ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Venturing Off-Broadway

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Venturing Off-Broadway

A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.


Happy summer! I know it's supposed to begin at the end of June, but I declare that summer has begun once I'm losing two pounds a day due to sweating on the subway.

Susan Blackwell, Christopher Sieber, Lucas Steele and Ann Harada in The Kid
photo by Monique Carboni

This was an Off-Broadway dedicated week for me. I saw The Kid at the New Group, which is based on the book by Dan Savage that's about he and his partner adopting a baby. The whole show was punctuated every five minutes with James leaning over towards and whispering, "Chris is so good." The Chris he was referring to is Chris Sieber, who starred as Dan and is so likable onstage as well as very real and fun-nee. The whole cast was an embarrassment of character-actor riches, and James and I were both weeping at the end. We also agreed that there [AUDIO-LEFT]is something so special about seeing Off-Broadway shows, since you are so much closer to the stage and the sets and amplification are minimal, you feel much more a part of the experience than you do seeing a show on Broadway. Off-Broadway feels like such a true live theatrical experience. Speaking of which, there was a signature live theatrical experience throughout the whole show: a fly that would not stop orbiting around whoever was center stage. It was relentless! After the show, we congratulated Susan Blackwell, who was great in the show. We mentioned the fly, and Susan nodded sagely and said, "I think that fly has a real future in the business." We went even further Off-Broadway (to the Abingdon Theater Complex on 36th Street) on Friday night to see a musical called This One Girl's Story that was directed by my good friend Dev Janki, who directed the fantastic Zanna, Don't. The book is by Bil Wright, and the music and lyrics are by Dionne McClain-Freeney. Let me simply say that I have never been this excited by a score since I saw the workshop version of In the Heights years ago…coincidentally on 37th Street, one block away! I cannot WAIT until this gets a full production and a CD I can blast all day long. It was thrilling to see this show in a small theatre where there were no microphones. The voices were amazing . It's part of GAYFEST NYC, and it only runs til the end of this week! Get tickets ASAP by clicking here.

I started a new video series for Playbill.com that I'm loving. Every week I'm going to be doing videos and up until the Tony Awards I've themed them as "Tony Categories That Should Exist." I've nominated Kevin Chamberlin for Best High Note and Jackie Hoffman for Best Laugh Line (both for The Addams Family) and Chris Fitzgerald for Best Calf Muscles for Finian's Rainbow. I'm not joking. Look here for proof. Then, on Wednesday, I filmed a sequence where I gave a "Best Laugh Line" nomination to Valerie Harper for one of her hilarious lines in Looped, and the combination of her being so kind, open and warm mixed with me having adult ADD and not booking my Chatterbox till the day before led me to doing a full hour interview with her on Thursday. First of all, I clarified to the audience that she is indeed not Jewish. I know it's traumatic for those of you who grew up with her representing the quintessential New York Jew. And, to add to your harsh awakening, Elizabeth Montgomery was not a witch. Devastating. The first two Broadway shows Valerie saw had future significance for her. The first one was The Bad Seed about an evil little girl named…Rhoda! And the second was the musical Li'l Abner, which she saw when she was 16. Soon after that, Valerie was a ballet dancer and got into the Radio City Corps de ballet. She was trying out for Broadway shows at the time (she remembers that she didn't get West Side Story…Jewish? Yes. Hispanic. No.) but finally got cast when she was 18 in…Li'l Abner! There are so many Broadway folk I know who made their Broadway debut in the same theatre where they saw their first show. Valerie then became a true Broadway Gypsy, going from show to show. Her next one was Take Me Along, and she remembers the opening- night party where the principals of the show were in one area of Sardi's and the ensemble were in another area. There was a rope that blocked the ensemble from entering the principal's area, and Jackie Gleason, who was the star, saw the rope and had it removed so the party was for everyone. Brava Broadway-style communism! She then did Destry Rides Again and then Subways Are for Sleeping. I asked her if she understudied the great Phyllis Newman. She laughed and told me that she used to use Phyllis' song, "I Was A Shoo-In," for auditions and started telling people she was Phyllis' understudy. One day she auditioned for an agent and when she mentioned she was the understudy, he replied, "Um…I represented Dean Taliaferro who was the understudy." Silence. And no agent representation. She was decidedly not a shoo-in.

She was cast in the film version of Li'l Abner and, if you rent it, you can see her dancing alongside Beth Howland! Beth later debuted "Not Getting Married" in Company and then played Vera on TV's Alice. But back then, Valerie said they were both "two terrified virgins." She was also in the ensemble of Wildcat, which starred Lucille Ball. Valerie said that there was a little Yorkie in the show who suddenly walked center stage and pooped one night. All the dancers were backstage, dressed in white (!) and waiting to do a big Mexican Hat Dance. Before they went on, Lucy hightailed it offstage and then came back onstage with a dustpan that she used to scoop the poop. Lucy then turned out to the audience and deadpanned, "Next time, I'll read the fine print in my contract." Brava!

Valerie Harper and Seth Rudetsky
photo by Robb Johnston

Valerie got married to a man who performed with Chicago's Second City and through him, she got involved. She started doing comedy all over the country and eventually wound up living in Los Angeles. She did a little showcase where she played two different characters (one of them was Eva Braun…who would not be fond of Rhoda), and a casting director saw her, tracked her down and got her the audition for "The Mary Tyler Moore Show." Valerie said in those days they took a long time to cast a TV show. It wound up taking six months! They changed various concepts along the way. For instance, Ted Baxter was supposed to be Mary's love interest at first, but then Ted Knight was such a brilliant buffoon, they adjusted the character to suit him. Valerie thinks what got her the job was her Second City training. She auditioned with the first Rhoda scene in the first episode where she breaks into the apartment where Mary is standing. Instead of skipping over the action of the scene and doing her fist line, she employed all of her improv mime training. She demonstrated to us how she fully mimed knocking on the window (while making a sound with her mouth), opening it up, climbing through and, after Mary introduces herself, she says, "I'm Rhoda Morgenstern. Get out of my apartment." It was amazing hearing her say it in her Rhoda voice. I asked what things she added to her role, and she told us that she asked the writers if she could call Mary "Kid" because it implied that Rhoda was from the big city and had more experience than Mary, and then that became the nickname Rhoda always called her. At the end of the first season, Valerie won her first Emmy, and it was presented to her by…Lucille Ball! If you get the DVD of that season, you can watch Valerie come onstage and say to Lucy, "Do you remember? I danced in the chorus of Wildcat!" Speaking of which, she did a musical tribute when Lucy was honored by the Kennedy Center. It's her, Pam Dawber and Bea Arthur. Watch it here, and notice how every time there's a unison section, Bea suddenly slips down an entire octave. When Valerie was offered her own spin-off, her character left Minneapolis and moved to New York. One day, near the end of her run on "The Mary Tyler Moore Show," she told Mary she was nervous that her new show would flop and Mary said, "So, you'll leave New York again and move back to Minneapolis." How nice is that? Luckily, "Rhoda" was a hit and earned Valerie her fourth Emmy Award! She's the Audra McDonald of television. I asked Valerie how she was able to be in such a good mood even though her Broadway show Looped closed way too early. I know that it's going to Toronto and then on tour, but wasn't she traumatized? She informed me that a Tony nomination eases trauma. Brava! On Memorial Day James, Juli, Maggie (doggie) and I rented a zipcar and went out to New Jersey to visit Chris Sieber, who has a beautiful house on a lake. To get there, you literally have to take a rowboat because it's on an island, which he owns. James asked Chris how he found it in the first place…Did he always want to own an island? Chris answered, "Um…doesn't everybody?" True 'dat! We had a great time, but poor Maggie ran around too much and I had to lift her up to get her on the bed last night. I bought her doggie steps that are supposed to help dogs who don't jump as well as they used to, but when I showed them to her she essentially glared and gave me the finger. This week I'm interviewing Katie Finneran at my Sirius/XM Live On Broadway show and getting ready to take my show to DC next Monday (details at www.SethRudetsky.com). Come to the Washington JCC to see me…you don't have to be Jewish to like it. Ask Valerie! *

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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