ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Planning a Disastrous New Year's Eve and Building Bridges With Jason Robert Brown

By Seth Rudetsky
December 30, 2013

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

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Flash! As in "flash sale." That's right, my general manager just emailed the code for the Disaster! flash sale. What does that mean? Well, if you go to BroadwayOffers.com and enter the code Di2014 you can get $38 tix for any Mon/Tues/Thurs performance through the end of Feb! Yowza!

Speaking of Disaster!, we just had rehearsal for our special New Year's Eve show. Here's the plan: Right after curtain call, we're going to perform a song people have been asking us to put in the show for years (it's a surprise), and then we're going to do a quick auction for BC/EFA. The winners will get to come up and actually be in one of the onstage disasters which we'll do right then. Yay earthquakes! The show is at 6:30 so afterwards James and I are going to have the cast over to our apartment for a party. This week we're also adding a Friday matinee, and at last week's Friday matinee we had Ralph Macchio in the audience! He took a photo onstage with the cast and with his daughter. I don't know if we're screaming because we're trying to create an onstage disaster, or if we're all freaked out that he looks the same age as his daughter.

The cast with Ralph Macchio


Anyhoo, the backstage area is so small at the theatre, but it's really fun sharing a dressing room with one of my best friends, Paul Castree, (who's now playing Tony DelVecchio in Disaster!). Paul and I were remembering all the different women who played Rizzo when we were doing Grease together on Broadway back in the mid-90's: it started with Rosie O'Donnell, then came Maureen McCormick, Brooke Shields, Mackenzie Phillips, Tracy Nelson, Jody Watley, Debby Boone and more. Speaking of Debby Boone, I found a video from when Grease was featured on the Macy's Fourth Of July Fireworks TV special. Wowza! I'm obsessed (and not in a good way) with the lipsynching, especially of spoken lines (!) and the final insult is the moment when Debbie Boone lipsynchs her Rizzo line... as spoken by Rosie O'Donnell. Seriously. I dare you to watch this all the way through. 

The cool thing about Debbie was that still had that glorious voice we all remembered from her 1977 hit "You Light Up My Life." The whole cast would always beg her to sing it for us but she demurred... until her last performance; at 7:30 the stage manager got on the intercom to give the call for half hour and then told everyone there was a very special announcement. Suddenly, the Eugene O'Neill Theater was filled with a lilting voice singing "So many nights I'd sit by my window, waiting for someone to sing me his song..." She still sounded like this

Dean Pitchford
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Speaking of songs from the '70's, I got an email from Dean Pitchford, because he read in this column that the opening number from Disaster is "Hot Stuff." He gave me such fun inside scoop on the film "Fame." Turns out, when they were filming the sequence when everyone on the street starts dancing to the title song, there was no title song to dance to because it hadn't yet been written! But even so, the dancers had to dance to something. So, the song they used to film that sequence is actually "Hot Stuff!" Later on, when he and Michael Gore wrote "Fame" they had to keep it the same tempo as "Hot Stuff" so the song could be swapped. It was the same deal during the filming of the scene when LeRoy auditions for the Performing Arts High School. That whole dance segment was actually done to Donna Summer's "Bad Girls" and later replaced with the sassy "Red Light." I love it! Watch how amazing Gene Anthony Ray was. 

On Thursday, I had Jason Robert Brown at this week's "Chatterbox" and I asked him how his first Broadway show, Parade, came about. Jason said that back in the '90's, Alfred Uhry was meeting with Hal Prince and Hal asked about Alfred's latest project, The Last Night of Ballyhoo. Alfred told him it was about being an ambivalent Jew in the South. Hal asked why Jews were so uncomfortable in the South and Alfred told him it was related to the Leo Frank case, which Hal had never heard of. Alfred told him about Leo Frank, who was a Jewish man living in Georgia who was accused of murdering a little girl and then lynched by a mob. Alfred says that Hal leaped over his desk and proclaimed, "That's my next musical!" He immediately asked Stephen Sondheim to write the score, but Sondheim had just done Passion and didn't want to do another depressing show. So, because Hal is the "least patient person in the world" according to Jason and wanted someone to start right away, he contacted Jason, whom he knew would be available. Jason came to Hal's attention because his daughter Daisy Prince had directed Jason's first show Songs for a New World. Jason wound up writing the score... and winning the Tony Award before he was 30 years old!

Jason Robert Brown
Jason also told us that years ago, MGM wanted to turn their films into musicals and offered their catalogue to producers. A producer approached Jason and asked him to pick a movie to musicalize and Jason decided on "Honeymoon in Vegas" because he's very comfortable writing about "neurotic Jews." Turns out, it was the only film MGM didn't have the stage rights for. Jason was sad because he had hoped to write it with Andrew Bergman, who had written and directed the film and was one of Jason's comedy heroes. (He also wrote films like "The Freshman" and "Blazing Saddles.") Years later, Jason found out through Lonny Price that Andrew Bergman got the stage rights to "Honeymoon in Vegas" to make a musical version! He was inspired because he saw how much money Mel Brooks was making with The Producers. Brava! Jason got in touch with him, they wrote the show, did it at Papermill Playhouse and recently got an amazing review in the New York Times! Here are some clips

Jason had just come from The Bridges of Madison County rehearsal, so I asked how that first came to be. He and Marsha Norman first worked together on a piece at the Kennedy Center and they both enjoyed it so much that they wanted to do something else together. Jason said he wanted to write "our Traviata," AKA a piece where people sing long, sweeping songs about love. Right around that time Marsha got a call from Robert James Waller's agent asking her if she was interested in writing a musical version of "The Bridges of Madison County." She immediately told Jason, "I've found our Traviata!"

I assumed they wrote it and then got producers on board. No, turns out, they wound up getting producers behind the show before it was even written by pitching it while accompanied by their secret weapon: Kelli O'Hara. She became attached to the project through Jason's agent and Jason told us that pitch meetings happened in the spring with a blonde, glowing Kelli looking gorgeous. He said that he and Marsha didn't even need to speak because the producers were all so enraptured just being in the same room as Kelli that they basically all said yes, and he and Marsha went with the best one.

Once they got the producer, they still needed to write it and one day Marsha happened to be at an auction and bid on the "rock star" villa in St. Bart's. Not only did was it beautiful and had its own servants but it also featured a recording studio (!) in the basement. She won the auction with some other people but none of them were able to make the date they chose. So, she called Jason, he flew down with his wife and the bulk of the show was written while living in luxury! They really wanted Steven Pasquale for the male lead, but he wasn't available because he was starring in a TV show. Marsah and Jason were disappointed, but when they heard that the TV show got the "lowest ratings in the history of anything" they were like "score"! They called Steven and he was available! I'm so excited that he's about to originate a singing role on Broadway... he's so good! Take a gander. Jason sang a great song from the show, and you can hear it and watch the whole interview on SethTV.com.

Happy New Year everyone! And come see Disaster!... We're finally adding Thursday nights! DisasterMusical.com.

(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.)

Kelli O'Hara, Steven Pasquale, Hunter Foster and Cast Offer Sneak Peek at The Bridges of Madison County

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Kelli O'Hara and Steven Pasquale
Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN