I’ve been a travelin’ and I’m about to start again.
Right now, I’m writing from Provincetown where I’m with Mandy Gonzalez who’s making her Ptown debut! I think most people know her from originating the role of Nina in In the Heights, but many don’t realize she began her career with Bette Midler as one of her singer/dancers/sasstresses! Mandy said she had a long audition with lots of singing and dancing and at the end, Bette showed up. Mandy was SO excited because she was/is a superfan. Mandy was only 19 and her competition was a woman who was older and, obviously, had a lot of experience. They had to learn all three harmony parts and Bette made them sing each part individually. There was a big slide up to a high note and, of course, Mandy, with her usual bullet-proof voice, slid up to the super high note and belted the hell out of it! Then the woman did it…and when she got to the high note…she cracked. And thus…Mandy got the gig!
I found amazing footage of Mandy on the tour where Bette introduces everyone by name!!!
On Monday July 31st, I go from Provincetown to Rhode Island for two events. In the afternoon I’m doing a “Reading with Robin” about my new (-ish) book “Musical Theatre For Dummies.” Then I’m making my second appearance at Theatre-By-The-Sea…but this year, I’ll be in concert with Beth Leavel. Where can you get all this info and get tix? Why, at SethRudetsky.com.
Let me go back to my last big trip which was to Alaska with three amazing performers: Ann Hampton Callaway, Donna McKechnie, and James Monroe Iglehart. I’ll give you a summation of my favorite stories from each of these stars.
First up, I asked Ann about writing “The Nanny” theme song and it turns out it was a ten-year process! It all began when Ann’s sister, Liz Callaway, was starring in Baby on Broadway, opposite Todd Graff. Look at their amazing performance of one of my favorite songs “Two People In Love”!
Anyhoo, Ann was performing at Don’t Tell Mama and Todd went to see her with Liz and he brought along his best friend from childhood: Fran Drescher. After the show, Fran told Ann that she wanted to create something with her because they had the same mentality. Years passed and, a few times, Ann would write theme songs for TV shows that never went anywhere. One day, Ann was asked to submit a theme song for the show “The Nanny” starring Todd Graff’s best friend Fran! Well, you may not know, but Liz and Ann’s father was John Callaway, a famous journalist who interviewed, basically, everyone! Watch this tribute to him featuring interviews with Lauren Bacall, George Solti, Judy Tenuta, and a young Ann and Liz and…Oprah!
Ann told us that their father had always told them to research and find the facts, so Ann called Fran and basically interviewed her! Ann asked her all about The Nanny character, Fran Fine. At one point, Fran told Ann that her character was “the lady in red when everyone else is wearing tan.” Ann thought that line was brilliant and put into one of her theme songs. Yes, she wrote two songs so Fran would have options. But also, because Ann knew she had to pull out the big guns—she'd heard that she was competing against big-time Hollywood theme-song writers. Well, lo and behold, Fran rejected those Hollywood bigwigs and chose Ann’s song (the one with that amazing line)! Ann told Fran that she should hire the Manhattan Transfer to sing the song, but Fran wanted Ann to sing it! Ann kept it in the family and got Liz hired to do the backup vocals! Since Ann’s assignment was to tell the story of how Fran Fine became The Nanny in 42 seconds, Ann based the style on the fast-paced lyrics by Annie Ross in the song “Twisted."
The Nanny theme is such a great song and Don Lemon once called it “the most significant theme song in TV history.” Ann said, “I don’t agree…but I love that he thought it!” That TV show ran for years and Ann says her accountant calls it “her finest work to date.” Here it is!
And here is the Grendel of it all—(Anyone have to read that book in high school? It’s the story of Beowolf, but told from the perspective of the monster. Precursor to Wicked?). This is Liz doing just her backup part from the song!
And now, the story from my second star: James Monroe Iglehart!
He talked about getting his first Broadway show in a super-roundabout way. It began on the West Coast where he lived. He had always dreamed of playing the role of Jimmy Early in Dreamgirls. He auditioned for a West Coast production, but didn’t get it. He thinks it’s because they thought he was too heavy. They instead offered him the role of Tiny Joe Dixon, who has a small solo in the opening segment and then does ensemble work for the rest of the show. Right at that time, he was also offered an original show, so he wound up taking that because he didn’t get the role he wanted in Dreamgirls. Well, the original show was Memphis at California’s TheatreWorks and it was a hit! The amazing news was that the show was going to transfer to Broadway. Yay! He knew he made the right choice, and he was now bound for Broadway. Naturally, he didn’t look for any other jobs because he knew he was soon going to be starring in a new musical in New York City.
Well, months went by with no official transfer plans so, finally, James’s wife Dawn was like “Gurl! Get a job!” Luckily, he had done another show on the West Coast with the fabulous Derrick Baskin who was now playing the role of the “comfort counselor” on Broadway in Spelling Bee (a role he originated!). When the creative team of Spelling Bee was putting together a West Coast company, Derrick recommended James, who got the gig. That West Coast cast then went to Boston to do Spelling Bee…and then the entire cast moved to Broadway in 2007! So, James had thought he would come to Broadway in Memphis in 2004…but that show didn’t come to Broadway til 2009! That would have been a long time not looking for work! Here we are when he was doing Memphis and he sang one of his favorite songs from Ragtime on my radio show:
My final concert was with the amazing Donna McKechnie. Holy cow! Her career is so amazing. Every aspect of it has a tie to the greats of Broadway. The pianist she used to bring to her auditions? Marvin Hamlisch! The dance captain who helped the choreographer during Donna’s first Broadway show? Gwen Verdon! That show was How To Succeed in Business Without Really Trying and Gwen was assisting Bob Fosse, who did the musical staging. Donna is so thankful to Bob because he treated dancers like actors. Her fellow ensemble dancers played secretaries and Bob told them all to write character bios. They didn’t have character names, but he wanted them to have a backstory. And gave them basic acting tips like when you come on the stage, you need to know where you’re coming from and when you leave, you need to know where you’re going to.
When Donna returned to A Chorus Line in the 1980s (ten years after winning the Tony Award for originating the role of Cassie), she found out that Fosse saw numerous performances in a row. She thinks it was perhaps for him to see whether she had the stamina to be consistent night after night. Well, the answer was obviously yes because after seeing her perform that role over and over, he offered her the title role in the 1987 national tour of Sweet Charity.
Speaking of Gwen Verdon and Donna, here they are dancing together at the 1973 Tony Awards with Paula Kelly, who played Helene in Sweet Charity, and Helen Gallagher, who played Nicky. P.S., Helen just had a birthday and turned 97!!