So, every Sunday at 8 PM I do a live concert as part of The Seth Concert Series (which is then repeated at 3 PM on Monday), and last Sunday featured the fabulous Audra McDonald. She sang up a storm (including “Your Daddy’s Son” from Ragtime which was stunning) and we also talked a lot about her years in the business. I told her that some see her as such an incredible success and don’t realize the struggles she’s had.
She then told a story about doing the made-for-TV-movie version of Annie. You have to remember, it was filmed in 1999, meaning it wasn’t that long ago. She was cast as Grace, the assistant to Oliver Warbucks, played by Victor Garber. After they finished filming, they were then told they had to come back and re-shoot the final scene. Why? Because Oliver Warbucks proposes to Grace (by showing her a ring) and the powers-that-be (she wasn’t sure exactly who) were nervous that a white man proposing to a black woman wouldn’t do well in certain markets. Again, this was 1999.
They wanted to have an alternative ending that did not include Daddy Warbucks proposing to Grace. Audra said that the entire cast, crew etc. were called back. She added that not only did everyone have to come back to work, which was a huge expense, but they were called in on a Saturday. Meaning, the budget was paying everyone extra money for coming in on a weekend. And it was simply because Audra was Black. She was devastated and angry. But she didn’t have any power to say anything. She remembers getting ready to shoot the new ending, and what happened next was the positive part of the day:
They did the first take of the new version, which excised the proposal, and Audra prepared to do it again. (When you film anything, you have to do numerous takes: wide shots, close ups, etc.) Well, Rob Marshall (the director/choreographer) did one take. That’s it. Audra felt he knew that one shot would never be usable, but by doing it once, it allowed him to say that he followed orders. Then, instead of spending the next few hours getting the proper shots so the new ending could possibly be used, Rob used the time that was already paid for to re-shoot other moments in the film! Yes, since they were spending all that money to have the cast and crew in, Rob used it to perfect the rest of the film!
When the film finally came out, as Audra suspected, the “new” ending was not used and they had to keep the ending where Victor proposed to her. The end of the story is that there was a year-end sum up of pop culture moments in some big national magazine, and she remembered it said something like, “Daddy Warbucks proposed to a Black Grace…and nobody cares.” It’s so wrong and sad that there was ever an issue.
Back in the ’90s, when I first became friends with Audra, we worked up an arrangement of “Down With Love.” It was based on the amazing Barbra Streisand version (that I think was arranged by the brilliant Peter Matz) but we changed the middle section. In Barbra’s version, she sings snippets of famous love songs…in our version, Audra sings snippets of famous Barbra love songs! Anyhoo, I found the handwritten music on my laptop, printed it out, and we performed it Sunday night. For the first time in 20 years! Watch!
At the time of this column, you can still watch the full concert!
We had Ben Stiller and his sister Amy on Stars In The House last week to celebrate their parents, Jerry Stiller and Anne Meara. If you don’t know, Stars In The House is a fundraiser for The Actors Fund and Stiller and Meara were huge supporters of the fund. We also had two surprise guests: the first was our pal Ron Guillory, who worked closely with Jerry on Seinfeld. Ron was hired by Jerry to run lines with him and he was constantly on set with him. He said Jerry was very meticulous. He was respectful of the writing and strove to get every word just as written. At first, Ron thought Jerry rehearsed so much because he had trouble memorizing, but he soon learned that it was Jerry’s process. He wanted the lines ingrained in his brain so he didn't have to think about them and could then be completely spontaneous while shooting each scene. That would result in hilarious moments not only for us…but for the cast.
We then had Jason Alexander (who played George, Jerry’s character’s son) and he remembered Jerry rehearsing a line in the police station where Elaine (Julia Louis-Dreyfus) agrees that George isn’t smart. After Elaine makes her comment, Frank (Jerry Stiller) says “What the hell does that mean?” In rehearsal, Jason said that Jerry always said the line fast. But when they were in the moment, he completely slowed down the line and both Jason and Julia Louis-Dreyfus could not stop laughing. Here’s some amazing clips of the outtakes.
Jason remembered the time he really couldn’t stop laughing, which was when Jerry had to share the bed with him and gets in with a bowl of food. After a while, he lifts the spoon towards Jason and asks “Kasha?” The hilarious outake is here at 14:15.
I worked with both Stiller and Meara at a benefit for the George Street Playhouse, and there were great singers featured like Roger Bart and Janet Metz performing. Anne and I were backstage and she was telling me how amazed she was by the singing and how she herself couldn’t sing. The specific image she gave was that when she tried to sing, “vipers” came of her mouth. Cut to: this clip of Anne and Jerry singing together and sounding so lovely. And the acting is so warm, real and beautiful!
James and I also had our pal Rosie Perez on Stars In The House. So many amazing stories!!!
She told us that she asked her first agents to get her “in the room” so she could get Jessica Lange roles. Her agent said, “Well, you’re no Jessica Lange.” Instead of being devastated, Rosie said, “Not yet, honey! I haven’t had the opportunity!” Her agent also told her to get a nose job so she’d have more opportunities. Rosie fired her ASAP and when Jennifer Grey heard the story, she got Rosie hooked up with CAA. And she also told Rosie, “Don’t ever get a nose job. Look what happened to me!”
Her agents got her in for a role in the movie Fearless, but told her it was a longshot because they wanted an Italian American woman. Rosie went to the audition and first thing the director, Peter Weir, asked her to do was pray. Rosie did a super-quick cross on her body (In the name of the father, son and the holy ghost) and he stopped her and asked her what she just did with her hands. She explained she used to be Catholic and after doing that move 1,000 times , you wind up doing the shortcut version. Peter later told her that it was at that moment he became interested…every other actress was so methodical, but Rosie was real.
She got a call back (with Jeff Bridges) and after a few weeks, they told her agent that the studio wanted to pass on her because she is Puerto Rican.They were worried about the interracial aspect of the relationship. Rosie told her agents to tell them that if they passed for that reason, she would tell everyone!!!! So instead, they called her back again (a total of four call backs) and she later found out that Peter Weir, producer Paula Weinstein, and Jeff Bridges fought for her to get the role…and she got it. And an Oscar nomination!
Here’s her big scene, which she remembers shooting numerous times. After the third take, she told the director “We got it!” But he told her that he was the director and he would make the decisions…. and she shot it over 30 times. It was emotionally exhausting. Months later, she saw him when they were doing additional sound recordings for the film, and he apologized. She didn’t know why. He asked her to watch the scene on film. She did and, sure enough, it was the third take! Here it is…and just know, she did it 27 more times!
And finally, this coming Sunday’s concert features another old pal of mine…I’ve actually known him longer than I’ve known Audra. I think I met her in 1992…I met Norm Lewis in 1989! He is one of my absolute favorite male singers ever! Get tickets for his concert at TheSethConcertSeries.com and watch this deconstruction to get you in the mood: