ONSTAGE & BACKSTAGE: Jesse Tyler Ferguson, King of the Desert; Plus Josh Groban and Andréa Burns
By Seth Rudetsky
A week in the life of actor, radio and TV host, music director and writer Seth Rudetsky.
Hello from United LAX-to-NYC flight 280. It's 5:40 in the AM but I'm pretending it's NYC time so I don't feel so crazily tired. Last night (Saturday) was the Steve Chase Awards in Palm Springs and I played piano for Jesse Tyler Ferguson, who was the host. The Steve Chase Awards is a big gala show/fundraiser for Desert AIDS, a great organization that helps people in the Palm Springs/Desert area affected by HIV/AIDS. Represented were Broadway (Stephanie J. Block), Broadway crossover to TV (Megan Hilty, Matthew Morrison), rock (Melissa Etheridge) and Hollywood (Queen Latifah). As well as Brooklyn (my father). That's right, my dad and his wife Gloria live out there and I had a great time visiting them (with my friend Jack Plotnick). We did our signature Palm Desert visit which consisted of wandering to various thrift stores and taking "comedically" staged photos.
Jesse Tyler Ferguson was hilarious in the show. And even though he's now a TV star ("Modern Family"), he hasn't lost his Broadway roots. During rehearsal, he regaled me with Broadway stories. First, he told me about being in On The Town, his first Broadway show. He was in his early 20s and completely terrified before the first preview. The whole show begins with all three sailors coming out onstage and saying a line; the first sailor runs out and yells "New York City!" The second (Jesse) runs out and yells "In 24 hours!" Jesse said that the two lines set up the entire premise for the show — three sailors are on leave in "New York City" for specifically "24 hours." Well, Jesse was so nervous his first show that the premise was decidedly not set up; the first sailor ran out and yelled "New York City!" Jesse ran out, panicked, and simply repeated "New York City!" I guess it's appropriate to repeat the location since the first song is "New York, New York." It's nice to know the audience definitely knew the locale of the show. On The Town is where Jesse met his good friend Lea DeLaria. She played Hildy the taxi driver (and, P.S., got amazing reviews). At the Desert AIDS benefit, he told the audience that he once saw Lea walking down the street ahead of him so he decided to surprise her: he ran over, threw his arms her neck and exclaimed, "I caught me a big ol' lesbian!" Lea turned around…and it wasn't her. It was a short, Asian man. And Jesse's face matched his own hair color.
I was subbing in the orchestra of Thoroughly Modern Millie at the time and one night I hightailed it backstage to Sutton Foster's dressing room during intermission. I asked her to play Svetlana, she agreed and we wound up having an amazing cast! What's crazy is even though Josh was so young at the time, he was already super-famous. If you don't know about his rise to fame, it began when Andrea Bocelli got sick and couldn't do the Grammy Awards rehearsal with Celine Dion. Record producer David Foster was working with Josh (who was 18 years old!) and asked him to do the rehearsal. Josh sang with her and told me what an amazing experience it was. First of all, instead of all the nominees in their own little camps and totally sequestered from each other like they are these days, he said that they were all hanging out in the theatre…so he was able see all these incredibly famous people and they all heard him sing. Plus, Josh's dad asked Celine if he could videotape and she said yes (!) so Josh has a record of his incredible experience. Rosie O'Donnell was hosting at the time and she called him over (Her exact words were: "Hey! Opera boy!") and asked him to come on her show. He was then cast on TV's "Ally McBeal" and in 2007 he was charted as the best-selling American singer!
Josh told me that he loved doing the one night Broadway Chess and wants to do a full run of a Broadway show. Yay! He wants to originate a role (either in a new show or a revival) and has been talking to Tim Rice about bringing Chess back to Broadway. Here's a highlight reel of the Actors Fund concert…such a great cast and delicious full orchestra!
Speaking of live singing, I asked him about auto-tuning, which is rampant in the recording industry and on television, and he said that he never allows it on his recordings. He's had experiences where engineers have tried to auto-tune some of his songs and as soon as he finds out, he always insists on going back and re-recording them instead. Old school! I ended the interview with a "Name That Lyric" segment where Josh hauled out some amazing vocals. The first airing of the entire interview is Valentine's Day at noon (Eastern time) on SiriusXM Stars 107.
I mention tuning because The Daring Duo is about two touring classical musicians, and the first scene starts with my co-star David Turner (On a Clear Day…) playing piano for Kreissler's "Praeludium and Allegro" and me playing the violin part. Do I play the violin? Yes. Do I play it well? No. Not at all. That's supposed to be the "funny" part, but I'm nervous that it will go beyond funny and towards mass refunds. I have to start practicing ASAP. I don't begin official rehearsals for another two weeks, though. Why, you ask? Because David is doing Bertolt Brecht's Good Person of Szechwan right now at La Mama and next week I'll be unavailable unless we can Skype rehearsal from Down Under. That's right, I'm racking up the frequent-flyer miles by traveling to Australia for a week to do five shows with Megan Mullally. I'm hoping the 20-hour flight (!) gives me plenty of time to learn my lines. But even though my play is not rehearsing yet, we've officially begun rehearsal for Midtown March Medley. Unbroken Circle began rehearsals last week, on the day of the blizzard.
James and I thought we could get away with being cheapskates and have rehearsals at our apartment but it was the first and only time. Not only did the actors have to deal with the noise of construction happening next door (they're building a wine bar) but they also had to deal the noise of non-stop clicking. Yes, having two dogs and hardwood floors means having eight paws clicking non-stop. Unbroken Circle is now having rehearsals minus Scooby and Sonora.
Speaking of Scooby, James' mom called to make her a vet appointment. This was the conversation:
VET: Dog's name please.
Seriously. And I'm out. But before this paragraph ends, let me lead to our brand new website for our plays: When I was with Jack (Plotnick) in Palm Springs he said that building a website for me would be a great distraction from focusing on his own life. Yay! Sometimes people's therapy issues pay off for me in spades. There are brand-new videos, info about each show, photos and ticket info. Speaking of videos, Jack filmed me doing the intro video in our Palm Springs hotel room — and the yellow walls make the entire video look like it has advanced hepatitis. But I was too lazy to re-shoot. Take a gander!
And finally, speaking of videos, we just posted a new Playbill "Obsessed!" video with Andréa Burns re-creating her amazing (and mind-boggling) audition medley that she used at the open call for Jerome Robbins' Broadway. Watch her crash and burn!
And speaking of Andréa, tonight (Monday, Feb. 11) is the uptown reunion concert of one of my favorite Broadway shows ever — In the Heights. Get tix here! I, sadly, cannot be there, but I'm very excited for what I'm doing instead. The Drama League is saluting my good friend and five time (!) Tony Award winner, Audra McDonald, and they asked me to deconstruct her during the performance. I'm now off to tech rehearsal so peace out!
(Seth Rudetsky is the afternoon Broadway host on SiriusXM. He has played piano for over 15 Broadway shows, was Grammy-nominated for his concert CD of Hair and Emmy-nominated for being a comedy writer on "The Rosie O'Donnell Show." He has written two novels, "Broadway Nights" and "My Awesome/Awful Popularity Plan," which are also available at Audible.com. He recently launched SethTV.com, where you can contact him and view all of his videos and his sassy new reality show.)
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