ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Betty, Autobiographies and a Pot-Luck Disaster

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Betty, Autobiographies and a Pot-Luck Disaster
Ouch! This was the week of accidents, injuries and regurgitation! Details to follow. First a chronological rundown of the week.
Seth Rudetsky and Jay Plotnick at Celebrity Autobiography
Seth Rudetsky and Jay Plotnick at Celebrity Autobiography Photo by Aubrey Reuben

Monday night I did Celebrity Autobiography with some amazing co-stars, including Tony Roberts, Mary Testa, Jackie Hoffman (all from Xanadu), Karen Ziemba (doing an amazing Elizabeth Taylor), Richard Kind (whose child goes to the same school as my boyfriend's) and my good friend Jack Plotnick. It's the show where we read autobiographies verbatim. Elizabeth Taylor's written dialogue keeps randomly harkening back to the fact that she's Jewish, so when the section of the book came when Elizabeth runs into Eddie Fisher years after their divorce, Karen Ziemba was hilarious reading the part where Elizabeth politely nods to him at Sardi's and says, (with a 1940's accent), "Mazel Tov."

I loved reading the part of Star Jones' book where she differentiates between Star, who's the Diva, and Starlette, who's underneath it all. "Take away the wigs, the eyelashes and my fabulous clothes, and you'll find me at White Castle…feasting on a half dozen of those greasy, square burgers!"

Jack was so good at subtly busting Nancy Reagan's horrible treatment of daughter Patti Reagan. When Patti was a toddler, she wouldn't swallow her string beans, so the pediatrician advised Nancy to leave Patti in her high chair until she swallowed it all. Jack raised an eyebrow and slowly continued: "An hour and half later, they were still in her mouth…"

The show was a little intimidating to perform because "Saturday Night Live" producer Lorne Michaels was there, sitting with Alec Baldwin. My boyfriend, James, said that he's sure the show convinced Alec not to write an autobiography.

The show got out early enough for me, James and Jack to hightail it to Carnegie Hall and see the second act of Brian Stokes Mitchell's concert for the Actors Fund. There was so much Broadway in the audience! We were seated behind Tyler Maynard (from Altar Boyz) and Sarah Gettelfinger (from Dirty Rotten Scoundrels) and in front of Betty Buckley. Stokes sounded great, as usual, and the big orchestra was delicious, too. The last song was "Grateful" by John Bucchino, and it was sung right after Stokes described how the Actors Fund helps everyone in the entertainment field, not just actors. After the show I complimented the director, Richard Jay-Alexander, on the cool idea of bringing up the house lights during the song. It really drove home the point that we're all in it together, and the Actors Fund couldn't exist without the audience to donate. Richard said that the concert was going long and if it went into overtime, it would cost thousands of dollars. So, actually the house lights came on in the middle of the number to make sure people knew that they had around one minute to vacate. Out of necessity spawns brilliance! After the show we all went to the Russian Tea Room for the party, and I posed for some photos feeling very A-list. I then saw one of the shots online and noticed that nobody opted to tell me that I had a post-performance t-zone shine that rivaled the lights of Broadway. Note to photographers: Just because you took the photo doesn't mean you have to post it online. And, retouching was invented for a reason. Oh, speaking of my t-zone, right before the bathhouse reveal in The Ritz, I have my hair 70's blow-dried by our hair person, Jun. As soon as I sat down, he said it looked like I hadn't washed my hair. I was outraged! I wash my hair eight times a week, Mary Martin-style, I haughtily assured him. I then did my first entrance, and while I was onstage I suddenly remembered being really tired in the shower in the morning. Could I have forgotten to wash it? I ran offstage and looked in the mirror and noticed my normally bouncy hair was plastered to my head. I had forgotten to wash it, and it was on the verge of a grease fire! I ran to the bathroom and did an emergency wash. I told one of the other hair people what happened, and he said that when he saw me at the beginning of the act, he just assumed I had put a lot of product in my hair, i.e. pomade, mousse, etc. No, I devastated-ly assured him, it was my own natural oils that gave it that sleek, shiny look.

So, here come the injuries. At the end of the show, there's a chase scene. A couple of nights ago, I was running through the audience, and as I was running up the stairs to the stage, I fell on all fours. First of all, right before that scene, Rosie Perez introduces me as a contestant in the talent contest named Sheldon Farenthold, and then I do a little number. Even though I'm introduced by name, there's no dialogue in the show where I'm actually called Sheldon. Well, right as I fell, Brooks Ashmanskas yells out, "Watch it, Sheldon!" Then as I'm on the ground I hear, "Sheldon, are you OK? Sheldon!" Both lines were said less out of concern for my well-being as they were just for the comedy of actually addressing me as Sheldon.

Anyhoo, I got up and felt fine. Cut to that night, my leg hurt so much it literally kept waking me up. I arrived at the theatre to see my understudy learning my number! I assured him that there was no way I wouldn't be going on. I saw All About Eve! And, unfortunately, a summer stock production of Applause.

I actually wasn't that outraged he was trying to learn my number because it was understudy rehearsal. Now that the show is open, we've finally started to rehearse. I cover Brooks Ashmanskas and learned his lines during previews in case I had to go on, but we just started officially rehearsing. Our great stage manager, Tripp, told us that because the run only goes through Dec. 8, there's a good chance we'll never go on, but we have to be ready just in case. We finished rehearsal on Friday and were about three quarters through learning the blocking for Act Two. I got to the theatre for the Saturday matinee and saw that one of our leading men, Terry Riordan, had injured his back and Billy Magnussen, his 22-year-old, just-got-his-Equity-card understudy, was on! It was shocking! It just goes to show how sudden it is when it happens. I assumed there'd be days of an actor complaining that he wasn't feeling well, a warning from the stage manager that it wasn't looking good, and finally an understudy told that he was on. Instead it was a terrifying, last-minute shocker. One afternoon Billy and I are in street clothes going through our blocking, the next minute he's in full costume about to make his Broadway debut in a leading role!

The good news is, he was on his gig! He got through everything without a hitch and was on for three shows! We all hope that Terry gets better, but the whole thing definitely added some excitement to the weekend shows. Although, what could top regurgitation? Let me explain.

Saturday between shows was a potluck, which I opted out of because (a) I had to do some work at Sirius radio and (b) there's been so much food backstage since opening that I'm literally growing out of my unitard. Anyhoo, apparently people in the cast really enjoyed themselves because at last count, three of them threw up: one after the whole show, one of them during intermission and one who rushed off the stage and aimed into the garbage. Was there something rotten served? Did they overeat? Were they thinking about the summer stock production of Applause that I saw? Only they know the answer, and I'm too grossed out to ask them.

I interviewed Betty Buckley this week, and she was so much fun! First of all, her "new" CD, "Betty Buckley 1967," is out! It's a recording she made with a jazz trio when she was a teenager that she sent to her boyfriend and NY agent. They played some of it on her Bravo special, and Phil Birsh, Richard Jay-Alexander and Andrew Gans from Playbill Records convinced her to release it. She sounds amazing. She said that she's learned something from listening to it all these years later. Nowadays, when she does a CD, she's constantly re-recording phrases and/or punching in notes she doesn't like, but all the songs on "Betty Buckley 1967" were done in one take! She wants to recapture some of that "singing for the sake of singing" and not the over-thinking/trying-to-make-perfect version of performing she sometimes does nowadays. She wants the spontaneity and joy of her early youth, not the arduous perfection-seeking so many artists fall into.

Betty talked about wanting to be in the original Pippin on Broadway because she had been obsessed with Bob Fosse ever since she was 12. Her agent also worked with Jill Clayburgh and told Betty that she had no audition because the Pippin people weren't interested in her. Jill Clayburgh got the part, and when she left, the Pippin people wrote Betty and said they were interested in her auditioning for the original but were told that she left the business! Hmph! "Not interested" indeed! She got the part of Catherine and stayed in the show for a year and a half. "Why so long?" I asked. She said that it paid for her therapy! Ironically, I was just made dance captain of The Ritz and told my boyfriend that extra cash would cover my therapy! Uh-oh…too much info? Um….physical therapy?

I asked her how she went from playing the step mom on "Eight is Enough" to starring in Cats. She said that when Cats was announced, a lot of women wanted to sing "Memory." Rumor has it, Cher was vying for the part! She would have sounded fantastic! (And, by the way, today is opposite day.) Anyhoo, at that point, Betty had hit it big with 1776 in the late sixties but still didn't really have a signature role/song like many of her contemporaries. She went in for many Cats auditions, and at her final call back she asked the director, Trevor Nunn, to come to the stage so she could say something. She told him that there were indeed other women who could sing the part as well as her… but there weren't any women who could sing it better… and it was her turn! She knew that could either backfire or pay off, and thankfully it was the latter! However, once she started rehearsals, it was a nightmare. Trevor wanted to make the other dancers really think of her as the rejected cat, Grizabella, so he didn't let her sing for the cast during the first weeks of rehearsals. Instead, he made her do dance rehearsals with the cast, knowing that she was not at their level. She remembers doing horrifying chaine turns across the floor but not being allowed to sing "Memory." It was à la Jerome Robbins separating the Sharks and The Jets during West Side Story rehearsals. I'm sure the desired result is achieved, but at what cost? Can't you just say to the cast, "Act like you don't like Grizabella," instead of making a belter do turns to the left?

Betty said her only job assignment was to "stop the show." Does the word "pressure" mean anything to you? "Your only job is to achieve world peace. And 'places'." Of course, she couldn't do it at first. She'd sing "Memory" and literally get tepid applause. Ouch. One day she said she saw a homeless woman walk by her apartment on 79th Street, who was dressed crazily with streaked lipstick, but walked with a fashion-plate attitude. She realized that was the key! She had been playing Grizabella as pathetic and self-pitying, but she instead decided to play it like she had something beautiful to share. This was near the end of previews, and she doesn't feel she finally got the hang of the role until a while after opening night, but thankfully she got it in time to win the Tony Award. It was her turn!

I heard that Betty's concert at Town Hall last Saturday was fabulous, and I wish I could have seen it. She came to The Ritz Thursday night and brought me delicious chocolates (which led to me opting out of the pot luck dinner…and the aftermath). OK, this week I'm performing in a Theatreworks/USA with Kevin Chamberlin, my TV Chatterbox on Manhattan Neighborhood Network features Raul Esparza (Tuesday 12:30 PM, channel 56), and my live Thursday Chatterbox is with the legend Chita Rivera! Ole!

(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.")

Tony winner Betty Buckley joins Seth at the <i>Chatterbox</i>.
Tony winner Betty Buckley joins Seth at the Chatterbox. Photo by Christie Ford
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