What Happened When Audra McDonald Flubbed Her Lyrics in Front of Stephen Sondheim?

Seth Rudetsky   What Happened When Audra McDonald Flubbed Her Lyrics in Front of Stephen Sondheim?
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth recounts stories from the Actors Fund Gala, his interview with Joel Grey, and Audra McDonald’s performance at the PEN Honors.
Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald
Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald Aubrey Reuben

There was a lot of Broadway last week…from coast to coast! Last Monday night was the annual Actors Fund Gala. One of the honorees was Danny DeVito. Richard LaGravenese (who wrote The Fisher King) gave him an amazing intro. He told the story of Danny’s audition for Taxi: Danny had just played the ever-grinning Martini in One Flew Over The Cuckoo’s Nest and then got called in for Louie De Palma, who is the polar opposite in terms of crankiness. Danny decided to show everyone at the audition that he was capable of Louie’s hard edge even before he began reading. He walked in, saw all the network/creative bigwigs and said, “‘First, there’s one thing I want to know before we start: Who wrote this sh*t?” Brava! He took a chance and got the gig!

Another honoree was Hal Prince. During his intro, it was said that it’s easier to mention the Broadway shows Hal hasn’t been involved with. It’s so true. He started with The Pajama Game in 1954! I found out from people inside the Actors Fund that the Fund was running dangerously low on money in the ’80s. This is when Phantom Of The Opera was the hottest ticket in town. Hal donated his house seats to the Fund and which began the FundTix program. That’s where you can buy great seats to Broadway shows that aren’t avail to the public and make a donation to the Actors Fund at the same time. It’s raised millions for the fund...and was started by the wonderful Hal Prince, who’s returning to Broadway next year with Prince of Broadway!

Joel Grey
Joel Grey Joseph Marzullo/WENN

During Hal’s intro, Joel Grey spoke about his own career in the ’60s and how he had great success doing nightclubs, but was only seen as a replacement for Broadway shows. Hal called him at home one day and told him there was a role for him in his new Broadway show. Joel went to John Kander’s apartment to hear John and Fred Ebb sing through the show. He walked in amongst the Broadway cognoscneti and was duly impressed. Then he heard the opening vamp of “Wilkommen” and loved it! He originated his first Broadway role and won the Tony Award.

On a side note, I interviewed Joel a few weeks ago to talk about his fantastic autobiography Master of Ceremonies. Turns out, Bob Fosse decidedly did not want Joel for the film. They looked at other people (including Ruth Gordon!) but didn’t cast anyone. They still hadn’t cast anyone six weeks before pre-production in Munich. Finally, the producers called a meeting to force Fosse to hire Joel. Fosse came in and said, “It’s either Joel Grey or me!” and they said, “Then it’s Joel Grey!” Yowtch!

Joel wonders if Bob subconsciously actually wanted to play the role and he actually meant that statement to be an ultimatum. They wound up having a very difficult relationship…. Bob wanted to make the film his own; Joel was suspicious of anyone trying to change anything from the Broadway show. The rehearsals were a nightmare. At one point, Bob casually asked if Joel could do a backflip. Joel said he couldn’t. Bob told him that it was very simple. He then hoisted himself backwards in the air…and landed on his face! And didn’t move! Finally, he got up, received medical help and came back to rehearsal with his face black and blue. The backflip idea was not mentioned again. Yet, it all paid off. The film won eight Oscars including Best Direction for Fosse and Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joel! Get Joel’s book…so many more amazing stories!

Also last week: James and I saw Chita Rivera’s show at the Carlyle and it was FANTASTIC! I’m usually behind the piano with her so it was amazing to see her perform from the front. Wow! She talked about playing the title role in Sweet Charity on the national tour (with the original Nicky, Helen Gallagher) and how Fosse called her and offered her the film—as Nicky. She said yes to Fosse and then “tiptoed past Helen’s dressing room.”

In her Carlyle show she sang “Where Am I Going” and, boy, it was so well sung and beautiful acted. If you’re in New York, you must see her at the Carlyle and if you’re near Philly, come see both of us at the Kimmel Center June 3. And if you use the code SETH, you get a delicious 30 percent off. I’m telling you, she is incredible!

Seth Rudetsky and Chita Rivera Discount Code May 2017

James loved the show so much that he went back and saw it again on Thursday. While he was there, he ran into Ben Vereen and Ben agreed to join Concert For America in L.A. on Wednesday, May 24! He’s going to sing “Magic To Do”! So now we have three Tony Award winning stars singing their hits! Ben’s singing from Pippin, Chita is singing from Chicago, and Marissa Jaret Winokur is singing from Hairspray! Get tickets at ConcertsForAmerica.com.

Click here to watch Ben at the Tony Awards—with Ann Reinking featured in the chorus (“Romance, sex presented pastorally…”).

Speaking of Chita, my friend Paul Castree told me a classic Gwen Verdon story (Gwen and Chita starred alongside in the original Chicago as Roxie and Velma—in case you didn’t know).

If you don’t know: Sometimes when dancers run a dance number over and over again, they “mark” it…meaning they don’t do it full out. Of course, old school dancers don’t necessarily believe in that. Apparently, at a rehearsal for a show Gwen was supervising, Gwen asked everyone to run the number again. A dancer asked “Should we mark it?” And Gwen simply replied, “Mark is a boy’s name.” I love it! It’s such a simple but clear way to make the point “I don’t believe in marking.” Brava!

Speaking of the L.A. Concert For America, I flew out last week to debut our new Broadway @ series at the Wallis, which is a beautiful theatre. Audra was, of course, fabulous and, at one point, talked about her performance last week at the PEN Awards, where Sondheim was being honored. She rehearsed her song and noticed two video monitors on either side that would project her so that people who were sitting further back could see her. She doesn’t like watching herself perform so she made a mental note not to turn in either direction during the show.

Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald
Seth Rudetsky and Audra McDonald

Well, that night, she got onstage, started singing, and saw a giant video monitor that was added at the back of the house…directly in front of her! So while she was singing she was also watching herself singing! Of course, she immediately was thinking, “My hair looks terrible!” “Wait, why did I wear this dress?” and she soon got off on the lyrics. It was the kind of song where you can’t save it once you get off track…and she had to stop the song. She told the audience, with a self-depreciating grin, “I’m so sorry! I have to start again!” expecting a light laugh. Instead she got a collective full-audience gasp.


Then she started babbling about seeing herself on screen and how it threw her and how mortified she was etc. The audience was silent. She decided to sneak a glance at Sondheim to see if he was at least smiling. Who could tell? His head was in his hands! AH! She got back on track and finished the song and emailed an apology to Sondheim and he was very understanding. Here’s the song how it’s supposed to go. Now, imagine watching yourself sing this.

Next Monday I’m with Audra again at Steppenwolf, then Wednesday is Concert For America in L.A., and then Saturday is a benefit for COAF in L.A. with the hi-larious Andrea Martin. (Get tickets here.) Her new Tina Fey sitcom, Great News, was just picked up for next season. YAY! Come see us and peace out!


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