ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Looking Back on "Summer Nights"

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Looking Back on "Summer Nights"
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Seth Rudetsky and Katie Finneran
Seth Rudetsky and Katie Finneran

Tonight I'm performing in Washington, DC, for the first time, and I just found out that my show is sold out. Exciting! I'm doing Deconstructing Broadway and a master class and then hightailing it back to NYC. The last time I performed near the "beltway" was in Wilmington, DE, when the national tour of Grease was there. I was playing piano in the pit on Broadway, and they asked me if I would go there for one night to fill in for the tour pianist who had to take off. That night wound up being momentous for me: First of all, you should know that [AUDIO-LEFT]sometimes the drums in pit orchestras are behind sound reducing Plexiglas. At first it was a nightmare because if you're in the rhythm section, you need to hear them. What do you do? Well, now there are headphones in a lot of pits that musicians wear that control how much or how little they want to hear of a certain instrument. When I was in Grease, I could control how much I wanted to hear of the guitar, bass, drums, reeds or vocals. Of course, once I had a fair amount of drums in my headphones, I was mainly concerned with the vocals, AKA belting, AKA Billy Porter singing "Beauty School Dropout." Click here if you've never heard his brilliance.

Anyhoo, that night in Wilmington I had the vocal volume turned way up because I was curious what the national tour cast sounded like. As soon as "Summer Nights" began, I began frantically straining my neck to see the stage. I was obsessed with the girl playing Sandy because of her fabulous tone and vibrato. Who was she??? I finally found out she was related to the guy who played Roger on Broadway. Roger was Hunter Foster, and playing Sandy was his sister, Sutton! After the show, I told her I thought she was amazing, and we became friends. Since then she's won a Tony Award and gone on to star in five Broadway shows. It's interesting that our careers have pretty much followed the same trajectory — minus the starring in shows and winning a Tony part.

On Wednesday I interviewed Katie Finneran at my Sirius/XM Live On Broadway show and we wound up talking about her brief role in the Tom Hanks/Meg Ryan film "You've Got Mail." She was the lesbian Irish nanny and had very few lines. In one scene she only had one line, but she before she was supposed to say it, she had the horrible blocking of having to walk down a hill in Riverside Park, hit her mark and then say her line. If you don't know, in film, you have to hit your mark exactly where it is because that's where the camera is set up to shoot you. Well, Katie did her first take by running down the hill, hitting her mark and saying her line. Unfortunately, the way she hit her mark was to quickly look down when she got to the bottom of the hill and then speak. She did take after take, and Nora Ephron had to keep cutting and saying, "Katie! You can't look down before you say your line…it looks bizarre!" Luckily, Tom Hanks was incredibly kind to her throughout the shoot and asked the crew to get her a sandbag. Not to drop on her head, Phantom of the Opera-style, but to place right in front of the mark. That way, she'd be able to feel where she was supposed to stand and not have to keep acting out the opening lyrics of Les Miz ("Look down, look down"). That's right, I've mentioned two Cameron Mackintosh shows in one paragraph, which leads to telling you that Norm Lewis told me a few days ago he was going to play Javert in the London 25th anniversary concert of Les Miz and then swore me to secrecy. I promised I wouldn't say a word…and then, on the next day, the press release went out! What the-? Just as I was about to "accidentally" let it slip, it was posted on every single theatre website! Honestly! Next time give me at least a few days to betray a confidence. Speaking of Norm, I filmed one of my new Playbill.com videos with him where I nominated him in a Tony category I would like to exist: Best Phrasing. In the video he also demonstrates the extra riff he would always put in for me when I would conduct A New Brain. Beautiful.

My mom came to my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show, and afterwards we had lunch where she "regaled" me with stories about the Loehman's dressing room. First, she informed me that they don't have private dressing rooms — everyone changes together. She then detailed, "So sometimes they're trying on bathing suits and you're forced to stand one inch away from someone else's-" and cut! Then she told me that while she was there, a young woman suddenly asked her what she thought of the outfit she was considering buying. My mom was pleased that someone was asking her opinion, so she looked it over and told the woman she loved it! Two minutes later the woman walked back over to my mom, but this time she was wearing a horrible floral print. My mom immediately said "That dress is awful!" Well, instead of thanking her, the woman calmly informed her that the dress she was wearing was the one she had worn into the store. Silence.

After lunch, my mom and I went to see La Cage aux Folles, and we both thought it was great. There's definitely something much more intimate in this version than the ones I've seen in the past, and the performances were excellent. If you remember my column from the fall, I had written about how I was very close to getting that show. I'm sure fellow performers can identify that it's always a strange feeling to see a show you were almost in. You're partly watching the show and partly imagining what it would be like to be in it. It was actually fun on both levels. I loved the show, and it was thrilling to think what it would have been like to be part of such an exciting show. My friend Robin De Jesús was fantastic as Jacob, the butler/maid, and when I saw him after the matinee, I congratulated him and immediately asked him to my Chatterbox the next day because, shockingly, I hadn't booked it yet. He told us that he first turned down the La Cage audition because he didn't think he could bring anything new to the role, and he was about to leave In the Heights and take a long trip. Now, he didn't want to take a trip to the Caribbean or Paris, no…he wanted to go to India. I asked him if he had read "Eat, Pray, Love" and, turns out, he did, and he loved it. That book gave me a headache. I finally had to put it down during the section where she is constantly waking up at 3AM in India to pray for 14 hours. It completely depressed me. That's like being in a non-stop "10 out of 12." That's right…all my references have to do with theatre. Robin, of course, loved the book and was looking forward to his trip. But, one day backstage he was looking at the script again, and he suddenly thought that maybe the Jacob character wasn't French. He noticed the weird florid language and the sometimes-bizarre grammar, and he wondered if he could make Jacob a Latino from New York. As for whom he would base it on, he remembered back to one of his friends who recently commented about a bout of eczema Robin got on his hands. The friend looked at it and said with concern, "Girl…you have syphilis." Robin said, "You know those people that are completely over-the-top and bizarre…but they actually exist?" He went in to the audition and based Jacob on those people and got the role… even though he had auditioned with basically no singing voice! How did he lose it? Well, if you remember the movie "Camp," you'd know that his character had really bad acne. Robin himself had acne and after the film, he started taking Accutane. It totally cleared up his skin. Unfortunately, it did something to his vocal chords, so by the time the La Cage call happened, he said he had essentially no sound. But, he hoped that the people listening to him would therefore think he was a great actor. He and I laughed about that because that's my pet peeve as well. It seems that whenever someone has a bad voice on Broadway, critics always laud them for being an amazing actor. Can't it just be that they have a bad voice? And, can't someone with a good voice also be a great actor? AKA Betty Buckley? Watch. Get back to me.

Anyhoo, Robin finally decided to go off Accutane. But he also decided to go off dairy and wheat…and his skin stayed clear! And, he got his voice back! Brava! PS, I don't have to book my Chatterbox this week because I'll be out of town on Thursday. I'm going to Harrisburg to do my Deconstructing: The Brady Bunch Variety Hour on Thursday, Friday and Saturday. Tix at http://sethrudetsky.com/blog/see-me-live/. On Sunday, I'm hightailing it back to town to do my Sirius/XM live during the Tony Awards! That means that the next time I write…we're going to know who won all the awards!!!! AH! Have a great, anticipatory week!


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.

Robin De Jes
Robin De Jes Photo by Robb Johnston
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