ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Prepping for "Bunheads," and Celebrating Phantom's 25th on Broadway

By Seth Rudetsky
January 29, 2013

A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.



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I am over 20,000 feet in the air on my way to Los Angeles. "Bunheads" is paying for my flight, but I decided to fork over $300 to upgrade to First Class. Why not, I thought? It wasn't that much and I knew it would make the six-hour flight truly memorable. I had amazing visions in my head of breezing through security, boarding before anyone else, sitting in a palatial seat and eating a banquet prepared by a "Top Chef" finalist. Whenever I fly United Economy there aren't any served meals so I always wind up getting out my credit card mid-flight and buying one of the pre-packaged meals to eat. I was really looking forward to having a delicious full-course breakfast served to me.

Here's where it all started to go wrong: My cab driver could not figure out where the United terminal was and finally he dropped me off somewhere that looked like it could be right-ish. There was no curbside check-in (?) so I had to go inside and wait on line to check my bag. After a few minutes, I found out it was only for International flights. Wonderful. I took the escalator down two flights and finally got my bag checked. I was then ready to go to security and bypass everyone by using the delicious First Class line. Well, for some reason, the Economy line was much shorter! I was too scared to leave my place in line so I waited and waited. Finally, I put my carry-on through the scanner, had my entire body radiated while someone looked at a nude image of me, and went to the gate. While I was waiting, I checked online and saw that the flight was not serving breakfast as I had fantasized. They were serving lunch. I rushed to the food court to find something to eat before I boarded and bought a bagel from the only place I could find. Yum…delicious bagel, you think? Let me put it this way, the cashier told me she was giving me a 20 percent discount because the bagel was so stale. Yay. I got to the gate, but it was way past the early boarding I had looked forward to. Instead, I arrived in time for "all rows, all rows please" and there was a long line to get on the plane.

Sutton Foster on "Bunheads."
photo by Adam Taylor

Finally, I sat down in First Class and decided that I would not harp on the lack of a breakfast and instead I would enjoy the luxury I was paying for and order a fattening lunch. There were a lot of choices, but because I'm a vegetarian, my only option was pasta. The flight attendant approached me to take my order and before I could open my mouth, she promptly informed me that they were out of pasta. Yay! SO…I paid for First Class and got to wait in a long line for security, a long line to get on the flight and then had the same rickety-rackety pre-packaged meal I always have when I fly Economy. And I had to pay extra for it! Seriously. When the flight attendant came over with the lunch box, I had to hand over my credit card. I've said it before and I'll say it again: My Personal Shopper Is The Worst!

The week began for me with a great concert given at Off-Broadway's Second Stage. It was dedicated to the launch of contemporarymusicaltheatre.com which is an online collection of songs by new composers. The founders (David Sisco and Lorene Phillips) wanted to have one place where actors could find new music for concert or auditions and the songs are all categorized by type and voice. I think it's a great idea because I cannot tell you the amount of times I've sat behind the piano at auditions and had to play "Not For the Life of Me" and "Gimme, Gimme" as if there have never been songs composed before or after 2002. Speaking of that, I'm about film opposite the very singer of those songs!

Yes, I got my script to "Bunheads," the ABC Family comedy/drama with music and dance, and both of my scenes are with Sutton Foster. I already have a sense of how she's going to perform them because I did the table read last week. No, I didn't fly to California to do it, I did it while sitting on my bed on the Upper West Side. Turns out, the cast of "Bunheads" all sat around a big table and they put me on speakerphone. Sutton told me that my phone sat on the table with my name written next to it. When I first called in, Kelly Bishop got on the phone to say hi in her signature baritone voice. I haven't seen her in years (since she did a Chatterbox with me) but I always feel a kinship with her because I've done many performances of Priscilla Lopez's act (her best friend) and because Kelly and I have the same birthday (Feb. 28!). She warned me that it's really disconcerting to do a table read on speakerphone and it was! If you think I overact with mugging, try listening to me attempt to achieve the same bigness with just my voice. I don't know how much I can reveal about the plot but let me give you these shocking tidbits about my character: I play a pianist and my name is Seth.

Seth with Eden Espinosa
Photo by Robb Johnston
On my radio show "Seth Speaks" I had beltress Eden Espinosa as a guest. Her first solo CD just came out! I reminded her that every time I saw her backstage at Wicked, she was always in sweat pants watching "American Idol." She told us that she and Laura Bell Bundy were the standbys for the leads and they had to be within 10 blocks of the theatre while the show was on. So, they would both go to a nearby gym (hence the sweatpants) and then just hang out backstage afterwards (hence "American Idol"). Her CD is so great and you can get it at edenespinosa.com.

And I'm now obsessed with a video of Shoshanna Bean (another Elphaba) singing along with the CD while driving. The harmony is amazing as is the way Shoshanna is able to split her focus between high notes and making a complicated turn in traffic. And, speaking of Eden, she was my guest at this week's Playbill.com Obsessed!, where I made her perform the riff she added to "The Wizard and I" which was first busted by the powers-that-be (for changing the melody) but is now taught to new Elphabas. And, since she was cast as Fantine in the Les Miz revival a few years ago, I have her show how some extra high notes could have been added to "I Dreamed A Dream." Watch it here:

 

On Thursday, I had a Phantom of the Opera-themed Chatterbox. Sierra Boggess (the current Christine), George Lee Andrews (who was in the original company) and Howard McGillin all joined me. I, as usual, asked about mishaps and Howard (who's the played the role more than anyone) told me that something as innocuous as a cab going by with a similar radio frequency can wreak havoc with the electronics of the show. More than once, the boat the Phantom uses to take Christine to his underground lair has stopped working. If nothing is done, it will just sit in the middle of the stage. So, Howard said he's had to jump out of the boat and actually push it. Not only is it bizarre to see the Phantom pushing a boat across the stage while singing, but it's even more crazy that the Phantom is able to walk on water. Or is it?

Sierra Boggess at the Chatterbox
photo by Robb Johnston

George Lee Andrews talked about being cast as one of the opera managers two years into the run and yet continuing to understudy the other opera manager. He loved doing both roles (and he got a nice chunk o' change every time he went on for the other). George said that after a few years, Cameron Mackintosh wanted to fire him because actors never play a long-running role in England. Hal Prince really wanted to keep him (they first worked together in A Little Night Music when George was Frid the Butler and then played the lead of Frederick in the national tour). Finally, Hal figured out a way to solve the problem of George playing the same role for too long; after 11 years of George as Monsieur Firmin, he switched him to the other opera manager, Monsieur Andre! This time, however, George was told he wouldn't be understudying the other role. He estimates he lost around $30,000 in extra income each year! But he continued playing the role for another 11 years until last year. He and David Cryer got summoned to the general manager's office. George was very excited because he thought it was about the big Phantom of the Opera anniversary concert in London. He assumed they were going to do it like the Les Miz concert and have original cast members perform. They arrived at the office and George waited to be asked if he would go to England. Instead, they were told they were being fired! George said he was very upset…for an hour. Then he let it all go, enjoyed his final performances...and got cast in Evita three weeks later!

Hugh Panaro
photo by Monica Simoes
Sierra regaled us with stories about going to Andrew Lloyd Webber's Sydmonton estate. First of all, I hear his estate is right near the real Downton Abbey so I'm desperate to go. Secondly, she had a real "Downton Abbey" experiencel she was there to sing for the Queen! No, not The Dowager Empress, the actual Queen! Her majesty is a big fan of the song "Sing" that Lloyd Webber wrote and Sierra did a royal command performance for her in his living room. Her details about preparing for it and her wonder that she's even there in the first place are amazing. You can watch the whole Chatterbox on SethTV.com and make sure you stay 'til the end when Sierra sings "Think of Me" with a sassed-up ending.

And finally, speaking of Phantom, I went to see the 25th-anniversary Broadway performance on Saturday, Jan. 26. OMG! It was amazing. First of all, for some reason, I got amazing seats up front and in the center. Also, the show was in phenomenal shape. The whole cast was at their best; people around me kept commenting on how amazing Hugh Panaro's acting is. Bravo! I've played in that orchestra since the early '90s and it was so incredible to hear them from the audience. The strings sounded fantastic! After the show, Hal Prince and Cameron Mackintosh came out onstage and Hal said he was proud to say the orchestra had 27 players. Yay! If you don't know, most current Broadway shows are charging tons of money and have 15 players or less.

Cameron Mackintosh
Photo by Monica Simoes

Cameron spoke of how Sir Andrew was first going to just produce the show with already-composed opera music but then his wife Sarah Brightman inspired him to write the score. Sarah herself then came out, looking great, and told us how she loved seeing the show and how new actors always seem to bring out different aspects of each characters. Then, three more Phantoms joined Hugh Panaro (Ramin Karimloo, Peter Joback and John Owen-Jones ) and they all sang the title song with Sierra. We were sitting in the center of the orchestra seats, but the left and right side of the audience had previous cast members. When the back-up part came (He's here, the Phantom of the opera…) they all suddenly started signing. It was so cool to be in the middle of that sound! Then all the Phantoms sang "Music of the Night" and they sounded great. Especially Hugh who had just sung the whole show! It was so thrilling and I became very moved when I realized that I'm a part of the Phantom family. I've played both keyboard parts on and off and since 1993! Here's one of my favorite musical phrases with one of my favorite Christines. And I've also had some hilarious experiences being in that pit and one was so cra-za-zy that I made a video about it.

Don Pippin, the famous Broadway conductor (Oliver!, Mame, A Chorus Line, La Cage aux Folles, etc.), sat in back of me during the show. After the show, he said it reminded him of the night that A Chorus Line became the longest-running musical on Broadway. He remembers thinking that nothing could ever top it. I thought he was feeling bad that Phantom has now run much longer, but instead he added, "A Chorus Line is still the longest-running American musical." Touche!

And on that note, it's time for me to memorize my "Bunheads" lines. We film tomorrow!

(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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Hugh Panaro, Sierra Boggess and Ramin Karimloo
Photo by Monica Simoes