ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: When Christine Ebersole Met Richard Burton

Seth Rudetsky   ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: When Christine Ebersole Met Richard Burton
A week in the life of actor, radio host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.

Christine Ebersole
Christine Ebersole


Hello from Provincetown. I'm back after jet-setting through Europe. This weekend Christine Ebersole joined my series at the Art House and she was fantastic. We tried to format the show with a smattering of everything from her career, so we started with her first big musical role, Ado Annie. She did the late '70s revival of Oklahoma! with Christine Andreas, Marty Vidnovic, Harry Groener and Laurence Guittard. When she was at the very end of her run, she was asked to audition to play Guinevere opposite Richard Burton because the production had fired the leading lady. Old school-style, she auditioned at a [AUDIO-LEFT]Broadway theatre and while she was reading the scene with the reader, she heard a mellifluous voice from the back of the house say, "I'd like to read it with her." Cut to: Richard Burton came onstage wearing a powder-blue cashmere sweater. Christine told us that she tried to appear like a confident actress and continued reading the scene calmly, but inside she was screaming, "AH!!!!! It's Richard Burton!" She got the gig, and then found out she only had five days to learn the part! The show tech'd on Monday-Wednesday, so she knew she'd only get one run-through with Richard Burton on Thursday night before opening (and an audience of 3,500 people). Right before the final run-through, Richard Burton came to her dressing room and said, "Oh, Christine. I'm sure you won't mind: I'm going to skip the run-through. The lights are killing my eyes."

That's right. She didn't get to play the role with him until opening night. And she didn't get to wear her costumes until opening because they weren't made yet. During the afternoon run, right before opening, the orchestra played her intro to "The Simple Joys of Maidenhood," and when it came time for her to sing…silence. She couldn't remember anything. They sent her to a "dark room" where they told her to sit and think of nothing. Christine said that her brain had had it and couldn't deal with any more information coming into it. Finally, opening night arrived. Before each scene, they would quickly dress her in the wings and, because she had no sense of the continuity of the show, they told her what scene she was about to do. At first, everything went smoothly because she forced herself to stay in the moment. But there was one section where she was onstage and didn't have lines for a while. She started thinking about what she was doing and suddenly a voice in her head laughed maniacally and whispered in her ear, "You have no idea what your next line is!" Panic. She then had another voice in her head say, "Just be here now," and the two battled it out. Finally, the moment came for her to speak, and even though she didn't know what the line was going to be, it magically came out of her mouth. I'm sweating writing about it. My question is: Do people in other fields go through that kind of terror? Does a brain surgeon have a dinner party and tell a "hilarious" story about how he couldn't remember which cortex to operate on, but thankfully — right when the scalpel went down — he severed the correct artery? Does it get as many laughs?

I met Christine during the first reading presentation of Thoroughly Modern Millie. She played Muzzie, the role played by Carol Channing in the film. Amanda Naughton played Millie. The role of Mrs. Meers, played by Bea Lillie in the film, was played by…Edward Hibbert! It's always fun to find out who played roles in early readings of musicals. When Wicked had early presentations, the role of Boq was played by Gavin Creel! Kristin Chenoweth as Glinda would point to him and say, "Do you see that unusually tall munchkin?" The first reading of Aida had Audra McDonald in the title role, and the early versions of Parade starred Matthew Broderick! When Christine was doing Millie she was still living in California. Thankfully, she moved back to NYC and returned to Broadway (and two Tony Awards). Once she hit 40, she said that her agent "stopped making outgoing phone calls"; she knew that Broadway would be better for a woman of her age. Apparently, she claims there's a theory that the older you get, the further East you should move. She then waved to the audience and said, "See you in Hong Kong." P.S., she didn't move to New York City proper, she moved to Maplewood, NJ. As she always quotes, "From Hollywood…to Maplewood. (Pause.) What a difference a leaf makes."

Marilyn Maye
photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

On my trip home last week from Europe, James, Juli and I were in line to show our passports at the Frankfurt airport. That area of the airport is always very strict and has signs everywhere saying "no cell phone use." Juli had an empty bottle and wanted to throw it out, but James didn't want her to leave the line. I didn't want her to have to carry it, so I asked one of the security people if she could throw it out. He looked at me strangely, but nodded. Juli left the line, threw it out and came back. He then approached me and told me, in not great English, that I had to sign. Huh? Was I signing retroactively to let Juli out of line? Was I signing to admit I had broken the rules? I then realized…he was asking me for an autograph! What the — ? I looked at him and asked if he was serious. He pointed at me and said, "Broadway." Hmm…succinct but correct. I asked how he knew who I was, and he said, "From the internet." How cool is that? I assumed he'd seen my Deconstruction videos. And/or my old desperate dating profile from Jdate.

The great Marilyn Maye performed in P-town last week and the response was amazing. People continually kept coming up and telling me that they wept during her show. She's so fantastic and, luckily, she's going to be at Feinstein's in the fall, so I can see her in action again. One of her friends knows that I'm obsessed with Streisand, so he told me this story: On the final week of the last Barbra tour, there was a party for the orchestra that had been traveling with her. The musicians were informed that if they wanted a photo with Barbra, the party would be the time to get one. One of the trumpeters decided to get a photo with Barbra and was sent to a room to do it. When he walked in, Barbra wasn't there. Strange. Suddenly he noticed...a green screen! FYI, that's what they use in horror films so they can film scenes without the special effect and then put them in later. Apparently, Barbra was a special effect and would be put in later! I haven't gotten verification for the story, but, let's be honest, it doesn't sound that surprising.

James, Seth and Juli with Miss Ridgefield, 1981

Provincetown always has tons of shows playing and I took Juli to see Miss Richfield, 1981 (that's the full name) who is playing at the Crown and Anchor. Miss Ridgefield, 1981 refers to "her" title and to the year she was crowned in Minnesota. The show was hilarious. The highlight is when she calls up two people from the audience for a spelling bee. It's really just an excuse for her to be politically incorrect. Each word the contestants must spell has a category assigned to it. The first was one "Jewish." The word was "Christmas" and the sentence Miss Richfield used to demonstrate it was: "Little Rachel Rabinowitz received eight highly discounted gifts during Chanukkah, the Jewish Christmas."

Next Monday, I fly from Provincetown to JFK and then take the Hampton Jitney to Sag Harbor to play for Andrea Martin: Final Days! Everything Must Go! at the Bay Street Theater. Sag Harbor is so beautiful, and the "fun" part will be that I get there just in time to do the tech rehearsal and then the show immediately following, which will get out at 9:30. Then I'll run and try to catch the 10 PM Jitney back to the city. Yay? Get info and buy tickets for this hilarious show

This week's Playbill Obsessed! video features Celia Keenan-Bolger who was adorable in Spelling Bee and belty in Les Miz. Watch!

And finally, I'm getting my fall schedule together. So far, I'll be doing my shows in Ithaca, NY, at the Hangar Theatre (Oct. 15), Pittsburgh at City Theatre (Oct. 27-30) and Chicago (venue TBA, Nov. 4-5). Also, I've finally started doing my Playbill.com podcasts again, if you want to hear this column in full nasality. And now, peace to the 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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