How Lea DeLaria Got Her Big Broadway Break

Seth Rudetsky   How Lea DeLaria Got Her Big Broadway Break
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth celebrates Pride with Lea DeLaria stories, plus Jessie Mueller sings “On My Own” in this clip from their concert.
Lea DeLaria
Lea DeLaria

It’s Pride Month so I thought I would dedicate this column to a groundbreaking lesbian…Ms. Lea DeLaria. This is culled from interviews I’ve done with her on Seth Speaks and my concert series in Provincetown. Lea has succeeded in stand-up, Broadway, jazz, TV and being hilarious!

She began doing stand-up in San Francisco in the '80s and her stage name was simply "That F*cking Dyke." She became successful but had to get rid of the stage name and go back to being Lea DeLaria because when she'd walk down the street people would yell from their cars, "F*cking Dyke!!!" She legit didn't know if they were fans or if they were harassing her.

In the late '90s, she flew in from California when she was asked to audition for the George C. Wolfe-directed On the Town — and she got the role of Hildy, the brash cab driver (originally played by Nancy Walker in 1944).

She remembered that the very first person cast was Jesse Tyler Ferguson right after he graduated AMDA. He played the young World War II soldier from a small town on leave in Manhattan for one day who gets picked up (literally and figuratively) in her cab. They had great chemistry and wound up working together many times after that. Here they are doing the taxi number when they appeared on The Rosie O'Donnell Show back in 1997.

P.S. There's a lyric in the song about Tobacco Road, which was a long running hit back in the '30's about lower class people. AfterTobacco Road closed, a play called Angel Street opened which was basically the same, but it was instead about upper class people. Most people who do Broadway know that when an audience is only elderly people, you usually won't be getting a lot of laughs. Well, Lea and Jesse knew they knew they were in for a laugh-free show when they'd sing the Tobacco Road joke and get sounds of recognition because that reference only makes sense to people who were seeing plays in the 1930s!

Back to when she was first cast: Lea only had experience doing TV and film so when they began dress rehearsals she told someone, "I can't wait to see what the make-up person does with my make-up!" She then found out that Broadway ain't like TV and the make-up person's name was “Lea DeLaria”. #DoItYourself.

Anyhoo, the show played its opening night at the Delacorte in Central Park and, after the party, she and her manager wanted to see the reviews. Remember, this was before everything was on the internet so they had to hike down to the New York Times building at 2 AM to get a copy of a fresh paper. Lea said she started reading the first paragraph and saw that it mentioned her in glowing terms. Then the second. Then the third. At that point, she remembers that she sat on the sidewalk to keep reading. In total, there were seven paragraphs lauding her! Brava NYC musical debut!

From the Archives: Here Comes Lea DeLaria in On the Town—Born to Make People Laugh

Soon, "I Can Cook, Too!" became her signature song and she was asked to sing it at many events, including the big Leading Ladies concert at Carnegie Hall. It starred a plethora of women who were mega-Broadway stars. Lea was freaked out to be performing with so many big luminaries until she saw Audra McDonald backstage. Audra walked by and told Lea that she was a nervous wreck. Lea then thought, "Wait…if a Tony winner is nervous, then it's OK that I'm nervous," and that made her calm down. I actually remember that night very well because I played for Audra! She did a version of "Down With Love," the climax of which I arranged. We ripped off the Barbra Streisand version of the song for the first part, but changed the middle where Barbra mocks a medley of love songs. Instead, we interpolated a medley of love songs by Barbra herself (!) and then at the end I added a shout-out to the love song Audra sang when she won her first Tony. It was so fun! Here’s my deconstruction of Barbra’s vs. Audra’s.

P.S. Lea obviously got over her nervousness because she then went on and sassed her song.

Speaking of Audra, Lea said she knew she had to share a dressing room at Carnegie Hall with one of the other ladies and hoped it was with Audra. “Because you're a fan, I asked?” Lea said, "No, because she's HOT!" Lea's wishes weren't exactly granted. She didn't get to share a dressing room with Audra, but she did get to share one with another great lady of the theatre, but one who was perhaps not as "hot": Elaine Stritch.

In other news, my new concert series is going so well! Usually they’re at 8PM ET (and then repeated Mondays at 3PM), but this coming Sunday, I have a concert with Lea Salonga….at 9AM ET !! Why? Because Lea is in Manila and there’s a 12-hour time difference. The whole thing is completely live so we had to find a time that wasn’t horrifying to either of us. Start brewing coffee for yourself and buy a ticket at TheSethConcertSeries.com.

P.S. You can watch the second airing of the concert on Monday at 8PM ET. We had a rehearsal already (at 9AM!!!) and Lea sounds amazing singing her hits from Mulan, Aladdin, and Les Misérables. Speaking of Les Misérables, during my concert with Jessie Mueller, I randomly starting vamping “On My Own” and Jessie joined in, sounding fantastic! WATCH!

You can buy also buy tickets for my next concerts with Melissa Errico (July 5 & 6) and Audra McDonald (July 12 & 13) at TheSethConcertSeries.com. And soon we’ll be announcing who’s performing after Audra. Stay tuned and peace out!

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