Dallas — People, people who have passions…are the luckiest people in the world.
Don’t you think?
What prompts the thought is a super-lively telephone chat with the most passionate Broadway fan I’ve ever encountered—Sirius XM radio host and actor/music director/singer/producer/playwright/author Seth Rudetsky. He’s coming to Dallas for a talkback session after the March 28 performance of his musical Disaster! The Catastrophic ‘70s Musical, being produced by Uptown Players at the Kalita Humphreys Theater.
The show—a send-up of ‘70s disaster movies like Airport and The Poseidon Adventure—ran on Broadway in 2016; Charles Isherwood of The New York Times called it “a delicious goof of a musical.” Part of the fun is the show’s song list, a boogie fever-dream of 1970s pop and disco wonders—“Hot Stuff,” “Still the One,” ”I Will Survive,” ”Hooked on a Feeling”—that are somehow made to “fit” a plot point of the story.
Rudetsky’s career has so many moving parts it can be hard to follow them all. Earlier in his career he played piano for more than a dozen Broadway musicals, including Ragtime, Les Misérables and Phantom of the Opera—and got to know Broadway’s up-and-comers playing piano and coaching them in auditions and rehearsals. He’s known for pulling together a string of successful Actors Fund Fall Concerts and the recent “Concert for America” series; for his shows on Sirius XM Satellite Radio’s On Broadway channel; for popular YouTube videos; and for his touring one-man show, Deconstructing Broadway.
His novel Broadway Nights is available on Audible.com, voiced by Kristin Chenoweth, Jonathan Groff and Andrea Martin. Twice a year Rudetsky goes out to sea with “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway Cruise”—towing plenty of Broadway talent along with him. And he’s had roles on everything from Law and Order: Criminal Intent to All My Children. There’s more…but you get the idea.
TheaterJones gushed about his pull-aparts of Broadway show tunes—savvy and entertaining “deconstructions” that are not just fun, they’re the best little musical theater lessons you’ll ever get for free, like the one at the top of this article.
TheaterJones: Seth, I’m such a fangirl of your Broadway show tune “deconstructions” that I’m delighted to have a chance to say hello. Uptown Players is doing your musical Disaster!, which had a Broadway run three years ago—and you’re coming for a talkback discussion with the audience on March 28, right?
Seth Rudetsky: Yes, I’ll be there with my co-writer Jack Plotnick, and my husband James Wesley [here’s TJ’s 2014 interview], who was one of the show’s producers on Broadway. Whatever people want to ask, we’ll answer!
You’re a good analyst of what makes songs and shows work—what’s the mix and feel you wanted for Disaster!, which spoofs all those 1970s ‘the ship is sinking, the world is ending’ movies?
It began with my taste, and songs I love. I made a playlist of the top 200 hits of the ’70s, and every time I’d go to the gym and play a song I liked, I’d think ‘I’ve gotta put this one in the show!’ Then we had to figure out a reason, plot-wise, why the song would work. I heard “Knock on Wood”—such a great song—and thought maybe if a big group of people were standing along a fault line and knocking on wood at the same time it would trigger an earthquake. I love “Mockingbird” with James Taylor and Carly Simon, and wondered, what if two people are performing and one person doesn’t know the song at all—and keeps repeating exactly what the other person just sang, pretending to know it. Basically, these are all songs I love, whether we needed the song for the plot, or the plot was made to fit the song.
What I love about the 70s is that it was pop and rock music playing, and disco, all on the same radio station—and that’s how we did Disaster!, with that wonderful mix of songs.
This was the music on the radio when I was a boy and my Mom drove me to school. There’s an emotional response to it for a lot of people in the audience. And young people know these classic songs too—they’re always on The Voice and American Idol. So thankfully, everyone seems to connect with the music.
A lot of your career in the New York theater world and on radio is focused on Broadway show tunes. I know how I got to be a musical theater fanatic: my parents had a big box of original-cast recordings I obsessed over. But how did you get there—were you an early-onset fan, or did it come later?
I can’t stand it that people walk around with headphones on, it’s so isolating and bizarre. And the reason I bring this up is because in the old days we didn’t have headphones. There was one record player in the house, and whatever was playing, we all heard. My parents were always playing Broadway in our house, and I have a tape recording of myself at about two-and-a-half years old singing along with The Most Happy Fella. Because my parents didn’t have personal headsets, I heard those songs all day long.
So I’ve loved the music of Broadway since I was a very little, little kid—but it wasn’t until the mid-‘70s, when I was six or seven—that they took me to New York to see a revival of The Pajama Game. And I was obsessed with it. I love whole scenes that are [entirely] set to music; the opening was in a pajama factory and every one of the workers had a part. I loved it.
And you were lucky enough to live not too far from ‘the city.’
The good news, yes, was that I lived close enough to New York to see all the shows I was obsessed with. The bad news was that my mom consistently waited to buy tickets to every Broadway show right after the original cast left. Goodbye, Andrea McArdle, now you can see Annie, Seth. Bye bye, Patti Lupone—now you get to see Evita. Goodbye, original A Chorus Line cast, here are the replacements. So I was near New York City, and yet….
Oh, no! I didn’t get to NYC until I was older—but Mary Martin had grown up down the highway in Weatherford, and Betty Lynn Buckley grew up near me in Fort Worth. I have a hazy memory of seeing her as a teenager at Casa Mañana. So we didn’t have Broadway, but we had some of its divas.
My God, I love Betty—she’s a sweetheart!
Your personal diva ‘short list’ includes Buckley, Patti Lupone, and the late Laurie Beechman as the three whose singing most changed the Broadway style. Have recent years been good to these kind of singers, the ones you call the “beltresses”? Some musicals—I’m thinking of shows like Once—don’t seem to rely on that kind of ‘raise the roof’ singing.
Really, I think the belt has taken over Broadway. There aren’t any new soprano roles being written. Belters used to be the sidekicks, now they’re the leads. In terms of new singers, I love Lindsay Mendez, who won the Tony for Carousel. She’s coming on my Broadway cruise in July. I saw her first 10 years ago in a small role in Grease. She had an eight-measure solo, but I was immediately obsessed with her voice. Definitely one of the great new crop of belters.
Then there’s Carrie Manolakos, the original female lead in Disaster! I wrote the role around her freak-ass high voice; her imprint is all over the show. “I am Woman” ends in a high F-sharp, a crazy final note—and she’s why. And there’s my friend Keala Settle from The Greatest Showman—she saw Disaster! on Broadway and came up to me, could not stop laughing. We did an Obsessed! video with her and now she’s touring all over the country. Talk about beltresses, she’s unbelievable.
You must know everyone in musical theater by now—and the cast you assembled for Broadway was pretty fabulous.
My dream was to write a show and cast all my friends, and that’s what happened. We did it as a one-night concert, and some of the powers-that-be got very snotty and told me “sure, your friends are saying yes now [for one night], but wait until it comes to Broadway and see what happens.”
And they stuck with you.
Kerry Butler, we worked together in a club as kids; Adam Pascal, we’ve been friends since right after Rent; Roger Bart I’ve known since we did The Producers; Faith Prince and I were in group therapy together while she was doing Guys and Dolls. Obviously I wanted Broadway stars, but also my good pals. They’re so talented, but for them we put in alternate keys for some songs, because the score is so crazy hard to sing. Sorry for that, Dallas, but I’m sure Uptown’s show will be fabulous.
Among the many show tunes you’ve ‘deconstructed’ for us is “Another Hundred People” from Company. At one point, you were in one of those groups, a hundred people coming off a subway car or a bus in Manhattan, hoping to make it. What was your path? What did you study, what was your journey toward this very mixed, interesting ‘niche’ career you’ve developed?
I’ve always liked to do a lot of different things. Even as a kid I wrote, sang, conducted, did vocal arrangements. I enjoy every part of the performing arts. I got in early at Oberlin [Conservatory of Music] as a classical pianist—and though I knew I wanted to do Broadway, I was so excited to be accepted that I thought I’d better go. But being there set me up for many things later in life: I hosted their comedy shows, performed and music-directed concerts and musicals. When I came to New York, I found the best way for a pianist to make money was to play for auditions and such—but I also became friends with actors, coaching them, doing comedy shows and concerts with them—and I also played in the orchestra for about 15 Broadway musicals.
But from the start, I was always making things happen, pulling stuff together myself. At Oberlin, I thought ‘I want to play Rhapsody in Blue; let me put together a symphony concert.’ I did that at 18. Early on in New York, I was writing material for Broadway comedy benefits. I wrote for The Rosie O’Donnell Show, and she hired me for the Tony Awards, where I got to write a number for Patti Lupone, Betty Buckley, and Jennifer Holliday. In 2001, I wanted to do Dreamgirls, and asked Lillias White and then Audra McDonald to get involved. We put it up as a benefit for the Actors Fund.
So basically, I began as a rehearsal pianist, but became known for getting stuff done. And in a lot of these shows, I’d get up from the piano and talk to the audience [and performers], so that’s where this sort of Broadway interviewer thing got started. And that led to the radio.
I enjoy so many of the different things you do, but I have to say again that my favorite is your way of “deconstructing” some of Broadway best tunes. I’m not a musician at all, just an eager listener. But what you do literally gets me up on my feet in front of the computer, because I am so excited to have you take these songs apart bit by bit—what the singer is doing, what the arranger is doing—and explain to me why I am so thrilled by this version of a song. It’s marvelous! And I now know a little bit about things like back phrasing, vibrato, closed vowels, and high notes.
I do a live version of that in my Deconstructing Broadway—and people will say ‘oh, what a great show for Broadway insiders.’ But that’s not it. Of course the insiders will enjoy this, but I don’t do it for them. I like people [who aren’t insiders] to understand the incredible skill it takes to make a number amazing, and why it’s amazing.
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