ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Old Year Passes

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Old Year Passes
A week in the life of actor, musical director and theatre talk show host Seth Rudetsky.
Tommy Tune
Tommy Tune Photo by Aubrey Reuben


I can't believe it! It's my final column of '07. It seems like only yesterday I was keeping my eyes open with toothpicks "Clockwork Orange"-style and watching "You're the One That I Want" so I could fulfill my initial job assignment of blogging about said reality show. I must admit that I miss Austin's sassy high kicks and Ashley's focused vibrato, but I was thrilled that after that show ended I wasn't put on the "Dancing with the Stars" beat, but instead asked to write a weekly column about my own life ("Obsessing about the Stars"?). So I must thank Playbill.com and the wonderful Andrew Gans for giving me this great opportunity. Even though every Sunday begins with me muttering, "What the hell am I going to write about this week?," I always wind up having a great time.

This column has also allowed me create a new verb: To Playbill.com someone. Whenever my Mother or someone I know does something to annoy me (there's a brand new Mom one this week) I'll threaten "Do not make me Playbill.com you!" (that is, write about their actions in detail, bringing them derision from the online theatre community and helping to fulfill my word count). I love writing this column and can't wait for what's gonna happen in '08. But now it's time to recap the 52nd week of '07.

It began in Texas with the second half of my visit to James' (my BF) family. I have a total block against driving and even though I have a license, I haven't driven in almost 10 years. Literally, the last time I remember being behind the wheel was when I was working on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and we were spending sweeps month in L.A. That was the beginning of '98. So, of course, whenever James and I go anywhere, I make him drive…even the six-hour trip to Provincetown. He can't understand why I have such a fear of driving and is constantly asking me to start again. So, finally, on the way from Betty Buckley's ranch near Dallas/Ft. Worth to Houston, he convinced me to give it a try. The traffic was so light that it seemed like a perfect place to re-enter the driving world. We pulled off to get food and he told me that he'd drive me to the entrance of the highway and then I could take over. I tentatively pulled onto the right lane of the highway and kept going. It was nerve-wracking, but I was doing it! He had been driving already three hours since we left Dallas and we had two more to go before Houston. James was so appreciative of me giving him a much-needed break from driving. Suddenly, after twenty minutes he abruptly yelled "What the —!" I managed to not crash the car and asked him what was going on. Turns out he had just seen a sign that said "TO DALLAS." That's right…I was going the wrong way. It was actually his fault because he brought me to the wrong entrance and he apologized but I refused to keep driving because my anxiety was now back to sky-high. So, because he now had to double back, my version of "giving him a break from driving" was in actuality giving him another 40 minutes of driving. My work was done.

He still couldn't fathom where my fear of driving came from…until later. I called my Mom and started to tell her the story. As soon as I said, "James wanted me to drive a little today," she interrupted with "Please don't! It's so dangerous!" I assumed she thought I was driving for hours on a busy six-lane highway so I offered a "But there was no traffic" and was met with a "Please don't," then I followed with "I only for drove for 20 minutes" and got a "It's very dangerous!" Essentially whatever came out of my mouth was cut off with a stream of pleading, fear and foreboding. And the anxiety source material was found. I spent Christmas with his family and received so many gifts from them that James and I literally were asked to pay extra money when we were boarding the plane because our suitcases weighed so much! We were too cheap so we transferred tons of stuff into our carry-on bags and now share a delicious bout of sciatica.

Anyhoo, back in New York, I got to interview nine-time Tony Award winner Tommy Tune for my Sirius radio show. He told me that the first day he arrived in New York from Texas, he auditioned for a Broadway show (Irma La Douce) and got it! I told him that it was very Betty Buckley (The first day she arrived from Texas she got 1776). I recalled that I arrived from Texas the day before and only had my sciatica to show for it. During the '60s, he went from show to show and in the process met Michael Bennett who choreographed him in A Joyful Noise. That was the beginning of a long friendship/working relationship, and, according to the Bennett biographies, rivalry. Tommy got cast as Ambrose in the "Hello, Dolly!" movie and I immediately asked him for a Barbra story. Here it is: During the scene where he elopes with Ermengarde, he had to climb up a ladder with Barbra. Before they shot the scene, Gene Kelly told "Hold on to Barbra as tight as you can…do not let her fall!" Barbra arrived on the set dressed in her enormous period dress, hat and gloves, Gene yelled "Action," and they began ascending the ladder. Tommy had his hands gripped around Barbra as tight as he could and suddenly she began yelling. He gripped harder and she screamed "Cut!! CUT!!" Turns out, he wasn't gripping her fingers, he was gripping her signature Streisand fingernails! Production stopped and she was rushed to her trailer. She finally came back and Tommy ran up to her and apologized and asked how her nails were. She paused. She spoke. "They're damaged."

He went to Europe in the early '70s and was subletting from Michael Bennett who was out of town in Detroit. Tommy said he arrived from the airport and when he walked into Michael's apartment, the phone was ringing. This was before answering machines, so he picked up to take a message. It was Michael. "Don't unpack. I'm doctoring a show and I need you. Fly to Detroit now." Tommy flew there and got to the theatre to watch Seesaw. He asked Michael why he was doing a show that seemed so hopeless, but Michael said he thought that it could be saved. Michael fired Lainie Kazan who was playing the lead and put Michele Lee in the role, rehearsing her during the day while Lainie played it at night. I'm sure it wasn't awkward at all when Michele and Lainie would pass each other in the hotel. Then he put Tommy in the role as Michele Lee's best friend…and Tommy was devastated to be replacing someone whose wedding he attended…and whose sister played Ermengarde opposite him in the "Hello, Dolly!" movie! Michael Bennett was ruthless when it came to people's feelings sometimes…but he knew how to fix a show. And give people complexes for years.

Anyway, Tommy got the role and was nominated for a Tony! I asked how he felt when he was nominated and he said that it was bizarre because all he ever wanted to do was dance in the chorus. He loved doing that so much he never thought he'd do anything else. Tommy talked about Tony night and said that it was a bittersweet experience for him. At the time he was dating Michael Stuart (the original Greg from A Chorus Line) and the powers that be told him that he had to have a girl as his date at the Tonys. He was shocked because he was playing a gay character in Seesaw! Actually, he said during the interview that he was playing the first gay character in a musical and I corrected by saying that Duane in Applause was the first …and he one-upped me by telling me that he was originally offered the role. Busted!

Anyhoo, he decided to ignore what they told him and bring his boyfriend to the Tonys. Well, because of that, when the camera filmed each nominee in the audience before the award was given, they went to a photo of him instead! I was shocked and asked how the TV audience would even know that it was his boyfriend and he said everyone sat boy, girl, boy, girl. He wound up winning the Tony but the memory of that night has always been tinged with sadness and Tommy said that for everyone who thinks gay rights hasn't come far, just remember how it used to be! (Cut to Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman smooching it up in 2004!)

In the mid-'70s, he started on the path towards being a director and that meant making some tough decisions like turning down the original Annie. His agent felt that if he accepted being choreographer of Annie, he'd never graduate to being director. Tommy said that Michael Bennett was always frustrated during the years he spent as just choreographer because he knew he could direct and Tommy didn't want that to happen to him. He waited it out and was offered a chance to be choreographer of The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas and asked Peter Masterson if he could co-direct (a la Michael co-directing Follies). Peter said yes and that changed Tommy's career…and, he said, his bank account!

I asked him about that brilliant number he created for Michael Jeter in Grand Hotel. He said that they couldn't find someone to play the role of Kringelein and Tommy remembered seeing Michael play a door mouse opposite Meryl Streep in the Public Theater's Alice in Wonderland. He tracked him down and turns out Michael was working as a secretary in a law firm. Tommy brought him in and at the audition Michael Jeter told everybody that he didn't sing. Tommy wanted to know if that meant that he had never sung, or if he was literally tone deaf, so he had Michael match different pitches…which he was able to do. Tommy sat with him onstage and said he should sing something really simple for everyone and held his hand. He remembers Michael's hand shaking terribly as he sang, but he got through it. Of course, his acting in the audition scenes was brilliant and he was cast. But, Tommy forgot to ask him to dance. He said he likes to see how everyone can dance at an audition, just in case it's needed somewhere. Well, one day during rehearsals, Michael was holding himself on the bar (drinking bar, not ballet) and making his body do these crazy Raggedy Andy/spineless/no-bones-in-his-body moves. Tommy saw it, loved it and made it the basis for "We'll Take a Glass Together." You all need to go to bluegobo.com ASAP and watch it…it's literally something I put on every time I want to love Broadway. The two moments I love are when the bar is pulled away right near the end…you can hardly see it, but it's thrilling…and then the very last button when Michael jumps in Brent Barrett's arms…it's so satisfying!

I feel that Tommy is one of the all-time great directors because he can take a show that isn't working and make it a hit (like My One and Only and Grand Hotel). That's the skill that made Michael Bennett, Gower Champion and Jerome Robbins such brilliant directors. Tommy told me that the most important person needed to fix a show is the librettist. I had always thought it was the songwriters but he explained that many flop shows had brilliant scores and I realized he's right! (See: Merrily We Roll Along and Rags). Shout out to librettists!

I begged Tommy to come back to Broadway and he said he had gotten really depressed because so many of his friends (especially Michael Bennett) died of AIDS. He felt he had no one to talk to and bounce ideas off of. He fled to Vegas for a few years to do F/X (where he won entertainer of the year). The thing he loved about Vegas is that "you get to do ten shows a week. On Broadway, you only get to do eight a week." Get to do? I explained that many people put in their contract that they'll only do six a week! He patiently explained that his father was a farmer and used to tell him that if he didn't go to bed dog tired at the end of the day, he didn't work hard enough. Hmm…was his father related to Chita? Same work ethic.

The good news is, he's back from Vegas and he just started an online art gallery with beautiful pictures that are c-h-e-a-p (some are as low as $20!). He feels that people need to have affordable art. Get thee to TommyTuneGallery.com. And he just started working on a show with Rick Elice and Marshall Brickman, the librettists of Jersey Boys. Come back to Broadway, Tommy!!!!!!

The rest of the week was dedicated to seeing shows I've been wanting to see but couldn't because I was doing The Ritz. So, first James and I saw The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. It was hilarious! The new cast was fantastic and my friend Jennifer Simard was brilliant as Rona Lisa. If you've never seen the show, you may not know that they bring up three audience members and make them participate in the Bee. I'm obsessed with the comments that Rona Lisa and the vice-principal make about them. One guy was dressed in a button-down sweater and loose corduroy pans and when he approached the mic Jen gave his background information: "Fred Lackey likes to intimidate the other contestants by dressing as their Dad." After the show, Jen told me that many of the comments they make are made up on the spot. She followed it with "Fred Lackey is sick of being considered everybody's lackey and is changing his name to Sting." When Fred was running out of time, she said, "Five seconds, Sting." I was also obsessed with her performance because right after she'd say a funny line, she'd start writing something on the pad on her desk. I told her I loved the total lack of comment on the funny line and she said that was from the Bea Arthur school of saying a laugh line. Right after you say it, you occupy yourself with something during the laugh. I remember backstage at The Ritz we'd talk about Bea's signature picking lint off of her sweater after she'd land a zinger on "The Golden Girls."

Friday night, James and I went downtown to see Gone Missing and I thought the acting was so great! The whole show is monologues (with some songs) culled from real people talking about things they've lost. One woman's answering message about an expensive, black high heeled shoe she lost at PS 122 was so hilariously annoying. "I've notified the head of PS 122, the director, the music director, the house manager and no one is calling me back. I have a photo of the shoe that I'm gonna email to you so you can make a flyer… and I'm also attaching a map highlighting the places I want the flyer hung up." I was obsessed with her controlling-ness! Also, as I was watching the show I realized that I knew one of the cast members, Lexy Freidel (we did a show together where I got my Equity card) and I thought she was excellent...especially as the woman talking about losing her necklace down the drain of her shower. Then I checked the program and found out that she was an understudy! BRAVA!

Saturday we saw our second Bill Finn show of the week — Make Me a Song. Everyone in the cast sang great (shout out to my friend Sally Wilfert and her gorgeous mix!) and Darren Cohen burned up the keyboard. And, my signature, after hearing four lines of "Unlikely Lovers" I had tears streaming down my face. Bring back Falsettoland!

Then we ran up to Lincoln Center to see The Glorious Ones. It was so fun for me to see Marc Kudisch in a fabulous lead role. We first worked together in Kansas City where I music directed Forever Plaid and he played Smudge. He's such a great character actor and truly knows how to act a song. I think that it's always so hard to act while holding a note, but he was so good at filling it with subtext. Also, everyone knows that Natalie Belcon, the original Gary Coleman in Avenue Q, was funny, but finally New York can see that she's also a beautiful woman! With a high belt! Thank you to the music of Flaherty and Ahrens and to that fabulous push-up bra!

Finally, on Sunday afternoon we went to brunch with my Mom at Marseilles (delish!) and saw the matinee of Die Mommie Die! Charles Busch is so brilliant. I would so love for him to go back to what he did when he first started out and write and star in a different show each week. He is so mind-bogglingly funny but you never feel that he's just going for the laugh. He perfectly blends imitating the grande dames of film with keeping everything he's doing rooted in reality. And, as you watch, you always want to be best friends with the women he plays. After the show Charles made a sweet speech thanking us for being such a great crowd. He said that they had some bizarre audiences during the strike because they got the run-off from How the Grinch Stole Christmas. He recalled one evening playing the show to a group of 200 high school marching band members! He then muttered "…strange bedfellows." There are only two weeks left of Die Mommie Die! so a.) you must go see it, b.) Charles has to come back in another show ASAP.

OK…I'm saying farewell to 2007. This week I'm hosting a game night for New Years and then starting rehearsals for Lend Me a Tenor. As we would say in sixth grade to provoke gales of laughter, "see you next year!"

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