ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Counting Blessings

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Counting Blessings
A week in the life of actor, musician, music director and talk show host Seth Rudetsky.


Ah. I'm glad that I get to sit to write this column because it's difficult to move when you've ingested 4,000 calories in one day. And by "in one day," I mean "in one meal." Yes, Thanksgiving was delicious! When we signed the lease for our townhouse, we decided to make Thanksgiving the day we revealed our place to the public. And by "public," I mean a smattering of friends and my Mom.

Well, Wednesday came and we still weren't finished unpacking. Luckily, I have an intern named Chris Giordano who's a theatre major at Pace and has just enough OCD to make him super-organized. He came over at 8 PM and by 1 AM, the downstairs looked AMAZING. Everything was unpacked and he put all of my show posters on the wall above my piano. The problem is that they fit so perfectly, Chris said I better not get cast in another show because there's no room for another poster. [AUDIO-LEFT] Hm. I guess that's why I didn't get La Cage. Chris also took all of my signage from my Actors Fund Dreamgirls concert (the poster, The NY Times ad, the framed photo of the curtain call, the Tower Records signs promoting the release of the CD) and put them all on one wall. It created an area in the house that's either an homage to a great show, or the opening shot in a film about a serial killer who preys on belters. Regardless, the first floor looked so great, that we decided to carry the kitchen table downstairs so we could have the Thanksgiving meal there. It was an especially meaningful Thanksgiving because of an emotional Wednesday.

As I wrote about before, James' Mom was diagnosed with advanced ovarian cancer last year. She finished her treatment in May and went into remission. Last week she went for a follow-up visit and on Wednesday afternoon, the nurse made a bizarre phone call to her "confirming her treatment for the following Friday at Sloan-Kettering." James' Mom said that she wasn't scheduled for a treatment at Sloan. She then asked the horrible question; did the doctor schedule it because her cancer had come back. The nurse was vague and said the doctor would talk to her on Monday at her follow-up appointment. I was at my radio show when James called me and told me the conversation and that he and his Mom think that her cancer is back. I immediately told him that they needed to call back and speak to the doctor. James left the nurse a message but then called me back told me he regretted it because he didn't want to know for sure and have it cast a pall over Thanksgiving. He told me that he wouldn't pick up the phone when the nurse called back and he'd just wait for his Mom's doctors' appointment to find out. Regardless, the nurse called back and in the spur of the moment, James picked up.

Turns out, James' Mom is cancer-free! The "treatment appointment" at Sloan-Kettering was a mistake and as a matter of fact, her check-up showed her doing especially well! It was such an emotional low then high and it had such resonance happening at Thanksgiving. SO, since we knew she was healthy, we stopped the sympathy and made her in charge of cooking everything…and it was DELISH! She makes sweet potatoes Southern-style (AKA loaded with bacon) so my Mom made my favorite sweet potato dish: covered in brown sugar and marshmallows. YUM! My sister Beth made a vegan dessert, which I know sounds vile, but was delicious. On a related note, my friend Tim posted on his Facebook that he was walking down the street and passed by a strange-looking woman shouting at the air: "Vegans have better health! Better sex! Cleaner consciences!" As he passed by he added: "Worse food." Succinct and honest.

Anika Larsen and Kate Monster in Avenue Q.
photo by Carol Rosegg

Anika Larsen (Kate in Avenue Q) came for the day and we all felt so bad for her because we were eating to the point of immobility and she had to do her show that night. My British friends John Reid and his partner James Thompson came and I asked John for some good stories for my Playbill column. He's the former manager of Queen, Elton John and Andrew Lloyd Webber and many others. Unfortunately, all of his stories had some scandalous/confidential part that nullified the option of printing them. But, I did ask him about Freddie Mercury and he mentioned Freddie's signature overbite. John told me that after "Bohemian Rhapsody" was a hit, he asked Freddie kindly, "So, now that you have some money… perhaps you want to get your teeth fixed?" Freddie shockingly replied, "What? I already did!!!" Turns out, the teeth he sported were the result of getting them fixed years ago. Which begs the question, what did they look like before? The day before Thanksgiving, I went to Cardinal Cooke Hospital where I volunteer for Lifebeat and do a monthly show for the patients in the AIDS residence. P.S., if there are any singers or pianist out there who want to volunteer, get to Lifebeat.org ASAP! They put on shows at lots o' hospitals in New York and I spent many years at the prison ward of St. Clare's Hospital but when that closed I moved to Cardinal Cooke which I've been doing for around seven years. The patients there have advanced AIDS and they can live at the hospital and get all of their treatments but also take day trips and have overnight stays with relatives and loved ones. One day when I was doing a show there with Ric Ryder, Ric recognized Gene Anthony Ray in the audience. Gene was Leroy in the film and TV version of "Fame." The following week I came back with a special video to show Ray. It was him singing and dancing as the bad guy in the musical Carrie and he was thrilled…and the nurses were shocked that it was him doing crazy fan kicks and triple turns. Sadly, he died a few weeks later (at age 41) but I'm so glad I got to witness him show the staff what an amazing performer he was.

A few months ago, Lifebeat asked me to put on a Thanksgiving show for the whole hospital and I asked three fabulous singers to perform: Anne Steele, Klea Blackhurst and Farah Alvin, who all said yes immediately. They sang up a storm, including me and Anne hauling out the AIDS unit favorite "Suddenly Seymor" and Farah singing "Don't Rain on My Parade" up a step. And Klea sounded great doing Ethel Merman hits from her fabulous show Everything The Traffic Will Allow. She's performing that show every Saturday at 5 PM at the Snapple Theater. I've seen the show twice and love it and if you've never heard her, here's a sample at youtube.

Chester Gregory in Dreamgirls.
photo by Joan Marcus

On Saturday I walked a few blocks from my house to the Apollo Theater and saw the object of my shrine: Dreamgirls. I thought everyone had a fantastic voice but I was especially obsessed with Chester Gregory as Jimmy Early. He sounded excellent and was so *&$% funny! P.S., my other expletive options were so "effing" funny or so "f-ing" funny but I chose the old-school comic book style. And on a related note, my sister Nancy in Virginia is obsessed with the fact that there's a road near her called Effingham street. Whenever you say you're going there you sound irritated even if you're not. Example: "Oh, no! I have to go to Effingham Street!" makes you sound annoyed. Yet the contrasting "Yay! I have to go to Effingham Street!" makes you sound sarcastic. Back to Dreamgirls. I've loved that show since I was in high school and every time I interview someone associated with it, I milk them for any and all information. Here's some fun tidbits I found out when I interviewed Henry Krieger. The first song he created with Tom Eyen was "One Night Only" which was written on a napkin because they met in a diner. Yet, I heard a recording of the show from when it was doing its out-of-town tryout in Boston and "One Night Only" wasn't in it! Another song was in its place and it made no sense to me since I knew "One Night Only" had been around forever. Turns out, Michael Bennett wanted it cut because he thought it sounded too Jewish! First I was miffed when I heard that, but then I listened to it again and I totally know why he thought that. The melody is incredibly soulful yet has the essence of my Bar Mitzvah Torah reading and quite frankly, the real Judaica is the opening oboe solo. How can you hear it and not want Matzah brie? Regardless, the song is amazing and after Michael Bennett took it out everyone protested…including the ushers! They demanded the song be put back in and thankfully, it was. My other favorite story is about Jennifer Holliday. I've always loved her performance of "And I Am Telling You"…especially her amazing physicality. She has one moment where she grabs her left inner thigh, picks up her leg and places it down further to the left. I always thought it was some idiosyncratic move she did in the moment. Well, turns out, after I interviewed Brenda Braxton (who was in the original production as a performer and dance captain) she told me that move was staged! There was a big cable that ran across the stage and Michael Bennett wanted to make sure Jennifer didn't trip over it, so during the number, he told her to literally pick up her leg and place it on the other side of the cable! Watch here!

And finally, I just found out I'm going to be co-hosting the Gypsy of the Year Competition for the second year in a row! Last year, I was joined by Jonathan Hadary and Tyne Daly (who were at the very first one back in 1989), and this year I'll be with the brilliant Julie White. I'm working on some new deconstructions to debut as well as some of my old chestnuts. Go to BroadwayCares.org for tickets. Bundle up and Happy December!!!

Seth Rudetsky is the host of "Seth's Big Fat Broadway" on SIRIUS Satellite Radio and the author of "The Q Guide to Broadway" and the novel "Broadway Nights." He has played piano in the orchestras of 15 Broadway musicals and hosts the BC/EFA benefit weekly interview show Seth's Broadway Chatterbox at Don't Tell Mama every Thursday at 6 PM. He can be contacted by visiting www.sethrudetsky.com.

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