ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Nathan, Christine and Broadway Backwards | Playbill

News ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Nathan, Christine and Broadway Backwards
I'm writing this column on my delicious laptop. I bought it in July, and suffice it to say it was tres cher . . . and by cher, I mean the French word for "expensive," not the English word for contralto with a machine-gun vibrato and never-ending Farewell Tour.
Nathan Lane stars in November.
Nathan Lane stars in November. Photo by Scott Landis.

Anyhoo, my boyfriend James has started a blog about being a gay dad (www.gaydadsusa.com). First of all, feel free to visit the site, but please disregard anything that reflects negatively on me. For instance, comments involving me sleeping way too late, references to my apartment as a mess/fire hazard and my late-night consumption of various bowls of Waffle Crisp and/or Cinnamon Toast Crunch should be assumed as artistic license on the part of the author. Anyhoo, James borrowed my laptop, so he could go to a coffee shop in the village and write a blog. In the middle of the afternoon I suddenly began thinking about what would happen if he lost it. I'd have to replace it but would feel awful asking him to pay for it, but I don't have any insurance on it. Anyhoo, that evening I was at Sirius, and I got a call on my cellphone.

"Is this Seth?"
(Distrustingly. Subtext: Aren't I on the "do-not-call" list?)
"I have your laptop."
What the-!!!!!!!
I got his address and said I'd be right over.

I called James and told him I just got a phone call from a man who had my laptop. "How?" James asked. "I have it here." "You do?" That was odd. I wondered if I was being scammed. Suddenly I heard a lengthy, loud gasp. It was gone. James told me that he had picked up his daughter Juli from school and decided to take a cab home because he had to get her dinner and help her with her homework before we saw Applause that night. He realized he must have left it in the cab because he was in such a rush. (Thank you, Encores!, 7:30 curtain time!) He was so apologetic. I told him not to worry since: a. That morning I forgot my sweatpants at home and had to do a full cardio workout in tight jeans, b. That afternoon I walked a block down Ninth Avenue before I realized that I left my wallet sitting on the floor of The Coffee Pot on 49th Street, and c. That evening I left my Treo cell phone in studio D at Sirius.

Anyway, I advise you all to put a little card inside your computer carrying case with your name and phone number. It worked for me! And, Christine Pedi, my co-host on Sirius, advised me to always leave a cab only after you've leaned back in and looked everywhere…something she calls the "lean and look"… which I've re-titled the "Bend and Snap" in honor of Legally Blonde's Orfeh. Speaking of which, I did a full video blog deconstructing her unbelievable riffs in The Great American Trailer Park Musical. She riffs down and then riffs up the same notes! It's like a staircase of riffs...you must listen! (www.sethrudetsky.com).

Okay…lots of Broadway this week! First of all, I hosted Broadway Backwards 3 for the third time. It's a benefit for the New York Lesbian/Gay/Bisexual/Transgender Community Center where men sing women's songs and vice versa. But what makes it special is that the director, Bob Bartley, puts the songs in a context so it's about gay relationships. Tony Yazbeck from A Chorus and Aaron Lazar from Les Miz sang "A Boy Like That"/"I Have a Love," and it wasn't about them pretending to be women, it was about a gay man being warned by his brother not to be in love with the wrong guy. And, "I Want It All" from Baby was brilliantly performed by Jose Llana and Gavin Creel as men who were eagerly attending a meeting of "Wanna-be Daddies" at the Center and Brooks Ashmanskas as a guy who was only at the meeting because his partner wanted a kid. Of course, by the end of the number, Brooks was belting "I Want It All!" à la Beth Fowler. It brought ye olde house down. I commented that people always talk about how "gay" Broadway is, but that there are so few actual gay stories that have been told on Broadway in musicals. Off the top of my head, I can think of Falsettos, La Cage and Rent. There are some more, but it seems as though Broadway is behind Hollywood in terms of gay stories. What's up with that? Or as the kids say, what up with that? It was so great to see all different kinds of gay characters portrayed at Broadway Backwards…including Michelle Blakely and Jenn Colella doing Into the Woods' "Hello Little Girl" (the song where the Wolf first encounters Little Red Riding Hood) as a song between an aggressive and a reticent lesbian at the downtown bar Henrietta Hudson. Lainie Kazan sang "The Gal That Got Away," and I wouldn't let her get away til I got a Funny Girl story out of her. I asked her about the first time she went on as Fanny. She said that she was a Ziegfeld girl and waited more than a year before Barbra finally missed a show. Lainie got the call in the afternoon and spent the rest of the day calling everybody she had on a special list….relatives, critics, publicists, etc. Lainie showed up at the theatre…and so did Barbra! She was suddenly well enough to go on. Hmm…. The next day Lainie got a call from the stage manager. "You're on today...but you can't call an-y-body on your 'list'!" Lainie asked if she could at least call her mother. "Fine." said the stage manager. Lainie told us that she called her mother…who also had a copy of the list! And a star was born!

Wednesday afternoon I saw Forbidden Broadway and, as usual, loved it. The cast was excellent, and the dishing about Broadway was on the mark. I loved "Sarah Brightman" singing - "Time I said goodbye/ My welcome is wearing thin./I'd best turn my union card in…" There were a lot of other great busts, but various friendships disallow me from mentioning them. Bravo Gerard Alessandrini!

That night James and I went to City Center to see the final dress rehearsal for Applause (after the laptop debacle). First of all, what I love is that Encores! has a program that gives free tickets to big groups of student. Excellent! Please get more teenagers to see and experience live theatre, not only so they can grow to love Broadway, but also so when I finally have a lead in a Broadway show, I'll have an audience show up (I'm nervous that my following will be too infirm by that late date). Before the show, Encores! artistic director Jack Viertel announced that Christine Ebersole had the flu and had missed the last few days of rehearsals (at Encores!, you only rehearse for a few days, so essentially she missed 75 percent of rehearsal!). He said that she didn't want an announcement made, but he assured her that the Metropolitan Opera does, so Encores! can, too! He said he was worried they were going to have to transpose the songs back down to Lauren Bacall's basso profundo keys, and I was about to exchange my free ticket, but he said they didn't. Phew. Well, cut to, Christine was amazing. I told James that I was obsessed with her performance because it was obvious she was sick, but only vocally. She was so relaxed onstage. Not pushing anything, not nervous before she had to sing, making us completely comfortable. And, it was a dress rehearsal. Where's the panic? Where's the "I hope I land this joke, and if I don't, it will confirm I have no talent"? Where's the "We haven't rehearsed this enough so I'm going to make it obvious I'm uncomfortable?" Why doesn't she have all the demons that plague me constantly? It was so inspiring. She was completely at ease. And, she did all the dances flawlessly! Had she been rehearsing via satellite? Brava!

I also have to give a big shout-out to Mario Cantone who played Duane, Margo's hairdresser. Here's what I loved: The role could have been played with no nuance…simply as the sassy sidekick delivering every punch line straight out front, and I'm sure people would have laughed. However, I love that Mario played Duane as a warm person who happened to also have a great sense of humor. Here's the thing, in real life, people make jokes to their friends; in bad-acting world, they make jokes to the audience. So many sitcoms have people rattling off funny quips and asides but no one around them acknowledges that they're being funny…it makes me crazy! And, p.s., Mario also looked amazing and sang up a storm!

This week I interviewed Nathan Lane for my Sirius radio show. He told me that he grew up in Jersey and, shockingly, only did one musical in High School. It was No No Nanette for a neighboring all-girls school. I assumed it was like being an Equity Guest Artist that's jobbed in…and by "Equity Guest Artist," I mean "Catholic High School closeted Senior" and by "jobbed in" I mean, "driven by your mother."

He went to college for literally one day (fyi, Chip Zien went to law school for one day and dropped out when he realized he could be drafted) and left when they told him that, although he had a scholarship, he still owed more money. He went back to New Jersey and got his Equity card doing two local shows. One was called Jerz, a tribute to all things New Jersey, and the other was called One for Good Measure and, seventies style, was a tribute to the metric system. It never caught on (the show and the system).

Once he moved to New York, he enrolled in a summer program at The Stella Adler Acting Institute. Unfortunately, Stella was not the teacher. Nathan did not disguise his disappointment when his teacher asked the class to do an exercise where they were to look out the window and describe what they saw. One student said, "I saw a homeless man…crying." One said, "I saw a secretary through a window as she was drinking coffee and daydreaming." Nathan said, "I saw $400 going down the drain." Acting is honesty.

His Broadway debut was with George C. Scott in Present Laughter. George was a notorious drinker and told Nathan that the producers bet him that he couldn't stay sober throughout the whole preview period. Well, opening night happened, and George proudly told Nathan that he won the bet and he could finally drink again. Then he was out the whole next week!

Nathan was also in the musical Merlin starring Doug Henning as Merlin and Chita Rivera as the Evil Queen. Nathan played her son, and if you were in New York in the eighties, you probably remember Chita on the commercial. There was a close-up of Chita where she said, "Wonder," but she Chita-ized it by saying "Won-dah!" Anybody?

Nathan said he remembered a trick where an actual tiger was in a cage, a sheet was put over the cage, and when the sheet was removed, there sat a sexy lady. Because he was backstage, Nathan could see how the trick was done: There were two tunnels: The lady crawled through one, and the tiger was tempted out of the other with horse meat (p.s.: gross). Nathan asked the trainer, "What about when the tiger gets sick of horse meat eight times a week? Is the cage going to be revealed with the tiger still sitting there but part of a Theoni Aldredge sequined red costume hanging out of his mouth?" I asked him about Guys and Dolls…specifically the song "Sue Me." He and Faith Prince argued in the song and at one point would hold one of the notes forever:

FAITH: The best years of my life I was a fool to give to yo-o-o-o-o-o-o-o-ou!
NATHAN (Simultaneously) All ri-i-i-i-i-i-i-i-iight already!"

He couldn't remember who came up with it, but he was very proud that Liza Minnelli came backstage and told them that she'd seen the show many times, and that particular moment was very original and fresh. Or did she say "very original and fress"?

While he was doing Laughter on the 23rd Floor, Mike Nichols came backstage and told him that he was interested in him playing Zsa Zsa in "The Birdcage." Nathan had already committed to playing Pseudolus in Forum and asked the producer, Scott Rudin, if the dates could be changed. Scott said no, and Nathan told Mike Nichols that he felt it would be unethical to leave them in a lurch. Every once in a while Mike Nichols would call Nathan's dressing room and say, "I've been seeing other actors, and I don't like them." Finally, Nathan said, "You're Mike Nichols! Maybe you should call Scott…" Mike did, Forum got postponed and "The Birdcage," starring Nathan Lane, was on! Originally, it was supposed to be Robin Williams in Nathan's part and Steve Martin as Georges, but Steve Martin had to drop out. Robin's wife suggested that because Robin had just played Mrs. Doubtfire, perhaps he should take a non-drag role. I asked Nathan what Robin was like (aka, how annoying — how much verbal riffing and how many "hilarious" voices did Robin haul out when Nathan just wanted five minutes of silence to enjoy the craft services table), and Nathan said that even though Robin told him that sometimes it was hard to be the "straight man" while Nathan got to go to town, Robin was the most saintly, sweetest, giving and supportive co-star, and the whole thing was the happiest movie experience Nathan's ever had.

On to The Producers. Jerry Zaks was first attached to the show and mentioned the role of Max to Nathan. Then Nathan heard nothing… til he was on vacation at the Paris Ritz. He went down to the pool and saw only two other people…Mel Brooks and Anne Bancroft. Mel asked him to play Max Bialystock, and Nathan readily agreed. Martin Short was slated to play Leo, but because of his family in L.A, decided he couldn't be in New York for so long. At this point, Susan Stroman was directing/choreographing, and they did a reading with most of the leads who later did it on Broadway. Nathan said that when he first watched Gary Beach during rehearsal, he commented that Gary was going to win a Tony Award. Brava on the Jeanne Dixon psychic-ness! During intermission of the reading, investors offered Mel all of the capital needed to mount the show!

During the reading, Nathan didn't have a big 11 o'clock number, and before it came to Broadway, he was presented with one. It was a sentimental song that Nathan thinks was called "Farewell to Broadway." He told everyone that he felt if you were going to stop the show after "Springtime for Hitler," you really had to stop it or go straight to the courtroom scene. He felt that a sweet song wouldn't cut it…but in the middle of the song, there was a monologue about his anger towards Leo. Nathan told Mel that the monologue had the right theme for the song. Max was bitter and felt betrayed…and a new song was written called "Betrayed." And, let me verify that I played in the pit numerous times and I can tell you, it did stop the show!

Right now, Nathan is starring in the hilarious November, and he is promoting "Kids Night on Broadway" where, if you buy a ticket to a Broadway show, you get to bring a kid for free! It's a great deal and super important because a. kids need art in their lives and b. I reiterate, that I'm desperate for a future fan base. Stay warm, everyone and I'll see 'ya next week!


(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com. His first novel is titled "Broadway Nights.")

Christine Ebersole in the City Center Encores! mounting of <i>Applause</i>.
Christine Ebersole in the City Center Encores! mounting of Applause. Photo by Joan Marcus

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