Over the summer, I often write my Playbill column on the porch of the Anchor Inn. But now that we have a house upstate, I’m writing this column on my own porch! I feel so late-series Lucy Ricardo by moving out of the city (please don’t make me explain but if I must: The Ricardos and the Mertzes moved to Connecticut for the final year of I Love Lucy).
Anyhoo, this week I start with a benefit for Shane’s Inspiration (which is helping build an accessible playground in NYC) at Carnegie Hall Monday night. It’s a salute to Chita Rivera and I’m hosting and I’ll be playing ye olde piano as well in a few spots. Most tendonitis-inducing will be “Rhapsody In Blue,” which I’m a-gonna play while Evan Ruggerio tap dances. It doesn’t sound that impressive until you find out he only has one leg! Yet, he’s figured out a way to tap up a storm. It’s really thrilling! Here he is on Ellen.
Another performer joining the show will be the fabulous Liz Callaway, who will be performing Sondheim with a twist. I don’t want to give too much away but it’s an amazing/hilarious number! And Charlotte d’Amboise is going to do her all-singing/all-dancing “If They Could See Me Now” tour-de-force going on for Christina Applegate in Sweet Charity while she was also starring as Roxie in Chicago. It’s such a clever number! Tix at https://shanesinspiration.org/touchthesky
Speaking of Liz Callaway, she just performed with me at a salon James and I put together for You Gotta Believe, which helps older foster kids find homes. We were at a stunning mansion in Greenwich, Connecticut, right on the water. She was joined by Ernie Sabella, Beth Malone, and Kristy Cates. After Ernie ran “Hakuna Matata” in the soundcheck, the housekeeper told him he sounded just like the guy in the movie. He said “I am the guy in the movie”and then posed for 100 photos with her! Kristy and I were reminiscing about the day 15 years when she came over to my house to coach for a new Broadway show in which she wanted to understudy. She showed me the music and I was super-impressed that there was a belted F in the melody. I asked who she was auditioning to understudy and wasn’t surprised that it was Idina Menzel. Of course, the show was Wicked and the song was “Defying Gravity.” It’s so weird to think back to a time when I had to plunk out the melody because there was no album and it wasn’t known yet! I deconstructed Idina’s performance in Wicked and her brilliant riffs:
Anyway, Liz’s voice is still stunning, and she sang the finale after we heard stories about foster kids who went from home to home (one of them was in 40 homes) until they found a family who truly wanted them. Some foster homes they were in wouldn’t allow them to eat with the foster parents’ biological kids, some weren’t allowed to leave their rooms once they got home, and some had much worse abuse. When Liz got up to sing the Anastasia song “Journey to the Past,” she told everyone how affected she was from hearing their young people talk and how the song would always now have a deeper meaning to her. The lyrics are so relevant: “Home, Love, Family” is the basis for You Gotta Believe. And the incredible news is that Liz has a new recording of the song! She teamed up with Christy Altomare, who plays Anastasia on Broadway, and they sound amazing together. You can get the song on iTunes, Apple Music, Amazon or listen on Spotify. Here’s the video! And brava for taking the top part!
I had Vicki Lawrence (who has a new series on Fox called The Cool Kids) on Seth Speaks last week and James, who never wants to travel into NYC now that we live in the country, came in because we’re both obsessed with The Carol Burnett Show. If you don’t know, when Vicki was 17, she wrote Carol Burnett a fan letter and mentioned that people thought they looked alike. Vicki enclosed a clip about the “Miss Fireball Pageant” that she was performing in and Carol (who was nine months pregnant at the time) decided to go and check her out. Carol tried to be inconspicuous but the head of the pageant heard she was there and she was soon roped into crowning the winner…who happened to be Vicki Lawrence! When Carol started doing The Carol Burnett Show, she needed someone to play her kid sister in sketches. Carol’s husband (the producer Joe Hamilton) asked Vicki to audition and she got the show! We were discussing her various characters and, of course, we talked about Mama.
She told us that when “The Family” sketch was first written, Carol was slated to play Mama. But after Carol read it, she told the writers she felt extremely connected to Eunice and she and Vicki switched roles. Of course, Vicki was only in her 20s but, bizarrely, she was entirely believable as a cranky old woman. I asked about age prosthetics and she reminded me that the show was filmed almost in real time so there wasn’t any time for a giant make-up change. Her old woman make-up was basically just a jutted chin. However, Vicki said that usually she and Carol would wear two pairs of false eyelashes on top and one on the bottom (very ’70s!). After a few episodes of the show featuring “The Family,” her husband (who was the makeup designer) told her she had to lose the lashes as Mama because she looked way to glamorous behind her glasses. Interestingly, the family was supposed to be from the Midwest but when they read it, they added southern accents (maybe because Carol is originally from Texas). At first the writers had a breakdown and said they ruined the sketch, but then it stuck.
I asked about the famous “Elephant Story” blooper (which I put below) and Vicki told me that they always filmed two shows in front of a live audience. They had added the character of Mickey Hart to the Family Eunice sketches and Carol took everyone aside and told them how important these sketches were and how meaningful the characters were to her. She implored them that no matter what Tim Conway did, they should not break the fourth wall and laugh. They had to remain in character no matter what. Well, Tim had a monologue about an elephant and, naturally, embellished it. After a while, there was laughter from the cast. Or, should I say, there was laughter from Carol! The one person who begged them not to laugh!
Anyhoo, for the second show, Vicki got quick notes from the director and was also told that the elephant monologue Tim did in the first show would be different. He followed it with “Good luck.” Vicki asked her husband, “How does Tim get away with it all the time?” Her husband looked at her and said, “Get him.” That’s right, he told her to turn the tables on Tim! So…the scene began….Tim Conway’s monologue was indeed different… and funnier… Carol indeed did break as before… but this time, Vicki ended it all by getting back at Tim. It is hilarious.
I had Rory O'Malley on Seth Speaks, as well, and was very happy to hear that he is spearheading a group called #BeltTheVote, which is derived from #RockTheVote. It’s a way to get everybody to register. They’re getting shows and theatre companies from around the country to get people registered. Not just their entire theatre community but audiences as well. They have tables set up at theatres after shows manned with people from the cast, etc. It’s such a great idea! Get involved!
I was talking about all his amazing recent gigs (King George in Hamilton, his new TV show American Princess, which takes place, hilariously, at one of those Renaissance Fairs) and telling him how happy I was for his success. Rory said he feels he’s finally made it as an actor because his mom retired. He meant that he doesn’t think she would have felt comfortable enough to retire unless she was sure he would continue to work as an actor. And speaking of his mom, I always make Rory tell this story. His mother never takes anything for granted and is very careful before she truly believes anything is amazing. This was the conversation when he got Tony nominated for The Book of Mormon:
Rory: Mom! I got nominated for a Tony Award.
Mom: (slight nervous) Are you sure!?!?
Rory: Yes… it was announced by Matthew Broderick!
Mom: (even more nervous) Well, someone better double check!
Here’s a hint of the amazing singing/abs coming your way!