ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Memories of Easter Bonnets Past

By Seth Rudetsky
April 22, 2013

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



*

Hello from somewhere between Wisconsin and New York. I'm on the flight back from Milwaukee where I just had two performances at the Marcus Center. I did my Deconstructing Broadway, and it was super fun. The audience was so savvy! I mentioned that when I was a little boy in the mid-70's I went to see the very short-lived revival of The Pajama Game. I then asked if anyone possible remembered who starred in it for the one month that it ran. Both nights someone called out "Hal Linden"! Brava on obscure Broadway knowledge. My only objection is when I first asked the audience to guess the name of the show I saw by Adler and Ross someone yelled out The Pajama Game but pronounced it mid-west style (The Pa-jeh-ma Game). I'm doing Deconstructing Broadway again in London and I'm nervous that if I ask for the name of the show, someone's going to yell out The Pyjama Game. PS, if you're in London on June 22nd, get tix here!

This Monday and Tuesday is Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS' annual Easter Bonnet Competition, so I thought I'd write a little about my experiences with this fabulous event. I started working on it way back in 1992 as a rehearsal pianist for the opening number. It was so much fun! We rehearsed at 890 Studios and I had just started working as a sub pianist on Broadway. I played my first Broadway show that year which was My Favorite Year. However, because of its limited run, I always called it My Favorite Week. Anybody? Working on an Easter Bonnet opening number is like working on a brand new Broadway show: rehearsals, costume fittings, orchestra rehearsal etc. At the time, I was the music director for Pageant Off-Broadway which Bobby Longbottom directed/choreographed and he was also in charge the opening number. We performed that year at the Palace Theatre where The Will Rogers Follies was playing and I remember the dancers using the giant staircase that the set had. The next year we were at the Broadway Theatre where Miss Saigon was playing, and this time I was the rehearsal pianist and the pianist in the orchestra! What stands out about that rehearsal period is the horrific raked stage of Miss Saigon. If you don't know, a raked stage means that the back of the stage is higher than the front. It's essentially one big slope. This allows the audience to see things at the back of the stage, but it's also responsible for numerous injuries on Broadway. The rake in Miss Saigon was six feet!

Kathleen Marshall
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

When we were rehearsing the opening number, the assistant choreographer was walking across the stage, that's right, walking, and suddenly his Achilles snapped! Horrific! Anyhoo, the following year BC/EFA asked me to graduate from playing to actually writing the entire opening number! The only experience I had doing something like that was writing the comedy number for Grease. I really had no idea if I could pull it off, but I was so excited to challenge myself that I said yes. Right after that, I got an offer to do Forever Plaid for a good amount of money ("good amount" because I wasn't making much at that time, so "any" amount was "good"). The most amazing part was that it was going to be in Hawaii! I had always fantasized about going there, and this would be a paid vacation. I thought about it for a few days and decided that even though I would lose out on the money and the delish vacation aspect, I really wanted the challenge of doing something I had never done before. So, BC/EFA teamed me up with an up-and-coming choreographer: Kathleen Marshall! I wrote the song ("Food Glorious Food" changed to "Hats Glorious Hats"), and this time I was the writer, rehearsal pianist, conductor and orchestrator! The coolest part about the number was right near the end; the lyrics and the dance break were all about hats and more hats and suddenly everything stopped and out walked… Elaine Stritch. She looked at the audience and hauled out her signature "Ladies Who Lunch" line: "Does anyone…still wear…a hat?" The dancers came back and we had a big finish. Elaine loves to do that great comedy thing where you say a line while you're involved in another activity so the whole time she was saying "Does anyone still wear a hat" (and she stre-e-e-e-etched it out), she was taking off white gloves and putting them in her purse. Brava!

The next year I did another opening number with the great David Marquez, and the year after that Tom Viola and Michael Graziano asked me if I wanted to work with a young dancer from Cats. I knew who he was because we would both ride the uptown 1 subway after our respective shows, and I saw some work he had done at Easter Bonnet when he did the Cats number. I said yes and thus began a long association with a great choreographer named Chris Gattelli. The year was 1998 and Easter Bonnet was going into the refurbished New Amsterdam Theater where Lion King was playing. The first half of the number was like most Easter Bonnet's opening, meaning lots of jokes about Broadway. One of them I remember was based on the cast of Cabaret having to play instruments. I extended it to imply they were also doing stage hand work and had them sing (to the part of "Cabaret" that goes "Come blow your horn start celebrating, right this way your table's waiting"):
"Though every night we play a Nazi
All of us have joined IATSE"
(PS IATSE, is the Stage hand union and rhymes perfectly with "nazi"!)
Anyhoo, the New Amsterdam was the home of the original Ziegfeld Follies, and Chris' father made giant pictures of Zigfeld dancers in their heyday. The pictures rolled out onstage and then, from in back of the photos, the remaining Zigfeld ladies themselves emerged. They were all in their 90s, and the last lady to emerge was 94-year-old Doris Eaton Travis who was a Zigfeld dancer back in 1918! Doris took a bow and then did a full-out dance! Watch!

Seth with Billy Porter

Chris and I did a lot more numbers after that, but we both wound up getting too busy to keep 'em coming. Of course, his version of being too busy includes winning a Tony Award last year for Newsies and mine includes watching a Hulu Plus maration of "The Amazing Race." Regardless, they're both valid. This opening number is the first I've written in years, and I'm so excited to be back!

This weekend I finally began catching up on my Broadway viewing and finally saw Cinderella. That cast is so talented! So many great character actors doing so much classic comedy. I'm vying to replace Ann Harada, who has one of those roles where you only have laugh lines. Delish. Yet again, I'm completely obsessed with Santino Fontana. How dare he be such a great actor in The Importance of Being Earnest and then have such an amazing singing voice. I've had it. On Sunday I took my sister and Mom to see Kinky Boots. All I can say after seeing Billy Porter front and center, showing off all of his talents (acting, singing and full-out dancing) is "It's about time!" We met in 1989 doing Dreamgirls in summer stock. I had just graduated college and he had two years left. A year later, he took off a day from Carnegie-Mellon to come to NYC for a Miss Saigon open call. I sat with him in the Equity lounge 'til they let him sing (he was non-Equity, which means you wait forever to get seen if you even get seen). Finally he went in and I played. That led to him getting cast in his first Broadway show before he even graduated college! Back then, there was another Billy Porter in Equity and another William Porter. So he had to go by the headachey "W. Ellis Porter." People thought that was his name, so there were many awkward moments of him completely not responding to someone at rehearsal yelling, "W. Ellis! W. Ellis!" Thankfully, he was able to change it to Billy after a few years. Anyhoo, today he was nominated for an Outer Critics Award and I'm hoping this will be one of many nominations. Here's a clip of him playing of Jimmy Early in my Actors Fund Dreamgirls concert opposite Audra McDonald, Heather Headley and Lillias White. Work!

And, finally, the Megan Mullally concert I filmed this summer is available! It's me and Megan for more than an hour of her hilarity and high belting. Watch the preview and get ye olde concert on SethTV.com. 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.)