Did You Know 'Nothing' Was Almost Cut From A Chorus Line? | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky Did You Know 'Nothing' Was Almost Cut From A Chorus Line?

Seth remembers his friend, legendary Broadway conductor Donald Pippin, and shares an important message from Mary Lee Marson Aloia.

Priscilla Lopez in <i>A Chorus Line</i>
Priscilla Lopez in A Chorus Line Photo by Martha Swope

The travel season has begun for me! 

This weekend, I fly to Chicago for two concerts with Jessie Mueller at Steppenwolf. Next week, I fly to San Francisco for yet another concert with Jessie. Man, oh man, her singing is so flexible. Be it folk or pop, she can belt. What a legit soprano. 

Here’s a random clip I found of a concert I did with Jessie and Megan Hilty. They’re both so good!

If you'd like to see me and Jessie in San Francisco, click here!

I’ll be back in the Midwest only a few days after leaving it. Last week, I made my second appearance at Feinstein’s in Carmel, Indiana. It’s such a nice club, located inside the fancy Hotel Carmichael. I performed Seth’s Big Fat '70s Show where I deconstruct clips from past variety shows like The Brady Bunch Hour. I’ve been watching clips from these shows with my friends for years, so I've collected all these little details and fun facts along the way. Here’s one of my favorite bits of information:

Perhaps you remember The Donny And Marie Show? On that show the dancers also doubled as ice skaters, naturally! It was the '70s, after all. The Donny And Marie Show had an ice skating rink and there were often ice-skating breaks where funky '70s disco music would play and the dancers would skate. There’d always be an overhead shot á la Busby Berkeley that looked as if you were peering through a periscope. I wouldn’t say it added up to entertainment to us television viewers, but as I explained to a teenager watching my show, it was the '70s and we had no choice. There were three channels and we watched whatever was on. Check out a typical opening number, including an ice skating break.

The Brady Bunch Hour, which went on the air in 1976, didn’t feature an ice skating rink. Instead, there was a swimming pool. Essentially, the makers of the television show melted the rink and whatever liquid was left, was chlorinated. So, that show had swimmer/dancers or, as I like to call them, “swancers." Like The Donny And Marie Show, there would be similar breaks in the songs for group swim moments, á la ice skating moments with the requisite overhead shots.

In other numbers, the "swancers" were the backup dancers. There are definitely a lot of bloopers or missteps throughout most '70s variety shows.  The general thought by the creators of these variety shows seemed to be that the performance did not have to be perfect, because once it aired, the episode would be gone forever. Hardly anyone had a Betamax in those days! Despite the "one and done" mentality, the original episodes still exist, and there are so many fun clips online. 

I love the one below. In my extensive research on '70s variety shows, I read a story told by one of the Brady Bunch “swancers." She talked about being on the wrong side of the stage during a long production number. Instead of asking them to stop filming so she could cross to the other side, she “snuck” across the back of the stage. Unfortunately, her sneaking stunk. She’s in an ostentatious costume and she is decidedly not hidden when she starts her clandestine cross. After she told the story, I was able to research the clip and found it. The timecode of her stinky sneak is about 4:26. Watch the right of the screen!

The most fun part of my show for me is at the end when I bring up audience members and teach them some actual choreography. After they learn it, we perform the number in front of the screen like at The Rocky Horror Picture Show. Amazingly, my friends Cara Serber and Andrew Elliot provided '70s wigs and costumes, which added such a fantastic layer to the performance. Here’s a shot of me and the audience on stage right after singing and dancing “Love To Love You Baby” and “Baby Face," a song originally from the 1920s remix for disco.

I’m performing Seth’s Big Fat '70s Show at the Smith Center in Las Vegas on February 14th. Shake your groove thing with us by buying your tickets here!

Seth Rudetsky and audience members of his variety show, Seth's Big Fat 70s Show Seth Rudetsky

Last week on SiriusXM, I interviewed my old pal, Mary Lee Marson Aloia. I met Mary Lee at the Surflight Summer Theatre, the first summer stock at which I was the Assistant Music Director. It was amazing. We put on one show every week. The first week we got there, we rehearsed Promises, Promises and by the following Tuesday, we were performing it. The next day, we rehearsed Applause during the day and performed Promises, Promises at night. The next Tuesday, we opened Applause, and started rehearsing Grease during the day. We never had a night off for three months. It was so much fun!

Mary Lee and Seth Rudetsky when they did Grease at summer stock! Seth Rudetsky

Mary Lee and I bonded because of Promises, Promises. She had been at Surflight the year before and was always getting leading roles. When she came back for her second summer, the year I started there, the cast list went up and she wasn’t the lead. She kept looking, but she wasn't any of the principle parts. She couldn't find her name next to anyone with a character name or even in the chorus. Mary Lee was cast as one of the three backup singers who provided extra harmonies. 

Mary Lee triumphantly came back to Surflight to sing three-part harmony on a few songs. The three singers sat near my piano, so we all bonded, and Mary Lee and I really became good friends. We’ve kept in touch throughout the years and now Mary Lee runs Staten Island Family Music and co-runs Spotlight Repertory Company, a not-for-profit professional theatre company on Staten Island. 

I had her talk about the fact that for a while she was feeling super tired. Mary Lee would walk upstairs and immediately note where a chair was so she could sit down. She began to think that maybe this was a sign of getting older, but as she was only in her 50s, it seemed like she was too tired to chalk it up to age alone. Finally, she went to a doctor and asked for a stress test. He told her she was experiencing reflux and referred her to a gastro doctor. Mary Lee asked him for a stress test again, and he said he would do it after she saw a gastro doctor. 

Mary Lee kept feeling badly and continued to visit doctors. The doctors would take her blood pressure, see a super high reading, and discount it as nerves caused by simply visiting the doctor's office. Mary Lee would wake up in the middle of the night and feel like a vest was tightening around her chest. She finally went to the emergency room, demanded a stress test, and failed it. Three of her heart arteries were 85% blocked and the other one was 100% blocked! She was so close to dying, yet not a single doctor had taken her seriously. 

Luckily, Mary Lee received surgery right away and is now doing much better. Her experience has inspired her to get the word out to people, especially women. Only you know your body. If you feel something is wrong, do not let a doctor brush you off. Mary Lee noted that heart disease is the leading cause of death for women in the United States. Check out the symptoms here. My male readers should pay attention to this, too! If you or one of your friends experiences these symptoms, please ask them to get checked out. 

Mary Lee and Seth Rudetsky now. Seth Rudetsky

I want to also say I would be remiss in not memorializing the late, great Donald Pippin who passed away in 2022. I grew up loving all the shows that he conducted, musically directed, or vocally arranged. He is known specifically for his work on Mame and, my absolute favorite, A Chorus Line

I met Don right after I graduated Oberlin and he was always so kind to me. Don was such a famous Broadway conductor and I always found it so incredible that I was able to talk to him so openly about the shows he was working on. He told me many incredible stories, like how whenever he would arrange the vocals in a musical, everyone knew they would be singing at the very top of their ranges. A great example of this is the title song from Mame. Listen closely to how high the sopranos have to sing at the end.

He also told me about working with film-star-turned-Broadway-star, Lauren Bacall. Lauren was cast as the star of Applause and was concerned she wouldn’t sing well enough to do the musical. Since Don was going to conduct the show, she asked him to come to her voice lesson. After the lesson, she intoned, “Well? What did you think?” He told her, “You sound like a moose, but a musical moose.” 

What he meant by this was yes, her tone was bizarre and damaged from smoking, but she had an innate musicality. Don believed she could indeed star in a musical. He was right! Lauren wound up winning the Tony Award.

Don also told me first hand this hilarious Ethel Merman and Lauren Bacall story. It’s not apocryphal, because he was there! 

Don was conducting Lauren in her second musical, Woman Of The Year, and who was sitting right behind his conductor's podium in the audience but Broadway’s premier belter, Ethel Merman. Don remembers Lauren coming centerstage and singing her first bass notes. Immediately, Ethel Merman's distinctive voice rang out, "Jesus Christ!"

Don was an amazing classical pianist. In the '70s, the musical Shenandoah came to Broadway. The score is so great, but playing the piano part in the orchestra is super difficult. Don was asked if he could be the pianist for the show because he had such great technique. Even though Don had a Tony Award for conducting, he joined the pit orchestra. His extreme clean and precise playing can be heard notably on this song. Listen to these piano chops!

As I mentioned above, Don was the music director and vocal arranger for one of my absolute all time favorite shows, A Chorus Line. After Marvin Hamlisch passed, I had Don, Priscilla Lopez, and Donna McKechnie on my SiriusXM show. He had so many fantastic Chorus Line stories. Here is just one:

Priscilla, who originated the role of Diane Morales, and Don talked about when the song “Nothing” was first written. Priscilla remembered that she wept when Marvin and lyricist Ed Kleban first played it for her. They had taken one of the worst things that happened to her and turned it into one of the best things she could ever receive, a fantastic solo in an upcoming Broadway show. 

After they incorporated staging and rehearsed for a while, the entire cast was sitting onstage getting notes as usual. There were plenty of mundane notes, like reminding everyone to sing out through group numbers and make sure the kicks were all the same height. As they wrapped up the notes session, Michael Bennett added "Oh, by the way, 'Nothing' is cut." What!?

Priscilla was devastated. She knew it was a great song. What was wrong? 

Well, and here is where Don then took over telling the story on the show because, turns out, he played an important part in getting it reinstated. He told us that "Nothing" was originally staged with lots of dancers. The dancers were behind Priscilla during the entire song and they acted out all the events of the song. Don told us that after the song was cut, he was in a meeting with the creative team. Right before he left, and he remembered specifically his hand on the doorknob in this moment, he said, "You know, 'Nothing' is a comedy number. There are so many people on stage that it's difficult to hear any of the lyrics." 

Michael asked him to repeat what he said. Don did and then he left. Instead of cutting the number, Michael Bennett cut everyone else out of it. Suddenly the song worked! Not only did Priscilla love performing that song, she also loved the fact that it marked the first time in the show that a performer was on stage by themselves. Brava!

Don Pippin was such an important part of Broadway. His work has made an impact on music directors, pianists, and performers everywhere. Anyone who knew him, loved him. His legacy as a brilliant conductor and vocal arranger will live on in the original cast recordings of Oliver!, Mame, A Chorus Line, La Cage Aux Folles and more. Anywhere in the world a Diane Morales sings, "Nothing!," his presence will be felt. Farewell, Maestro.

James Wesley, Seth Rudetsky, Jennifer Simard and Don Pippin at the 2017 Tony Awards Seth Rudetsky
 
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