriends someone inside the jail AIDS ward and then murders him! Charles loved it!

Then he began to notice that his character was coughing more and more. Uh-oh. It sounded like someone's dramatic arc was ending. Well, Charles said that since he only gets hired for acting roles every ten years, he doesn't mind burning bridges. So, he approached Tom and said, "I'm sure you have a wonderful conclusion for my role…but wouldn't it be fun if I'm scheduled for execution and Rita Moreno does my nails. And on my way to the gas chamber I walk with stoic dignity in full Susan Hayward drag a la "I Want To Live!"

Busch on "Oz"
Busch on "Oz"

He literally told Tom how he wanted his scenes written. Cut to, he got a script where he's getting ready for execution in full drag and Rita Moreno does his nails! It worked! The hardest part happened after he died because the camera was supposed to do a long, slow shot of his dead body. The started filming then stopped and told him he blinked. Uh-oh. He knew he wouldn't have a lot of chances to get it right because it was HBO and he said everything was done in around two takes. Rita Moreno leaned down and whispered, "The thing we learned in Hollywood back in the old days is to close your eyes for 15 seconds before they yell 'action'. Then you won't blink during the shot." Great! Charles closed his eyes early, they yelled 'action'….and stopped filming because he blinked. Then BD Wong leaned down and told him into his other ear that he knew a great trick! Just keep your eyes wide open for the 15 seconds before they yell 'action'. Then you won't blink. Charles tried it…and they stopped filming because of blinking. Not surprising, the final shot they used was a quick pan of his body. In conclusion, go see him on tour! Get thee to CharlesBusch.com. Peace out!!

Seth and Charles
Seth and Charles

(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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