ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Signature Tunes

News   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Signature Tunes
I have a lot of Broadway to talk about, so let's get crackin'.
Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole

And speaking of crackin', or more specifically, cracklin', Sirius radio just started an all-Neil Diamond station. Neil Diamond 24 hours a day? Is there enough music to fill that? Maybe my math's a little bit off, but according to my calculations, "Cracklin' Rose," "You Don't Bring Me Flowers" and "Love on the Rocks" does not add up to 24 hours.

All right, here we go. I began the week interviewing the lovely Christine Ebersole who, with Billy Stritch on the piano, just came out with a new CD called "Sunday in New York." I asked her about "Around the World," which is my favorite song from Grey Gardens. Turns out, she saw my deconstruction of it on YouTube and told me that she gave it five stars, which she told me stood for "awesome." Brava! I asked her about the song and why she begins it sounding almost shrill, but suddenly adds vibrato on the lyric "…which is mother's way…" She said that she feels it's the voice Little Edie has inside her. Little Edie wanted to be a singer, and this is the voice Little Edie thought she sounded like. I kept asking Christine what she sang at auditions for all of her classic roles, and she couldn't remember. She could only remember what she wore. She is a big believer of showing up to the audition looking like the character, but not literally in costume. Speaking of which, I have a friend who had a commercial audition where they asked him to look like a pirate. He showed up with an eye patch and swashbuckling outfit and was the only who looked like that. Turns out, they told him to show up looking like a pilot. He did not book it.

On Thursday, James (BF) and I went to see Spring Awakening. Me, for the second time, him, for the first. It was Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele's final week, and I wanted James to see it before they left. Thankfully, it was still as fresh as the first time I saw it, and I was particularly impressed with the sound. The band and singers sounded great, and also I love Lea's E at the end of the reprise of "Mama Who Bore Me," and I love how Jonathan does old-school focus: He's constantly looking to the balcony and box seats. I guess it's his vaudeville training, even though he was born 60 years after vaudeville died. After the show, James and I went backstage to Jonathan's dressing room. I was dying of thirst, and Jonathan offered me some Diet Coke. It was super fizzy, and he asked me if it was gross that he was putting his finger in my glass to stop the fizzing. I said it was fine because I was sure he took a shower after his exhausting, long and sweaty two-act show. There was silence…then he removed his finger.

Jonathan Groff and Lea Michele with Seth Rudetsky
photo by Christie Ford

After we all chatted for a while, Lea and Jonathan gigglingly told us they were planning on doing something not allowed. "Hmm…use vibrato during the show?" I thought. No, it turns out it was something even more scandalous. They decided to spend the night in the theatre! Apparently, they had slept over with John Gallagher Jr. before he left the show, and now that they were leaving, they wanted to do it again. It was their way to say goodbye to "their theatre." Jonathan started scotch-taping up large tapestries underneath the shelves in his dressing room so they could hide behind it when the stage doorman did his final look before he locked up. After he taped, Jonathan asked us if we'd be accomplices. Accomplices? How dare he? To a crime no one really cared about? How could I lower my moral rectitude? But…looking into that Tony-nominated face, I had no choice but to say yes. James quickly agreed, too, and the next thing we knew we were walking down the stairs and loudly saying (so the doorman could hear us), "Boy! I guess everyone left while we were in the bathroom!" The stage doorman was very sweet and asked if Jonathan was still upstairs. I very awkwardly/loudly said (I also come from the vaudevillian school of no mics), "No! He left the building." Awkward pause while I remembered my line. "And Lea. Lea Michele has also left." The doorman looked miffed. James piped up. "Yep. They have left. Both." As we walked out of the stage door, we saw a long line of folks waiting to get autographs, and then the doorman had to tell them that Jonathan and Lea left already. James and I felt so bad for the fans as they dispersed, but knew that Jonathan and Lea always signed autographs and tonight was a special occasion for them. Of course, I think sleeping over in the theatre is probably one of those things that sounds like it's so much fun, but winds up with you getting a neck-ache from sleeping on an Equity cot in a cold, dark theatre and then waking up at 4 AM and realizing you forgot your toothbrush. Suffice it to say, I didn't want to be in the theatre for their "Spring Awakening" without an emergency supply of Listerine strips. On Friday night James and Juli (his daughter) and I went to Judy Gold's apartment for Shabbos dinner. Judy is a hilarious comic whom I met when we both worked on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show," and now I see her every morning at 8:30 in the schoolyard when I drop off Juli because her son, Ben, is in Juli's class. It's fun to see people I know while in the yard, but also devastating because of the hour and how I look. I showed up last week with my hair totally unwashed and crazy because I slept on it/had no time to comb it and Judy greeted me with, "I see you got your hair done." Simple, but effective. Watch Judy's classic bit about her unknowingly hilarious mother at http://youtube.com/watch?v=3kgMpgvGTwA. The next day, James and I caught an Amtrak train and comfortably traveled down to Washington, D.C. Maya Weil, a board member at the Signature Theater, who works at the Kennedy Center, wrote me an email saying that she loved my Sirius radio show and invited me to the Signature Theater Gala in Arlington, VA. The theatre has been doing a Kander and Ebb salute all year (Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Happy Time) and the gala was for the premiere of their new show, The Visit, with book by Terrence McNally and direction by Frank Galati. I said Yes, Liza-style (aka "Say yes." "Liza With a Z?" Anybody?) Maya, who turns out, also went to Oberlin, and was the best hostess ever: She picked us up from the train station, and James and I immediately got into our black tie, meaning he put on a black jacket he borrowed last minute from Norm Lewis because he has nothing near a black-tie outfit, and I put on a tuxedo I bought when I played for Audra McDonald in the Leading Ladies concert at Carnegie Hall. Note to self: If you buy an outfit ten years ago, then go on five all-you-can-eat cruises, be prepared for an imbedded red line across your waist by Act Two of any new Kander and Ebb musical.

The Signature Theater is so cool because it's beautiful, but it's a fairly small space. James and I were literally sitting two feet away from the stage and Chita Rivera and George Hearn. George has to be near 70 but is still so sexy and sounds amazing. His voice is so rich and reminds me of the amazing Richard Kiley. I interviewed him a while ago, and he told me that when he was starring as Zsa Zsa in La Cage aux Folles, there was a chorus of male dancers in drag, with some real women mixed in (like Cady Huffman). Turns out, his nightly drag worked wonders on one of them because she's now his wife! Although, come to think of it, I've never met her. Hmm…he said she was one of the real ladies from the ensemble. It would be hilarious if years later he walks into his bedroom unexpectedly and finds out he's really married to B. D. Wong. M. Butterfly Anybody?

I must also praise Miss Chita Rivera, who is so commanding on stage and made the audience go crazy by simply doing one syncopated contraction (choreographed by Ann Reinking, sitting a few rows back). Chita just exudes theatre, and it was thrilling to see her give a full Broadway performance from only a few feet away.

Before the show I was in the lobby and ran into John Kander, who is one of the nicest men ever. I met him at my graduation from Oberlin. He had graduated years earlier and was getting a special degree. When I moved to New York, he got me some fabulous jobs playing piano for his TV film scores, and he's always been incredibly supportive and sweet to me. I got to interview him for Sirius radio, and my favorite story involved the title song from the movie, "New York, New York." He and Fred Ebb performed all the songs they had written for the film for director Martin Scorsese and the film's star, Robert De Niro. Scorsese and De Niro had a little convo after they heard everything, and Scorsese told the songwriting team that De Niro felt that one of the other songs, "The World Goes Round," was so good it was outshining "New York, New York," which should be the best song in the film. Kander and Ebb were totally irritated they were being given notes by the star, but because they're pros, they didn't argue. John said that they went home and wrote their "(expletive) you" version of the song. Cut to; that's the song that Minnelli and Sinatra then made world famous and John can't even remember the first version. Viva De Niro!

I sat with John at the bar and asked him what he thinks will happen with The Visit. Of course, he said he didn't know yet. I suddenly felt so awed to be with him at that moment. It wasn't opening night, but because it was the big gala, it was very similar, and I thought about all the shows he's been in the lobby of before they opened — Cabaret, Chicago, The Rink, etc. — and I couldn't believe I was sitting there with him. I'm used to doing one-night concerts of shows that have already worked, or limited runs of past hit shows. I can't even comprehend what it's like to be him. He's on a level very few are. He's literally created musical theatre history. After John and I chatted, I went into the theatre, and James asked me if I really take in the fact that my life is such where I can go to events and be surrounded by Broadway celebrities and actually know them well enough to say hello etc., and I thought back to the time I was nine years old, seeing Chicago from the balcony. Here I was in a theatre with the composer and the original star. The thought made my eyes fill with tears. Well, it was that thought and the waist size of my pants versus my actual waist.

In conclusion, anyone in the Washington, D.C. area better hightail it to the Signature and see The Visit asap (p.s. wear stretch pants).

Now, let us discuss nominations. Perhaps some of you remember that I was in The Roundabout's production of The Ritz. Perhaps you also remember that I had four lines

1. We're busy
2. I said we're busy
3. Thanks a lot
4. Careful, Googie plus a tight 16 measures of the song "Magic to Do." Well, imagine my surprise and joy when I discovered that I was nominated for a Broadway.com audience award! And, not for "best walk-on," but for "best featured actor in a play"! First of all, I can't believe I was actually in a Broadway play, let alone nominated for anything. And, apparently, neither can anyone else. The always-hilarious Joe Mantello wrote me: Not since Pia Zadora won a Golden Globe for "Butterfly" has there been such a scandal. Brava! I wish I could see F. Murray Abraham's face when he read the list of nominees.

F. Murray: Let's see here…Raul Esparza, wonderful. David Morse, wow! Stiff competition. Brooks Ashmanskas, yes, yes…well-deserved. And finally…what the-? Seth Rudetsky? Who the hell is he?"
F. Murray's assistant: He was in The Ritz.
F. Murray: I don't remember him.
Assistant: Neither did I. I looked him up on ibdb.com and he played "Fire drill patron" in Act One and "Sheldon" in Act Two.
F. Murray: I still don't remember him.
Assistant: Neither do I.
Both: So….yeah.

OK, everyone, I'm signing off to go obsessively listen to my copy of the In the Heights CD. This week I'm going to see the fabulous Nina Hennessey at the Metropolitan Room and finally see Sunday in the Park With George — and either get a new tux or call Star Jones' doctor.


(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.sethsbroadwaychatterbox.com.)

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Albert Stephenson, Seth Rudetsky, John Kander and James Wesley
Albert Stephenson, Seth Rudetsky, John Kander and James Wesley
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