Seth Rudetsky Recounts Harrowing Anecdotes from Brian Stokes Mitchell and Santino Fontana | Playbill

Seth Rudetsky Seth Rudetsky Recounts Harrowing Anecdotes from Brian Stokes Mitchell and Santino Fontana This week, Seth continues to celebrate his birthday with Broadway stories and more.
Dramatists Guild Foundation Gala_2019_HR
Brian Stokes Mitchell Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Well, my birthday was February 28, but I’m still celebrating. I hate for things to end, so I’ve refused to open up most of my presents! I’ve decided to extend my birthday as long as I can…which reminds me of Lillias White’s character in Romance In Hard Times by William Finn (whose birthday is also February 28!). Lillias played a pregnant woman who doesn’t want to bring her baby into a messed up world so she refuses to give birth. She’s pregnant for more than a year. Here’s an audio clip of her singing to her unborn baby—and sounding so good!

Anyhoo, I worked on my birthday, which I always like doing. Off the top of my head, I remember playing piano for a put-in rehearsal for Grease on my birthday back in the 90’s and loving it. And I had a two-show day when I was doing Disaster! on Broadway in 2016. And I was announcing the upcoming season at The Smith Center in Las Vegas in 2017. And this year, I was doing a live concert with Tony winner Brian Stokes Mitchell. We’ve moved my concert series to Sundays at 3PM ET because we get more people watching around the world due to the fact that 3 PM is a better time in Europe. Stokes sounded so great on all of his signature songs from Ragtime, Man Of La Mancha, South Pacific, etc., and, between songs, we talked about the highs and lows of his career. His first Broadway show was Mail by Michael Rupert and Jerry Colker. The show did amazingly out-of-town and the cast was ready to do a very long run on Broadway, but Michael (who was a Broadway vet) warned them that it was hard to predict what runs and what doesn’t on Broadway. Suffice it to say, Mail had an extremely short run…but what a cast! Stokes and Michael and Mary Bond Davis and Michelle Pawk and, when it was out of town, Brad Wong. Brad left before the show transferred to do M. Butterfly (and win a Tony!) and become B. D. Wong. I met Stokes when he came back to Broadway in Kiss of the Spider Woman playing Valentin. I was the rehearsal pianist for him (and then Howard McGillin, who took over from Jeff Hyslop, and then Vanessa Williams, who took over from Chita Rivera).

Brian Stokes Mitchell in <i>Ragtime</i>
Brian Stokes Mitchell in Ragtime Sony Music

We became pals and, during our concert, I told everyone the story of when I first played Ragtime. Stokes was leading man Coalhouse Walker and I was a piano sub, filling in for the main pianist, Steve Marzullo. It’s a very exposed piano part and I was excited to play it on Broadway…but definitely scared! Well, I was so pleasantly surprised when Stokes took the time to come to the pit in the middle of the show and tell me that I sounded great. It gave me so much confidence and it was such a kind gesture. He had so much to focus on as the leading man and he still took the time to reach out to me. After I reminded Stokes of that story, he said he modeled that behavior from observing Chita Rivera leading the cast of Spider Woman. He thought that if he ever had the chance to lead a show, he wanted to be like her! (P.S. Jason Alexander said the same thing after doing The Rink with her.)

During my online concerts, the live audience can ask questions, and one was about mishaps during Ragtime. Stokes remembered the time the nurse who was carrying Baby Coalhouse (played by a doll) let go of the baby in the middle of the scene. She didn’t just fumble with the baby, she dropped it on the floor! Of course, she quickly picked it back up, but everyone had seen so she needed to say something to relax the audience. She looked at the baby and then at Coalhouse and Mother and added the reassuring line “He’s all right.” Ah. That’s all anyone has to say after dropping my baby on the floor to make me secure there isn’t horrific long-term damage.

Another audience person asked Stokes if there was ever a role he was scared to do. Well, he told us that he was offered the title role in August Wilson’s King Hedley ll, but it was last-minute and he only had 9 days (!) to learn it. He said that doing the show led to the only time he had a “nervous breakdown.” Before the first preview, he and Leslie Uggams decided to run the lines of their first scene. They started their scene backstage and when he got to his seventh line, he couldn’t remember it. At all. He quickly found the director backstage and walked him to a private area so the cast wouldn’t see. Stokes then completely freaked out asking, “What was I thinking? Learning this in 9 days!?” The show was literally about to start and the director asked if they should cancel that evening’s performance. Stokes didn’t want that and just hoped for the best. He began the first scene with Leslie and soon they were approaching the line he didn’t know. He finally got to the line and…he magically remembered it! It was one of those, just relax and it will happen moments. The bad news was, there was a lot of yelling in the show and Stokes didn’t have time to figure out how to protect his voice. By the end of the run, his voice was in such bad shape that he had to have bilateral vocal surgery. It’s something he’s never talked about, but he felt OK telling everyone now. He devastatingly wondered if he might never be able to sing again. He was getting ready for Man Of La Mancha and sitting in at auditions to see who’d be playing Aldonza, Sancho, etc., but all the time wondering whether his voice would come back and he’d be able to sing. The good news is…the surgery worked! Listen to how great he sounded at our concert here.

Scarlett Johansson, Santino Fontana and Liev Schreiber
Scarlett Johansson, Santino Fontana and Liev Schreiber

Speaking of injuries and The Seth Concert Series, last week’s concert starred Santino Fontana, who was his hilarious, charming self. However, we talked about the time he was in A View From The Bridge when he hit his head during an onstage fight scene. He didn’t feel great afterwards and called his friend who was a doctor, who asked Santingo if he’d thrown up. Santino told him he hadn’t and the doctor was relieved and told him it was only worrisome if he threw up. A few hours later, Santino threw up. The next day, the theatre sent him to a doctor who told him he’d be fine. A few days later, he was eating with Rosemarie Tichler (from the Public Theater) who told him that he seemed off and should see another doctor. Well, after doing tests they discovered Santino had a brain contusion the size of a baseball. They told him that the only way to heal it was to rest it. That meant to completely limit his brain activity. He had to stay in a dark room—for two weeks. I assumed that meant he couldn’t do a lot of activity and maybe could occupy himself with books and music, but the answer was no. Any of that would require brain activity. So, he just had to stay by himself, completely in the dark! No stimulus. They told him he might never get back his ability to memorize (AKA be an actor). The doctor asked if he had any “non-cognitive skills.” For a while, he couldn’t get through the alphabet without having to stop. He wound up moving back West with his parents, and it took a year for him to fully heal. But heal he did! And he came back at full sass! But wowza…what a scary story.

P.S. My next concert is Sunday with two-time Tony nominee Eva Noblezada from Miss Saigon and Hadestown. Get tix at

And just to show Santino is back at full sass…here he is doing his duet from the film Frozen. He’s singing his regular part but, instead of his duet partner Kristen Bell, Santino replaced her by singing Princess Anna as Dorothy from his Tony Award winning performance in Tootsie. Watch, then peace out!

From Ragtime to Shuffle Along: Celebrating Brian Stokes Mitchell's Greatest Stage Roles

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