ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Neil Sedaka Talks About His Hits

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Neil Sedaka Talks About His Hits
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Andrea Martin
Andrea Martin


Greetings from Logan Airport. I just did the Sunday matinee of Andrea Martin's show in Provincetown and I was planning on flying out Monday morning. However, I made the flight plans before I knew I was hosting Gypsy of the Year Dec. 5-6. I decided that it was too nerve-wracking, even for me, to fly to New York on the morning of the event so I decided to try to get a flight home Sunday night. I found one through United that leaves at 8 PM, but I still had to find a way to get from P-town to Boston. This is where "social networking" is fabulous. I went to my Facebook and Twitter account and asked if anyone was driving from P-town to Boston on Sunday. Within minutes, someone from my fan site volunteered! It was so easy. This never would have happened before the internet. I guess I would have had to put a note on the Equity board and told them to call my "service." I would then "call them in the morning, or my service would explain." Pam Myers? Anybody? Nobody.

I told Andrea that I had never met the person picking me up and she texted me frantically during my drive to Boston because she was afraid, she admitted in a text, that I was being driven by Jeffrey Dahmer. I then texted back that my driver, Amy, was a woman over 50 accompanied by her Labrador retriever. Andrea was immensely relieved. And then, of course, I began to think of Stephen King's "Misery." Regardless, she was a great driving companion and I made it to the airport with plenty of time to spare. But speaking of Andrea, she's been doing her shows in Canada with another pianist because I told her I didn't want to travel so much this year. At the end of the show in P-town, she introduced me and told the audience, "I could not do this show without Seth." I then gave her an incredulous look and she added, "Although I have…and it's actually gone pretty well." Brava on the honesty.

LuPone and Mandy Patinkin in An Evening With Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin.
photo by Joan Marcus

This week I saw Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin's show on Broadway. They've both completely kept their ranges and Patti's voice especially sounds exactly the same. The next version of The Picture of Dorian Gray should star her larynx. It was so enjoyable to see such solid actors do not just songs, but classic scenes from shows together (they do sections of South Pacific and Carousel). Of course, during the Evita segment I had to hold myself back from crying. The tears were because I was so moved seeing them recreate something I was completely obsessed with when I was a little boy. The tears were also because of unresolved anger toward my mother for relentlessly getting me tickets to a show right after all the original leads had left. Annie, A Chorus Line, Ain't Misbehavin' — no matter what, she waited 'til every contract expired before calling for tickets. Speaking of my mother, I took her to the Patti/Mandy show, and while she was flipping through the Playbill she commented that she couldn't understand why there was a new show starring Louis Vuitton and Christian Dior. I looked over her shoulder and told her that she was looking at an ad for Bloomingdales. The woman next to my mother didn't even try to conceal her laughter.

Mandy mentioned that it was his 59th birthday, and a gaggle of leggy ladies dressed in black came out during the curtain call. They proceeded to sing and dance a sexy version of "Happy Birthday" that obviously took Mandy completely by surprise. They were all adorable. After they ran off, Patti told them to come back and do it again! This time, Mandy joined them in a kick line. Let's just say that when he searches through Backstage, he should skip the "singers who dance" auditions and focus only on those for "singers who move." Regardless, it was a very special thing to witness from the audience and Mandy remarked, "I can't wait to see what happens when I turn 60!"

Seth with Neil Sedaka
photo by Robb Johnston

On "Seth Speaks," I interviewed one of my idols: Neil Sedaka. I'm obsessed with his amazing composing and beautiful alto voice. Literally alto. He actually said that he feels his voice is androgynous and that's what contributed to his success: girls would buy his records thinking he was a guy and boys would buy it thinking he was a girl! I asked him if there was any castrati incident in his past and he remarked, "I am still intact." Phew. He's from Brighton Beach and started out as a classical pianist with a scholarship to Juilliard prep (I, too, auditioned and was summarily rejected). I told him how much I loved his composing, and how I could tell the song "Superbird" was influenced by the Bach A-minor invention. Listen

He remarked that being a studied musician gives him an advantage over other rock composers who can only play four chords. Sass!!! I love his voice so much and he told me he never had a voice lesson. As a fellow Jew, I then asked him how he sounded when he sang from the torah for his Bar Mitzvah. He recalled, "Not a dry eye in the house." Hilarious. He said that afterward the Rabbi wanted to make him a Cantor, but his mother put the kibosh on that because she wanted him to be a concert pianist. Of course, he wound up being neither because, soon, one of their neighbors asked if Neil would write music if her son, Howie, wrote lyrics. Neil told them he could only play classical music, but Howie Greenfield convinced Neil to try and they wound up writing 300 songs together! "Where the Boys Are", "Calendar Girl," "Love Will Keep Us Together" and many more. He and Howie were one of the first people in the famous Brill building which was a place that young songwriters would work from 10 AM to 5 PM, five days a week. He started as a teen, and they had hit songs like "Stupid Cupid," but by 1959 RCA was going to fire him because he had a few flops in a row. Well, this is where Neil is brilliant; he looked at a copy of Billboard and bought the records of all the No. 1 songs from all the countries that were listed. Then because he's a "very good sleuth," he wrote down what all the songs had in common. He noticed they all had a girl's name in the title, a certain vocal riff, guitar riff and drum beat and he put it all together and created "Oh, Carol." He looked at my audience and summed up his efforts by saying, "Three million copies." Brava! P.S., he put the name "Carol" in the title because of Carole King, whom he dated, according to him, "for around one minute."

Suddenly, The Rolling Stones and The Beatles became popular and Neil stopped having hits. Fourteen years later, in the '70s, Elton John contacted him and said he was going to make him a star again. Elton had a new record label and produced Neil's album and Neil came back on the charts with two No. 1 hits: the slow version of "Breakin' Up Is Hard To Do" and "Laughter in the Rain." By the way, when the song goes to "Ooh...I hear laughter in the rain…" the chord underneath the "ooh" is what he calls the "drop dead" chord. He says you need to have a chord that's out of the ordinary and special that gives the song a lift. I asked him about his big hit "Love Will Keep Us Together" and he told me that he wrote it by combining many different homages: The signature vamp at the beginning is based on The Beach Boys, the augmented chord is from Al Green and the vocal line is a la Diana Ross! Listen! He compares himself to a clothing designer who takes many different swatches and then combines them to create something new. At the end of the interview, I mentioned the song "Solitaire" and he remembered that he wrote it because his friend told him he hadn't yet written "the great one." He told me that the song was influenced by Roberta Flack and I assumed he meant the chord changes or the vocal line. He responded: "The tempo." So specific! Listening to his music is like looking at a Hirschfeld drawing and trying to find all the different Ninas! I brought Farah Alvin to sing "Solitaire" and when I told him, he yelled, "I love her!" He first saw Farah sing at an Actors Fund salute I put together years ago. Before she sang, he begged for tissues because he knew he'd be crying (!). And then after she belted that crazy high F at the end, he hugged her and called her "a songwriter's dream." Brava! This is Farah singing for one of my Playbill "Obsessed!" videos.

O.K., I have to rush and get ready for Gypsy of the Year so peace out and Happy December! (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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