ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Wright On (and Off) Fire Island

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Wright On (and Off) Fire Island
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Michael Korie and Doug Wright
Michael Korie and Doug Wright Photo by Aubrey Reuben


I'm back from beautiful Fire Island.

I've only been there a couple of times, and the last time was when Linda Blair was starring Grease…aka a long time ago. Suffice it to say, it's still stunning! I went out there because I was invited by Ben Hodges (one of the editors of the Theatre World books and the producer of the Theatre World Awards). He asked me if I would come and interview two of the writers of Grey Gardens. James, Juli and I stayed in a beautiful bed and breakfast (The Madison Fire Island Pines) that was all white with white flowing fabric everywhere. I felt like I was spending the weekend in one of Barbra Streisand's outfits.

On Saturday afternoon, a big crowd sat around the spacious pool, and I interviewed Michael Korie, the Grey Gardens lyricist and Doug Wright, the librettist. They told us that composer Scott Frankel came up with the idea of writing a musical about Grey Gardens, and Michael quickly came on board. Doug said that they asked him to write the book, and he was on the fence about the whole idea. "I'd show up every week and tell them it wouldn't work as a show. After two years we had a first draft." One of the big problems, he felt, was that the documentary is just a slice of life about these two ladies. There's no beginning, middle and end. One night, though, Michael and Scott were out to dinner when Scott suddenly took a dinner napkin and wrote Act One 1941/Act Two 1973. Those two years not only relate to Michael Douglas and Catherine Zeta-Jones' birth dates, but they gave the show a framework.

The real Little Edie passed away before the show was completed, but she did give her blessing to the show. She wrote a letter giving her consent, writing that since their whole lives were music, it was fitting that there'd be a musical about it all. Doug remembered one line in the letter that said, "With all that we didn't have, our lives were joyous." Very sweet. If you didn't see it, let me tell you that Christine Ebersole played Big Edie (the mother) in Act One and Little Edie (the daughter) in Act Two. I asked why Sara Gettelfinger played Act One Little Edie Off-Broadway (and on the recording) but not on Broadway. Doug said that because there were 30 years between acts, they needed a Little Edie in Act One who'd look like a young version of Christine Ebersole in Act Two. Sara is taller than Christine and has a naturally dark look, and they felt that it was confusing for the audience for the two Edies to look so different. Michael remembered being in final callbacks for the role of Little Edie on Broadway. There were two women being considered for the part, and their agents told them that one of the two of them would get it. That same day, they were having auditions for the Little Edie understudy. Cut to: Erin Davie came in to audition for the role of the understudy and later that day her agent called and told her that she didn't get the understudy…she got the part! Michael told us that the other girls cried while they were singing the audition song ("Daddy's Girl"), but Erin made them cry. Brava! Erin was on Fire Island with us and performed "Daddy's Girl" and "Will You?" and was fantastic. Before the show we were chatting, and I asked her how London was (referring to the musical version of Gone With The Wind) and she gently reminded me, "I'm not Jill Paice." Busted! But then I remembered that she had just taken over Jill Paice's role in Curtains, so I was half right. Erin was there with her talented boyfriend Nehal Joshi (Les Miz), and we were talking about the Legally Blonde reality show. Over dinner Erin told us that she recently had a dream where she was trying out for the role of Elle Woods but felt that she wasn't right for it. After she sang, she approached dream Bernie Telsey and said, "I'm sorry. I just don't see myself as the next Elle Woods." She trumped him with his own line!

During the interview, I mentioned that I had met Jerry (the marble faun) the week before, and Doug said that Jerry is now a cab driver, and while Grey Gardens was on Broadway, he'd drive by the Walter Kerr Theatre every night at 10:30 PM. He would always pick up a couple who had just seen the show and listen to them talk in the back seat about it. If they liked the show, he'd wait till he dropped them off to drop that bomb that he was Jerry, and if they didn't like, he'd keep his trap shut. Speaking of keeping your trap shut, reminds me of the fabulous Broadway beltress Liz Larsen. Years ago, she was auditioning for a Broadway show and just to be chatty with the director who was auditioning her, she mentioned a show on Broadway that had failed. She rolled her eyes and said that it was all the director's fault. He said, blank-faced, "I was the director". She thought fast and told him, "Oh, I get so confused. I meant the producer." He said, "I also produced it." Silence. And no call back.

On the Long Island Railroad back from Fire Island, I asked Doug about I Am My Own Wife, which was the show he wrote about a transvestite who had outwitted the Nazis and the Communists. He had heard about the story when he was touring Europe to celebrate his 30th birthday with his college buddy, director Chris Ashley. He met Charlotte von Mahlsdorf, who remained physically a man but still dressed as a woman. In one of the many interviews he did, he found out that one of Charlotte's lovers was a woman! Doug said, "So, at one point you were straight?" and Charlotte replied, "Heavens no. I was a lesbian!"

After the show opened on Broadway to great acclaim, he was directing a reading one day and an intern kept knocking on the door of the rehearsal room. Doug didn't want to be disturbed, but the intern said that there was a very important phone call. Doug picked up, and it was the publicist Don Summa, who told him that there were 100 people who wanted to interview him. Doug was shocked.

"Why?" he asked.
"You haven't heard," asked Don.
"Um, no."
"You won the Pulitzer Prize!" Don screamed.

Doug was so excited that he immediately hung up on Don and called his parents. It was partly for them to share in his joy, partly to alleviate the dishing his mother had given him because at one point he sold his car so he could fly to Germany for one final interview with Charlotte. It paid off. His mother was happiest, though, when he wrote The Little Mermaid because he "finally wrote something his nephew could see!" He said that Mermaid was the most fun he had writing a show. He knows that some of the reviews weren't great but has no idea specifically what they were because his boyfriend has set parental blocks on his computer. Doug said that he can go to the dirtiest porn sites out there, but he can't access any of the theatre websites or message boards!

Right now Doug is working on a movie about Gershwin and the movie focuses mainly on Porgy and Bess. He said that after Anne Brown played Bess, she couldn't get any work singing opera in America because she was black, so she went to Europe where she had a great career. She's the last principal cast member alive from the original production, and he flew to Oslo to interview her where she now resides in a nursing home. She recalled auditioning for Gershwin and singing a Schubert song. He then asked her for something else and suggested a spiritual. She sassed him and said that they didn't teach spirituals at Juilliard! She was annoyed and said, "Why does everyone assume I know spirituals? Because I'm black?" Gershwin backed off, and asked her if it would be all right if he taught her one, and she said yes. So, Jewish George Gershwin taught African-American Anne Brown "City Called Heaven," her first spiritual.

Right now Doug's partner, David Clement, is writing a musical about the Weather Underground with Kate Ryan. Doug said that they've gone out to dinner so much over the past year with William Ayers, he wonders if he's on some kind of FBI list!

This week I saw 13, and I'm very glad that show didn't exist when I was a kid because if I didn't get to be in it, I would have pulled a Madame Bovary. Not only is the cast all teenagers, but the band is too, so there would have been many parts for me to not get cast in. I loved lots of the voices in the show, especially Elizabeth Gillies, who plays the bee-yatchy girl and has a sassy vibrato, and Graham Phillips, who plays the lead and whose voice is in that nether region of when your voice starts changing but isn't quite there yet. He doesn't have a boy soprano or a man's range yet. It's right in the middle, like a contralto. Essentially, he's got the looks of a Bar Mitzvah boy with the notes of Melissa Manchester.

There's an amazing benefit coming up on Sunday, Oct. 19 at the Al Hirschfeld Theatre. It's called Broadway Voices for Change, and it's for America Votes, which is an organization that increases progressive voter registration and turn out. Now, you know that I'm not the biggest fan of sopranos, but this benefit features two sopranos that I think are a brava: Audra McDonald and Barbara Cook! I was chatting with Barbara on the phone (while holding the receiver and mouthing to James, "Can you believe I'm talking with Barbara Cook on the phone!?!?!?!"), and she told me that she loves singing with Audra. The show is going to be tons of solos for both of them and some sassy duets. I, of course, immediately began asking her questions about Music Man, specifically about one of my favorite Broadway songs, "My White Knight." Turns out, Meredith Willson kept changing the song because the first version was too long, and by the time he came up with the final one, Barbara had sung 12 different ones! And it really was 12 versions. Barbara doesn't do my mother style of number aggrandizing ("You spilled grape juice on me! This sweater cost me seventy fi-, eighty ni-, a hundred dollars!").

I decided to ask Barbra about a show she rarely discusses, Carrie. A lot of people have forgotten that she played the mother in the RSC production in London. She finally verified a story I always thought was a Broadway urban legend. During pre-production, the director met with the producer, who felt that the scariness in the movie was from the fact that this kind of horror could take place in any high school in America, so the producer suggested that the show have the look of Grease. The director readily agreed and came back weeks later with the set and costume drawings. The producer looked at it all and asked, "Why all the columns? Why is everything white?" and the director said, "I took your advice. It all looks like Greece!" Seriously! He themed it like a Greek tragedy. Barbara said it manifested itself in bizarre ways like when the kids went to get the pigs blood, they were all wearing Trojan helmets. Huh. I guess people wore those a lot in the 80's. Literally, the 80's. BC. The amazing part is, after the director left the RSC, people would always ask him about Carrie. Someone mailed Barbara a clipping of an interview where he said, "I definitely made some mistakes with that show. It wasn't a Greek tragedy. It was a Roman tragedy." As Mr. Burns from "The Simpsons" once said while reading the comics, "Ah, Ziggy. Will you ever win?"

Speaking of winning, one of my favorite Audra McDonald facts is that she tried out for the ensemble of Beauty and the Beast…and didn't get it. I'd love to see the "No Call Back" pile of 8x10s from that audition with Audra's mug staring up from it. My other favorite Audra lore ties in with the sad closing of [title of show]. Heidi Blickenstaff and Audra grew up together in Fresno and both tried out for the local production of Annie. Heidi got the role of Annie, and Audra's picture yet again wound up in the reject pile. Of course, you'd think Heidi would be happy about that, but she told me that the reason Audra didn't get the part was because she was such a great performer, the director felt that she would outshine the rest of the cast. Poor Heidi walked around her whole life knowing that she only got Annie because Audra was too amazing. Well, I confronted Audra with the story, and she blatantly 'fessed up that she made up that spin just to save face. Audra said, "The truth is I tried out and didn't get it because the director said my audition was sub-par." Audra had the nerve to spin a lie whose tentacles extended decades later! I told Heidi that she got the role of Annie because she had the goods, not because Audra outshined her. And if Audra was hurt revealing the truth, she can cry all the way to where she stores her four Tony Awards. You can buy tickets to Audra and Barbara's song fest by phoning (212) 239-6200 or by visiting Telecharge.

Tonight, I'm performing in a benefit for Ovarian Cancer put together by the fabulous performer Lorin Latarro (Movin' Out and Chorus Line). I'm going to do some deconstruction and then play for Norm Lewis, who is singing his amazing version of "Before the Parade Passes By" from his upcoming CD where he goes to a B flat! It's at the Alvin Ailey Theater at 7 PM, and tickets are at www.smarttix.com. Right after that I'm hightailing it to the Laurie Beechman room to hear the beautiful tones/laugh at the hilarious stories of Andrea Burns from In the Heights at 11 PM; tickets at WestBankCafe.com. Andrea does a bit about playing Maria in West Side Story every decade of her life, and it ends with her singing "I Feel Pretty" as Elaine Stritch. I made a mini-video of her at my website (sethrudetsky.com) and it's a brava.

Speaking of which, I was at Sirius radio and was introduced to someone who recognized me. From where? Broadway? No. The Chatterbox? No. My TV forays on "All My Children" and "Law and Order. No and no. From where? How about from my rickety-rackety appearance on "Cash Cab." Apparently, that's what going to get me fans, so I've posted the episode on my website. If you want to know how I got on that show, read my column from June 2007 http://www.playbill.com/news/article/108527.html. FYI, my "Sirius Live On Broadway" show will be this Wednesday at noon at the Times Square Information Center with Stephen Bogardus and Kerry O'Malley from White Christmas, and to counteract that religion, my special guest will be the Jewish laugh riot that is Jackie Hoffman. Peace out and see you there or at the Kickin' it benefit or at Andrea Burns' show or the Audra/Barbara song fest! *

(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.)

Nehal Joshi, Erin Davie, Juli and Seth
Nehal Joshi, Erin Davie, Juli and Seth
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