Onstage and Backstage: What It Was Like to Perform at the Democratic National Convention

Seth Rudetsky   Onstage and Backstage: What It Was Like to Perform at the Democratic National Convention
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth puts on a benefit for Orlando, unearths the lineage of A Light in the Piazza and reveals backstage details from the DNC!
Seth O&B_August 1 2016
Paul Castree, Seth Rudetsky, Roz Ryan and Len Cariou at the Democratic National Convention

This was an amazing week! Tons of travel, but so great. First, James, Juli and I flew down to Orlando to do From Broadway With Love, which benefited three Orlando charities. On a side note, I know how many worthy causes are out there and some people must think there’s been enough money raised for Orlando, but the Orlando Sentinal just came out with an article saying the costs since the shooting at Pulse—including paying staff and police overtime hours—now tops $2 million and it’s likely to grow.

Anyhoo, Sunday night in Orlando was a benfeit concert of Fun Home, featuring the entire Broadway cast that flew down to perform. Judy Kuhn told me they did two shows on Saturday, and, on Sunday, they had to meet at the airport at 5 AM (!), then go right to rehearsal in Orlando. Why rehearse a show you do eight times a week? Because it was a concert version, so the staging was totally different. She said they rehearsed all day, went to their hotel for 45 minutes to freshen up, did the red carpet, the performance, the after-party then flew back the next and did their Monday night show. Brava! Judy then flew up to Provincetown on Friday, and we did two shows at the Art House. OMG! She sounded amazing. She sang some stuff from her newest CD “Rogers, Rogers and Guettel” which has music from grandad Richard Rogers, daughter Mary Rogers and son Adam Guettel. She said Adam told her that after he wrote Floyd Collins and Myths and Hymns he told his Mom he wanted to write a sweeping romance…but a romance that had a problem. She told him she had the perfect story called The Light In The Piazza. Turns out, she had wanted her dad to write a musical version of it, but he wasn’t interested….so she passed it down to her son. You can buy her new CD and hear clips from it here.

I wanted to post a full clip of Judy singing “Dividing Day” but couldn’t find it. BUT I found this one of Christine Andreas performing it. Completely obsessed that she belts “No more love allowed!” So good!

Judy also sang “Colors of the Wind” from Pocahontas and said that on the day of the film debut she did Good Morning, America, which was filmed that day in Central Park. She had to be there at 5AM to sound check and then sit for two hours in hair and makeup. They had set up tents for everyone because it had rained like crazy the night before. As she making her way to the stage to sing, someone touched the top of a tent and all the water that had accumulated on the roof splashed down in a deluge on top of Judy! Not since Carrie at the prom! Her hair was sopping wet and suddenly the hair guy ran out with a hair dryer and fixed it up in two minutes. She was so happy…til she thought “Wait…if you did that in two minutes, why did I have to sit for two hours to get my hair to look the same!?!?” P.S. I just found the footage and you can see her hair is still wet. Of course, she sounds amazing! Favorite note is the D flat on “How high does the sycamore grow?” then “And you’re nev-er hear the wolf cry…”

Back to Orlando: We stayed in the stunning Loews Portofino Resort at Universal and left our hotel room Monday morning to go to the Dr. Phillips center for rehearsal. Michael Moritz conducted a NY rhythm section he brought down to join a big orchestra, made up of members from the Orlando Philharmonic. When the concert was being put together, Kenny Howard mentioned that the Orlando dance troupe VarieTease wanted to do an original dance and needed music, and Kenny had asked me to perform so I suggested I utilize the Philharmonic and do “Rhapsody In Blue” while VarieTease danced. It was so much fun! There’s a story about me having a panic attack in the middle, but I want to wait til the video is out and I can pinpoint the moment for your viewing pleasure. Until then, you can watch me play a little “Rhapsody in Blue” in this deconstructing video. One of my favorite pieces!

The theatre holds 2700 people and sold out in less than two hours. Some of the people in the audience were families of the victims and patrons /workers who were at Pulse Nightclub when the shooting happened. I forced myself not to think about who was out there while we were performing. I felt our job was to unite everyone in joy, and I didn’t want to bring anybody down. I was hosting and had to be full of sass/jokes and not feel my underlying devastation. Thankfully, my childhood of emotional disassociation paid off! Laughing on the outside, breakdown on the inside. The ice was broken right away because my hosting mic wasn’t working. As I was talking, the audience started commenting that they couldn’t hear me. A female stagehand came onstage and gave me another mic. I said “Yay! Now I have a working mic thanks to a stagehand!” Suddenly, the whole audience yelled at me! What the-?! It almost sounded like I was being boo’d! I thought “Uh-oh. Is the term stagehand offensive!?!?” Then I thought, “Wait. Was that a stagehand? Did I just call the mayor of Orlando a stagehand? Is that why I’m be-hated?” I was mortified. I kept talking and realized that when I was handed that new mic, it also didn’t work! So when I spoke into it and said it was working, the entire audience screamed “NO!” Turns out, I wasn’t being screamed at for being racist, homophobic or sexist. Phew! I’m glad that we can still use the word stagehand. It’s taken me years to change “stewardess” to “flight attendant.” Click here for some footage from rehearsal.

And here’s a sizzle reel of some of the performances!

A few weeks ago James was talking with Rosie Perez (who is super-connected with various politicos) and they were talking about the “Broadway for Orlando” song being sung at the White House. We tried to get it scheduled but it was hard to find the right time. James then told Rosie we should instead sing it at the DNC. A few emails later, we were scheduled to be on! We spent a week in Provincetown that was supposed to be our vacation, but it was mostly us on our laptops dealing with logistics: charts for the band, texting/emailing Bway folks to see who could do it and getting security clearance. The DNC told us to keep it top secret. Well, while we were flying home to NYC and still working things out, James got a call right after we had boarded JetBlue. Juli and I could not stop making fun afterwards of him because this was his version of keeping things top secret.

JAMES (on phone, so loud that rows 25 to 12 could hear everything): ”Uh-huh…and the secret service cleared that? Will Obama be there? So, if Obama is there, does that mean Hillary is there the same night? Etc…”

Seth O&B_August 1 2016
Cagney and Lacey

I could go on, but if you want to recreate the conversation basically take the words “secret service” “Obama” and “Security Clearance” and repeat them 20 times at volume 30.

Anyhoo, after the DNC security folks told us we absolutely could not add anymore people, we got a call from Sharon Gless. She had told us she wasn’t available because she was doing a reading, but then her husband Barney (who created Cagney and Lacey) told her she was missing a once-in-a-lifetime event and had to do it. So, we decided to beg the secret service to let her in. But before we did, we heard from someone else who had been out of town when we first emailed about the original recording: Tyne Daly!

Turns out, she was also available. I thought it was pushing it to ask for two more people, but James knew how to play it; he wrote security and said he knew that it was past the deadline, but he felt he should ask in case Hillary found out later that there was a chance for a Cagney and Lacey reunion at the convention and we didn’t try to make it happen. Well, the guilt trip/fear of the wrath of a future president worked, because both Cagney and Lacey were approved. And, I’m happy to say, they got major applause during the performance! Then, at the last minute, Ben Vereen who hadn’t been available, became available. He already had clearance because he was invited by the DNC. But I had no solo for him! Then Rachel Bay Jones, whom I love, had to cancel. Yes! I could give Ben her solo. But, wait…she’s a woman. No problem! Ben has a woman’s range! He not only sang her solo up the octave, he added extra high notes. Werk!

On Wednesday, we all met at 10AM on 72nd and Columbus for the bus to the DNC. However, many of the singers had never sung the song before at all, or they had done the recording and never sang it all the way through. So, we all had to practice during the trip. It was so much fun! Here’s some video of rehearsal on the bus. It’s filmed by Kari Strand, Ann Hampton Callaway’s wife, and you can hear Ann’s amazing voice cutting through on all the group stuff.

We got to Philly and went through security, which by the way was more strict than an airport. You had to send, in advance, everything you were taking with you!

Lipstick, under eye concealer, etc! Then we practiced the song onstage. They had first wanted us to group up around four microphones, but it was really difficult to lean in and be in the perfect position to be heard (you had to be right in front of the mic). So, then it was decided the mics would be passed for each solo. It was the best solution, but it was also a nachtmare. I told everyone not to relinquish their mic before their solo was done, and I told everyone not to miss the beginning of their solo lines. So people had less than one second to completely get the mics moved. Basically, the solos had the essence of every-man-for-himself/The Hunger Games but it still worked out great.

Juli had spent the week before the convention randomly perfecting her imitation of Audra’s solo for fun and turns out, Audra had to miss rehearsal so Juli got to put her imitation to use!

And Wayne Brady wound up getting sick so his understudy went on…James Wesley! I was so happy James got a solo!

That night, we all lined up before the song and stood on a ramp during the speeches before the performance. Talk about disassociating: hearing that mother talk about her son who was killed at Pulse was so devastating to me. So many of us were crying, but we sucked it up and went onstage to sing and try to unite people. It wound up being wonderful! We just had one luxury problem which was the audience kept clapping during various soloists. It was really encouraging that they were so enthusiastic, but when they clapped, we couldn’t hear the band at all. That’s why you see me frantically conducting so I could keep it together if people got lost. At the end we remained onstage and people in the audience started chanting “Love Trumps Hate.” But I also heard “Love, Love, Love” and “Hil-la-ry”. Basically it was anything positive with three syllables.

Watch it all here!

Afterwards, Rosie Perez called us all together and we crammed in a little room. She wanted everyone to thank James for making it happen and Kari filmed it!

If you want to read a wonderful recap of what it was like, check out B.D. Wong’s post here.

Check out more photos of us at the DNC:

And for those of you out of town this weekend who want some Broadway: There is a big fat benefit for the Actors Fund that will happen in fancy East Hampton on Saturday night at 6 PM, featuring members from the Paul Taylor Dance Company and the fabulous Bebe Neuwirth! FYI, She started as a ballet dancer, but became obsessed with theatre after she saw the original production of Pippin on Broadway. Tix at DancersForGood.com. And if you're in Provincetown, come see me and sexy Matt Morrisson on Sunday night! Tix at PtownArtHouse.com.

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