ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Remembering My High School Musical and A Surprise Birthday Cabaret
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
The next time I write this column I'll be in Tahiti. It's a lo-o-o-o-o-ong plane trip, but I'm looking forward to it because James will be next to me the whole time! During the last Playbill cruise, his play, Unbroken Circle was running and he was only able to fly to Stockholm with me. He stayed on the cruise for two days and then went home to make the Wednesday matinee. This time we'll fly to Los Angeles, have a layover for a few hours and then fly eight hours to Tahiti.
The last time I flew to an island in the Pacific was 2001. It was the summer I was rehearsing for the Dreamgirls concert I put together for the Actors Fund. I was with my ex-boyfriend, Aaron, and we were flying to his parents' condo in Kauii. Everyone told us that there was a fantastic buffet at a hotel we had to go to. Both being equally obsessed with food, we were totally excited. We flew from NYC to Honolulu on a Thursday, which took ten hours, and then we had to take a separate flight to Kauai. By the time we got to Kauai, it was around 8 PM at night which was 2 AM New York time. We were exhausted and knew there was no way we could go out for a big buffet dinner. We decided to go the next night. Then we found out it was only open on Thursdays. We therefore felt we had to force ourselves to go to the buffet and stuff food down our gullets even though we had been up for around 24 hours. We were so, so tired but whatever energy we had was used to lift the fork to our mouths repeatedly.
You may think that's crazy behavior but it's de riguer for me. When I was in Las Vegas with my Disaster! co-writer, Jack Plotnick, I remember having to lie down after stuffing myself at a buffet. I don't mean I went back to my hotel room to lie down; I literally lay down on the floor of the restaurant. Deliciously immobile!
Lately, I've had a few run-ins with my high school for some reason. Last Friday, my friend Lisa Disraeli came to see the show. I played opposite Lisa when my high school did Company. That's right; she played Sarah and I played Harry... when I was 14 years old. Why not have teenagers do a show about what it's like being in long term-relationship? I could totally relate. I had to sing the song "Sorry Grateful" and, boy, did I have no idea what the hell I was singing about. I might as well have sung the entire song with the word "La".
Basically, "You're always sorry, you're always grateful, you're always wondering what might have been... then she walks in." Or "La la la la la la la la la" would have elicited the exact same acting choices from me.
That same year, we did The Fantasticks and I was cast as Mortimer, the man who dies. There wasn't anyone really right for the role of El Gallo so, naturally, it went... to Lisa. That's correct! She was cast as El Gallo but was refered to as "La Galla." Si, senor.
Speaking of high school, the first show I wrote for Off-Broadway was called Rhapsody In Seth and it played at the Actors Playhouse. A large part of it was about what a nightmare high school was for me. I was the kid everyone made fun of for being gay, and my only outlet was music and theatre. My chorus teacher was amazing (yes, I achieved the double pop song coup and got the solo "MacArthur Park" and "Love on the Rocks"), but my theatre teacher went from being really supportive to completely boycotting me from theatre. Looking back, I realize I was totally acting out in terms of snobbery and being a know-it-all during rehearsals, but instead of working with me on it he decided to use "shock value" to teach me a lesson.
After having the lead in Whose Life Is It, Anyway? I tried out for the next play and wasn't cast at all. And it was one of the things of those dramatic high school moments where he put up the cast list and all the theatre kids saw it the same time. I kept scanning the cast list for my name and finally had to do the ol', "Congratulations everyone!" as everyone was looking at me, wide-eyed. And then I had to nonchalantly walk away while they were all whispering about what a scandale it was that I went from the lead to no role at all. Right after that, he failed me in theatre class! Yowza! Then, he told my teachers that I would only succeed in music because it's something you practice and perform by yourself but I would never make it in theatre because I can't work with other people. Well, I've proved him wrong by doing a string of one-man shows for the last 20 years. That's right, I was able to do theatre and still work by myself. Regardless, the good news is I heard that the school has changed a lot. Apparently, there's a lot more acceptance of gay kids and the music/theatre teacher, Eric Williams, is a brava.
So, my sister Beth (who's doing group sales for Disaster!) called up the school to offer them a group rate and, last Thursday, we had 90 people from Hewlett High School come to the show! And around 75 of them were kids. After the show, the whole cast did a talk back. It was so great! It reminded me of when I was president of ITS (The International Thespain Society) and we all took a trip into NYC to see Torch Song Trilogy. That happened the same night that Barbara Baekgaard came to the show.
Here's that story: A few weeks ago, I got an email from someone asking me if I'd entertain at her Mom's birthday party. Her Mom (Barbara Baekgaard) was in her 40's back in the early 80's when she scrounged together $500 and started a bag company with her friend. The company was named after Barbara's mother... Vera Bradley! That's right, the founder of Vera Bradley (they make those realy colorful/flowery bags) was turning 75 and her daughter asked me to come up with a fun evening for her because Barbara is a huge fan. Here's what we did: Vera Bradley is a family-run company so her kids surprised Barbara by getting all of them tickets to Disaster! on the night of Barbara's birthday. She wanted to meet me afterwards, but her daughter told her that I couldn't meet her because of the talk back with my high school. They all went home, we did the talk back and then the cast all went uptown... to 15 Central Park West! Yes, she lives in the same building as Denzel, Sting and other people refered to by one name. We gathered in the lobby and then took up the elevator. I rang the doorbell and her daughter let us in. I heard Barbara say, "Is that Debbie?" and as she walked over, she saw the whole cast.
She got so excited! And so did we! Not only is she super nice, but the views of Central Park are amazing! Soon, her family and friends settled down into her living room, and the cast put on a variety show for her. One of the most amazing parts featured David Hibbard, who plays Tony DelVecchio in Disaster! He spent many years in Cats playing the Rum Tum Tugger. When he first got the part, it took him 45 minutes to put on the signature make-up. At Barbara's apartment, he sang the Tugger song and, in the amount of time it took for the song to end (around three minutes), he applied all of his Tugger makeup. It was amazing!
Before the show began, Barbara told me that she spent many years hanging out at Marie's Crisis in the Village, and her one request to us was that we do "Suddenly Seymour." Turns out, I had planned to do that anyway. Phew! For the final number, I introduced Jennifer Simard and told everyone that I knew she'd be amazing as the Nun in Disaster! because she's been consistently hilarious in every show I've seen her do and I knew she could belt the mega-high notes in "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" because we've sung "Suddenly Seymour" at many hospital volunteer shows, and she always ends with a crazily high belted A! They wound up filming us at the party and here's the final with me and Jen (and her high A).
Last week, I was in Ft. Lauderdale with Patti LuPone doing our show, and then a few days later, we hit the Poconos. Since it was so close, I drove down with my Mom and she was able to see me and Patti together for the first time. It's been a few years (33 to be exact), but I've forgiven my Mom for waiting to get Evita tickets for me until after Patti had left. Yes, she got me tickets just in time to see Patti's replacement's... matinee cover. Yay? Anyhoo, my Mom loved the show (but still hasn't apologized). And, speaking of Patti, Howard McGillin, her co-star from Anything Goes came to see Disaster! last week and posed with me and Judy Gold (who plays Shirley). I have never looked shorter. Then he made a fantastic Obsessed video featuring his big song from Drood! Watch it and 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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