ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Wrangling Megan Hilty and Jesse Tyler Ferguson; Rita Moreno in the Studio

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Wrangling Megan Hilty and Jesse Tyler Ferguson; Rita Moreno in the Studio
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Megan Hilty
Megan Hilty


We all sprang forward! And now we're all exhausted. I was always able to justify losing an hour of sleep when I was a kid by telling myself that it was a signpost that the school year was almost over. Now, it just feels like a major inconvenience and a set-up to make me late to work because I've forgotten to set my clock. And, yes, I work on Sundays. As a matter of fact, I had to work all day recording the audio version of my young adult book "My Awesome/Awesome Popularity Plan." Sunday was TV-star day because it's impossible to plan on meeting someone who works on TV during the week because they don't know their schedule 'til the last minute. So, first I met with Megan Hilty, who plays Becky, the girl my character winds up dating as part of his popularity plan. We met at 10 AM and yet she looked stunning. I asked her about "Smash" and she said she's having an amazing time. She told me it combines the best aspects of doing a TV show and a Broadway show. I don't need a combination…I just want one of the two. (Although, I am in the middle of filming a reality show — details soon!) Because Megan missed my birthday, I made her launch into a Marilyn Monroe-inspired version of "Happy Birthday." She sounded amazing and I felt like JFK, but with the J standing for Jewish.

My first choice for the part of Spencer, my character's best friend, was "Modern Family" star Jesse Tyler Ferguson. I told him he was perfect for the part because the character has red hair and so does he. He then reminded me it was an audio book. Hmph. Regardless, he immediately said yes, but then we spent literal weeks going back and forth with emails every day trying to find a time to record. At one point, he was so excited that he was going to be in New York on a break…until we realized it was the exact days that I was going to be in Los Angeles. And then when I returned to New York, he had to be in L.A. It was like a boring version of "The Gift of the Magi." Finally, he told me that he doesn't film on Sundays so I asked Audible.com if there's a recording studio in L.A. he could use. There is (!) and then I asked if I could record dialogue with him while I was in NYC and he was in L.A. They said they could do it and we finally decided on this Sunday after what Jesse called "officially the most difficult meeting of the minds of 2012."

Rita Moreno
photo by Michael LaMonica

On Wednesday I did my SiriusXM talk show, "Seth Speaks," with Rita Moreno (of the TVLand series "Happily Divorced"). Of course, I immediately brought up the fact that she's won an Emmy, Tony, Oscar and Grammy and she commented that it was "not bad for a Puerto Rican girl." Which led me to ask, how did she get started? Turns out, she was doing a dance recital as a teenager in New York, and a Hollywood scout saw her. Essentially, what we've all dreamed about happening while we've done rickety-rackety recitals and cabarets actually happened to her! He asked her and her mother to come to a meeting to discuss a contract. However, because she and her mother didn't have a lot of contact with wealthy people, they were flummoxed when they got to the hotel because they didn't know what a penthouse was. Luckily, they figured it out and Rita had her meeting with…Louis B. Mayer! She told us that she always tried to wear her hair like Elizabeth Taylor and when Mr. Mayer saw her he said, "She's like a Spanish Elizabeth Taylor." Perfecto! P.S. If he had seen my hair as a teenager, he would have said, "He's like a Jewish Glenn Scarpelli." ("One Day At a Time"? Anybody?)

Rita became a Hollywood contract player. To tell you how long she's been in the business, let me just say that when I mentioned The King and I, she remarked, "That was so long after I came to Hollywood!" (It was 56 years ago!) Of course, I really wanted her to talk about "West Side Story." She remembers having a great audition where she sang and then did the dramatic candy store scene. But Jerry Robbins (whom she knew from "King and I") told her she'd have to really dance at her next audition. He said she'd have a few months to get ready and she immediately signed up for non-stop classes. She had danced all of her childhood, but it was Spanish dance and she had no real training in jazz. P.S., when she mentioned Jerry Robbins I said, "Everyone said he was a cranky ass." She immediately said, "No!," and I thought I went too far. She then finished her thought and said, "That's way too kind." And then furthered it with, "He was sadistic." Yowtch. Regardless, she wanted that gig! Right before the auditions, she decided to contact a friend who had done the show and learn the dances. Unfortunately, they didn't have much time and she was only able to learn one section of "America" and one section of the Mambo. Rita showed up at her audition and the assistant choreographer showed her a section of "America"…and it was the same one she already knew! She "learned" it and then he showed her a part of the Mambo…and, yes, she had already learned that one, too. Nonetheless, she had him "teach" her the steps and then danced it for him. Apparently, he called Jerry Robbins and told him, "She doesn't have a lot of technique, but she's got style…and she's an incredibly quick learner!"

The hardest part about filming that number was the very last pose. All the ladies had to jump on the guy's shoulders and it always worked in rehearsal. However, the reason it was easy was because Rita would wear a cotton rehearsal skirt and the guys had cotton t-shirts on. Cut to the day of shooting where they wore their costumes which were silk and the fact that Bernardo's shoulder sloped downward. Suddenly, every time she landed, she was on a sliding pond. Take after take, and finally, on the 30th take, she hooked her foot into his back and managed to balance. And…Academy Award! Brava! Watch it here.  

Paul Shaffer, Rita Moreno, Seth and Clark Oliver

Rita had tickets to see a show and her publicist had said she needed to leave my show right after her interview, but she wound up not only staying for the whole show, but became my co-interviewer during the Paul Shaffer segment. Paul is Canadian and went to play for a friend's audition for the Toronto company of Godspell, and, like many other times before and since when someone has brought someone else along, he wound up getting the gig. Here's a mini-list of this occurrence: Ted Sperling playing Vicki Clark's audition for Sunday in the Park (he got the gig as the pianist) as well as Lea Michele offering to accompany her friend to the Les Miz audition (Lea got young Cosette). Note to everybody: don't bring anyone to an audition! It will backfire! It's all been documented perfectly by Leroy and his friend in the film "Fame."

I ended the interview with Clark Oliver who's starring in Disaster! as Ben and his twin sister, Lisa. Clark has three songs in the show and each one literally stops the show. Plus, in the New York Times review that gave the show a rave, none of the actors was mentioned…except for him. Hmph. Not since Daisy Eagan. P.S., Only two Sundays left! Visit www.DisasterMusical.com.

Over the weekend I went to see Spring Alive starring my friend Spring Groove with whom I did Grease! back when she was plain ol' Wendy Springer. The show is about her evolution from Broadway gal to busker. No, not the star of the ill-fated Busker Alley. She literally travels the world and does street festivals singing and playing her guitar. The show had great music, and all the people I was with loved the songs and Spring's great personality onstage. The only scary part for me was when she sang a call-and-response song in Sanskrit. She told us that repeating the same phrase over and over again is supposed to release positive chemicals in you. My only fear was because I was singing the Sanskrit in Spring's octave, so it was really high in my voice. The whole audience was singing along, so no one noticed that I was singing in an completely inappropriate range, but I kept fearing that the audience would pull a "Blubber" on me. Remember that Judy Blume book? The whole elementary school chorus decides to drop out during a song so the title character sings an unintended solo? And it's on the word "breast"? And the girl rolls the R? Devastating. Spring's show is still running next weekend at the hip Dixon Place. Here's some video footage

All right, this week I'm finishing my audio book with Andrea Burns, Ana Gasteyer and Josh Gad and I'm seeing Once. If you wanna come see "Seth Speaks," get thee to the show's Facebook page. And...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.)

Jesse Tyler Ferguson records Seth's book via Skype
Jesse Tyler Ferguson records Seth's book via Skype
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