How Billy Porter Filled In for Henrik in A Little Night Music

Seth Rudetsky   How Billy Porter Filled In for Henrik in A Little Night Music
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from Carnegie Mellon alum Billy Porter, Ty Taylor, Michael McElroy and more, failed attempts to fix onstage problems in this Sondheim musical, and Rachel Bay Jones sings from Next to Normal.

It is almost September. I was thinking of that saying “If a tree falls in the forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?” and I changed it to “If a summer happens and I don’t do any of the things I normally do in the summer, did it actually happen?” Every summer for years, I do one or two Broadway cruises and I spend almost every weekend performing shows in Provincetown. Well, I haven’t done a cruise since February and I haven’t set foot in Provincetown. Yet, next week is September. Or is it?

Speaking of September, it’s back-to-school time (and I hope it’s remote learning for everyone!) and I have a new season of my podcast, Seth Rudetsky’s Back-To-School, coming out! My second season is going to start very soon with the hilarious Martin Short, but why don’t you listen to my first season first? The podcast is all about celebrities in high school and my premiere episode starred Tina Fey! Then I had Vanessa Williams, Jason Alexander, Bob the Drag Queen, Allison Janney, Michael Urie, Bebe Neuwirth, Rosie O’Donnell, and Sean Hayes. Listen (and subscribe!) here.

On Tuesday we had a reunion of some amazing musical theatre graduates from Carnegie Mellon University on Stars In The House. Jack Plotnick, Michael McElroy, Tami Tappan, Ty Taylor, Eric Woodall and Billy Porter all went to school there and joined us. Before the show, James said I was acting like I went there with them and I sort of feel like I did!

I became friends with Billy and Eric the year before they graduated, when we all worked at Candlewood Theatre over the summer. Eric (who became a big casting director in New York and now runs North Carolina Theater) was an intern for the summer and appeared in all the shows’ ensembles. And Billy was cast in Dreamgirls as C. C. White, Effie’s brother. We all kept in touch and Billy called me the following winter to say he was in a production of Dreamgirls in Pittsburgh with a lot of CMU (Carnegie Mellon) peeps and the music director needed help sassing it up. I flew down, stayed with him and had an amazing time with that cast, including Natalie Venetia Belcon (Gary Coleman in Avenue Q) as Deena, Michael McElroy as Curtis, Vanita Harbour as Lorrell, and Virginia Woodruff as Effie. We all had such a great time laughing about old times like...

The time there was a production of A Little Night Music with Jack as Henrik. For some reason, things kept going officially wrong with the production, including Jack completely losing his voice and Eileen Kaden Dean, who played Charlotte, having to have emergency appendix surgery. Jack finally admitted, years later, that he and Natascia Diaz caused it all. Turns out, they were constantly backstage during rehearsal running lines from a scene they were working on….from the show Macbeth! Everyone knows that if you say “Macbeth” in a theatre, you have bad luck! And when I say, Jack lost his voice, I mean it was gone. He couldn’t sing at all.

Here’s how they “solved” it:

During “A Weekend In The Country,” which is a group number, Henrik has a big solo near the end of the song. The director had Ty Taylor sing Jack’s solo while standing in back of Jack…and Jack was told to walk around and act as if Ty was expressing what he was thinking. So, it was a lot of Jack pacing and making a “thinking” face while Ty sang up a storm. Audience enjoyment = possible. Audience confusion = complete.

The other problem that needed solving was Jack’s big song, “Later.” The solution was to have Jack lipsync it all while having Billy Porter sing it into a microphone backstage. Well, the song began and Jack started lipsync-ing it as Billy sang. However, Billy’s microphone wasn’t working! So, poor Jack was center stage where he could vaguely hear Billy singing backstage, but the audience heard nothing! Jack had no choice but to “sing” the song with his horrible raspy voice down the octave. This time, audience enjoyment = Zero. #ThanksMacbeth

Speaking of Billy, he got to Stars In The House five minutes late. Why? He had to take a phone call with Amy Klobuchar. For real! And, if you don’t know, he had just sung on the DNC. Yes, he’s hobnobbing with Michelle Obama and Presidential candidates, or, as he described himself as soon as he came on: “She’s a political b*tch now!”

Billy said that when he came into CMU, he could sing and dance, but knew he had to work on his acting. He remembered a student talent show freshman year when Jack asked Billy to do a comedy scene playing a construction worker. Billy told him that he appeared too gay to play a construction worker and he wasn’t funny. Jack told him to give it a chance, that Jack would direct him. Trust him. Billy remembers agreeing and when he finally did the scene, his first line got such a big laugh that they had to hold! Billy had tears in his eyes recalling the story. Billy thanked Jack for “seeing him” in a way that the teachers weren’t able to see him. He said Jack saw an aspect of him that the people who were being paid to see their students’ capabilities weren’t seeing. It was so moving!

Throughout the live stream, there was so much support between them all. Ty talked about when Billy created the role of Teen Angel in Grease (please watch!)

Billy knew that the role of Doody (originated by Sam Harris) was going to open up and told Ty to have his agent get him an audition. Ty’s agent wouldn’t submit him because the only “black role” was Teen Angel. Billy then told him to call Jeff Calhoun (the director) directly and Ty went in and got the part. And, he lamented, he still had to pay his agent his commission…for a role his agent wouldn’t submit him for!

Side note: I was conducting a matinée or Grease one day and I told Ty he should change the ending of “Magic Changes” and go to a high D flat instead of an A flat. I don’t know what I was thinking (I guess I didn’t think he would actually do it) and I don’t what he was thinking…but he actually did it. And it was CRAZY. Not bad, not good…but crazy!!!! We tried to recreate it in this Obsessed!.

And there are so many other memories. I remember a few years after college when Tami got the call to play Ellen in Miss Saigon and she is so naturally humble that she kept assuming it was for the understudy. The casting person had to reiterate it was for the role itself! If you’ve never heard Tami, listen to this amazingness:

And McElroy and I will always bond over the “dead-eyed vibrato” we witnessed during a production of Dreamgirls. Here’s the whole story:

And, of course, Jack and I have been writing comedy together since we first officially worked together…right after he graduated Carnegie Mellon and was cast as the swing in Pageant and I was the conductor. We began with a sketch show we called An Evening With Joyce DeWitt and got to Broadway with our musical Disaster!. He’s been spending his COVID-19 time making amazing videos. Here’s his latest:

In other news, my concert series is going strong! You can still see Stephanie J. Block’s concert on demand (where she sang from Funny Girl, The Cher Show, Wicked and so much more) and this coming Sunday at 8PM ET (and then Monday at 3PM ET) I’m with Sierra Boggess! Then Karen Olivo and then Jeremy Jordan! Info and tickets at TheSethConcertSeries.com.

Here’s a song from Sunday’s concert when Rachel Bay Jones sang from Next To Normal (in which she starred last February at the Kennedy Center). SO GOOD!

Watch Rachel and then peace out!

Click Here to Shop for Theatre
Merchandise in the Playbill Store
 
Today’s Most Popular News: