ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Merman, Varla Jean That Is

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Merman, Varla Jean That Is
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.


Did you know New Orleans can get crazily cold weather? I didn't, but I had the "pleasure" of finding out. I was staying at a hotel near the French Quarter and put the fan on to cool off what I assumed would be a hot, Southern night. Let's just say that I woke up colder than Chita Rivera's greeting to Rita Moreno when they ran into each other after the West Side Story film premiere. OK, my recall of their meet and greet is total conjecture, but suffice to say I was freezing! I grew up listening to the 70's song "Southern Nights." [AUDIO-LEFT]Glen Campbell apparently lied when he told me it would "feel so good." (By the way, as another blow to my barely-holding-on-youth, I had to look up the lyrics to the song at "OldieLyrics.com.")

"Any to the hoo," as the say in the 'hood (do they?), I was down in New Orleans starring (barely) in Varla Jean Merman's first feature film called "Varla Jean and the Mushroom Heads." I shot all of my scenes in two days, and when I say "days," I pretty much mean we used all the hours that make up a day. It was relentless. We had to get every scene that I was in shot done before I left because there was no way I could come back. So we just filmed until we got it done. The first day I was up at 6:45 AM, and we didn't finish shooting until 10 PM. The fun part was we didn't get a dinner break. But lest you think I lost weight for my [title of show] diet, you should know that there was a hefty amount of candy on the set. That's pretty much how everything is in New Orleans, which is French for "unhealthy." In the morning of the first day of shooting, I asked my friend Mark Cortale (who's producing) to pick me up an egg white vegetable omelet (I'm a vegetarian) and some unbuttered wheat toast on the way to the shoot. He arrived with what he said was the "New Orleans" version of my order: two fried eggs and cheese on a biscuit. With a sausage on it as well. He literally couldn't get the sandwich without the sausage. When I checked in the night before, I noticed that my hotel is the only one I've ever been in that has a fresh box of "pain pills" in the bathroom waiting for each new guest. It's literally assumed you'll have a hangover. Then I went to get coffee while we were filming exterior shots, and there were three tins of milk next to the sugar. I always avoid the skim, but sometimes will get one percent or treat myself with delicious half and half. Well, there was no need to make a decision because all three were half and half! And finally, on the last morning, I asked my cab driver on the way to the airport if we could stop at a bank so I could go to the ATM. "No need," he said, "most bars have an ATM." "But," I asked, confused, "can you find a bar that's open this early?" One minute later, he pulled up to one of the many 24-hour bars in New Orleans. I walked in, nervous at how strange I would look, being the only person in a bar at 8 AM in the morning. That's right, for some reason, after all I'd seen in that city, I was still surprised to see the bar full of people. At 8 AM! My question was: were they still drinking from the night before? Or had they just woken up and headed to the bar first thing? I didn't hang around long enough to hear the slurred response but I suspect, as my therapist says when I ask a question with two options, "Can't it be both?"

Seth holding Varla's "payment"

Regardless, the filming went great. My good friend Michael Schiralli is directing. He directed most of Varla's hi-larious short videos throughout the years. I recently showed this one to Tyler on the train to George Street and he told me that he rarely laughs out loud but actually LOL'd watching this. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cdNmSE6C98E

Michael and I go way back, and we made our first short film together 20 years ago! I remember that I came over to his apartment on 98th Street, and we made this bizarre video about my obsession with the fact that actors have to do whatever a director or choreographer tells them. In the video, I play a dance-happy choreographer who makes the original cast of Into the Woods do their finale with inappropriate elaborate dance that should instead be basically walking. After the first performance, I disappointedly tell the cast that all the moves have been completely cut, but I praise Barbara Bryne, who played Jack's elderly mother, for being the only one who really tried to sell it, and I make her my dance captain. In the video, I also played an audience member at the first preview. My favorite part is where I'm trying to understand the meaning of the non-stop lyrics to Little Red Riding Hood's "I Know Things Now."

(Shot of me, listening to lyrics intently) And I know things now, many valuable things, that I never knew before. Do not put your faith in a cape and a hood (nodding) they will not protect you the way that they should (nodding) and take extra care with strangers, even flowers have their dangers, (confused… checking Playbill) and though scary is exciting, nice is different than good (thinking…finally getting it). Mother said, straight ahead, don't be afraid or be misled. Isn't it nice to know a lot? (Nodding in agreement. And relief it's the end of the song) And a little bit not. (looking at everyone in audience mouthing WHAT?!?!?!) My favorite Varla moment in the film happens in my hotel room. Throughout the movie, she keeps putting off paying me (she's hired me to write the score to her new children's television show). At one point I ask for my money, and she proudly hands me something. I look at it and say, "This is a coupon." Finally, I show up back at my hotel and she's lying suggestively in my bed. When I ask what the hell she's doing there, she tells me that she hopes we can clear up this "little check misunderstanding." She asks that the cameras be turned off because she doesn't want a sex tape out there. Then she seductively adds, "Again." One second later, she begins scratching her crotch and asks, "Do you have bed bugs?"

Andrea Martin
photo by Aubrey Reuben

Right now, I'm on the plane from New Orleans to Memphis to play for Betty Buckley. The good news/bad news is my two good friends Kristine Zbornik and Paul Castree are in Memphis with the tour of Nine to Five, but we're staying far away from each other (I'm in Germantown) and we have shows at the same time, so I don't think I can even see them. Rats. I am, of course, traveling this coming week as well. I play for Andrea Martin's hysterical comedy show and a few months ago, she casually asked if I wanted to go to London. I screamed YES! I love it there! She was confused by my over-the-top reaction. I told her that I might be crazily busy in November, but I'd change anything in my schedule to accommodate going there. She shrugged and told me that she was happy I could do it but couldn't understand my enthusiasm. I was then booked to do her show on Saturday, Nov. 13th in London…Ontario. Seriously. Well, I committed to it and now I have to miss one of my three tech rehearsals to go up there! How dare they name two cities London?!!?! Was there nothing else available? Speaking of Andrea, she's started her own Twitter account so if you love her like I do, follow her @I AmAndreaMartin on Twitter. I'm @SethRudetsky. One of my other favorite people to follow is Cheyenne Jackson, who recently posted that he was loving watching the film of "Moulin Rouge." I am always outraged by musical movies that feel the need to cast non-singers because they can't possibly find anyone famous who can sing. So I sassily replied to his loving the film, "Um…do you have the sound on?" He twittered back to me that Nicole and Ewan sound great. I then responded with "And you once thought you sounded great in that production of Joseph… when you were 20." I was referring to the time he brought a hilarious video to my Chatterbox where he busted himself for not being able to hit the final F of "Close Every Door." Finally, he posted "Touche." Ahh. I loved sassing with him but, of course, like everything on the internet, someone had to be outraged/defensive/helpful and wrote to Cheyenne while quoting "The Ladies Who Lunch": "Cheyenne! Another chance to disapprove! Don't let anyone take away your enjoyment." Yay. As someone I know once wrote after a hilarious exchange got taken out of context and destroyed: "And thus comedy died." Speaking of Cheyenne, here's my latest Sony Deconstruction featuring his amazing voice along with Virginia Woodruff and Alix Korey in All Shook Up http://www.masterworksbroadway.com/news/seth-rudetsky-deconstructs-all-shook-up

Susan Blackwell

Finally, I must give a major shout-out to Susan Blackwell for contacting me to be part of the Broadway "It Gets Better" video. It was a great experience, and the video turned out beautifully. It was so smartly run because it could have turned into a two-hour filming for each participant. Right after you walked into the room to do your piece, you just had to answer questions that had been printed out like Name, where you were originally from and then you had to finish statements like "When I was young, I was made fun of because…" and "It made me feel …" It kept things very simple and concise and didn't allow much babbling and tangents. Of course, my mother wasn't invited to be a participant. If that had happened, the video camera would still be recording. Nonetheless, I don't know how Susan and her cohorts were able to edit so many people and so many different stories into such a fantastic piece. Well, she did tell me that it completely consumed her and left her with very few hours to sleep, but one can spend a lot of time on something and it can still clank. Instead, the effort paid off remarkably. Brava! Please watch and post it: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YRwZfLpibh0 And on that note, my actual flight to Memphis (we just landed in Atlanta, and we're about to take off again. Yay non-direct) is about to take off. So, please put your trays in an upright position and turn off all electronic devices. Peace out!

The Broadway "It Gets Better" Video:



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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