ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim . . . and Ed Rudetsky

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Happy Birthday, Stephen Sondheim . . . and Ed Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Promotional art for Sondheim 80
Promotional art for Sondheim 80


Mr. S turns 80 on March 22, and my dad turns 79. Coincidence? You decide. Actually, I will: It's not a coincidence….nor is it interesting. However, I will talk about both men. First, my dad. Here's the positive story: When I was a kid in 1979, I got my first professional job, Oliver! at the Northstage Dinner Theater staring Shani Wallis (who played Nancy in the film). My dad drove me to seven performances a week (my sister Beth took me to the Wednesday matinees because [AUDIO-LEFT]he was working and she was in college. I remember driving with her and singing along as the radio blasted "What a Fool Believes"). My dad always made sure to sit in the balcony during my solo in "Who Will Buy" and wave his arms over his head so I could see him. Let's skip over the fact that I was playing the Milkmaid. Yes, they changed the name of the character to Milkboy, but there was still an essence of drag. Now the dishy story: My dad has a slight hearing loss, and it was always "fun" when he would volunteer to turn pages for me when I had to play piano at an event. I'd be in the middle of a difficult passage, and as I approached the bottom of a page, I'd quickly say, "turn." He'd then look at me and say, "What?" My question later on was always, "What else would I be saying in the middle of a performance? How are you????"

Now, to Sondheim. I ran into Seth Sikes at Don't Tell Mama, and he told me he was helping get together a large group of people to sing "Sunday" from Sunday in the Park With George at the Avery Fisher Hall Sondheim Celebration. I, of course, said yes. Then I realized that the song is very wordy, and I knew I'd have to work hard to memorize it. You should also know that I knew I'd need a few weeks to write an AP English paper when I was in high school, yet I'd begin it the night before. AKA, last Sunday night, you could have seen me anywhere in the city hunched over with headphones in my ears, muttering, "by the blue, purple yellow red…I mean, by the green, orange, violet…I mean, something, something, Sun-da-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-a-ay!"

Suddenly, Monday rolled around, and I felt like I was living the Actor's Nightmare, as detailed so brilliantly in Christopher Durang's play of the same name. When we had a staging rehearsal, Josh Rhodes and Lonny Price placed singers all over the theatre: in the aisles, the balcony and the box seats. I was excited to be placed onstage…but then I realized that Sondheim would be able to see me…as well as all the cameras filming the show for PBS. Ironically, I love when actors bring embarrassing video footage of themselves to my Chatterbox, but I was dreading the devastating footage of myself I'd soon be able to show: "OK, everyone, here's where the camera passes me and you can see me not only singing the wrong words to 'Sunday,' but if you look close, you'll notice I'm actually singing 'Being Alive.'"

At around 9:15 Monday night, we all lined up outside the doors, and I was planted next to Nancy Opel and Danielle Ferland (both from the original Sunday in the Park) and Mana Allen (from the original Merrily We Roll Along). Even though we were told to be as quiet as possible, I, of course, used the opportunity for a mini-Chatterbox. Turns out, Danielle (who played the little girl) had to leave Sunday because they told her she got too tall, and that's why she's not in the video version of the show. That's always the terrible fear of the child actor: growing up. I remember when I performed in the night-club act Beginnings (later changed to Youngstars) with kid actors like Sarah Jessica Parker and Kerry Butler. At one point my mom was in the audience, and it was right after my birthday. The host announced me as "13-year-old Seth Rudetsky," and my mom yelled out, "He's 14!" I was mortified! I felt like she just announced I was about to star in the title role in Driving Miss Daisy. Since we were still waiting outside the auditorium, I asked Nancy about doing Sunday in the Park, and she said it was her first original musical. She had done the original company of Evita (understudying Patti), but that show had already been staged in London so it was like doing a national tour. Nancy said people in the ensemble were sometimes called by their counterpart British actor names. Like, "Where does Colin go at the end of 'New Argentina'?" Or, "Don't forget that at the end of 'Peron's Latest Flame,' we need a full split from Arglwydd." (PS, thank you www.WelshNames.com.) Nancy remembered that when Sunday in the Park With George was still at Playwrights Horizons, they learned the opening of Act Two on the same day it went into the show! She said they had the lyrics printed and blatantly posted in the wings. Suddenly, before I could hightail it to the wings to post a large-fonted "On the soft, green elliptical grass etc...", we heard Elaine Stritch finish the song before us ("I'm Still Here"), and then David Hyde Pierce began our intro. Ah! So many lyrics! So much glaring from Broadway cognoscenti! After the signature piano chords, we all started filing in, singing. We were still outside the actual theatre as the song began, so I hoped we wouldn't actually make it in until the part where I was completely secure in the lyrics (the final "Sunda-a-a-a-a-ay!"). Unfortunately, we started going down the aisle of the theatre at around "Let us pass…." I passed by cameras as we got onstage and, miraculously, I sang the correct lyrics! It was so exciting. I remember watching the Follies concert on TV and finding out years later that Ted Sperling was in the chorus. I always hoped I'd get to do something like it, and (25 years later) it happened! All the houselights were on so we could see the whole audience, dressed in their finery, and directly behind us, we could hear the Philharmonic. I couldn't tell where Sondheim was sitting, but Laura Benanti posted on her Facebook status that she saw him burst into tears during the song. Hopefully, it wasn't from my bad acting. There's a clip on NY1, and if you look at the bottom of the screen in the first group shot, you can see me and James belting up a storm.

Right before I went to the Sondheim concert, I introduced the Actors Fund Valley of the Dolls concert smartly directed by Carl Andress. I told the audience to not take for granted how privileged we are in Manhattan. Instead of just donating to charity, we get to spend the money we would have given anyway and use it for tickets to see amazing shows featuring major stars. I told everyone that it's nights like this that make people send me emails saying, "I wish I lived in New York." Everyone in the show was so great, and Martha Plimpton was hi-larious as Anne. I was obsessed with her version of well-bred 1960's girl pure vowel pronunciation. She'd pronounce the "oo" in "good" like the "oo" in "boo." So instead of "I hear it's good," she said, "I hear it's goood." And, of course, Charles Busch did his brilliant Susan Hayward accent that made him pronounce "crawlin' back to Broadway" as "croo-lin back to Brooood-way." Speaking of Charles, I just found this amazing clip of him on "The Phil Donahue Show" from 20 years ago. Check out the amazing 80's hair.

Michael Leon-Wooly, Jen Cody, Seth Rudetsky and Jenifer Lewis
photo by Robb Johnston

On Wednesday at my Sirius/XM Live on Broadway show, I interviewed three of the actors who do the voices in "The Princess and the Frog": Jenifer Lewis, Michael Leon Wooley and Jen Cody. Anika Noni Rose plays the Princess and also played Lorrell in "Dreamgirls." Michael-Leon Wooley was also in "Dreamgirls" in a small part as Tiny Joe Dixon (he performs in the Apollo sequence at the beginning of the film, right before the "Dreamettes" take the stage). Because the Disney people were watching "Dreamgirls" to see Anika's performance, they also wound up seeing Michael in the film, and that's what led to him getting cast as the Alligator. So, I guess the ol' adage is correct: If you're going to take a small part, take one that has a scene near a famous person.

Speaking of famous, Jenifer Lewis is probably best known from television ("Fresh Prince" and "Strong Medicine"), but she's a Broadway baby. After Nell Carter left New York to star in "Gimme a Break," Jenifer did a long workshop of Dreamgirls, playing the role of Effie. When the show went to Broadway, Michael Bennett called and told her that Jennifer Holliday would have the role, but Lewis told me she didn't care at the time because she was about to do a big tour of Eubie. She remembers, though, when she first heard how brilliant Jennifer Holliday was in the part, she had come back to New York and had just taken a shower. The single of "And I Am Telling You" had just come out, and Jenifer heard it being played on the radio for the first time. She stood in her towel listening and was mind-boggled at how amazing Jennifer Holliday sounded. Jenifer told me she then took off her towel, stood naked, and did a complete formal bow towards the radio! If Jennifer Holliday had been there, I'm sure she would have been honored…and more than slightly uncomfortable.

This week I saw Looped, which stars Valerie Harper as Tallulah Bankhead. I loved it! First of all, I thought the writing was great. I rarely laugh out loud (LOL, as we say in the internet column business), but I laughed out loud more than once! Also, Valerie Harper looked amazing and was great in the role. I have to go back and bring my mom because she'd love it.

This week I travel to Boston's Speakeasy Theater to participate in a fundraiser for them where I'm being honored, and I'm also going to see Hamlet. No, not the play, the opera. That's the first difference. The second one is, I don't have to down three lattes to get through the three hours. It's been deliciously cut down to 15 minutes. It's called Hamlet: A Pocket Opera, and it's written by composer Aaron Dai ("The Night Before Christmas") and Pulitzer finalist Jon Marans (Old Wicked Songs). The most delicious part is that Hamlet is being sung by Darius de Haas. I found a great clip of him singing "Lost in the Wilderness," which is the song he performed in Children of Eden. You can get tickets by clicking here and watch Darius at sethrudetsky.com/blog. Happy spring! And happy birthday, Mr. S and Dad! *

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 contacted at his website SethRudetsky.com, where he has posted many video deconstructions.

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