Onstage & Backstage: Liza Minnelli Loves Improvising and Why Did Audra McDonald Ask About a Tickle Box? | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky Onstage & Backstage: Liza Minnelli Loves Improvising and Why Did Audra McDonald Ask About a Tickle Box? A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Mitchell Jarvis
Mitchell Jarvis Photo by Christopher Mueller

As I write this, I am surrounded by hundreds of kids. No, I am not in the middle of one of Jackie Hoffman's nightmares. I'm at the New York State Theater Education Association conference for high school theatre kids. This would have been my absolute dream come true when I was in high school. The whole weekend is workshops: stage combat, sketch comedy, horror make-up, improvisation, 16-bar audition cuts etc. Plus, every day there's time for winter activities; snow boarding, skiing, sledding and other things my mother would not (and frankly will not) allow me to do. I was asked to do the keynote address, and it went great! My theme was making sure they didn't listen to anyone who tried to limit them and to not take "no" for an answer.

I told them anecdotes from my life where people told me I wouldn't be able to do something and then I did it, and I used celebrity examples such as the one featuring Victoria Clark. When she heard originally about the role of the mother in The Light In The Piazza, she called Adam Guettel and asked for an audition. He left her a message with the words most actors want to hear: You're too young for the part. Flattered as she was, she knew she definitely could do that role! Instead of accepting that the composer himself thought she was wrong for the role because she wasn't old enough, she called him back and told him, "That's why God made wigs." As we all know, she wound up getting an audition, getting the role and winning the Tony Award! The whole conference this weekend really was amazing, and brava to the teachers who led all the workshops and always do it as volunteers! If you're a high school student in New York or teacher, sign up for next year! Info here.

This week I interviewed Mitch Jarvis, who's starring in the final Rock Of Ages company on Broadway. Mitch originally played character who constantly interacts with the audience and, during the Tony Awards broadcast, there was a point where he was supposed to play with an audience member. First Angela Lansbury was slated to do it, but then it got changed to Liza Minnelli. They rehearsed it in the afternoon and he was backstage with her before the Tony Awards began. She asked him to go over the bit with her one more time, and this was the conversation:
LIZA: Ok…what's my cue?
MITCH: I say, "Where was I?" Then you say, "Love."
Suddenly, Liza lit up.
LIZA: Wait a minute! What about if you say, "Where was I?" and then I say, "Love." Silence
Mitch said he waited to see if she was joking. He doesn't think she was. Regardless, during the actual show, Liza wound up being hilarious and spontaneous with her reactions. Watch!

During Rock of Ages he comes on and off throughout the show and narrates. There's alcohol sold every night and, naturally, he's been heckled. One night there was a guy that was relentless. Every time Mitch would come on, the guy would yell out, "You again!?!?" At one point, Mitch pops out of a little window to say a line. As soon as he did, the guy yelled "Get back in your hole!" Mitch finally had to say directly, "Stop talking to me," which is a line I'm very familiar with (see: every guy I had a crush on in my 20's). Mitch is doing his own show Jan. 22 and Feb. 4 at 54 Below of all Jacques Brel music. I know and love Brel music very much. Why do I know it so well? Because when I was at Usdan summer camp, my theatre group did Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris. Yes, it's a four-person show, and we were 30 kids. Yes, everyone is supposed to be middle-aged, and we were in middle school. Yes the lyrics are all depressing. Yes, my downer of a solo was, "The old folks never die... they just put down their heads and go to sleep one day. They hold each others hands like children in the dark but one will get lost anyway." But I still loved it! Last week I went to Florida for two days to start the second season of my Broadway @ series at the Parker Playhouse in Ft. Lauderdale (next up is Cheyenne Jackson!). Our producer, Mark Cortale, bought Audra McDonald and me first class seats (!) and we're sure we were the scourge of the cabin. It was a night flight, and we were the only ones with the lights on above our seats (annoying) and we spent the three-hour flight "catching up," meaning chitter-chattering non-stop while everyone tried to sleep. Yay? She told me about a movie premiere she was invited to, and I loved the story! She was not really in the mood to go because these big events always involve dressing up for the red carpet and it winds up being expensive and exhausting. Still, she was invited by a friend, so she felt she had to go.

Audra prefaced this story by telling me it was one of our signature "instant karma" stories; as soon as one of us gets haughty, we immediately get busted by the fates. So, Audra hired a stylist for a lot of money to get her up to snuff. She got to the event looking glam in full hair/make-up/dress and grudgingly walked to the red carpet. There were tons of photographers there and she got prepared for the deluge of flashbulbs. When she got to the edge of the red carpet, she assumed the security guard didn't recognize her because he pointed her to the entrance for the regular audience members. She kindly and perhaps condescendingly gave her name ("I'm Audra McDonald"), he checked his list... and again pointed her to the entrance for the regular audience members. That's right. She spent a ton of money so she'd look good for all of the many, many photos that would be taken of her... and literally not one photo was taken. Not since the time I was buying a hat on the corner of 73rd and Columbus and the owner of the store asked if I was in "the business." I demurely nodded because she obviously recognized me from my online videos, my Broadway work or my TV appearances. She then asked me which haberdasher I went to. Yes, "the business" she referred to was the hat business. I shook my head and fled.

Audra McDonald
Audra McDonald Photo by Autumn de Wilde

When Audra and I sound checked I told her I wanted her to sing from the '70's because we are both obsessed with that music. For fun we ran "Nothing" from A Chorus Line and "Through The Eyes of Love" (theme to "Ice Castles") but the song we chose was one she had done as a child. Turns out, when she was in elementary school, she played the witch in their production of Hansel and Gretel. It was a play with no music, but after she died as the witch, she (for some reason) rose up again and suddenly and gently sang, "Some say love/it is a river/that drowns the tender reed." Yes, the dead witch ended the show with "The Rose." And Audra sang it again at the Parker Playhouse!

The story she told I was most obsessed with involves our similar childhood. We're both ADD and were very hyper as children. My parents used to offer me a dollar for every minute I didn't talk (I never actually made it that long) and Audra was apparently just as annoying. When she was around eight, she was giggling non-stop and finally her grandmother told her that her "tickle box" was going to turn over. Her grandmother furthered explained that everybody has a so-called tickle box and when you laugh too much, it turns over and you can never laugh again. That silenced Audra, and she retained that information for many years. As a matter of fact, when she was a junior in high school, her biology class was looking at an anatomy chart that was posted. Audra confidently raised her hand and asked her teacher to please point out the tickle box. Her teacher was of course, confused, so Audra explained (remember: as a 16-year-old, in front of her entire class) that she knows everyone has a tickle box which can possibly turn over to silence laughter forever and she wanted to know exactly where it was located in the body. Oddly, she told us that she won biology student of the year.

When the concert was over, I played "The Rose" as Audra's exit music which she loved. We were laughing about inappropriate exit music and she told me later on that Jane Summerhays asked Wally Harper to play at her third wedding. She asked him to play something appropriate as she left the ceremony. Jane said she was walking out and recognized the song but couldn't place it. She then started laughing because the theme he gave her was "The Lady Is A Tramp." Brava!

Speaking of Florida gigs, I'm flying back there again this weekend to do my deconstructing show at the Straz in Tampa! Come see Saturday night or Sunday matinee! If you've never seen me deconstruct, here's one of my faves. Peace out!

(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)

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