ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chip, Jerry and a Late Nite Comic

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Chip, Jerry and a Late Nite Comic
Welcome to February! I love February because, not only is it my birthday month, but I think of it as the transition to spring. Peace out, winter…see ya next year! Although, with the charming onslaught of global warming, that should actually read "see ya next year for a period of one, maximum two days."
Chip Zien joins the cast of Les Mis
Chip Zien joins the cast of Les Mis

My life has gotten kind of hectic with doing Lend Me a Tenor and my radio show, etc. While I was performing in The Ritz on Broadway, the performance schedule was a typical eight shows a week, but Lend Me a Tenor is only five shows a week, so sometimes it's hard for me to keep track of what I'm doing on the other nights. That being said, I called my boyfriend James on Monday night and asked if he and his daughter, Juli, had time for dinner. He started to say "Don't you have to do-" and I thought he was going to say that I had to do Celebrity Autobiography, which I'm not doing 'til next week. So I was about to do my signature interruption, cut him off and tell him that Celebrity Autobiography is next week, but I decided to resist my rudeness urge for once in my life and let him finish the sentence, which wound up being, "Don't you have to do a Barnes and Noble show?" Holy you-know-what! Not only was he right and I had totally forgotten, but it was 5:20 PM, and I was supposed to be there at 5:30! Revelation: Maybe I shouldn't constantly and consistently interrupt people because I "know what they're going to say."

I ran out of my apartment and got down to the Lincoln Center Barnes and Noble asap. I was there to celebrate the release of the Late Nite Comic 20th anniversary CD (whose proceeds go to The Actors Fund). Brian Gari wrote the music and lyrics to that show, and it was a devastating flop (opened and closed on Broadway in one weekend). He tells the whole story in an amazing book called "We Bombed in New London" (which they certainly did). I love backstage books because it's always fascinating to know all the ups and downs that go into bringing a show to Broadway…and this show had more than its share of downs. On Monday night, Brian recounted the story about the director trying to cut the song "Late Nite Comic," aka, the title song. Brian went to The Dramatists Guild and filed a complaint, and they ruled that the song couldn't be cut. Yay! It was back in. Brian came to the show that night and found out that he'd been banned from the theatre! He forced his way past the producer and found a seat, and sure enough, even though they were told not to cut the song, it was missing more than Madonna's vibrato! However, in Act Two, they did they did keep the reprise. Reprise of what?

After Brian told the story, he performed the title song from the piano and, whether or not it worked in the show, it's beautiful. The CD is star-studded: Brian D'Arcy James, Julia Murney, Daniel Reichard, Marty Vidnovic, Mary Testa and, in a small but pivotal role, Seth Rudetsky! I play one of the comedy club owners in the song "The Best in the Business," and I performed the song on Monday night with one of the women who was originally in the show, Luba Mason. You may remember her as Linda Eder's velvet-voiced replacement in Jekyll and Hyde, but you probably don't remember her in Late Nite Comic because she used a completely different name back then. Lubitza Gregus is her original name, and when she started on Broadway, she wanted something more vanilla, so she used the stage name Kim Freshwater. Wow. That's a lo-o-o-o-o-ong way away from Lubitza Gregus. Maybe my name needs to be made more vanilla…hmm…..Seth Freshwater? Spike Saltwater? Shawn Henry Clearwater? Any and all? None?

Jerry Stiller introduced the whole evening and said that early in his career he was helped tremendously by Brian's grandfather. Brian's grandfather happened to be Eddie Cantor who, incidentally, was born with the name Israel Iskowitz. Hmm…Israel Freshwater?

Tuesday I went to see Jerry Stiller: The Opera…I mean, Jerry Springer. I was very proud of David Bedella (Warm-up guy/Satan), whom I've known since the early nineties and whose voice sounded fantastic! The show was super fun, and there is something inherently funny about hearing the moronic vernacular of Jerry Springer in an opera. Singing "whatever" like a Valley Girl is one thing, but singing it on a high G in a covered tenor voice is hilarious. A couple of days before the show, I got an email from a group asking me to protest the show, and I wrote back immediately. I didn't argue whether or not it was offensive to them, but I mentioned that it seemed to me there were many more devastating problems in the world (war, homeless vets, children that need fostering) and if they were going to organize something, aren't there more important things that all that energy could go to? I said that it seems to me that there are more pressing issues that could use all those people's help. No response. I heard there was a group of protesters outside Carnegie Hall, but I missed them because I entered through a different door. My seat was next to a very New Yorky elderly lady who looked at me as I sat down and immediately said, "Do you wanna hear something funny?" I said "sure," and she said, "Well, first of all, I was in the lobby and I approached two women and said, 'Do you wanna hear something funny?' and they both said, 'No.'"

Ouch. I guess that's why New Yorkers are known for their honesty. She continued. "The story is that I normally have bible study group tonight, and I didn't feel I could tell them I was seeing this show, so I said I was busy. I figured that they'll never know. Then, as I walked in, I saw the TV cameras filming me!" Busted. I'd love an update on next week's class.

This week I also interviewed Chip Zien on my Sirius radio show. First of all, he's so charming. Even though many of his theatre stories had a section where he admitted that he had a big, fat angry fit about something he now realizes was not worth it, he would tell me about it with a big smile and I would think, "That must have been adorable!" He grew up in the Midwest, and when he was a boy, his Mom enrolled him in dance class, and soon he got cast as one of the little kids in a professional production of South Pacific. She then made arrangements with a New York couple to take Chip to live with them so he could get a Broadway gig. The only problem was, she never consulted with young Chip, and he said, "No way!" He didn't want to be shipped off to New York City to live with random people. It was very "Into the Arms of Strangers" (the film about parents during WWll who gave away their kids to live with families in safe countries) but instead of wanting Chip to escape the London Blitz, Mama Rose Zien wanted him to get his Equity card. Perhaps a little more shallow, but if more mothers had her foresight, there would be a lot less Theater For Young Audiences 11 AM-in-the-morning performances.

He eventually got an Ivy League education and, after spending a few years teaching (to avoid the draft), he moved to NY. He soon met an agent who lived in the apartment above his friend who flat out told him that he didn't look like an actor…at all. She asked what his father did. He told her that he was a plumber, and she told him to move back to the Midwest and become a plumber. The next day, though, she passive/aggressively got him a commercial audition for Planters Peanuts…and he got it!

After doing a national tour of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown as Snoopy, he got cast in How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying at The Equity Library Theater as Finch…or as Chip called himself in the role, Finchstein. His wife was working as a ballerina for the New York City Ballet, and one day they were in a pet store near Bloomingdale's, and she ran into a friend from the company. As they stood there chatting, a man tapped Chip on the shoulder and said, "Don't try anything with the lady…she's my wife." Turns out the man was joking...and he was Dustin Hoffman! Just the night before, Dustin's name was on the backstage list of celebs seeing How to Succeed. Chip was waiting for some acknowledgment…and instead Dustin asked him what he did for a living. Zero recall. Chip was mortified and muttered that he "worked at night." They then all went back to Dustin's apartment, and Dustin asked if Chip was an actor. Finally, Chip said, "Look, you saw me last night starring in How to Succeed, and obviously I was so bad you don't even remember me." Dustin laughed and told him that he hadn't come. His business partner had used his name! He asked Chip to audition for a play he was directing, and Chip got the understudy. Chip said that Dustin was a brilliant director but had no confidence. He kept saying, "If you all don't like what I'm doing, I can get Mike Nichols." Interesting…I often say sentences like that. While I was in The Ritz, I would tell my boyfriend, "If you don't like what I'm doing, I can get Ryan Idol." Unfortunately, he tried to take me up on the offer.

Kidding, people. Don't forget, my roots are in the Borscht Belt.

The big turning point in Chip's career was when he auditioned for In Trousers at Playwrights Horizons. He sang "Jackie" from Jacques Brel, and Bill Finn (who wrote In Trousers and was directing it at the point) told him that a. he hated that song and b. if he insisted on singing it, he should put his hands in his pockets and stand on the piano...which Chip did. Suffice it to say, Chip thought that Bill was the oddest person he had ever met, but got the gig and they became great friends. In Trousers became a cult hit, and next came March of the Falsettos. Michael Rupert came in to play Marvin, and Chip became Mendel, his psychiatrist, which he considered a demotion and had one of his signature "conversations"...many times. He says he remembered that there were a lot of lunches where he was explaining his issues, and at one of them he offered to write his own song for Mendel. The offer was not accepted.

He explained to me that March of the Falsettos was a workshop, and there was no official opening set…but one random night Frank Rich came, gave it a rave and suddenly the show was frozen. Chip said he remembers telling the head of Playwrights that he's "never been in a show that was less prepared to open." I'm sure a lunch followed that comment.

Then we talked about Falsettoland, which is the sequel to March of the Falsettos…and one of my favorite shows ever. He said that Falsettoland is the only show where he didn't care what the critics said at all. He felt that the show's message was so important that it transcended anything negative a critic could possibly say. I asked what he felt was so important, and he said that the show spoke so well to our time and what people in the theatre have gone through in terms of the losses we've suffered due to AIDS. And the message was that all of us treat each other as best we can, whatever our peculiarities… and that we're all a family.

I then asked him if he was completely obsessed with the song "Unlikely Lovers" as I am. Of course, Chip-style, he said that song was a big bone of contention for him, and he was constantly arguing about it because he felt that it was missing something…him! (And Trina). Addition denied.

Finally, I brought up Into the Woods. He was in L.A. doing TV work, and Ira Weitzman (the fabulous producer) called him and said that they were considering him for the role of the Baker …but if anyone called and asked him to audition, he should say no! Ira felt that the creative team didn't know what they wanted, and if Chip came in, they would find a reason why he wasn't right, but if he didn't come in, they would just offer it to him. Well, they did ask him to audition, he said he couldn't, and they offered him the role! While they were rehearsing in La Jolla, James Lapine (the brilliant director/writer) said that he was getting very concerned because Chip didn't look like a baker. He imagined the baker as a big roly-poly guy, and Chip is small and wiry. Chip got incredibly insecure during rehearsal until Joanna Gleason had lunch with him and told him not to freak out because she was sure he was going to keep the part. He calmed down, and they told everyone that the show was coming to Broadway — unfortunately, not for another eight months…and Chip has two kids. Hello, money? How do you get a job but tell them that you have to leave in eight months for another one? Thankfully, his wife was working for the ballet. The reason the show waited eight months is that the second act was being worked on. Audiences didn't like the fact that the Baker's Wife died and they never saw her again. So they decided to bring her back during Act Two…but then they couldn't decide if Jack's Mother should also come back. The only time you can have two dead people visiting is in a dream (See: Grandma Tzeitel and Fruma-Sarah).

They worked it out and Chip loved doing the show…and working with Sondheim. He said he remembers Sondheim coming into a rehearsal room at La Jolla and performing new music for them. He said it was so moving to see Sondheim sit at the piano, get out his sheet music, lay it out so it was neat and then sing "No One Is Alone." He remembers Paul Gemignani, the music director who's this big, imposing presence, literally having tears streaming down his cheeks. And, Chip remembers that when the show was rehearsing in New York, Sondheim presented the song "No More." Chip said he couldn't believe that Sondheim was writing songs based on how Chip played the character, what his range was, etc...and that he was actually going to be able to sing that brilliance onstage! His fondest memory is about when they filmed Into the Woods for PBS. The audience was filled with Sondheim fanatics who simply loved the show. Chip went back to his dressing room after the curtain call and noticed that it was dark even though he had left the light on. He opened the door and saw someone sitting there. Chip turned on the light, and Sondheim looked up at him with tears in his eyes and said, "When could it ever be this good?" How sweet is that? Isn't it nice to know that it's not just the audience that's moved by a genius' work, but the genius himself can be moved by the piece, the performances and the love from the audience as well.

All right, tonight (Feb. 4) I'm hosting Broadway Backwards for the third time, and for tix you should go to gaycenter.org for tickets. Later this week I'm seeing Applause at City Center Encores! (featuring Chip Zien and starring Christine Ebersole), and then I'm interviewing Nathan Lane for Sirius radio! All this Broadway makes me thirsty. Maybe I'll have a nice, cold glass of FreshWater. Gregus? Mason? Israel Iskowitz?


(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.")

(l.-r.) Luba Mason (aka Kim Freshwater), Seth Rudetsky and Brian Gari.
(l.-r.) Luba Mason (aka Kim Freshwater), Seth Rudetsky and Brian Gari.
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