ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hitting New Heights

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Hitting New Heights
A week in the life of actor, musician and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.
Lin-Manuel Miranda
Lin-Manuel Miranda Photo by Josh Lehrer

Ooh, mid-October!

It's finally cold out and that means that the heat is not only on in Saigon, but also in my apartment. It also means that since I can't control the radiators, it's not only 110 in the shade, but also in my bedroom. And just to keep the musical references going, if I received a "little lamb" for my birthday and sang a song to it, it would be slow roasted by the bridge. Unless it was a puppet, but that's something I still completely don't understand.

Monday is usually benefit night in New York City, and I love it! Last Monday I did Kickin' It, which was put together by Lorin Latarro, who has the nerve to have done ten Broadway shows in the last ten years. She literally gets a new Broadway show every time I get my teeth cleaned. Not cool. Anyhoo, this was to help out Natasha "Nabba" Steinhagen, a Broadway dresser who's done tons of shows and is now struggling with ovarian cancer. The show was fantastic. Jim Newman (from Curtains) was the host and told people that he never likes people who host shows just to push their own agendas. He then complained it was hot, took off his jacket and revealed his boldly lettered T-shirt that read "McCain is 'Insain.'" Subtle, but blunt. Lorin directed the whole show and choreographed many of the numbers, and I love that her choreography had such humor. JoAnn Hunter and Noah Racey danced "Knock Me a Kiss," and Lorin's choreography showed them flirting by essentially beating the $%^# out of each other. There's nothing funnier than a romantic dance interrupted by a kick in the family jewels. Maybe the title of the whole night should have been "Kickin' it…in Noah Racey's crotch." The fabulous Josh Henry performed as well, and I expressed my sympathy to him. He was in the ensemble of In the Heights and understudied Benny. He was the first person to give his notice in the show, and he played his final performance in August. The cast was so sad to see him go but also very supportive because he was leaving to play a lead in a Broadway show. Unfortunately, it was Godspell, which wound up canceling its Broadway run. Of course, Josh couldn't go back to In the Heights because his replacement already took over, so he's been out of a gig. Ouch. He had a great attitude about it along the lines of "It's all good." Then, just a few days after I chatted with him, I found out that he's coming back to In the Heights because they need a new swing. Turns out, it is all good! On a related note, what's with the new "don't worry," now entitled "no worries"? What happened to "don't worry" or "no problem"? When did they become un-cool? Was it at the same time I was forced to replace "I'm devastated" with "It's all good"?

Speaking of In the Heights, Andrea Burns, who plays Daniela, scheduled her act for Monday night, Oct. 11 at 7 PM at The Laurie Beechman Theatre. Around a week before, her In the Heights stage manager reminded her about the Monday show. Andrea was like, "I know about the Monday show, since it's my act!" He was like, "I meant In the Heights. Don't forget, we added a show for Columbus Day at 8 PM." That's right. Her act was the same night as her Broadway show. So, she sent out an emergency email changing her start time to 11 PM, and we all hauled it out to see her. Her show is amazing. She sounds fantastic, and she's so hilarious. My favorite old-chestnut joke she does is about her five-year-old son (Andrea is half-Venezuelan and half Jewish). "His name is Hudson Rafael Flynn. Hudson because New York is where he was born, Rafael for his Venezuelan mother's side, and Flynn for his Irish father. And for those of you concerned that he's forgotten his Jewish roots, don't worry. The kid wrote half my act." It's no surprise that her grandfather was a headliner in the Borscht Belt.

On Wednesday I did my "Sirius Live On Broadway" show where I interviewed the hilarious Jackie Hoffman. She has a CD coming out called "Jackie Hoffman Live," and it's going to be hilarious. She sang one of the songs from the CD called "Please…won't you get away with your children?" My favorite lyric: "Your double strollers on the street leaves no room for my feet. And you're leaving me no room to let me be what I wanna be. You think it makes me feel alone and makes me want one of my own… but all it's making me want… is a hysterectomy!" Jackie talked about how she would sass the onstage audience at Xanadu with her signature improvs and that they got longer and longer. Finally, on the last night, she did the whole ending scene from West Side Story ("How many bullets are left in this gun, Chino?") Her co-star Mary Testa knew she was in for a long one and simply left the stage so Jackie could finish. This Wednesday at noon at the Times Square Information Center, I have the stars from Tale of Two Cities and Christy Carlson Romano (Kim Possible, who's starring in Avenue Q). At the Chatterbox, I had Lin-Manuel Miranda, Tony-winning composer/lyricist and star of In the Heights. He went to Hunter (public school for smart NY kids) and, turns out, didn't grow up "in the heights" but rather in Inwood. I asked him why he didn't write In the 'Wood and he said because Sondheim wrote it better. Quick answer! At Hunter, sixth grade pretty much just focuses on doing the big end-of-the-year musical. When he was in sixth grade, instead of one big show, they did six 20-minute musicals! He was a munchkin, an Oklahoma farmer, a son from Anatevka, Conrad Birdie, Bernardo and Capt. Hook. I asked him to describe how these mini-shows were done, and he said it was pretty much:

RIFF: Hey, Shark! Get out of here!
JETS: (sing) "When you're a Jet, you stay a Jet!"
MARIA: My hands are cold.

One of the first shows he saw was Les Miz, and he and his mother would listen to the cast album all the time, specifically "Bring Him Home," which is similar to my mother except for one thing: My mother has the Jewish gene that turns everything negative. Once, I was putting on the Les Miz CD, and she (seriously) said, "Play my favorite song… He's Not Coming Home." It was a wonderful childhood.

The first show that Lin-Manuel really identified with was Phantom of the Opera. He said, "It knocked me out. It was about an ugly songwriter who can't get girls. That was me!" My favorite Phantom story happened many years ago. At the end of the show, the Phantom sits down in a chair and covers himself with a sheet. The young ballet dancer tiptoes towards the chair and pulls off the sheet…and he's gone! All that remains is his mask. However, during one unfortunate matinee, the device that helps the Phantom escape from the chair didn't work. Apparently as the ballet girl tiptoed over, The Phantom started frantically whispering from underneath the sheet, "I'm still here!" Perhaps she thought he was practicing for a Follies audition because she ignored him, pulled off the sheet and revealed the Phantom, sitting impassively. Awkward. And…curtain. I'm sure the audience was like, "What the-? Why didn't he just kill her?"

I asked Lin-Manuel who was playing the Phantom when he saw it, and he didn't know! I was outraged that he didn't keep his Playbill and pour over it every night like I did when I was a kid. However, he countered me by saying that he did keep the program from when he saw Lion King, and he recently checked it. Turns out the Simba he saw was…Chris Jackson (!), who's now starring in In the Heights! PS, Chris was first cast to play Benny because he's so light-skinned he can look Latin. At that point, the character was a Latin heartbreaker, and the plot was about whether he was good enough for Nina, but producer Jeffrey Seller told Lin one day that Chris is so well-spoken and charming he's actually more interesting than the character he's playing. So, instead of Benny being a lothario, Lin changed the character to someone who's an outsider, made him black and Benny essentially became Chris.

When Lin-Manuel was a teenager, he got a class assignment to teach a book to his fellow students. That assignment turned into the first musical he wrote. It was not a book by Gabriel Garcia Marquez or Laura Esquivel. It was Chaim Potok's "The Chosen." He had the class perform it, and by "perform" I mean that he recorded himself singing all the songs and had the class lip-synch to his voice. Hmm...Narcissist or visionary Barbra Streisand? You decide. Some sample lyrics:

(This is after a character gets hit in the eye with a baseball)
That dirty Hasidim! I don't really need 'em! I know I could beat 'em...if my eye weren't in pain. Who's ever rhymed Hasidim with a triple rhyme? Actually, who's ever rhymed Hasidim? The first draft of Yentl?

While he was at Wesleyan, he started writing In the Heights. It wasn't a school project — it was just because he felt the need to write it. The first phrase he came up with was "…en Washington Heights," and that's pretty much the only thing musically from the original production that remains in the show. The original show was about a love triangle between Benny, Nina and Nina's brother Lincoln. Lincoln was closeted and in love with Benny. That character lasted a long time until Kevin McCollum and Jeffrey Seller came on as producers. Not because they told Lin to ixnay the character but because they invited him to see Avenue Q . Lin said that he sat in the audience and watched this puppet onstage (Rod) who was closeted and in love with his best friend…and he realized it was much more interesting than the storyline in his show! And the character of Lincoln was ixnayed.

LIN-MANUEL: Hi, I saw Avenue Q last night.
ACTOR: Wow! Did you like it?
LIN-MANUEL: Yeah, it's great. You should see it today.
ACTOR: But they only have a matinee today and we have rehearsal.
LIN-MANUEL: (Samantha Stevens-style) Well… Lin met Tommy Kail in Wesleyan, and he became the director of the show. Lin said that Tommy was integral in the creation of the show because of his dramaturgy. For instance, the opening of Act Two happens after Nina and Benny spend their first night together. Lin said that every song he wrote for them sounded like an eighties Pat Benatar power ballad. One day Tommy suggested that Lin make the song a Spanish lesson, and suddenly "Sunrise" poured out.

I asked about the song "Breathe," which I love. He said that Andrew Lippa heard the score and told him he noticed that all of the songs were in 4/4 time. Lin was very defensive and thought, "I love how all the songs are in 4/4." An hour later he was like, "Wah! All of the songs are in 4/4," and that's when he decided to write "Breathe" in 3/4. I'm sure after Sondheim saw it, he was like, "Why aren't any of the songs in 7/16?" but hopefully Lin will continue to ignore him. Speaking of which, when Lin-Manuel was nominated for the Tony, he wrote a sassy rap but only practiced it in the shower. He got so thrown during his speech when he mentioned Chris Jackson and got applause that he totally forgot the rest of the speech. He wound up "free-styling" as we say in the hip-hop business, and he came up with the most memorable part of his speech. He suddenly said. . .

Mr. Sondheim, look! I made a hat! Where there never was a hat! It's a Latin hat at that!

Speaking of Sondheim, Lin is in charge of translating the West Side Story songs into Spanish for the upcoming revival! Not all of them, FYI. So far, just the Sharks part in the "Tonight" quintet, "I Feel Pretty" and "A Boy Like That." He literally got to go over to "Steve's" house to talk about how to do the lyrics. There are Spanish translations out there, but some parts are good and some are clanky, so they want Lin to do a new version. For instance, Sondheim said that some versions of "I Feel Pretty" translate as "I Am Pretty," which is not correct — especially if it features the Maria I saw do it in community theatre.

Lin-Manuel also just put up the final episode of "Legally Brown: The Search for the Next Piragua Guy," and it has a great twist ending. I'm obsessed with how mean all of my improvs were as the "vocal coach." During my on-camera interview I say with a big smile, "Norm Lewis! Oh my God! When he sang…you know, 15 years ago….he was fantastic" It's all on my website, www.SethRudetsky.com.

Finally, I saw the Barbara Cook/Audra McDonald benefit on Sunday night. It was for an organization that gets people out to vote, but just in case there was any doubt as to whom the two ladies were supporting, there was an Obama action figure doll on the piano, and Audra changed the lyrics in "Blue Skies" to "Blue States"! It was totally sold out, and they sang up a storm. At one point Barbara said about Audra, "It's not fair that she can sing like that…and look like that!" Then later on, Audra said, "Barbara, I'm gonna say in front of everyone what I was gonna tell you backstage. When you dance during your songs…you're so sexy." Finally, I thought, a Broadway benefit with some lesbian subtext! And a May/December romance angle. Near the end, Audra announced that she wanted to sing a song about America that she's sung before and feels was prophetic when it was written by Lynn Ahrens and Stephen Flaherty. She then brought out Brian Stokes Mitchell, who joined her for a thrilling rendition of "Wheels of a Dream" from Ragtime. The audience went crazy, prompting my mother to ask me, "Why don't they bring back Ragtime?" I glared and told her to be quiet. But now I must ask, "Why don't they bring back Ragtime?" It's such a moving show with a fantastic score.

OK, everyone. This coming Friday night I'm doing a benefit for The Children of Armenia Fund (which helps bring education to Armenian children) with Andrea Martin and Bill Irwin and Cirque Du Soleil! Visit www.coafkids.org for tickets. And on Saturday, I'll be performing my show, Deconstructing: The Good, The Bad and the Headache-y at the Singer Symposium. Go to www.SingersSymposium.com for details. And, on Thursday at the Chatterbox, I'm going to have the great Karen Morrow!!!!! I've been trying to get her on my show for years but she's always in L.A. Thankfully, she's in town because she just performed in Scott Siegel's Broadway Originals at Town Hall, and she'll be at my show Thursday at 6 PM. Whenever I have a party at my apartment, I pull out her Ed Sullivan performance of "I Had a Ball" and people become obsessed. It's one of the best-sung Broadway performances ever. Go to my http://www.bluegobo.com/video.php?var=10239 to watch her old-school, stand centerstage, specific arm movements, unbelievable tone/belt/vibrato performance!!!!

See you this week hopefully at one of the belt-fests!


(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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