ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Follies of Jan Maxwell and Deconstructing for Free

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Follies of Jan Maxwell and Deconstructing for Free
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis
Audra McDonald and Norm Lewis Photo by Michael J. Lutch


Oy! And, now, I have a month of crazy busy-ness! In one week, my new young adult book comes out, and I'm doing a reading/signing/performance at Barnes and Noble (86th and Lex.) on Jan 23. The day before (!), Disaster, the musical I wrote with Jack Plotnick based on all of the amazing 1970's disaster movies, opens at the Triad! We start today (only seven days of rehearsal), so I don't know if it's going to be one of those "Wow! We pulled it off" or "What were we thinking?" experiences that becomes a hilarious story once the devastation wears off. AKA, in ten years. I guess that's the excitement of putting up a new show. It's also why people turn to "dolls." Take a look at the sassy website we put together and the amazing pictures, www.DisasterMusical.com.

This week I saw Porgy and Bess for the second time (first time was in Boston). I still cannot get over the amazing singing, specifically Audra McDonald, Norm Lewis and Josh Henry. I cannot wait for the CD! Of course, after the show, I eavesdropped on audience members, and two women obviously knew Audra only from "The Practice." One confidently commented that Audra plays a doctor "married on to the show to Ty Diggs." Yes, she pronounced it Ty. Then the other one commented, "Yeah! You could tell on the TV show that she was talented." Then she pointed to the Playbill, "…but not this talented." Had they never seen Audra on Broadway? Are four Tony Awards not enough to get in the public eye?


Jan Maxwell with Seth
photo by Robb Johnston

Anyhoo, I had my second Chatterbox of 2012 last week with Jan Maxwell, and she was such a great guest. First, I asked her about Follies, and she told me that they started rehearsals with a read/sing-thru for Sondheim. I had a panic attack hearing that, but she remembers being relatively calm. I asked her why she didn't have (what we called in the 70's) a "nervous breakdown," and she said it's because she lives by the theory, "Respect everyone. Revere no one." Uh-oh…I've made a career out of worshiping people. Now what? Speaking of which, I was having a game night at Andrea Burns' apartment, and she was doing a hilarious lip-synch of a singer who clanks numerous times on a phrase. Andrea re-enacted it, adding her own subplot that while the singer was fading out on a note in the recording studio, she starts gesturing to the booth asking for another take. I, of course, then became the recording engineer in her improv, pointing to my watch and mouthing, "We don't have time to do another one." After we deconstructed it twice, Andrea told me that the night was so "meta" because if people knew I was doing it, they'd probably ask, "Wait! That's your job… you had a night out with friends and you spent it deconstructing?" She thinks it's so funny that people don't realize that deconstructing is what I've always done with friends, literally since elementary school. The job part came later. And, ps, the job part pays me pretty much the same as what I get deconstructing with friends. On a side note, we all watched some of the non-entertaining "Paul Lynde Hallowe'en Special." But, even though the show's a clunker, he's still funny. Watch his line reading to his maid (Margaret Hamilton!) of "Why don't you go dust." Brava!

Jan Maxwell in Follies.
photo by Joan Marcus

Back to Jan Maxwell. I told her that everyone was shocked she was such a musical theatre sasstress in Follies. She said that she always had done musicals, especially in summer stock. She started rattling off shows (she played Evita in Evita!) and then she mentioned Anything Goes. "Who did you play?" I asked. She couldn't remember the name and said, "You know…the person!" The person? I thought actors were specific. Anyhoo, it was Reno Sweeney, and the horrifying part is they told her to tap in the big "Anything Goes" number. The problem was, they told her a half hour before the show, and she didn't know the dance or how to tap! She was panicked in the rehearsal room at 7:30, trying to figure out what to do, when her best friend walked in. He advised her to "just smile a lot." Cut to, after the performance, she saw her boyfriend. Jan asked him what the dance looked like during the title song, and he replied, "I don't know… but I've never seen you happier!" It worked?

Her first Broadway musical was as an understudy in City of Angels, which she said was a terrifying experience. There was a moving treadmill that went across the stage that she had to walk backwards (!) on, but she never had a chance to practice on it during rehearsal because it would have been too expensive to hire a crew to operate. It actually was dangerous, and she remembers that before each entrance, a crew member would tell her what to do for her safety, and it was terrifying instructions like, "Make sure you move to the side or else you'll have something enormous slam into your head" or "Keep your arms next to you the whole time or else you'll be killed." Literally. Where was the fun part? I guess surviving with her life.

Speaking of surviving, she's been injured off and on during Follies—including being hit by a van (!)—but has refused to stop performing even though a doctor told her to take weeks off. Jan said she did the ol' chestnut of going from doctor to doctor until she found one who said she could continue doing the show.

Her first big musical job was touring in Annie as the Lily St. Regis understudy. She flew down to Atlanta and, because she didn't know anyone, started exploring different neighborhoods by herself. One afternoon, a police car screeched up next to her, and the policeman asked where she was from. She muttered, "New York…" Then he asked where she was staying, and she said, "Uh…the hotel?" He told her to get in the backseat of the police car because he thought she was a prostitute! She stammered that she was in town with the tour of Annie. The policeman said, "Oh, I'm so embarrassed…I just bought a ticket to see it tonight!" Turns out, though, Jan was still in rehearsal and therefore wasn't in the show yet, so she told us that he probably got to the theatre, looked at the Playbill and yelled, "That whore!" The ol' "I'm not a prostitute, I'm in a 3rd national bus and truck tour" excuse.

Hal Prince
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In terms of bad auditions, she talked about going in for Parade and feeling like her career was over because she had just given birth a few weeks earlier and she was exhausted. Plus she happened to have made good money that year doing voiceovers (she said it was the only time she ever made good money), and she found out she owed $10,000! She was devastated and decided to not get dressed up because she somehow thought it was for a student director of Hal Prince, but when she walked in she saw it was for the Hal Prince and mega-producer Garth Drabinsky. She then decided her career really was over. She turned her devastation into being cranky, and basically couldn't stop herself. Whatever they asked her, she had a whiny, annoyed line reading that, when she re-created it, was hilarious. The dialogue was:

HAL: Have you seen the sides?
JAN: Have I seen the sides? Of course, I've seen the sides!
HAL: Do you have questions?
JAN: Yes!!! What's this play about????
HAL: You play the mother of a little girl who was murdered in the South-
JAN: She's southern??!?!?
HAL: Yes…..
JAN: (Overwrought) Do you want an accent!?!?!
HAL: Uh…sure.
JAN: When did it happen!?!?!?
HAL: In the 20's.
JAN: (Exasperated) Not the time period! When I read this scene, how much time has passed since the murder?!?!?
HAL: Uh...a few weeks.

Jan did the scene, and then Hal told her the show was going to go to Philadelphia. She replied, with great consternation, "Philadelphia?!?! For how long?" He told her five days. She replied, completely overwhelmed and annoyed, "Five days!?!?" I'm obsessed with that part, because literally however many days he said would have irritated her. Well, for some reason, they offered her the role and later on Hal's assistant told Jan that Hal had written on her audition sheet, "Awesome!" Then "Hostile?" Hilariously accurate.

And speaking of Jan, I just saw Follies for the second time. It was the Actors Fund performance. I cannot recommend seeing an Actors Fund performance enough! The cast is always so amazing because the crowd is extra enthusiastic, because of the fellow gypsies in the audience, and it's star-studded! Just in my area I saw Audra McDonald, Marilyn Sokol, Norm Lewis, Tom Hanks, David Alan Grier, John Benjanmin Hickey and Victor Garber. There's going to be an Actors Fund performance of Godspell and Relatively Speaking coming up. Go to ActorsFund.org for info. And, come see Disaster this Sunday and my book reading next Monday! All info at www.SethRudetsky.com. And now, peace out!

(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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