What Did Dorothy Hammerstein Tell Cloris Leachman After Her First Performance in South Pacific?

Seth Rudetsky   What Did Dorothy Hammerstein Tell Cloris Leachman After Her First Performance in South Pacific?
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth also hangs with the cast of Grey's Anatomy.
George Britton and Cloris Leachman in <i>South Pacific</i>, 1952
George Britton and Cloris Leachman in South Pacific, 1952 ©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Hello from snowy New York! One of the only good things about the pandemic (or pan-damn-demic as Stars In The House guest host Brenda Braxton calls it) is that I’m not traveling all the time. Storms are one of the biggest stress factors about doing concerts in the winter because I never know if my flight is going to be delayed or cancelled. And I usually travel a lot! James was doing our taxes recently and he told me that during the first week in January 2020, I did a concert in Provincetown, then flew from Provincetown to Boston to Florida to do another concert—and then flew up to Boston to do a third one. That’s a lot of contaminated water!

The other good thing about the pandemic is I can do concerts from my house and instead of leaving the day before the concert, I just arrive at my piano 10 minutes before the concert! And my dog Mandy can be right next to me. Good girl! I just did one of my live concerts with Jeremy Jordan and his wife Ashley Spencer, with whom I became obsessed when I first heard her on the Grease reality TV show.

American_Son_Broadway_Opening_Night_2018_Party_02_HR.jpg
Ashley Spencer and Jeremy Jordan Joseph Marzullo/WENN

In my first column I wrote: “Most Likely Sandy So Far: Ashley, the first girl to sing. She's a cocktail waitress who saved her wages for a week to get to the audition, and she looked and sounded the most Sandy-ish to me. Brava!” Recapping that series was my second job at Playbill (recapping the British series casting the musical Oliver! was my first) Here’s the first Grease recap.

You can still watch the Jeremy and Ashley concert if you go to TheSethConcertSeries.com. Coming up (every Sunday at 8PM ET) is Christy Altomore, Santino Fontana, and then another fabulous couple: Stephanie J. Block and Sebastian Arcelus.

Speaking of couples, we’re having game nights a lot more often on Stars In The House and we recently had Liz Callaway and her husband Dan Foster. He told a fabulous story about the power of TV that I love. Back in the 80s, he was on the soap All My Children and needed to get his driver’s license renewed. He was told that the lines at the NYC DMV were super long, so he decided to fly to his home state of Rhode Island for the renewal. Dan flew at the end of his filming day and got to the DMV r-i-i-i-i-ight as it was closing.

He walked in and the woman behind the counter told him they had just closed. He explained to her that he had flown all the way from NYC to get his license renewed but she just stared at him wide-eyed. Suddenly, she said “Wait! You’re on my story!” He was perplexed at first, but then realized she recognized him from her from the soap opera. Her supervisor then walked in and again told him they were closed. The first woman then explained “But he’s on our story!” Dan suddenly got an idea. There was a giant murder mystery plot happening on All My Children and the murderer was finally going to be revealed the following Tuesday. He made them an offer: if they would renew his license, he would write down the name of the murderer and put it in an envelope. He then made them promise they wouldn’t open it up until the following Monday, so they’d know in advance…but only by one day. It worked. He got his license and they found out the murderer was…Robert LuPone! A-5-6-7-kill!

The cast of <i>Grey&#39;s Anatomy</i> on <i>Stars in the House</i>.
The cast of Grey's Anatomy on Stars in the House.

On Stars In The House, we had a Grey’s Anatomy gathering with lots of the stars of the series. The fabulous Chandra Wilson, who is on the council of the Actors Fund, organized everyone who appeared. She told us that, years ago, she was between jobs and having money problems. The Actors Fund helped her out financially and she promised herself that, if she was ever in the position to help one day, she would…and she has! It really made me realize one of the great things the Actors Fund does: they keep people in the arts so we can enjoy them in our favorite musicals, plays, TV shows, and films. When artists hit a financial hardship, they reevaluate their career and often consider leaving their chosen field for something secure. The Actors Fund helps people get through rough spots so they can stay artists. If the Actors Fund hadn’t helped Chandra, maybe she would have left the business and then we never would have had the pleasure of seeing her wonderfully hard-assed but warm portrayal of Dr. Bailey on Grey’s Anatomy for 17 seasons!

Chandra Wilson as <i>Chicago</i>'s Mama Morton
Chandra Wilson as Chicago's Mama Morton

Years ago, I interviewed Chandra while she was playing Mama Morton in Chicago. She told me that she had always worked as an actress since she was at NYU, but a lot of it wasn’t well-paying, so she decided she needed something steady to supplement her income. She got a night-time computer job where she was eventually promoted and allowed to work remotely. When she was cast in Grey’s Anatomy, she quit. Actually, no. She literally kept her day job for the first two seasons! “You never know,” she said.

When the casting notice first went out for Grey’s Anatomy, Dr. Bailey was described as a short, blonde white woman. Her agent (and mine, P.S.) Richard Fischer from Abrams Artists got Chandra an appointment for the role (even though she was nothing like the description) and her audition was put on tape. Even though she wasn’t what they were looking for, she was flown to L.A. for the final round of auditions. She found out that her only competition was one other actress, and the feedback was that the other actress walked in and “took control of the room” like the character. So, when Chandra went in for the network, she did her own version of taking control of the room.

After she auditioned, she was perfunctorily thanked and walked down the stairs to get to her car. Well, as she was walking, she heard the network people praising and profusely thanking the other woman who auditioned. Chandra was annoyed overhearing it because they didn’t even wait until she was out of the building to heap praise on her competition. Cut to Chandra getting the part and learning the show-biz lesson about auditioning that I wrote about in my first novel, Broadway Nights. Oftentimes, when the powers-that-be know you weren’t cast and can’t tell you, they act extra nice so you still feel good about your talent. This is a direct quote: “Amount of thanking and ‘great job-ing’ is equal to the amount of flat-out rejection and no-way Jose-ing (T/G.J. = R/N.W.J.).” The fun reveal was that Chandra's competition was: Kristin Chenoweth! I think it worked out pretty well for both of them!

P.S. Speaking of Broadway Nights and Kristin, there’s a character in my book named Françoise who is super-annoying and the archrival to the main character Stephen. In the Audible.com version of the book, I play Stephen and Kristin plays Françoise! You can get the audio book at Audible.com.

Seth Rudetsky and Cloris Leachman
Seth Rudetsky and Cloris Leachman Courtesy of Seth Rudetsky

I was sad to hear the fabulous Cloris Leachman passed away last week. I’ve always been a super fan of hers. I loved her neediness/bitchery on The Mary Tyler Moore show and was so moved by her portrayal of a lonely housewife having an affair with a young man in The Last Picture Show. I was thrilled I got to work with her on the final episode of Kathy Griffin; My Life On The D-list. I wrote about my experience filming with her back in 2010: Cloris is a great pianist, and we staged her song so that in the middle of it, she'd push me off the bench and launch into a piano solo. She played, sang great, and ended it on a sassy belted B flat. I, of course, asked her about playing Nellie in the original South Pacific. If you don't know, she auditioned for the national tour, and Rodgers and Hammerstein offered her the role in New York, London, or the national tour and then gave her four weeks on Broadway so she could see what it was like. She got tears in her eyes describing how, after her first performance, Oscar Hammerstein's wife came backstage and told Cloris it was as if the star had been standing right behind Hammerstein the whole time he was writing the show. Here’s one of the scenes we did together. Watch and enjoy her sassafrass! Then peace out!

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