ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Inspirational Charles Busch (By Way of Judy Garland)

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: The Inspirational Charles Busch (By Way of Judy Garland)
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Charles Busch
Charles Busch Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN


I'm on a JetBlue flight to West Palm Beach to start my week at Club Med. This is the second time rfamily vacations has been at a Club Med and I'm hoping that this one is as much fun as last year's — but with less weight gain. I was looking at my recent columns and noticed that there has been a constant supply of adult ADD (left my key in NYC, showed up for a 7:38 AM flight at 7:38), and this column will be no exception. Last Monday, when I was in Provincetown, I scheduled my cab to pick me up at 7:15 AM to catch an 8:15 flight to Boston and then [AUDIO-LEFT]to New York. In keeping with the themes of my recent columns, I first woke up at 6:15 AM and decided to get more sleep. The next time I woke up was 8:15. That's right, I woke up at the exact time my plane was about to depart. Unfortunately, I wasn't sleeping at the Provincetown airport, so I couldn't just roll out of bed and onto the plane. I called the Cape Air counter at the Provincetown Airport, which has a very mom-and-pop feel. As a matter of fact, when I told the lady on the phone that I was scheduled for the 8:15 flight and had overslept, I didn't receive a corporate, impersonal response. Instead she asked, "Is this Seth?" Either she had recently seen my name on the passenger list, or she'd been reading my Playbill columns. Regardless, I got on the next Cape Air flight and was able to easily change my JetBlue one as well! Why take Ritalin when it only costs $45 to change a flight?

Besides doing my own show in Provincetown, I've been heading a Broadway Series at the Art House, and last week I got to do a show with Charles Busch. He had so many amazing stories about his career. He told us that in the mid-'90s he was hired to write a film for Disney. They give you a time period and/or idea and you write a treatment. First, they asked him to write something about witches. He wrote a treatment about a young witch going to witch school (this was before "Harry Potter"). After they read it, they told him to "be Charles Busch." He responded, "I am Charles Busch. If this were a play, I'd be playing the young witch." They still rejected it. Next, they asked him to write something that took place in ancient Egyptian times. He wrote about a young princess like Cleopatra, who had a Scarab (beetle) that spoke to her. The Disney people called him and said it was cute but they wanted him to lose the beetle. Charles told them that the beetle was adorable and a big part of the story. They told him, in no uncertain terms, "beetles don't talk." He immediately said, "Hold, please. I'm getting a call. There's a teapot on my other line." He then told us that he essentially lost the job because of his need to make a sassy quip. He later found out that in the world of Disney, a beetle can talk to a dragonfly, or a teapot can talk to a plate, but you can't mix worlds. Who knew? Besides Angela Lansbury?

He told us that he's had varying levels of success when he shows up for an event in drag. Once, he was doing the celebrity booth at the BC/EFA Flea Market. That's a large area where celebrities are seated behind a large table and people walk by to get their autographs. Well, he was dressed as a man and everybody ignored him. Finally, a woman looked over and asked, "So…did you write something?" The next year, he showed up in full drag with his signature red wig. This time he overheard a woman say to her friend, "Look over there. It's Faith Prince."

He told us a hilarious story about a time he was working on a show and one of the actors stormed off and quit right before the show opened. No one on the creative staff knew what to do, so Charles took it upon himself to try to convince the actor to come back. Charles found the actor 30 minutes later, sitting on the stoop to his building. Charles told us that he hauled out every platitude he could think of — "the show must go on," "you must be professional no matter what," etc. — and suddenly Charles remembered that the actor had recently come out as bisexual. That meant, Charles thought, that the actor had probably not seen the entire Judy Garland oeuvre. In other words, while he may have seen "The Wizard of Oz" and "A Star Is Born," there was no way he had yet seen Judy Garland's final film, "I Could Go on Singing." Charles claims that only if he was "full-tilt gay" would he have seen it. So, Charles thought back to a dramatic moment in the film, and hauled out a pivotal line: He looked at the actor and earnestly told him, "I don't care who you disappoint…but I don't want you to disappoint yourself." Charles admitted to us that he never quite understood what that line meant, but it did the trick in the film. Well, life imitates art, because suddenly the actor looked like a light had been turned on inside his head as he mulled it over and said, "You're right. I can't disappoint myself!" Rehearsals immediately resumed and the only lasting problem is Charles' fear that the actor will one day see "I Could Go On Singing" and realize that he played a modern-day Judy Garland.

Seth with Elinor Lipman and Kathie Lee Gifford
photo by David Irlanda/SiriusXM

My new talk show on Sirius/XM is called "Seth Speaks," and when I posted the title on Facebook, Jen Cody responded with the question, "Has there ever been a moment where Seth hasn't spoken?" Rude. And honest. This week on the show, I had Kathie Lee Gifford. She recounted her time in Los Angeles when she was called in to audition for a new TV show. Unfortunately for her, she was sick that day. And even more stressful, the audition was to play a new angel on "Charlie's Angels." Still, she got herself dolled up and all "f'pitz'd," as my mother would say, and showed up for the audition. However, before she even walked in to do the scene, she was told by the receptionist, "This audition isn't for you. We're looking for beautiful women." Ouch! Kathie Lee left, but on her way out turned back and told her, "Well, if you ever need a voice for a cartoon, give me a call." The old "over the shoulder sassy comment" doesn't always pay off, but it gave her the confidence to know she wouldn't be broken by the business. My fave Kathie Lee story is about her time playing Carol Burnett's part for the matinees of Putting It Together on Broadway. One of her songs was "Could I Leave You?," but because she's religious, she didn't want to say "wait a Goddamned minute!" So, Sondheim told her to change it to "Wait a bloody minute!" Kathie Lee tried it, but felt it didn't ring true to the character and emotion of the moment. Especially because she's not British. She suggested to Sondheim that she might make the same sort of impact if she instead said, "Wait a f***ing minute!" Sondheim loved it and it went into the show. And Kathie Lee told me that one of her favorite moments of the experience was seeing the faces of the women who were coming to the show — only knowing her as sweet, perky Kathie Lee — and then letting the F word fly. Delicious. This week, Playbill "Obsessed!" video is with adorable Kerry Butler from Catch Me If You Can. She and I performed in a kids nightclub when we were young and, in the video, we re-create the opening number from the early '80s…which I just realized is 30 years ago! It's essentially our version of Follies. And, unlike the current revival, it's apparent we're not transferring to Broadway. Enjoy…and peace out!

(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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