ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: They're Playing My Song

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: They're Playing My Song
A week in the life of actor, writer, music director and Chatterbox host Seth Rudetsky.

Sutton Foster and Seth Rudetsky
Sutton Foster and Seth Rudetsky

It's September! What the-? When the-? The last few weeks of August were so hectic for me I didn't fully appreciate the end of summer. Now everyone is back-to-school and fall fashion-y, and I'm finally committing to working on my beach body.

Regardless, the end of August also meant They're Playing Our Song. I can't believe it happened. We had such limited rehearsal time culminating in me being in Massachusetts and then Canada (!) up to one day before the performance, yet the performance was more smooth than other concerts I've worked on for [AUDIO-LEFT]months. One of the biggest shout-outs goes to Patrick Weaver. He's done production coordinating for many of my previous concerts, but the Actors Fund asked him to do sound for this one. When I heard that, there was a lot of muttering from me to no one in particular that I never knew Patrick was a sound designer and then smatterings of me throwing up my hands and saying, "Guess we'll see how it goes." Cut to: It was the best sound I've ever experienced at a one-night concert. I still remember after my first concert for The Actors Fund (Dreamgirls), Patti LuPone spotted me and told me how much she loved the concert but "the so-o-o-o-ound was so inconsistent." Then we chatted some more, and as I walked away she grabbed me again to implore, "Next time, make sure the sou-ou-ou-ou-ound is better!" Then I called her to do a concert of Evita, and her only caveat was "Please! Make sure the so-ou-ou-ou-ound is not like the Dreamgirls concert." (PS, we were denied the rights to Evita. Still devastated.) Anyhoo, it's sort of a given that at a one-night event, there'll be missing lines, or a too loud orchestra or feedback or whatever. Instead, everything was perfect. Patrick Weaver is a brava and my muttering was a complete waste of time except for serving as a vaguely hostile pre-show warm-up.

The day of the event began with the sitzprobe, which is a German word that translates as sit and rehearse. AKA, it's a sing-through with the orchestra. There's no staging at all. It's usually done at a rehearsal studio and, after the orchestra practices the whole score, it's the first time the cast sings with the orchestra. Since we had to condense all the rehearsal time for this concert, the first time the orchestra was reading the music was all also the sing-through for me and Sutton. First of all, Charlie Gordon has contracted (hired the musicians) for all of my orchestras at every Actors Fund concert and every Gypsy of the Year and Easter Bonnet I've ever done. As usual, he got me phenomenal players who are also super-nice people. The sitzprobe is always a magical time because the cast suddenly hears the music fully orchestrated instead of just played with a piano. As soon as the overture began, Denis Jones (the director) told me he got tears in his eyes and then I noticed that the crying spread throughout the cast and creative team. When we brought the orchestra onstage for the afternoon run-through, the cast kept commenting how amazing it was to hear a full orchestra play. I was thrilled and then irritated. Why? Because everyone who was blown away by the orchestra works on Broadway. Why are we surprised by the sound of a full orchestra? Why are almost all the shows we're involved in using half an orchestra? I could understand the surprise at hearing an orchestral sound if the cast consisted of people who have never done a Broadway show, but we're all major Broadway veterans. Why does it have to be shocking to us to hear the beauty of a full string section? Please! Broadway producers! Do more shows like South Pacific! (PS not the 'risk your life even though you have children because you're upset your girlfriend broke up with you' part, the '30-piece orchestra' part.) The hardest part of the run-through was changing costumes. I had to get out of a horrific polyester 1970's suit jacket and pants and into a horrific polyester 1970's leisure suit in a short amount of time. When we did the run-through, I didn't make the change in time, so Michael Growler (who did all of the time-period accurate and therefore non-manmade material outfits) rigged all of my costumes. Rigging means making the costumes easy to get off and on. It was so fun! I've never had quick-change clothes. So, suddenly my button-down shirt still looked button-down, but instead it was held together with Velcro. Tricky! And, my brown lace-up shoes still laced up, but the laces were elastic so I could slip them off like loafers. Delicious!

Seth with Kevin Chamberlin

We finished our dress rehearsal at 6 PM, and the show was set for 7:30. I ate a Fudge Graham Zone bar and was good to go. Kevin Chamberlin bought the most expensive ticket for the show and was then asked by the Actors Fund to introduce the show. That's right, he spent money and then promptly was asked to work. Regardless, his speech was perfect. I stood in the wings watching as he spoke about loving the original cast recording when he was a kid. Everyone thought he was going to trot out the fact that it was so long ago that he listened to it on vinyl, but he trumped them by informing us he listened to it on eight track. Juli was in the audience, and I'm sure her brain took the word in, tried to process it and rejected it as un-definable. Kevin talked about seeing it on Broadway with Diana Canova and Ted Waas, and he mentioned some of the other cast replacements like Stockard Channing and Victor Garber. But then he reminded us that the original Vernon and Sonia were Robert Klein and Lucie Arnaz and he pointed to the audience, and they both stood up! Because I couldn't see the audience clearly from onstage, I was so excited to see where they were sitting so I could play towards them if I wanted. And during the curtain call, I saw Lucie give me a big, happy wave. And, of course, Robert Klein gave me a line reading: (after my car breaks down) "I don't know much about cars, but I think it's the distributor. The distributor! The crook who sold me the car!" It's always fun to get tips on how to land a laugh after a performance that you're only doing once.

Right before I went on for the actual show, I was standing stage right and I heard panicked running feet. It was Sutton who ran in back of the curtain from the other side of the stage so we could connect right before we started. So sweet! We both decided that we weren't going to panic if we forgot a line or blocking, and instead we were going to try to make each other laugh. We didn't necessarily break character, but we were highly amused by own antics throughout the show. The only time we completely stopped acting and became ourselves was right at the very end. The show finishes with us smooching on her couch as the orchestra plays. We smooched for a while and then Sutton pulled back so we could do an enormous "high 10" (a "high 5" with both hands). There are some great photos of that moment online.

Seth and Sutton Foster in They're Playing Our Song
photo by Krissie Fullerton

I was surprisingly not nervous throughout the whole show, and the only part where I had trouble was during my first song. It wasn't because of a lyric mishap or vocal trauma, it was because the song "Fallin'" begins with me singing and playing piano and halfway through, the orchestra comes in. It was so beautiful and such an exciting/thrilling thing to be doing that my eyes teared-up, throat closed up and I couldn't get my full voice to sing. Luckily, it was during a dramatic part, so it looked like I was making an amazing emotional acting choice.

The three male and three female ensemble singer/dancers (called "the Egos" in the show) were so fantastic. In the original, they sang up a storm and did some sassy movement. In this version, Denis Jones made those b*****s dance. Of course, during rehearsal Tyler Maynard was always making us all laugh up a storm. He and the other two guys in our show (Matt Loehr and Jesse Nager) were all in Mary Poppins. Jesse told us that the ensemble was supposed to smack bags of dark makeup on their faces to make them look soot-covered. Tyler then told us that on certain nights they would put on the dark make-up, but they wouldn't just smack it on arbitrarily. They'd instead use it to outline their cheeks and jawbones. Hmm….America's Next Top Chimney Sweep? He said that when you were in that ensemble, you sometimes felt invisible. After his mom saw the show, she told him that she loved it, but she wished he was in the bank scene that had the big group of bankers. He looked at her and whined, "I was!!!"

Back to me! A few weeks ago, Michael Musto called and asked to do an interview with me. I was super-busy but managed to talk to him between the end of my Playing Our Song rehearsal and my Chatterbox. I thought he'd print a few fun quotes and was thrilled because I read his column every week and think it's hilarious. Turns out, he gave me half his column! So exciting! http://www.villagevoice.com/2010-09-01/columns/seth-rudetsky/. I asked him to come on my Chatterbox because I've been reading his column for years but know nothing about him. Turns out he went to Columbia and started writing about theatre while he was there in the mid-70's. One of his first interviews he had was with Carole Shelley when he was still a teenager. He pretty much just asked her the questions he had written down in advance and was silent/starstruck the rest of the time. At the end she said, "I hope you're not planning on doing this for your career. You acted like all you wanted to do was go home and listen to my answers that you taped." He was mortified, but he also said it taught him a lesson: Now, whenever he's with somebody, he makes sure to listen and react. Then he added, "Except with you right now. I've tuned out everything you've said." Brava! This weekend I fly to Provincetown to go play for the fabulous Betty Buckley. Go to www.BettyBuckley.com for details and Happy (Jewish) New Year!


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.

Seth and Michael Musto
Seth and Michael Musto Photo by Robb Johnston
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