ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: (Almost) Sailing On

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: (Almost) Sailing On
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Alan Menken
Alan Menken

James (BF), Juli (his daughter) and my mom (neurotic) are all on the Rosie O'Donnell rFamily Vacations cruise (for gay parents, their families and friends, www.rfamilyvacations.com). I wound up getting the MTV Legally Blonde reality series, and we don't finish filming 'til Tuesday. The production company is kindly flying me out that afternoon to Puerto Vallarta where I'll meet up with the Holland America ship. What's annoying is that when James and I first planned the trip, we decided to fly to the West Coast early so we could enjoy San Diego. That decision backfired on me because even though the ship didn't sail 'til Saturday, everybody left on Thursday. Sigh.

The first night on the boat is the show called Broadway Belters, and it was a fabulous line up. It's so weird putting it all together and then having it happen when I wasn't there. Kevin Chamberlin sang "Solla Sollew" from Seussical, (beautiful song), Shoshana Bean sang "The Wizard and I" into "Defying Gravity" (brava on the vocal chops), Julia Murney and Gavin Creel sang the fabulous Baby duet "What Could Be Better"… which reminds me of the moronic-ness of my sister, Nancy. I was on the phone with her right after a rehearsal and this was the conversation:

ME: Just came from rehearsal. Gavin and Julia sound amazing on their duet!
NANCY: Gross
ME: What?
NANCY: You sort of make me sick…
ME: What are you talking about?
NANCY: I can't believe you guys are the kind of parents who would push their daughter into show business…

That's right…she thought I said that Gavin and Juli sounded amazing on their duet!! What possible duet could be for a 30-year-old man and a seven-year-old to funk out to?!?!

James sang "Who Am I?" from Les Miz and related it to seeing some junior high school boys near Juli's school making fun of a kid for being gay. He didn't know whether he should say anything, but then, "Who Am I"-style, decided to tell them that he was gay and their words hurt not only the boy they were making fun of, but the elementary school kids who were near. For more details on the cruise, go to his website at GayDadsUSA.com. The only "good" news is that apparently the seas were rough, and I would not want a repeat of what happened in Alaska in 2006. Actually, why don't I set the record straight and tell everybody what really did happen in Alaska because contrary to what Cyndi Lauper says, I did not throw up!

It was the week of the '06 summer cruise and the night of the comedy showcase. I was the host; there were three comics, and Julia Murney was going to end the evening singing the hilarious Andrew Lippa Wild Party song (first sung brilliantly by Alix Korey) "Old Fashioned (Lesbian) Love Story." Around a half hour before the show, the boat started rocking. I am easily nauseated (see my reaction to "From Justin to Kelly") and was a nervous wreck. Julia came up to me at "places" and said that people were already leaving their seats to go back to their rooms because the rocking is making everybody sick/terrified. She said we should just cut the last song. But I said, "No, no, no, (tip o' the hat to Amy Winehouse) I'm seeing this show through to the end." I did some stand-up (and by "some," I mean the same jokes I've been hauling out for ten years) and went backstage while the first comic performed. Well, if you don't know, let me tell you that a good way to not be seasick is to look at the horizon. Unfortunately, the backstage not only had no view of the horizon, it had no windows! There was no way to get a sense of where you were. The only way I could feel not disgusting was to lie completely down. So, that became my routine; intro a comic and then immediately run backstage to lie down. I would get up 30 seconds before I had to come back onstage to minimize nausea. Cut to, I stood up because I was told that the last comic was about to end, but she wound up going on for a few more minutes. Uh-oh, no horizon. I really began to feel sick. But I decided that I made it this far, I was determined to hear Julia belt the end of that song! I came out onstage and introduced Julia. She started making her way up from the audience and I sat down at the piano. Suddenly, I felt my stomach start contracting. I knew I wasn't pregnant…not at my age (see: Bernie Telsey's casting idea for me in last week's column. Hint: a 73-year-old). I knew I was about to throw up. I thought to myself, 'Not only am I onstage…but the show is being videotaped.' That recorded image is something I would find hilarious to play on a loop…if it was someone else! I didn't want anyone to have embarrassing footage of me to deconstruct! That's what I do! I knew I had to get the H offstage and lay down asap. I fled offstage and immediately lay completely flat. Unfortunately, this all happened while Julia was approaching the stage, and she didn't see any of it. So, she essentially went center stage, adjusted her mic, nodded to the piano and suddenly saw there was no one sitting on the piano bench. It was like the ending of Phantom, where he's suddenly not in the seat he just sat down in…except I didn't leave a mask behind. Instead, I left a knocked over microphone stand behind. Yes, not only wasn't I there, but I had knocked my boom microphone down in my haste to make it offstage, which I barely did. So all Julia saw was a microphone stand awkwardly clunked on its side and, off to the side, the bottom half of my legs sticking out from the wings, Wicked Witch of the East-style (aka Nessa Rose. Seth-a Rose?) Julia paused, turned out front and said simply, "That's the show," and the curtain came down. The next thing I know I'm at the breakfast buffet and everybody was telling me that Cyndi Lauper said I was a wuss for throwing up during the storm! Well! I see her "True Colors." I may be a wuss, Madame, but I most certainly did not throw up! I simply crawled offstage in a blind panic leaving a feed-backing microphone in my wake.

Anyhoo, I can't wait to fly to Puerto Vallarta and meet up with everybody on the cruise. I'm doing a show with my comedy partner Jack Plotnick, a cabaret with Gavin Creel, an onboard Chatterbox with Julia Murney and Shoshana Bean and then hosting the seventies show on the final night!

This week I had to pleasure of interviewing the majorly prolific and tuneful Alan Menken. Turns out, he didn't grow up wanting to be a theatre composer. He graduated from NYU as a musicologist major (please wake up after that last boring phrase) and wanted to either be a "serious" composer or a singer/songwriting pop star. To appease his parents and make it look like he was doing something for his career, he joined the BMI workshop where he met Maury Yeston. Maury recommended Alan to Howard Ashman, who was writing a musical version of "God Bless You, Mr. Rosewater." Even though Alan was a composer/lyricist at the time, he joined up with Howard who was writing the lyrics, book and directing. The show ultimately didn't run very long. One of the problems with the show was that it had a 14-person cast and was too expensive to run Off-Broadway. Howard told Alan that he always wanted to write a musical version of the movie "The Little Shop of Horrors," and this time they would use a smaller cast (nine people). Alan was giving me some scoop on how the show was written, and I love finding out things that seem so obvious now that didn't begin that way. For instance, when they were first writing the show, the music was very Kurt Weill/Brechtian. They played the score for people and people said, Sura-Bye-a. Whew! That was a headache-y pun/joke even for me! No one was interested until Howard told Alan that they should make this show the dark side of Grease. Alan said that Howard thought it would work if they told this dark and macabre story through bubble gum rock 'n roll. Unfortunately, he wasn't right … he was completely correct! By the way, that's a film/advertising cliche that drives me crazy. The hacky "I don't like it (What?!) …I love it!!! (Phew!!!!)" I'm always yelling at my TV, "You're lying. You do like it. You can't love something without liking it." The phrase should be; "I don't just like it…I love it." That would be honest…but also would leave out the hilarious reveal when we find out that he/she loves it. Call me when it's funny.

Alan said that Howard taught him to base his songs on specific musical models…like a Belafonte Calypso or a Phil Spector girl- group song. Alan is incredibly facile at using the model but making it his own. Speaking of models, remember when "Project Runway" was also a competition for the models? What happened to that? Are we supposed to pretend it never existed? Like New Coke? Never forget!

Oh yeah, I've mentioned this before, but in case you forgot, Faith Prince was originally cast as Audrey…but couldn't get out of an industrial she was doing, so the role went to Ellen Greene who was, of course, brilliant Off-Broadway and in the film. And, Lee Wilkof was cast as Seymour…and edged out the second choice based on his amazingly flexible voice (he can sound nerdy/legit/rock 'n roll). The second choice was…Nathan Lane! And, more trivia, the first Mr. Mushnik was the guy who played Sam Breakstone. I love finding out that these classic commercial actors also did theatre. I'd love to see a production of I Love My Wife with Sam Breakstone, Mr. Whipple, Madge "you're soaking in it" and the "Where's the Beef" lady. Wait. Those commercials are so crazily old I have no idea who's still living. How about one couple made up of those kids (now middle-agers) from the Underoos or Grr-Animals commercial paired with the two brats from "You sank my battleship." Are they all still in the biz? Can they belt? Anybody else still living in the past?

Alan said he had so many shows before Little Shop that didn't do very well that when he was offered a full-time job writing jingles in an office, he almost took it. As a matter of fact, he told them that he just wanted to open up Little Shop and if it went the way of the other shows (aka, bomb), he would take the office job. He credits Howard Ashman with changing his whole life. Howard thought up the idea of musicalizing the movie, wrote the book and lyrics and directed the show. Brava!

Alan said he remembers seeing the screening of the film "Little Shop of Horrors" out in some town in California. The lights came up, and Alan said to David Geffen, "Wow! It's great!" His comment was greeted with silence. Alan may have thought it was great, but the audience was devastated that the film ended like the stage show…with all the leads being eaten and the plant taking over the world. Howard was the book writer and was able to change the ending of the film without having to do much extra filming! If you go to bluegobo.com, you can see the original ending of the film…it's devastating! After Little Shop, Howard got a deal with Disney, and they gave him a choice of films to do: Tina Turner's autobiography (which became "What's Love Got to Do With It"), the thief of Baghdad (which later morphed into "Aladdin") and Howard chose the third: "The Little Mermaid." Howard had just worked with Marvin Hamlisch on Smile but came back to Alan to write the film. I thought "The Little Mermaid" was the return to animated musicals but Alan reminded me that there was one right before it…"Oliver & Company." Does anybody remember it I remember the 60's musical Oliver!, the 70's musical Company and the Chorus Line song "And…," but I don't remember all three of the twain meeting in one giant box-office flop."

After "Little Mermaid," they started work on "Beauty and the Beast," and this time Alan was told to write a song that could cross over to the pop charts. He recorded himself singing a pop version of "Beauty and the Beast" with his best Top 40 voice and various sassy riffs. Howard then recorded a version of the song using his best old lady voice and sent it to Angela Lansbury, asking her if she'd play Mrs. Potts. She said a prompt and immediate "No." She felt there was no way she could sing it. Alan and Howard were in shock and couldn't understand why she'd think that…until they figured out that someone sent her the pop version by mistake! Angela must have listened to it and thought, "That's not how young I feel." She thought that they wanted her to Celine Dion-it and panicked that the only riff she knew was Mickey Calin (original West Side Story. Anybody?). She accepted the part, and they went into the studio to record the title song. She did it once all the way through…and they kept it! The version we all know from the movie was done in one take! Go "old-school Lansbury"!

The terrible part of the Howard and Alan story is that Howard started acting very hostile during the writing of the movie. Alan couldn't understand why Howard was so difficult to be around. Finally, after they won two Oscars for "The Little Mermaid," Howard told Alan the news...he had AIDS. Alan realized that was why Howard had been so upset and angry and hard to work with. Howard didn't want anyone to know because he was afraid he'd be discriminated against (have projects taken away from him, be blackballed, etc…) so Alan kept it mum and they continued to work on "Beauty and the Beast." It was hard to keep it secret, though. Alan remembers going to rehearse with a singer for the film with Howard and David Friedman (the conductor, now brilliant composer/lyricist). Alan got to the singers apartment and started walking up the five-flight walk-up. He suddenly realized how difficult this would be for Howard, and when he looked downstairs he saw Howard slowly making his way up. But Howard did it, and Alan didn't tell anyone what was going on.

One of my favorite stories Alan told me was that Howard wanted to write a big song for all the objects in the castle, so Alan said he'd record a silly little melody in the style of what the song should be, Howard could write the lyrics and then Alan would write the real song. Howard wrote the lyrics, and Alan started writing the real song. Well, cut to, they both finally realized that the dummy melody worked the best, and thus was born "Be Our Guest"! Howard finally told some people at Disney that he was sick, and they brought all the creative people to a place near Howard's house called "The Residence" where they would work on the film together. Sadly, Howard died six months before the movie came out. Alan is so appreciative to Howard for many reasons…one is because Howard told Alan to score "The Little Mermaid." That means to write all the underscoring throughout the film. Howard told Alan to do it because he knew how upsetting it was during "Little Shop of Horrors" because, as Alan related, Miles Goodman wrote around nine minutes of underscoring for the film, which really just consisted of adaptations of Alan's songs. When the Golden Globes came out, the "Best Score" nominee for "Little Shop" went to Miles Goodman! Howard and Alan wrote a lot of songs for "Aladdin," but Disney changed the story (cutting characters, like Aladdin's mother), and suddenly all the songs didn't fit except for one. So the rest were written with Tim Rice. When Alan first wrote the song he wanted to become the pop hit from the movie, he wrote the lyrics for the hook "the world at my feet." Actually, the way it was sung was "the world at my Fe-e-e-e-e-e-e-t!" Feet is the word he decided should be held? Showstopper! No, literally, the show has to stop because the audience is gone. Thankfully, Tim Rice changed it to "a whole New wo-o-o-o-o-o-o-orld."

Alan has written so many great things that I barely had time to cover his other work: "Pocahontas," "Hunchback of Notre Dame," "A Christmas Carol" and the new musical "Sister Act."

I mentioned last week that Raul Esparza can't do my Broadway 101 show for the Actors Fund, so I got cutie Jonathan Groff to replace him (go to Actorsfund.org for tix). Raul wouldn't tell me what show he was doing that conflicted with Broadway 101…but Alan did! It's the musical version of the Steve Martin film "Faith Healer" called Leap of Faith, and it will star Raul in the upcoming reading! Also, for you fans of that early 90's musical film, there may soon be a stage version of Newsies! How cool would that be!

All right, the next time I write you will be after my half-cruise and after I film the final episode of the Legally Blonde reality show. One event I will give you tons of details about…the other I will continue to honor my "cease and desist" order from MTV. All will be revealed when the episodes start airing. As to the exact date of when that will be…I must cease and desist. Bon voyage!


(Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals, and he can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com. His first novel is titled "Broadway Nights.")

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