Interview – Seth Rudetsky
Bruce Kimmel: Hello, Seth Rudetsky, Mr. Chatterbox himself, and welcome to haineshisway.com Okay, let’s dive right in – let’s talk about little Seth Rudetsky – where do you hail from?
Seth Rudetsky: Fortunately and unfortunately, from Long Island. Unfortunately because my neighborhood was not the most accepting (see: RHAPSODY IN SETH) and fortunately, because I was close to NYC so I saw a ton of Broadway shows growing up.
BK: So there you are, little Seth Rudetsky – when did you first become aware of musicals and/or theater and what was the first cast album you can vividly remember hearing? Also, what was the first show you saw on stage?
SR: In my RHAPSODY IN SETH, I play a tape of me right before my third birthday singing that toddler classic “Ooh, My Feet” from The Most Happy Fella! I loved that song so much and it became one of my “audition songs” when I was a pre-teen. I then became obsessed with The Pajama Game after my parents took me to see the Broadway revival with Hal Linden & Cab Callaway. Since my parents were big theatre fans, the first show they took me to (at age 5) was HAIR. I remember seeing the people walk down the armrests at the beginning of the show and I remember my Mom putting her hands over my eyes during the nude scene.
BK: When did it hit you, Seth Rudetsky, that you wanted to be a musician? Did you take piano lessons from an early age, and did you have classical aspirations?
SR: My sister Beth (I don’t know why we had rhyming names. I only know that it was annoying) played piano and I became interested because of her. The first time I realized I had talent was when I played “Comin’ Round the Mountain” from John Thompsons’ Teaching Little fingers to Play. There was the melody line on one page for the student and the accompaniment on the other for the teacher. I learned both parts and then, triumphantly, played them at the same time! I immediately became the star of my family! I played classical music but I never really wanted to be a concert pianist. Even though I went to the Oberlin Conservatory as a classical piano performance major, I knew I wouldn’t be doing it as a career. I spent my childhood acting and singing but I didn’t pursue it. Partly because I had a horrible time with my High School Theatre teacher and stopped performing at the end of High School and also because I had so many interests (Music directing, performing, piano) I just sort of picked one randomly (piano) and went with it.
BK: So, how did Seth Rudetsky find his way to New York, New York, and how long was it before you got your very first actual job as a musician?
SR: I spent my summers in college at Surflight Summer theatre (one week stock… Twelve shows in twelve weeks!) and I decided I wanted to be a NY Music director. I graduated and immediately began working at Musical Theatre Works on KISS ME QUICK BEFORE THE LAVA REACHES THE VILLAGE starring Donna English. I got the job because a director from Surflight worked at MTW. Then I worked at Candlewood as an Asst. music director and a year later got hired at Musical Theatre works to Music direct/vocal arrange MIDSUMMER NIGHTS. That was my first Playbill bio! It was very exciting!
BK: I believe we met each other in the early nineties when you played piano on The Anastasia Affaire – do I remember correctly? That was a hard album to do because we recorded it “live” – in other words direct to two-track with no mixing. Do you have any memories of the session at all? The only thing I remember is that I didn’t care for the engineer whom I kept badgering to make it sound better, and I remember Len Cariou hocking a LOT of spit between takes (I think we eventually gave him a bucket – I kid you not).
SR: Of course I remember it! It was my first album (CD!). It was a REALLY hard piano part that I actually had to practice A LOT! I do not recall the phlegm of Mssr. Cariou but I remember meeting Judy Kaye and the whole thing being fun! I’m wearing a long sleeved yellow shirt on the album photo.
BK: Now, we’ll get back to your musical endeavors in a moment – but what’s this about you being a comic? Tell us everything, hold nothing back.
SR: Like many people, friends have always told me to try stand up. I had been doing comedy sketch shows with me good friend Jack Plotnick (Gods and Monsters) whom I met doing PAGEANT. I went to a contest called “THE STARS OF TOMMOROW” meaning, essentially, you’re not a star today…at all. It was pretty brutal. You signed up and got three minutes onstage at the Duplex in the Village and the show started at midnight. My first time up I made it to the semi-finals. I was all cocky and did the semi finals and BOMBED like you wouldn’t believe. Even my four friends sitting in the front were GLARING at me. I left humiliated, but forced myself to keep signing up for the Friday midnight show. After a while, I made it back to the semis…then the finals… and finally I won the Grand Prize! Then I won the “Funniest Gay Male in NY” contest at Stand UP NY and did a long running show with Jack at CAROLINE’S. A highlight was the “opening number” from Joyce DeWitt’s comeback Cabaret. The intro said “Joyce DeWitt left THREE’S COMPANY in the early eighties deciding to take some time off. Ten years, and twelve difficult steps later, she’s back!”. We had lots of Broadway guest stars who were totally game and would do comedy sketches with us! Betty Buckley re-created scenes from the movie CARRIE (it’s all about her awful knee socks) and Marin Mazzie did the opening from RAGTIME with Jack as Sarah… who not only buried her child, but keeps trying to eat it! Marin was hilarious “Sarah, stop eating the baby!”
BK: All right, you’ve played the piano for some pretty terrific shows, amongst them The Fantasticks, Forever Plaid and Pageant, all off-Broadway. Do you have any good stories for us – hold nothing back.
SR: They’ve all been great! Harvey Schmidt liked me so much he met with me in a practice room and talked through the whole score, telling me exactly how he liked it played. I’ve loved that show since I was 10 so it was a dream to actually play for him! They kept the sub list from that show forever and once I hadn’t played for like two years and they called at 5 PM and asked if I could play that night. I found out during the show, you really have to practice before you play! It’s hard!!!!!!! Pageant was the funniest show I ever worked on. It was a joyous experience. I also think Forever Plaid is brilliant. But, because people could drink at their tables we had some crazy ass audiences. Once during a Friday night show, during the only really serious monologue at the end of the show, a woman started yelling “This is boring! I liked it when they sang! Why does he keep talking?”
Then Drew Geraci gets to the part where he’s describing the perfect chord and he paused at the end of the line, giving her an opening.
DREW: We hit the chord, then we cut off. There’s nothing but silence…”
BK: On Broadway, you’ve played for My Favorite Year, Les Miz, Kiss of the Spiderwoman, Patti LuPone Live, Ragtime, Saturday Night Fever, Grease, Victor/Victoria and The Producers. That is quite an array if you ask me, from the ridiculous (SNF) to the sublime (Ragtime). Tell us about playing in a Broadway pit. Take us through a typical night in a typical pit. Do you have one or two great pit stories for us? Perhaps a Patti story? She’s selling her memorabilia on eBay now you know.
SR: I’ve also played An Inspector Calls, How to Succeed, Seussical and The Full Monty, by the way! I am a life long sub. I love it! What’s scary about subbing is, you don’t get an understudy rehearsal like an actor. You have to learn it all yourself and then the first time you play is during an actually performance. It’s very nerve wracking. Most pits use synthesizers. The only real piano I play now is for Phantom. A synth has a patch change pedal (which changes the sound) a sustain pedal and a volume pedal. The first time I played SPIDER WOMAN I was freaking out because I wasn’t prepared. (They asked me to play Jeff Hyslop’s put-in five days before I was supposed to play). As soon as I started, the conductor, Ted Sperling said there was crazy vibrato coming out of my synth. I had no idea what it was. After the sound techs came in trying to fix it I suddenly realized that I was so nervous that my leg was shaking on the volume pedal uncontrollably, making each note I played have a wider vibrato than Ethel Merman! I lifted off my leg, kept my trap shut, and the techies thought they had fixed it.
Also, like The Fantastiks, I was called in to play VICTOR/VICTORIA after not playing for a LONG time. When I got to the piano solo at the beginning of “Living in the Shadows” I hit more clams than a Red Lobster special. After the show Julie Andrews came up to the conductor and said (with High British accent) “Oh! That piano solo! I thought I was living in the Shadows!”
I knew it was some sort of insult, but I didn’t even get it! Is it an British insult to someone else to call yourself the title of a song? If I had messed up in the Sound of Music movie, would she have said, “I thought I was a Lonely Goatherd!” I still don’t get it!
BK: Were you or were you not an Emmy-nominated comedy writer on The Rosie O’Donnell Show, yes or no? You spent two years doing it – you must have a few nice tales for our dear readers. What did your job entail?
SR: I got hired after Rosie saw some numbers that I wrote for The Easter Bonnett Competition and Gypsy of the Year,(I’ve written for the Easter Bonnet opening for the last seven years) She asked me to create numbers like that for her during Sweeps Weeks. I hired Jerry Mitchell as the choreographer and I wrote nine numbers for November sweeps 1997. We’d bring on a different Broadway show to sing one of their signature songs and I’d change the lyrics to make it about Rosie. I’d arrange the song and the harmonies, oversee the number with Joy Trapani (the Broadway Producer for Rosie) and teach everyone their part.
I remember Smokey Joe’s sang “Cause I’m a Woman”
“She can quote all the lyrics to Gypsy, Titanic and Miss Saigon…
She can buy a brand new treadmill and never turn it on…”
After that I got hired to conduct TRIUMPH OF LOVE but before I could take it over, it closed. Right then Rosie asked to come work on her show as a full time comedy writer. We had to get there at 7:30 AM with three jokes. Oy! I was still trying to play on Broadway as a sub so I was exhausted! There were six writers and a lot of time we’d team up. I had to write Barbie theatres, games, Grammy Awards Jokes (“Ooh, I fell backstage. I think I Tori Amos!”) The best part was, Rosie hired me to write the two opening numbers for the Tony Awards. My favorite was the Diva number featuring Patti, Betty and Jennifer. I grew up worshiping them so it was a DREAM come true. I wrote it to ROXIE. It was all about Rosie wanting to be a Diva.
Here’s the bridge
“I wanna be a Diva, I wish there was some way I could learn…
I try to sing like Patti LuPone but sound like Rhoda Morgenstern!”
Then each diva sang their signature song. At first Rosie asked me if Glenn Close should be one of them and my answer cannot be printed here.
BK: You’ve also performed in concert with the likes of Miss Betty Buckley, Priscilla Lopez and Kristin Chenoweth. That is quite a trio. Each of them is so different. Care to enlighten us as to who your favorite was?
SR: Of course, there’s nothing like playing the song for someone that you grew up listening to. So playing “Nothing” or “What I did for Love” for Priscilla is a feeling I can’t describe. Likewise, “He plays the Violin” for Betty. If I knew as a kid I would one day be doing it, my head would have exploded. Kristin is amazing because she is such a smart actress/comedian. We rehearsed all these comic bits for the FUNNY GIRL concert and once she was onstage she came up with UNBELIEVABLE new ones!
BK: Now, in addition to being an ace pianist, you also are a composer. Tell us about some of the things you’ve written for.
SR: No, no, I’m not a composer. However, the one song I did write may be known by some of your readers. On CAROLINE IN THE CITY, David Hyde Pierce plays an IRS auditor whose dream it is to be in CATS. I wrote the audition song he sang on the show.
“I’ll help you with deductions, I know all the latest tricks…
but in my mind I’m doing sassy high kicks!”
BK: Okay, let’s talk about Dreamgirls, The Concert, which you not only musical-directed but produced. How did that whole thing come about and how hard was it dealing with people like David Geffen and the powers-that-be. Also, Miss Jennifer Holiday was quite miffed, if I remember correctly, because she thought she should have been involved. Tell us how you cast it, and what your reasons were for going the way you did. Hold nothing back.
SR: Oy! You’re wearing me out. OK. I do fundraising concerts for the Gay and Lesbian Synagogue. I did a salute to Henry Krieger and David Friedman. Lillias filled in at the last minute as Effie. When she sang the fight scene from DREAMGIRLS and the phrase “for Seven years…” which goes up to a G and, instead of shying away from it, added VIBRATO, I freaked out and vowed I would conduct it with a full orchestra starring her. I knew Audra always wanted to play Deena, so I pitched it to The Actors Fund. Catherine Cooke and Tim Pinckney immediately said YES and suggest Heather Headley as Lorrell. I called Henry and he said “Go for it” not realizing what a big deal it would turn out to be,. As soon as we went on sale we sold a TON of tix. I had to do a lot of shmoozing with a lot of important people (although I never spoke to David Geffen) but it was because everyone wanted to protect the piece. I understood because there had been some bad versions before. I think soon everyone started to trust my vision and the team I had assembled and then the Actors Fund got us a record deal to record the first full version of the show. David Geffen would not give us the film rights and that’s pretty much why we didn’t do a TV special. Jennifer was upset because she felt she should have been asked, but like I explained, it happened because I was friends with Lillias and loved the way she did it. I thought it would be a little concert that would raise a little money. I had no idea it would turn out to be so huge (almost $1,000,000 raised!), and of course, if the original cast wanted to do a reunion, I would love to conduct/produce it. OR just buy a ticket! The rest of the cast were people I thought would be perfect. I knew Billy Porter (who, unfortunately, wound up having vocal problems the night of the concert) would be fantastic as Jimmy Early. I love Darius DeHaas voice and the sweet energy he’d bring to C.C. and I think Norm Lewis has the most amazing voice EVER! It’s unbelievably beautiful. He is the perfect Curtis to me. He’d better become a BIG FAT STAR! I used Danny Herman who was Michael Bennett’s asst. on SCANDAL and Brenda Braxton, the original dance captain, as co-director/choreographers. I don’t think anyone knew what to expect and I’m really proud of how it was concert yet we did a ton of staging. And having the orchestra onstage made the music the focus of the evening, which was my intention.
BK: Isn’t it true that you also did a similar event for Funny Girl? Tell us all about that why don’t you?
SR: As soon as DREAMGIRLS ended, the Actors Fund said we have to make this a yearly event. I had spoken with my friends Dev Janki and Robert Tatad about doing old musicals totally non-traditional (Lillias as Mama Rose!) I always wanted to do FUNNY GIRL with lots of women who would not necessarily be cast as Fanny Brice, but could bring something great to it. So we did FUNNY GIRL with Idina Menzel, Jane Krakowski, Julia Murney, Whoopi Goldberg, Bebe Neuwirth, Andrea Martin, Sutton Foster, Ana Gasteyer etc… It was INCREDIBLE. I’m very proud of that concert, because we had big shoes to fill because DREAMGIRLS came off so well. But the feedback we got was incredible. The different women made the show so EXCITING and the belting was CRAZY. This year we’re doing CHESS with Josh Groban, Adam Pascal, Lara Fabian, Norm Lewis and Julia Murney. This concert is generating the same excitement as the first two and we’ve already sold out of the three bottom ticket prices…and it’s only May! It’s very exciting and satisfying for me to have artistic control over something. The way I create the concerts is I think “What would I love as an audience member. Would I beyond love to see this person doing this? Or hear it sung this way?” That’s why FUNNY GIRL and DREAMGIRLS had such a variety of stars. I wanted the best people regardless of their level of stardom.
BK: Okay, now you get to tell us all about your one-man show Rhapsody in Seth. What is it, where have you done it, and will you be doing it again so we can all come and see it?
SR: RHAPSODY IN SETH is currently running Off Broadway at the Actors Playhouse. Go to www.rhapsodyinseth.com for all the details. It stars me and tells the story of my growing up on Long Island, hated by my classmates for being gay, and how my obsession with Broadway, Rhapsody in Blue and high belting essentially saved my life. It started at PS NBC, moved to HERE, then the Ars Nova Theatre and finally Off Broadway! I start out the show by saying “You know, they say that living well is the best way to get revenge on your enemies…but I’ve found that doing a show, talking about them and using their real names is really the best way! Welcome to my show!” I talk about the charming Stephen Baldwin at Chorus camp (he was a d*ck!) and show a mortifying video of me Jazz Dancing to I AM WHAT I AM in leg warmers and white Capezios! I wrote the show to tell people what it’s like to be YOUNG and gay and yet what I’m finding is that most people really identify with it. I constantly have people coming up to me after the show and saying “That was my story!” and I’ll think “But you’re a twenty year old black girl!” It seems everyone had a teacher betray them, parents who sucked in some way and an obsession with something that gave them hope. My specificity brings back lots of memories for the audience (Shirts vs. skins, anyone?) and my unyielding memory is a blessing and a curse. It’s annoying sometimes that I can remember all these things from my past, but it’s so fun to recount in front of an audience! For instance, my 81 year old English teacher once lambasted me (in front of the whole class!) with-
And what’s more, I don’t like you!”
It was like a hostile haiku!
We play four shows a week and it’s been amazing having people see it that I talk about! I have a whole section about how I listened to Cabaret and Chicago obsessively when I was in fourth grade and I had John Kander in the audience one night! And Betty Buckley has seen it three times! The only thing is, I have section about my prejudice against head voice, and at my opening night party Laura Benanti and Melissa Errico confronted me “What’s wrong with head voice???” Ouch! Security!
BK: Now, you have an extremely popular Broadway interview show called Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox. Tell us how that came about, and how people can see it (assuming it’s seeable).
SR: I just had my three year anniversary with Nathan Lane. Basically it’s like a funny version of INSIDE THE ACTORS’ STUDIO and it’s all about Broadway. I do an in depth interview at Don’t Tell Mama from 6 to 7 every Thursday and the $10 admission goes to BC/EFA. Every guest has to bring a mortifying video from their past! Nathan brought a bootleg of his first Broadway show “Wind in the Willows” Now we know why it closed! Sutton Foster brought her and Hunter singing a duet of “Separate Lives’ tat should have been called “Separate Keys”! Megan Mullaly’s done the show and Matthew Broderick and Marissa Jaret Winokur etc. I usually accompany them at the end of the show. Betty sang MEMORY, Laura Benanti sang “Unusual Way” etc. You can but the videos for $20 (for BC/EFA) at www.geocities.com/broadwaychatterbox. They’re really fun! Call (212) 757-0788 for reservations!
BK: You’ve had quite a varied career so far – what would you like to do that you haven’t done? Hold nothing back.
SR: I’m in the middle of writing a book called “Subbing” which is a fictionalized account of my life on Broadway. I think I just got a writing agent and I’d love to turn it into a TV series. We need Broadway on TV! I’m also writing a movie with Paul Castree that we think is perfect for Kelly Clarkson. I can’t tell you the plot, but it involves “Erin Brokovitch: The Opera”. I’m also working with two TV producers to get my Chatterbox on TV. How fantastic would that be?????
BK: Well, Seth Rudetsky, you have been an absolutely delightful guest and we at haineshisway.com salute you with our beverage of choice, Diet Coke, and our food of choice, cheese slices and ham chunks with the occasional sliver of cake. Do you have any final words for our dear readers?
SR: I would like to say lets’ all thank the Internet. If this had been around when I was a child I would have known there were other obsessives out there and I would have had someone to talk to about Chita belting a D (with vibrato!) in the reprise of All That Jazz. And I want to thank you, Bruce, for your albums. The Emily and Alice ones are a classic and I use a clip from the second one as part of the montage I play at the beginning of the Chatterbox (“…Be friends to the E-e-e-e-end!” Alice is on an E!!!!!!!!!) Thanks for the interview!!!!!!!!