ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Easter Bonnet Fun and Keala Settle and Nikki M. James Talk Les Miz

By Seth Rudetsky
April 28, 2014

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



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First of all, can we all acknowledge that it's the end of April, and it's still cold out? I can't take it! It reminds me of my college alma matter, Oberlin (in Ohio). It would get warm in April and I'd wait for a slew of warm days and finally feel confident to say to say to myself, "This is it! Winter is over!" That statement would always be followed by a blizzard. At the beginning of this April, when it was warm for a minute, I ceremoniously put away my winter coat, certain that Spring had finally arrived. And now all I want to do is wear it buttoned to the top while I type this column.

Anyhoo, I know I've been writing about the Playbill Cruise every week, but I've finally written it all. Now I shall feature some fabulous video footage! Watch Brian Stokes Mitchell, Lewis Black, Howard McGillin, Roger Bart, Tommy Tune, Liz Callaway, Judy Kuhn, Christine Pedi, Lillias White, Ana Gasteyer and Alice Ripley here

Last week began with the fantastic Easter Bonnet Competition. I loved the opening number where Rory O'Malley was told the things he had to collect (a la Bernadette Peters in Into the Woods) in order to win the competition. The number consisted of signature scenes from Broadway musicals that were interrupted by Rory running onstage and snatching something. And he had so many hilarious side comments as he stole them. The first scene was the opening of The Lion King and when they held up the baby Simba, Rory ran on and grabbed it yelling "Amber alert!" Later, when he snatched the actual girl playing Matilda off the stage, he said, "Who cares? There are three more of you." Brava reference to British-style multi-casting.

Terrence McNally wrote the sketch for Mothers and Sons, which had so many inside jokes that I loved. At one point, the little boy from the cast asked Tyne Daly for an Oreo. She told him to look behind a couch cushion and then added, "If you need help, ask Celia Keenan-Bolger." It was a hilarious reference to the beginning of The Glass Menagerie when Celia made her entrance by actually crawling through a couch.

One of the most unintentionally funny parts came at the beginning of the at the beginning of the Mothers and Sons sketch. The host introduced Terrence McNally by implying that he wasn't used to being onstage and, boy, did it turn out to be true. He casually stood there with his hands behind his back, but when he started speaking, his voice was incredibly quiet. We all assumed his body mic wasn't working... until Bobby Steggart ran over and nudged Terrence's arm forward. Why? Because at the end of that arm, which was held casually behind his back, was a hand-held mic. Yes, Terrence had come out on a enormous Broadway stage, started speaking and completely didn't realize he was supposed to use the microphone he had entered with! It got a good two minute laugh from everyone, especially Terrence.

The Disaster! bonnet

I put together a "sketch" for Disaster! which featured me and Judy Gold, and really just Judy Gold. I introduced it by saying that Disaster! is a 1970's disaster movie musical and features an earthquake, tidal wave, killer bees, etc. but it doesn't feature the biggest disaster of all which Judy Gold and I both endured: Having a Jewish mother. I then admitted that the premise was simply a reason for Judy to reenact some of her classic stories about her mother. You can watch them here

She began the segment with a new one; her mother called and said:
"Judith... the Fleischmans came to see your show last week."
"And?" Judy asked. "What did they say?"
"They said they couldn't find parking for 45 minutes!"

At the end, I told the audience that I couldn't decide what kind of Easter bonnet to use in the sketch. So, first I introduced the Disaster! Easter bonnet (modeled by Juli!) which was an enormous disco ball that had landed on a body (like the poster). Then I said we also had a Jewish Broadway bonnet, and Jonah Verdon came out. I asked him to bow his head as if in prayer and that revealed a yarmulke (the Jewish part). Then I counted to three, and the big Jewish star wrapped around his head lit up. That was the Broadway part! Right afterwards, all the people wearing Easter bonnets gathered on the stage for awards section of the show which were read by a bevy of stars. Juli and Jonah got to be onstage with Fran Drescher, Idina Menzel, Bryan Cranston and Denzel Washington. And I got to be in the wings shouting, "Smile! Stand up straight!" It was a wonderful combination of Mama Rose and Abby Lee Miller.

Keala Settle

On "Seth's Broadway Chatterbox," I had Keala Settle and Nikki M. James, who are playing Madame Thenardier and her daughter Eponine in the current revival of Les Misérables. Last year, Keala was nominated for a Tony Award for Hands On A Hardbody, which was a musical based on a documentary about a real contest that takes place in Texas where a group of people compete to win a truck. Basically, they have to stand next to the truck with one hand on it for as long as they can. Whoever remains the longest wins the truck. I asked Keala if she ever made a mistake during the run of the show, and she did. Keala was in the middle of a scene and she let go of the truck. She said she put her hand back on very quickly but let me remind you that the entire plot of the show revolves around a contest where each person has to keep their hand on a truck and she took her hand off the truck.

Before Hands on a Hardbody, she spent a few years as Tracy Turnblad around the country in Hairspray. It was a great experience that she thought couldn't be replicated, so she decided to leave performing (!) and became a sound person at the Old Globe Theatre in San Diego. One of the shows she worked on was The Wiz starring her future daughter (in Les Miz) Nikki M. James! Nikki played Dorothy in that production and told me that at one point, she tripped on a bunch of stairs and almost fell into the audience while singing "Home," the big 11 o'clock number. She steadied herself and finished the song. When she came backstage, no one said anything about her tripping. Instead, someone in the cast complimented on her new riff! That's right, when her body went down the stairs, her voice went out of control for a measure, but she's so musical that the only involuntary notes her body would allow her to sing were in the chord and Mariah Carey-esque. Brava!

Nikki M. James
Photo by Michael Le Poer Trench

Keala and Nikki complained about Les Misérables rehearsals because the majority of people had done the show before. They sat down for the first day, thinking they would learn "At the End of the Day" since, after all, it was the first day of rehearsal. Instead of having their notes plunked out, they were expected to sing the whole song. Up to tempo. Keala said that all she knew of the song was, "At the end of the day, da da da da da older! Da da da da da da da da poor!" When she and Nikki weren't singing it correctly, they could both feel the passive-aggresive judgement of the rest of the cast.

The awards nominations have started to come out in full force and I was very excited when I heard that Jennifer Simard, who played the Nun with the gambling addiction in Disaster! was nominated for a Drama Desk award — Best Featured Actress in a musical! And she was also nominated for a "Distingushed Performance Award" by the Drama League! Her competition for that award is hilarious because it's basically a list of the most famous people on Broadway: Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Tyne Daly, Daniel Radcliffe, Denzel Washington, Neil Patrick Harris... to name a few! Regardless, I'm so happy for her, and I'll be at the Drama League luncheon to cheer her on and beg her to introduce me to James Franco. James was at the Easter Bonnet Competition and when Juli saw him from afar, she was acting like a 14-year-old girl. The sad part is, so was I. And Juli's 13, so she was actually being mature.

Every weekend in May I'll be a travelin'! This weekend I'll be at the Woodstock Playhouse with Patti LuPone, May 10 I'll be with Andrea McArdle in the Poconos, May 18 I'll be with Megan Hilty in Hartford Connecticut, May 25 I'll be doing a Master Class in Detroit and May 31 I'll be with Patti LuPone (again!) in Detroit. Yowza! All info is here. Tonight, Andrea Martin invited us to see her perform as the NY Pops salutes Marc Shaiman and Scott Whitman and then I'm hightalining it to the Marriot for the Actors Fund Gala honoring Disney's 20 years on Broadway. 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.)