Rosie O’Donnell Recalls the 26-Year-Old Onstage Mishap from Grease She’ll Never Forget

Seth Rudetsky   Rosie O’Donnell Recalls the 26-Year-Old Onstage Mishap from Grease She’ll Never Forget
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from his Rizzo reunion with O’Donnell, Maureen McCormick, and more!
Carlos Lopez, Jason Opsahl, Jessica Stone, Sam Harris, Ricky Paull Goldin, Megan Mullally, Hunter Foster, Heather Stokes, Rosie O'Donnell in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease.
Carlos Lopez, Jason Opsahl, Jessica Stone, Sam Harris, Ricky Paull Goldin, Megan Mullally, Hunter Foster, Heather Stokes, Rosie O'Donnell in the 1994 Broadway revival of Grease. Stan Schnier / Carmen Schiavone

We had a roomful of Rizzos on Stars in the House this week! Back in 1994, I worked on the revival of Grease for the entire run and, if you don’t know, it was the beginning of what many people call “star-casting,” bringing in big names to keep a show running. We only had about one third of the Rizzos from Broadway on Stars in the House and it was still an impressive amount!

Saturday’s show featured Rosie O’Donnell, Maureen McCormick, Lucy Lawless, Joely Fisher, Mackenzie Phillips, and Megan Mullally! FYI, Megan wasn’t an official Rizzo. She played Marty (yes, she talked about playing a 17-year-old at age 34) and she was soon asked to understudy Rizzo. Megan was apprehensive at first, but Rosie assured her that she never gets sick. Cut to: Rosie immediately got sick and Megan had to go on ASAP!

Devastatingly, Megan was never warned to turn off her “squawk box,” which is the speaker in the dressing room that allows you to hear the show and the audience. She had it on at the beginning of the show and, while she was finishing up her makeup, heard “Ladies and gentlemen. At tonight’s performance of Grease, the role of Rizzo, usually played by Rosie O’Donnell will be played by Megan Mullally.” Remember...this was Megan way before her two Emmy awards. She was making her Broadway debut and people were all there to see Rosie. Well, Megan said that right after the announcement you could hear the loud exclamations of “Goddamit!!!” followed by the sound of the backs of seats flapping upwards as people stood up furiously. That was immediately overshadowed by the sounds of Playbills being flung on the floor and people storming up the aisle for refunds. I remember her going on and nailing it…although we transposed “There Are Worse Things I Could Do” up a step to facilitate her fabulous belt!

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Megan Mullally as Rizzo

Mackenzie Phillips did the tour (with Sutton Foster as Sandy!) and then came to Broadway. I’m obsessed with what happened to my friend Paul Castree, who played Eugene. He didn’t want to act fan-obsessed with Mackenzie (who starred on the original One Day at a Time) when she came to rehearsal, so he told himself NOT to mention One Day At A Time. Of course, the amazing theme song kept going through his head relentlessly, but he didn’t say a thing. Listen here if you don’t know it.

Anyhoo, at one point, there was a quiet moment and he and Mackenzie were standing side-by-side. Silence. Suddenly, in the silence, Paul sang, “This-“ and then immediately cut himself off. Mackenzie looked at him. Silence. Finally, she added, “…-is it!” So hilarious!

Rosie piped in that she had a similar experience. When she was getting to meet Penny Marshall who was directing A League Of Their Own, she told herself to not mention Laverne no matter what. (For those of you too young to follow: Rosie starred in A League of Their Own; before directing Penny starred as Laverne on Laverne & Shirley.) Rosie kept reminding herself “NO LAVERNE.” Finally, Penny walked over and Rosie immediately said, “Hi, I’m Laverne.” That’s right! The name was so implanted in her head that it came out as her own name. Penny was like, “You’re Laverne!?!?” Cut to: A long friendship!
Here’s some A League of Their Own with Rosie and her co-star, Madonna:

And here’s one of the many commercials Rosie did with Penny back in the ’90s.

Lucy Lawless recalled joining the Grease cast and being warned by the dance captain to not get close to Marissa Jaret Winokur. Marissa was notorious for chatting onstage when the cast was supposed to be frozen.The dance captain didn’t want Lucy corrupted. Of course, Lucy immediately connected with Marissa and they’re still good friends to this day! Lucy said that they would chat onstage whenever there was a freeze but it wasn’t just idle gossip…sometimes it was joyous news. Here’s a clip from back in the day where Marissa reveals what she found out onstage.

Maureen McKormick spoke about being terrified going on in the show, but I just remember her being really sweet and friendly. She was nervous about singing, but I told her I was confident she could because I had seen her do this! (Worth the watch, right?)

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Joely Fisher

And Joely Fisher and I recalled the time she ended her run by doing a fabulous act called “Joely’s Last Stand.” Paul (Castree) and I still laugh about the time we were rehearsing it at the theatre in an area connected to the lobby and it was suddenly near half hour and we had to go backstage. The only way out was through the lobby which was filled with people. Joely didn’t want people to see her, so she did her version of being unobtrusive by curving her back and taking tiny, tiny steps. She thought that way she wouldn’t be recognized on her way to the stage door. Paul watched her and made the amazing comment “Why does being hunchbacked and tiptoeing make you ‘not famous?’” Still obsessed with that to this day!

I decided to see which of these Rizzos remembered her big song The best. I’ll let you decide who the winner was!

We also laughed about the time the understudy was on for Megan Mullally (as Marty) and forgot a vital prop. Marty is supposed to put on her glasses and Frenchie (Jessica Stone) asks “Hey, Marty! Are those new glasses?” Marty responds “Yeah! Do they make me look smarter?” and then Frenchie says, “Nah. We can still see your face!” Well, the understudy forgot the glasses and didn’t know what to do! Jessie found out about the missing glasses and told everyone she’d handle it. When it got to the moment, she looked at Marty (who wasn’t wearing glasses) and changed the line to “Hey Marty! I heard you’re going to get new glasses!” To which Marty should have replied “Yeah! Do you think they’ll make me look smarter?” and then Jessica would say “No! We’ll still be able to see your face!” Instead this is what happened:
JESSICA: Hey Marty! I heard you’re going to get new glasses!
MARTY UNDERSTUDY: NO!
Silence

That’s right, the age-old rule of improv was turned on it’s head and instead of “Yes, and...” the understudy opted to simply say “NO!”

There was complete silence and skilled comedienne Rosie O’Donnell herself only added to the silence as well. No one knew what to say.

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Jessica Stone and Maureen McCormick; Paul Castree and Maureen McCormick

Finally, Heather Stokes, who played Jan, panicked and said the next line that came to her. Unfortunately, it was a line from two pages later in the script. It also happened to be the cue for the curtain to fly open and Patty Simcox to yell “HI, KIDS!” Well, none of the crew was ready to open the curtain because Heather had skipped so much, so basically Heather said the line and Patty followed with her “HI KIDS!” but she was still behind the curtain AND her mic was off. So the audience heard Heather’s line then “Muffle, muffle” from behind the curtain which slo-o-o-o-owly opened. Soon, “Summer Nights” began and poor Sonny (played by Carlos Lopez) wasn’t even onstage yet because they had skipped over his entrance so he just slinked onstage when he heard the number began. I must say it was a pretty memorable night because we are still talking about it 26 years later!

Speaking of “Summer Nights,” I just found this video of the London production—starring American Richard Gere as Danny. I totally forgot that Broadway was mostly acoustic with mics only on the floor back in the ’70s. So if you wanted the sound of amplified voice, you had to literally hold a microphone. And that was in the staging for all the numbers! Watch him here!

Speaking of microphones, I feel like I’m constantly in tech rehearsals for my concert series because we are totally LIVE! Get tickets at TheSethConcertSeries.com.

Last week, we had Megan Hilty—who sang from Smash and Wicked. Boy, can she sing up a storm! My concert before that was with Norm Lewis. I truly am mystified by his singing; it’s so consistently stunning. He sang from Phantom, Man of La Mancha, Porgy And Bess and from our first experiences together: My Fair Lady (which we did in summer stock, 1990) and his signature (amazing) audition song from Hello, Dolly!.

Cheyenne Jackson is up next August 2, with a replay August 3. Get your tickets here!

Peace out!!!

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