ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Busch, Hudson and the Shaky Leg | Playbill

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Seth Rudetsky ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Busch, Hudson and the Shaky Leg A week in the life of musician-actor-writer and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Jennifer Hudson
Jennifer Hudson Photo by NBC


Happy sixth anniversary to The Producers and farewell as well. Thursday was the sixth anniversary and Sunday was the closing.

I've been involved with The Producers since my birthday in 2001. First, a word about my birthday. It's on February 28. The same date that William Finn, Bernadette Peters, Kelly Bishop and Tommy Tune celebrate their birthdays. December birthday folk are always whining, "I never get a separate birthday or Christmas present. They're always combined." I hear 'ya, but let me simply say that it's just as annoying to share your birthday with four Tony Award winners. Whenever theatre message boards print "today's birthdays," mine gets as much recognition as Sanjaya's will in a year.

Oh yeah, let me also comment on that. Simon Cowell was up in arms that America was following Howard Stern's advice and voting for Sanjaya. But, the point is, who put him in the finals? The judges! It's a very "do as I say, not as I do" attitude. As in, "just because we constantly brag that we've auditioned thousands across America and put him in the final group that we've narrowed down as the absolute best . . . that doesn't mean that you should vote for him. How dare you!"

Anyhoo, on my birthday in 2001, I had brunch with Paul Castree and I was complaining I had no money. Just then I got a call on my cell phone asking me to sub for The Producers! Oh yeah, a word about subbing. Subbing is like being an understudy in the pit. Every pit musician has about four subs, and it's very fun to do. And by "fun," I mean literally terrifying. When you sub, you first spend time learning the music you have to play by sitting in the pit, watching the conductor so you know how it will look when you have to play. Finally, you're ready. How many rehearsals do you get with the full orchestra before you have to go on? None! Zero! You go from playing by yourself in your apartment to hearing "Ladies and gentlemen, the taking of photographs and the use of recording devices is strictly prohibited." You're suddenly on Broadway. It's not like being an understudy. When you're an understudy and you go on for the first time, if you make mistakes, you simply correct them the next time you go on. When you're a sub, you can't make mistakes your first time because you don't even have the job yet. The first time you play is your audition, so if you're nervous and you clank it up, you're never asked back. I'll never forget the first time I played Kiss of the Spider Woman with Chita Rivera. I was a nervous wreck! Ted Sperling was the conductor (he later won the Tony Award for orchestrating Light in the Piazza . . . one of the few Tony winners who doesn't upstage me on my birthday), and after a few songs told me that a crazy vibrato was coming out of my synthesizer. Vibrato? Was my synth possessed by The Merm? Was she a poltergeist protesting the electronification of Broadway? I didn't know what was wrong, but it kept happening. Every note I played had vibrato. As the show progressed, a slew of technicians tried to fix the keyboard. Suddenly, during "Dear One," I realized that I was so nervous that my left leg had been shaking the whole time — on the volume pedal! The sound wave of vibrato was in direct correlation to the shaking of my gam. I gingerly lifted it off, and Ted suddenly looked my way and told me the vibrato had stopped. I shrugged my shoulders and chalked it up to a shoddy electrical connection, never 'fessing up that it all could have been prevented with a hefty dose of Valium.

John Treacy Egan ended the run of The Producers this week.
photo by Paul Kolnik
Last Monday, I knew this was the final week of The Producers and assumed I had played it for the last time a while ago. While I was lamenting its loss (especially to my wallet), I interviewed John Treacy Egan for my radio show. On Broadway, he has played Franz Liebkind, Roger De Bris and was closing the show as Max Bialystock. What's encouraging for everyone struggling out there at horrible cattle calls is to know that John got cast from an open call. That's right, ye olde 16 bars. So haul out your cut-to-the-end versions of "Anthem" and "Ice Cream" — it could get you a lead on Broadway! John also told me that one of his first roles was at a community theatre where he played Che and Christine Pedi was Evita. An Irish redheaded Che and a dark haired, comedic Eva from Scarsdale. Hmm, maybe I will get to play Effie one day.

Back to subbing at The Producers. Even though I thought I played it my last time, I wound up being asked at the last minute to sub this week, and Patrick Brady, the conductor, told me that I was the first sub to ever play the show on Broadway, and now, I was the last sub. As Justin Timberlake sings, "What goes around, comes around." As Christine Ebersole sings, "Around the world…”. And as that guy in the eighties sang, "You spin me right round, baby, right round."

This weekend I flew to the West Coast to play for Jennifer Hudson. I spent the plane ride re-reading Charles Busch's moving yet hilarious "Whores of Lost Atlantis." The book is a fictionalized version of how he started his theatre company, Theatre-in-limbo, and how Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (called Whores of Lost Atlantis in the book) became an Off-Broadway smash. What's so inspirational about the book is, not only did he make his dreams come true, but he put all of his friends into the shows he wrote and made all of their dreams come true as well.

Busch performed "Bill" in my Broadway 101 show last week, and I used him to prove that you don't need crazy high notes or an elaborate set to move an audience. He sang it with just a piano, some strings and a stool and the audience was riveted. You could hear a pin drop . . . or a leg shake. He showed that you just need a connection to the words to draw an audience in. So many people told me that his rendition made them cry. And my Long Island mother told me that it made her "croy."

On Friday, I arrived in Palm Springs and met up with Jennifer, who was performing for a bunch of lawyers who were having their annual conference and hired her to belt up a storm. Ever since I started playing for her, she hasn't been allowed to sing "And I Am Telling You" in performance because the studio wanted to keep that special in the movie. But now that the whole Oscar season is over, she's finally allowed to do it! She sounded amazing, and the only disappointment I felt was not being able to do the whole fight scene leading up to it. I didn't get the impression, though, that she wanted me to sing the other roles of Jimmy, Curtis, Deena and Lorrell. Was she afraid of being out-riffed? You decide.

"Whores of Lost Atlantis" author Charles Busch
photo by Ben Strothmann

It's so fun accompanying Jennifer because she always sounds amazing. Totally full-voiced and nary a click track in sight! Also, the night we performed was the anniversary of her being kicked off "American Idol," so it was extra poignant. She always does "Weekend in New England," which is the song that got her ixnayed and if you ever hear her do it, you will feel ashamed that you didn't stay up all night voting for her when she was on "Idol." After the show, I drove to Los Angeles with my good friend Jack Plotnick. The drive became so tedious, and our conversation topics so scarce, that I was forced to sing all of "The Worst Pies in London" a cappella. Again, I say, if John Treacy Egan can do Che, why can't I do a Cockney charwoman? Okay, this week I'm doing Androcles and the Lion for the Shaw Project, the Easter Bonnet Competition and seeing Legally Blonde. As one show closes, so another opens…


(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 his show, Seth's Broadway 101, will be presented April 16. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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