ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Unexpected Songs and Phone Calls

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Unexpected Songs and Phone Calls
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Joan Rivers
Joan Rivers Photo by Aubrey Reuben


Phew! I just finished my second week of Betty Buckley's Broadway By Request show at Feinstein's. It went great this week, and we had some fun celebs come to the show.

Sally Struthers came Friday night. She played Miss Lynch for a while when I was the assistant conductor for Grease. Everybody in the cast loved her. It was so fun when she was at Betty's show because she was cheering and whistling from her table, and at one point literally yelled, "Yay! Seth Rudetsky!!" It was so similar to doing a talent show in high school and having a friend from your theatre group in the audience that I was about to ask her if we could carpool together to the SAT's. Joan Rivers also came one night and sat right up front, ooh-ing and ah-ing throughout the show. She knows who I am because she listens to my show on Sirius/XM, and I know who she is from being a big fan of hers forever and from not getting cast on her Bravo talk show (yes, still holding a grudge). After the show, we were walking out together, and she was raving about Betty as an actress and singer. I asked her what it was like working with another great actress and singer: Barbra Streisand (I read her fabulous autobiography). She said they were Off-Broadway in a show called Driftwood. Here's the conversation:

JOAN: "We were lesbian lovers in it."
ME: "You were???"
JOAN: "Yeah! She's a good kisser."
ME: "Really?"
JOAN: "Not really."

Of course, her line reading was hilarious. This week Betty got some fun requests like "Serenity" from Triumph of Love, "Unexpected Song" from Song and Dance and "Old Friend" from I'm Getting My Act Together and Taking It On The Road. People in the audience get a slip of paper when they first sit down, and it says that they can request anything from a show Betty has done. However, some people ignore that boundary, and one night last week Betty read a request and it was for a Janis Joplin song! She laughed, but then launched into an a cappella version of "Piece Of My Heart" and, because I spent years playing in piano bars, I knew the chords and was able to hear what key she was in. I joined in, and she sang the whole first verse and chorus in Joplin's gravelly style and sounded amazing, but Betty's assistant and I were both panicked that her gravelly Joplin imitation would make the rest of the requests have to be taken from Elaine Stritch's oeuvre. But Betty's voice prevailed. I actually can't believe how strong it is. She does so many full-out belty songs, and on Friday and Saturday she has two shows in a row! Brava on her technique. The crowds have been great, too. One night Betty was introducing me, and she was being very effusive and listing all the things I do. She said, "He's produced some big concerts for the Actors Fund, wrote two books, written for television, acted on Broadway and is also an MD." I think that most of the Feinstein audience didn't know that MD is abbreviation for Music Director in Broadway-talk. I skedaddled after the show for fear that 90 percent of them wanted to corner me to take a gander at a suspicious-looking mole. Come see Betty's show…it's truly phenomenal. Go to www.feinsteinsattheregency.com.

Last Sunday night I was so psyched because I nabbed tickets for Lin-Manuel Miranda's final performance in In the Heights. I told people in the cast that I was coming, and I was getting more and more excited as Sunday approached. Then on Saturday afternoon, I got a reminder email that I was scheduled to teach an audition master class for the Broadway Artists Alliance. Sunday night. At 7 PM. Yes, I had to miss it. The next day, Andrea Burns, who plays Daniela, called me and left me a message that we had to rehash every moment of the final performance and that having me in the audience meant so much to her. Ouch. I called her back and broke the news to her. Devastating. But then she filled me in on what the show was like, blow-by-blow. One of my favorite tidbits of info is that Lin is obsessed with Michael Jackson. On his final night he got crazy applause when he entered, and he told everyone backstage that he felt like Michael Jackson because when he whipped his head around, the applause got louder. Then at the end of the show, when he came out for his bows, the band surprised him by not playing the regular bow music. Instead, they launched into "Beat It"! Tip o' the hat to the new Thriller musical?

Wednesday I did my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show and started it with Marc Shaiman and Kerry Butler. Marc emailed me before and asked what to wear. First he wrote: Clothing? Optional? I loved the idea of Marc showing up for the interview nude. But I wrote back and said it didn't matter what he wore. He then wrote: I can just wear what I have on right now? No need to dress up, right? Of course, what I have on right now is a full Civil War outfit. Like what Jezebel wore.

He and Kerry talked about the upcoming Broadway production of Catch Me If You Can. Kerry hasn't finished negotiating her contract, so she had to be political and talk about how much she hoped to do the show. Marc said that part of the contract negotiation is that he appears wherever she's performing and offers to play for her. Kerry also played a great cut off her beautiful CD "Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust." Marc, of course, had to comment on the name "Faith, Trust and Pixie Dust" and mentioned that it's also the name of a gay law firm. He's still got it!

Chris Sieber was the other guest, and not only did he do my show on a Wednesday when he has two performances of Shrek, but it was also his birthday! I was invited to his surprise birthday party that night and was so nervous I was going to spill the beans during the interview. My friend Michael Klimzak had a surprise birthday party last week and my other friend Ron is a scatter-brain. Ron called Michael two weeks before the party and left a message saying, "I'm sorry I missed your party last night." What a headache! Michael told his partner Phil that he got a cryptic message from Ron, and Phil had to double-talk his way out of it. I'm always worried about spoiling a surprise or a phone malfunction. Years ago, I got the European tour of A Chorus Line, and my mother was harassing me to find out what hotel I was staying in while in Germany. I think she feared it was going to be "Der Nazi Bed and Breakfast" or something. Anyway, she was calling me every hour on the hour. Finally, I screamed at her that I'd had it and I was going to call the casting person once more and that she had to drop it. I switched lines and phoned him. I calmly left a message saying, "When you know the name of the hotel, won't you please get back to me when you have a moment. Thank you." Then as soon as I switched back, my mother immediately launched into, "You must find out before you leave!" and I screamed at her to "leave me the hell alone!!!" Cut to, a few hours later, the casting person calls me and smugly said, "So, your mother really controls you, doesn't she?" Of course the answer was yes, but I thought, "Just because I'm asking the name of the hotel doesn't mean it's my mother who wants to know," so I haughtily said, "I don't know what you're talking about." He then informed me that when I called him and switched back to the line with my mother, his answering machine didn't hang up so the whole thing recorded! AKA he heard a calm, "…please get back to me" followed by a hysterical "You must find out!" and a shrieking "Leave me the hell alone!!."

On Thursday at the Chatterbox, I interviewed the amazing Richard Seff. He wrote the book "Supporting Player," which I read last year and loved. He was an agent during the golden age of Broadway and the stories he has are mind-boggling. He introduced John Kander to Fred Ebb, convinced Rex Harrison to go on in My Fair Lady and was with Chita Rivera when she was cast in Bye Bye Birdie. I told my sister Nancy about him and she said, "I saw that movie, and it's called Zelig." Brava.

Here are a few classics from him. When Fred Ebb was writing Cabaret, he called Richard and said, "You speak French. I need a French greeting that has five syllables." Richard thought of a phrase on the spot, told Fred, and now he always feels pride when "Willkommen" plays and he hears "Gluklich zu sehen, je suis enchante!"

He also told us that he pretty much can't remember what he had for breakfast, but he remembers everything that happened at the lunch he was at with Chita Rivera when she was meeting Gower Champion to discuss whether or not she was going to play Rosie in Bye Bye Birdie. Up until then, she had played the Latin spitfire in every show and had never been a traditional leading lady. Gower and Chita started chatting that afternoon and then Gower cut right to the point. "Look, we both know why we're here. You want to know whether I can do anything but this (he did some old-school Hollywood Gower/Marge dance move) and I want to know whether you can do anything but this (he did a sassy Latina shoulder shimmy)." He said he wouldn't presume to make her audition…but asked her if she'd come in and sing a standard song for him so he could see if the role was a good fit for her (AKA audition). Chita asked for a week to prepare and, seven days later, Richard brought her to Gower again. She wore a sweet blouse with a Peter Pan color, sat on a stool and sang a simple version of "Little Girl Blue." Well, according to Richard, she only sang some of it. After the first eight bars, Gower interrupted and said, "That's it. The part is yours." Brava!!! There are so many more amazing stories in his book. At one point, in the middle of a story, I interrupted and clarified, "Wait a minute…you were at the first performance ever of My Fair Lady????" and got a gasp from the entire audience. Go to his website, www.RichardSeff.com.

And, finally, tonight is a big night! I'm going to do some comedy in the huge benefit called Defying Inequality at the Gershwin Theater. I got an email with my tech time and a reminder not to be late because there are 400 people performing. What the-? Is it 1993 again and I'm in the Hal Prince production of Show Boat? I'm so glad I was asked to perform because it's for a cause that is personal to me: marriage equality! James and I were hoping that marriage would be legal in New York State this year so we could tie ye old knot, but it's still not. This show benefits five different non-profits that are trying to get equal marriage rights for all, and the line-up for the show is incredible. Here's a smidgeon: Cyndi Lauper, Stephanie J. Block, Daniel Breaker, Harvey Fierstein, Gavin Creel, Jonathan Groff, Nathan Lane, Keith Olbermann (!)…plus performances from Hair, Billy Elliot and Jersey Boys and Sally Struthers told me that she's sharing a dressing room with Rue McClanahan! That's two degrees of Bea Arthur. There are tickets for just $50 people! Go to www.DefyingInequality.com and I'll see you soon!


(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.)

Richard Seff and Seth Rudetsky
Richard Seff and Seth Rudetsky Photo by Robb Johnston
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