ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Texas to Disaster!

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: From Texas to Disaster!
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Donna McKechnie
Donna McKechnie


I'm on a flight home from Houston because I was down here for a big high school/college theatre festival called TheatreFest 2012, a project of Texas Educational Theatre Association. They take theatre seriously in Texas. A local woman told me (in full Texas twang) "It's football, cheerleading, then theatre." Brian Stokes Mitchell was supposed to perform the first night, but he suddenly got strep throat. So, at the last minute, Donna McKechnie flew down and did a fantastic interview with David Michaels (I know him from his producing of West Coast Actors Fund events). The kids went crazy for Donna, especially when she ended by performing "The Music and the Mirror." She's still got it!

On Saturday morning, I did a reading of my new book ("My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan") at the Blue Willow Bookstore and it was so fun! The book existed for years only on my computer, and now, suddenly, people are reading it and writing to me about it. I love the fact that even though it's considered a "young adult" book, so many adults are reading it. I'm telling anyone who loved my earlier novel "Broadway Nights" to get "Awesome/Awful" because it's essentially a prequel. The leading character is pretty much exactly the same, just 20 years younger. They don't actually have the same name, but apparently I'm only capable of writing one lead character (neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight Jew) and I'll stick him into whatever genre I'm writing. Next up: A science fiction book featuring a neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight Jewish scientist. Then a period romance featuring a neurotic, scheming, slightly overweight country squire.

Seth with Alice Ripley

On Saturday, I also did Deconstructing Broadway for the festival. Before I performed, David Michaels interviewed Alice Ripley. He talked about her show-stopping performance as Amy at the Kennedy Center production of Company. When she was first working on "Getting Married Today," she was doing very over-the-top Carol Burnett-style physical comedy including hanging from the set and singing a whole verse upside down. She happened to try out that staging at a rehearsal attended by Stephen Sondheim. Afterwards, he told her simply: "Don't do that…just sing the song." Alice was happy to get that advice. Just hearing the story gave me an anxiety attack. She also felt that she did the right thing by going so far in rehearsal. She feels you have to go all the way in one direction to know what it's like — and then you can tone it down. Because you've had the experience of pushing it, it adds to your performance. She remembered doing Side Show and having her director, Bobby Longbottom, come backstage and tell her that her big second-act solo had to be cut. He was, literally, on his knees (!) apologizing. She, however, was thrilled. "Are you kidding me? Thank you! One less difficult song to sing!" But, because she had the experience of singing the song during previews, she could add that experience to her character's journey. She also told the students to always have some sort of creative outlet. While she was playing Diana in Next to Normal, she began to focus on playing the guitar in her spare time to bring her back to herself. She then performed a song from Next to Normal on the guitar, but it was one of the husband's songs. She told us that singing it really helped her see his perspective in the story. Then she sang a song she wrote that's coming out as an iTunes single on Valentine's Day, and the crowd went wild. Visit her website for deets!

Drew Geraci and his Plaid castmates
photo by Greg Kolack

So, speaking of creative outlets, I thought I'd tell the story of my musical Disaster! One of my first jobs when I came to New York was playing piano for Forever Plaid. I wound up playing it for a few years Off-Broadway at Steve McGraw's, which was a venue originally called Paulsson's. I used to go to Paulsson's in the '80s when I was in college because that's where Forbidden Broadway originally played. Anyhoo, when I first joined Forever Plaid, Frankie was played by Drew Geraci, who had recently played Paul in the final Broadway company of A Chorus Line. Drew and I became good friends and wound up traveling all over the place and setting up various companies of Forever Plaid. Off the top of my head, I remember we did the Toronto, Vancouver and Las Vegas companies. Also off the top of my head, I remember I threw my back out in Toronto because for some reason suitcases didn't have wheels in the early '90s. When we got to Toronto, the cab dropped us off a few blocks away from our hotel and I had to carry my suitcase, causing a back spasm. I know the internet didn't come around 'til the late '90s but why was it just as difficult to think of wheels for suitcases? Back to Disaster!: Drew and I were always thinking of different shows to write. One was about two guys: One is gay and obsessed with other, who is straight. The gay guy decides to get a sex change so the straight guy will like him, but unfortunately the straight guy also decides to get a sex change to get the gay guy off his back. Cut to: They're now both women and arch-rivals. And then they both get offered the title role in Mame in competing Broadway productions. I have no more memory of what else happens to them, but if the rest of the plot was as brilliant as that, I'm glad it remained unwritten. A better idea we had was to write a musical version of a 1970s disaster movie. We had both loved "Poseidon Adventure," "Towering Inferno, "Airport '75," etc. — and even clunkers like that movie about snakes called "S-s-s-s-s-s-s-s." Anybody? Anybody with a lateral lisp? We wanted to feature a new disaster that hadn't been in a movie, so I thought it would be funny to do a whole show about the New York City blackout of 1977 because it's such a soft disaster. Where's the scary part? For the music, we wanted to use actual '70s songs. Well, like many things I've planned on doing (leading all the way up to this morning in terms of putting away my clean clothes), it went completely undone. For more than 15 years! Finally, last year, I was asked to do a benefit for Only Make Believe, which is an organization (founded by Dena Hammerstein) that brings theatre to hospitalized children. I've performed in their annual gala many times and I had done an evening of Deconstructing Broadway for them the year before. They told me I could do any type of show I wanted. I decided to employ the Charles Busch trick: give yourself a deadline to force yourself to write something. Back in the '80s, he got a date to perform at the Limbo Lounge in the East Village and then wrote Vampire Lesbians of Sodom. So, I picked a date in late May and told Only Make Believe we'd be doing Disaster! Cut to a blank computer screen. Ah! Writing it was the hard part. The one thing I changed right away was the idea of the blackout being the disaster. I thought it would be more exciting to incorporate all of my favorite disasters from those 1970s films.

Seth with Jack Plotnick
photo by Lauren Kennedy

Drew and I met to discuss various plot elements, but we're both Pisces and there was a lot of procrastination and dreaminess. Plus, he was working a full time job and we were on opposite schedules. Cut to: It's mid-February and I'm in Palm Springs playing for Audra McDonald at a fancy benefit for Desert AIDS. They gave me a great hotel room so I invited one of my best friends, Jack Plotnick, to stay with me. He loves being creative, so he asked if he could brainstorm the show with me. I was telling him various ideas and he was loving them. Then I told him the show was scheduled to happen in three months. He had a panic attack and forced open my computer so something could actually be written. We became a team. By April, Jack and I had written the show, with Drew adding extra hilarious material. Then I began casting. I wanted to replicate another aspect of Charles Busch and decided to surround myself with friends onstage, so I called/emailed/texted people I've known forever and asked to play different parts. All the roles are archetype disaster-movie roles. To name a few, I was able to get Anika Larsen (who I've known since she was doing Zanna, Don't and I was doing Rhapsody in Seth) to play Sister Mary Downy, the nun with the gambling addiction; Kathy Fitzgerald (who I met when we were both doing The Producers) to play Shirley Summers, the older lady with the heart condition; and Lauren Kennedy (who I've known since I interviewed her right after she understudied in Side Show) to play Jackie Sylvestri, the lounge singer who has terrible taste in unavailable men. And, a la Charles Busch, I gave myself a great part! That's right, I cast myself as Professor Scheider, the disaster expert. For director-choreographer, I asked Denis Jones. I first met Denis when he was in the ensemble of Grease! and I was playing in the pit. He danced in tons of Easter Bonnet opening numbers that I wrote, and also danced in my 2001 Dreamgirls benefit concert. Plus he came to my mom's house on Long Island for Thanksgiving. Of course, he was dancing back then so he just had non-stop coffee and three cigarettes, but it was still a festive meal.

Seth in Disaster!

So, May 23 came, the benefit show went fantastically and we then got some funding to do a two-day reading. The next step was rewriting some stuff and then doing an out-of-town tryout. Out-of-town? I barely leave the Upper West Side! As a matter of fact, when my friend Traci Lyn invited me to her wedding, I said I'd only go if it was scheduled for a Wednesday between shows and located in a church on my block. In November, I went out to lunch with James and was complaining about having to take the show to a regional theatre when he suddenly pointed across the street: Yes, the theatre where I first saw Forbidden Broadway and then did Forever Plaid would be perfect for Disaster! I called my manager Orin Wolf, who also produces, and he agreed to help us get the show going.

We began rehearsals on Jan. 16 and I have never felt more like I was in a Mickey-and-Judy film. Jack told me a theory that when you try to put something creative out into the universe, every day something will try to stop it. BOY was he right. Among the obstacles: we got news that we suddenly needed thousands of dollars we didn't know we needed. And we had to get approval from various unions or we'd have to shut down. That sort of thing. It's been crazy. Yet, so much fun. First of all, we're doing a show in a theatre that seemed crazily cramped with a four person cast, yet we're a 15-person cast! We're doing full production numbers so close to the audience that if I didn't have such an awful extension, I'd kick someone in the teeth. And we not only have everyone on stage performing, we also have a full rock band. Now I know what my Grandmother felt like in steerage when she came here from Russia.

Lauren Kennedy in Disaster!

Last week, we started rehearsals on Monday and did our dress/tech (and first run-through) on Sunday afternoon, leading up to the 7 PM curtain. Suddenly, in the middle of Act Two, we found out that we hadn't properly timed the tech and we had to leave the stage so the theatre could set up and prepped for an audience. Not only had we never, ever run the show, but we had never done the last 20 pages of Act Two with any props, costumes, band, etc. While we were backstage waiting to go on, Kathy Fitzgerald tried to cheer us up by saying, "It's like summer stock. You know, where you put up an enormous show in 10 days!" Lauren responded simply, "But we didn't have ten days." Ouch.

Well, the show went so well. I watched the audience while we were doing the finale ("Hooked on a Feeling") and was terrified that I might see a sea of blank faces. But even though our first show ran long, they were all smiling. We hadn't "lost them" as we say in the "desperate-to-get-approval" business.

We're only playing 'til the end of February. For more information, visit www.DisasterMusical.com. Come see every disaster that rocked your local movie screen in the 1970s, and hear every song that you danced/cried/made-out to in the 1970s! And my horrible, unflattering '70s hairstyle! (Seth Rudetsky has played piano in the pits of many Broadway shows including Ragtime, Grease and The Phantom of the Opera. He was the artistic producer/conductor for the first five Actors Fund concerts including Dreamgirls and Hair, which were both recorded. As a performer, he appeared on Broadway in The Ritz and on TV in "All My Children," "Law and Order C.I." and on MTV's "Made" and "Legally Blonde: The Search for the Next Elle Woods." He has written the books "The Q Guide to Broadway" and "Broadway Nights," which was recorded as an audio book on Audible.com. He is currently the afternoon Broadway host on Sirius/XM radio and tours the country doing his comedy show, "Deconstructing Broadway." He can be contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.)

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