ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Gypsy of the Year, Maltby & Shire, and the Launch of Playbill's Broadway On the High Seas Cruise
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Greetings from the high seas! I'm on the Playbill cruise along the eastern edge of South America and today is a "sea day." That means that we're traveling a long distance to the next port, so we don't stop 'til we get there. I haven't been able to get off the boat since we got on because I've been so busy. So, I was super-excited that yesterday I had some hours off to get on dry land and do some shopping. The boat docked in Rio Grande, Brazil. We got a list of destinations from the ship; there were three shopping areas mentioned, and we decided to take a cab to the largest.
Today is going to be fun because I have an onboard Chatterbox with Christine Ebersole, and then I'm doing a show where I deconstruct my favorite video clips! But before I write about the cruise, let me give an update from pre-Brazil.
At the Chatterbox in Manhattan, I interviewed the composing team of Richard Maltby, Jr. and David Shire and found out they both met at Yale. Even though they're not a couple, they met romantic comedy-style — meaning they both took an instant dislike to each other. David thought Richard was a big snob and Richard thought David was a hick. Of course, they then wound up loving each other and they've been great friends for the last 40 years. They started writing songs at Yale and when they graduated they heard about a young singer from Broadway who was taking the nightclub scene by storm. They had a meeting with her and pitched some songs and that's how Barbra Streisand came to record "Autumn" (which they had written at Yale for their musical version of Cyrano).
I was surprised that Barbra took songs from such young songwriters because I remember John Kander telling me how he got Barbra to record one of the songs that he and Fred Ebb wrote. John was working on Funny Girl and casually left handwritten sheet music on top of the piano. Barbra picked it up asked what it was and he told her that it was a song he wrote with Fred but it was completely not right for her. Of course, she then insisted on hearing it and that's how she came to record "My Coloring Book." David and Richard nodded and then told me a similar story. They had written a song for Robert Goulet that Barbra heard about. She asked to hear it and they told her that it wasn't right for her because it was written for a man. Of course, she then insisted upon doing it — and that's how she came to record "Starting Here, Starting Now." As she said as Fanny Brice, "Don't tell me don't!"
Speaking of Fanny, David mentioned that he was a pianist in the pit of Funny Girl and then took over as conductor. When I asked him how he got the gig, he told me that the conductor was also dating Lainie Kazan (Barbra's understudy) and playing for her act. When Lainie needed a few extra songs, he "lent" her some of Barbra's arrangements. Oh-oh. That's all David had to tell me. I immediately knew why there was suddenly a vacancy on the conductor's podium.
I mentioned the song "It Goes Like It Goes," which David Shire wrote as the theme to the film "Norma Rae." He said that it was nominated for an Oscar along with another song he had written that same year. He assumed that he wouldn't win for either because they'd probably cancel each other out, but he wound up winning for "It Goes Like It Goes"! Before the Oscar ceremony, Richard told him if he won for either of the songs, he wanted him to receive the award with the ultimate Jewish response: He said David should go onstage, walk to the microphone and ask, "So, what was wrong with the other one?" David opted out.
I saw their recent York Theatre Company production of Closer Than Ever twice and I'm very excited to say that there'll be a new cast recording coming soon! I also told them how obsessed I am with Baby. If you don't know the show, watch this video I made with the original "Lizzy," Liz Callaway!
The week began with Gypsy of the Year Dec. 3-4, which I hosted for the fifth time. As usual, it was so much fun! And, also as usual, I made my signature wrong entrance. I did my opening which went great and then ran out after the first act to do my whole bit about the song "Tomorrow." I gave the set-up and turned back to the piano to play a little and was surprised to see that the piano wasn't there. I was confused for a moment 'til I heard the announcer's voice tell me (and the entire audience) I wasn't supposed to be onstage. I promptly ran offstage. I was mortified, but not as much as last year when I made my wrong entrance right before the Moment of Silence! That's right, in 2011 the most solemn moment of the show (which features Judith Light making an incredibly moving speech) began with me bounding out, landing a few zingers, looking offstage and seeing Judith Light prepared to make her entrance and then slinking offstage. The good news is, the "Tomorrow" section (which I then did at the correct time) wound up being amazing! I came out and described my childhood obsession with Dynamite magazine. If you're not familiar, it was sort of People magazine for 'tweens. I got a pen pal through Dynamite. Her name was Debbi. After she wrote me, I thought, "Why should I write her back a plain ol' letter when instead I can make her a 45-minute tape of myself playing the piano and singing." I started by recording the Haydn minor sonata (I had just won a talent contest with that song) and then I counteracted my classical chops by funking out and playing and singing Stevie Wonder's "Don't You Worry 'Bout a Thing." I followed it with the hit love song of the day ("Nobody Does It Better") and then closed with my audition song from that year which was, 'natch, "Tomorrow."
After I recorded everything I had a listen and decided that the tape was "too good to send." I held onto it. I then listened to it again 20 years later. Turns out, it wasn't so good. I told the audience I had the tape digitally transferred and brought to Gypsy of the Year. I informed them I was going to play eight measures from "Tomorrow" and within them there would be many lessons to be gleaned…on how not to sing a song. Suffice it to say, one of the horrific things I added to the song to "make it my own" was a blue note. That's right, I fancied myself a young Ella Fitzgerald so I added a jazzy blue note to "Tomorrow"…the whitest song in the world. I played the recording for everyone and the audience was duly horrified and then, from stage right, Lilla Crawford (the current Annie) came onstage with her hands over her ears. Of course, the audience loved it. And when her hands were removed, I asked her to "cleanse the palate." Lilla sang the refrain and I then asked her to "jazz it up." Lilla sang it again but this time, she added my signature blue note. Hilarious/devastating. Then, Lilla turned to me and said, "Seth, let's kick it old school!" I asked her what she meant and she said, "I think you know what I mean!" She pointed stage right and out came Andrea McArdle! The audience again went crazy and Andrea started the song from the bridge (sounding amazing). When she got to the last refrain, she and Lilla sang it together and on the last note, Andrea reached around and guided Lilla's left arm up in the classic Annie slow-arm raise. It was so fantastic. Of course, afterwards I had tears in my eyes because I would have passed out as a kid if I knew that one day I'd be playing piano on Broadway for two different Annies…especially Andrea, who I never got to see. (If you don't know, my mom was notorious for getting me tickets to all the shows I loved…right after the original cast had left. Why see Patti LuPone in Evita, when you can wait a year and see the replacement's matinee cover? Still in a rage.)
ME: When Liza Minnelli checked herself into the Betty Ford Clinic after a matinee of The Rink, who took over for —
PASSENGER: (Interrupting) Mary Testa!
I was incredibly impressed! First I thought he knew the answer because he had seen this Playbill "Obsessed!" video.
But then he told us that he happened to see The Rink during the two weeks Mary was on for Liza (while Stockard Channing was preparing to take over the role…before the show closed two weeks later!). I will give all cruise details next week!
Writing about The Rink reminds me of something that happened at Gypsy of the Year that also would have made me pass out as a child. Every year in school I would become obsessed with a show, and in 5th grade it was Chicago. I listened to it all the time, hoping one day I would meet Chita Rivera. Cut to: After Gypsy of the Year, Chita came up to me said, "You've really got it, don't you? Every f***ing word you say is funny!" AH! So amazing! And on that note, peace out!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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