ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Success Stories from Megan Mullally and Audition Horror Stories from Norbert Leo Butz

By Seth Rudetsky
January 20, 2014

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



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It's cold here in NYC, so I was excited to take a trip to Florida last week. What was "fun" was not having to change any aspect of my clothing; it's cold in Florida, too! Why the H does someone go to Florida in January if not for the warm weather? Doesn't the tourism board understand that?

Regardless, I wasn't just there for freezer burn; I was also there for the first of the Broadway @ series at the Fort Lauderdale Parker Playhouse. The show was Megan Mullally and me, and if you missed it (or saw it and want more), you can see an entire Megan Mullally/Seth Rudetsky concert here

This was super fun, because Megan had just come from the Golden Globes. Her husband, Nick Offerman, plays Ron Swanson on "Parks and Recreation" and the show was up for Best Comedy. Because there are so many people on the show, there was no room for Megan at the table, so they told her she'd be at the next table... next to Helen Mirren and Mike Tyson. You write the joke.

Megan and I were talking about her alma mater, Northwestern. She tried out for the big musical her freshman year even though everyone said that freshmen never get cast. Turns out, it was A Little Night Music and she got the role of Petra! Her big triumph, however, happened a few years later, when she starred in West Side Story. No, not in an appropriate role (a very white lady from the South); she starred as the fiery Latina, Anita! Megan began as a ballet dancer so she was able to do all the dancing (and the belting), and she slathered on dark body make-up to help what Mother Nature didn't give her.

A few months later, she was in the one record store in town, looking for a cast album. She overheard a man talking to the owner of the store. He mentioned that he was doing a new play in Chicago but they were having problems finding someone who was right for the teen runaway. Then he said he had heard someone at the school was perfect for the role... the girl who recently played Anita. Megan said she stood up from behind the albums and said, "Um... that's me." I then asked if the man said, "No, you're not. I heard she's black." Apparently, he didn't because Megan got the role and her Equity Card!

I was talking about Megan backstage at Disaster! with my good friend Paul Castree, who plays Tony DelVecchio. All three of us did Grease! together and then he and Megan did Young Frankenstein. He told me that they would talk about "tracks," which is a word show folk started using in the '80's. It's because when people are replaced in shows, their replacements are taught what to do as if they're following someone on a track; you go onstage, sing the opening number, leave stage right, do a quick change, enter stage right for a crossover, go downstairs to the wig room, etc... Normally the word "track" is applied to ensemble people and there are some tracks that are better than others in terms of having solos or more time to change costumes. Anyhoo, all this explaining is just to set up the fact that Megan would go up to Roger Bart, who played the leading role of Dr. Frankenstein and say, "Wow! You have a really good track."

Norbert Leo Butz

OMG! I just feel like I discovered buried treasure! As I was writing this I had my signature ADD attack and decided to browse YouTube. I was looking for the Disaster! video where Jane Krakowski is knocked out by a disco ball (found right here!), but while I was searching, I saw some footage from opening night that I had never seen. I started watching it to see who in the cast was interviewed and I suddenly saw Tina Fey! She had come to opening night, and I knew she liked it because my various spies in the audience told me she was laughing up a storm, and because when she took over Entertainment Weekly for a week with Amy Poehler, Disaster! was put on the must list. But I didn't speak to her very much about the show because I had to chat with so many people at the opening night party. So, I got very excited when I saw she was filmed giving her opinion about the show.

I watched it and it was so crazily amazing. It's like we gave her copy for a commercial and she just repeated what we scripted! Not only did she say the show stars "really, really funny, talented people" but she also told the viewing audience, "If you love fantastic music from the '70's, excellent singing, hilarious jokes... starring really really fun and talented people... then you need to see Disaster!" It's so thrilling for me to see a video of her saying that. One of the only TV shows James and I watched for years was "30 Rock" and the star is saying these amazing comments! Next, I want footage of Lucille Ball saying that Disaster is a hoot.

Well, I'm trying to be more responsible and I've already booked this week's "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox" as opposed to waiting until the day before, which has been my signature for the last 10+ years. I'm very excited because my guest is Steven Pasquale, who's in previews right now for Bridges of Madison County. You can come see "Chatterbox" Jan. 23 at 5 PM, get a bite right after and then cross the street to see Disaster! at 7 PM. All on 46th Street!

When I wrote about my "Chatterbox" with Norbert Leo Butz in my column last week, I forgot to mention a few things: I asked him about the upcoming recording of Big Fish and he said that he decided not to do it old-school style. Usually, Broadway shows run six days a week and on the day off, right around opening night, the cast comes in and records the entire show. Everyone is usually vocally tired and they record 'til all hours of the morning. There's a great video of how this was done if you watch the making of the Company cast album. And it ends with the notorious footage of Elaine Stritch not being able to give a good performance of "The Ladies Who Lunch." 

Norbert knew he'd be vocally fried if he did it all in one day, so he begged Andrew Lippa (the composer) to let him do it on various days, and Andrew agreed! Norbert first got that idea from Idina Menzel when they were making the Wicked CD. She really knew how to take care of her voice and hence she rarely missed a show. As a matter of fact, he revealed that he and Idina recorded "As Long As You're Mine" on different days! That's right, their love duet about being together happened when they weren't together. The same thing with the original cast of Little Shop Of Horrors. The love song, "Suddenly, Seymour," was also recorded on different days... but that's because the two leads were decidedly not getting along when the album was made. (It still sounds great, though!)

Annie Golden

Norbert also had a hilarious bad audition story for me. When he moved to New York, he was immediately cast in Rent. He covered the leads and was always going on. One day his agent called and told him he had an audition for the original cast of Side Show. He was asked to prepare a musical theatre song, a pop song and to bring his book. Norbert had very little experience auditioning for musicals, but that was countered by the incredible confidence he felt because he was doing the hottest show on Broadway. Norbert waltzed into the audition and handed the pianist "Old Devil Moon." Unfortunately, he had just purchased the sheet music and had never run the song with anyone playing. Turns out, it sounded completely different from what he thought it would, so after a few bars, he asked if he could sing his pop song instead. The people behind the table agreed and Norbert launched into a Beatles song. Well, he knew the song from listening to it all the time, but he had never used it for an audition. He was thrown from the first song going so badly, and he immediately panicked and forgot the lyrics.

Finally, the people behind the table decided to choose a song for him and asked to see his book. (Note: Most actors have lots of audition songs in different styles: comedy, Sondheim, standard ballad, patter, etc and they keep them all in a "book.") As soon as they asked him, Norbert realized he made a terrible, terrible mistake. When his agent told him to bring his book, he thought he was being warned that he might have to wait a long time before he auditioned so he should have a book to read. Yes, the "book" Norbert brought with him was Tom Wolfe's "A Man In Full."

Before presenting the pianist with the novel and asking him to play Chapter One, Norbert hauled out the ol' "I left my book at home" chestnut and wound up leaving the audition, mortified. Years later, he was on tour as the Emcee in Cabaret and swapping horrible audition stories with the cast. After he told his Side Show story, he added that he probbably thought it was worse than it actually was. The Cabaret dance captain then told him that she was in Side Show and had heard from the casting director that, indedd, it was one of the worst auditions ever! Wowza! At least it wasn't one of those auditions where you think you were great but they think you were horrible. Both he and everyone in the room thought he was horrible. It's nice to have your feelings validated. Watch the entire interview on SethTV.com. Especially the end where he sings "Defying Gravity" for the first time!

OK! I'm signing off. This week the wonderful Annie Golden begins performances in Disaster! as Shirley Summers. Annie is such a bright light to have around, and it's so evident in this clip I found of her in the Actors Fund Hair concert that I put together back in 2004. Watch how the audience simply adores her. I love the casual sitting on the floor and then the running off at the end. Take a gander then 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.)