Help Seth Rudetsky Make Broadway Orchestras More Diverse! | Playbill

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Seth Rudetsky Help Seth Rudetsky Make Broadway Orchestras More Diverse!

Plus, that time Rachel Bay Jones had to drop out of Dear Evan Hansen (and then came back).

Seth Rudetsky, Rachel Bay Jones, and Brent Barrett Benim Foster

Hello from beautiful New York City!

The weather has been so lovely. I’m sitting in our backyard writing this column, enjoying the warm air but not enjoying my neck hurting. Why is it hurting? Because I pretended to be a violin player. Spoiler alert! I stink. But I love it so much! I played Monday for three hours which is three hours longer than I’ve played in 20 years. 

If you’ve never heard my “playing,” take a gander here!

Here’s how my latest project began... 

I was walking on Columbus Avenue not that long ago and I ran into a Broadway bigwig who hires musicians. He told me that Broadway wants diversity in its orchestras, but it’s been hard to hire diverse musicians because “they don’t have the experience.” I was blank-faced. Of course they don’t have experience. No one’s been hiring them.

I’ve played around 15 Broadway shows and the majority of the players around me are white men. I know there are also excellent Broadway-worthy musicians out there who are not that demographic, but I’ve rarely seen them. I wanted to give those musicians a chance to get the experience of what it’s like to play on Broadway so there will no more excuses from the bigwigs to keep orchestras homogeneous. I thought it would be a great idea to do a series of sitzprobes

Are you asking, “What is a sitzprobe?” Then I guess you need to buy my book Musical Theatre For Dummies! where I explain German terms like that, as well reveal tons and tons of amazing insider Broadway stories. You can get an autographed copy if you follow the instructions from my Instagram post below. 

Anyhoo…a sitzprobe is the rehearsal where the performers sing the score backed by the orchestra for the first time. As soon as I got the idea, I called Mary-Mitchell Campbell who is a co-founder of MUSE (Musicians United for Social Equity) and I asked for her help. She enthusiastically agreed to team up (with Maestra Music) for The Broadway Sitzprobe Experience. It’s going so well! Not only do we have Broadway conductors at the helm of each sitzprobe, but there are also experienced Broadway vet musicians throughout the orchestra, donating their time and guiding each section. With that guidance, every player taking the class will know how to get and keep that Broadway gig!

After Mary-Mitchell came onboard, I called my friend Drew Cohen, who is a bigwig at MTI (Music Theatre International, which also represents my show Disaster!) and he told me we could access to any of the scores in their catalogue for free. We began with Guys and Dolls, then we did Dreamgirls (Concord Theatricals donated that score) and last Monday, we did She Loves Me. It’s been so thrilling to listen to a full orchestra play these fantastic scores and see these musicians learn what it’s like to be a Broadway musician. 

Guys and Dolls was conducted by David Chase, who would often conduct the early 1990s revival. I conducted Dreamgirls since I had done the 2001 Actors Fund Concert. Last Monday, we had Sean Mayes (from Hadestown, The Color Purple, and the recent London production of Mandela) conduct She Loves Me and, back to my neck ache, I had the chutzpah to join the string section. Let me just say, I did more looking around the room bewildered than I did actual playing. But even though I barely played, it was just enough to make the area where I clutch the violin hurt like a mother. And in case you don’t believe I was constantly confused, here is a video Ta’Nika Gibson sent me of me “playing” that I combined with my version of what I thought I looked like.

And speaking of Ta’Nika, she was one of the two women singing the role of Amalia (the other was the fantastic Gay Willis) and, holy cow, she sounded amazing. Here she is with the Project Broadway Sitzprobe orchestra!

We’re moving forward with more of these, the only issue is that it costs money. We have to rent the space and some of the instruments (percussion, harp etc). It’s around $2,000 per sitzprobe. So far, the costs have mainly been covered by Your Kids, Our Kids, the 501(c)(3) my husband James and I have. But it’s not sustainable. If anyone reading this knows of a person or an organization that would sponsor it, please reach out to me via email. With your support, we can do these sitzprobes every week and change Broadway!

I have a bit o’ jetlag as I write this. I have been flying a lot because I had two shows last week out west with a break in between. So, I flew to L.A. for my Norm Lewis show, came back for a day and half, and then flew to Vegas for two shows with Rachel Bay Jones (and then took a red-eye home that night for the She Loves Me sitzprobe). Norm, as usual, sounded incredible. That voice. We did so many songs together. Even though he played Javert in Les Misérables, he also sings “Bring Him Home.” Before we began that one, I decided to try out an idea.

I’ve always wanted to do a show filled with songs that featured one singer singing the entire song, while another person, or other people, are onstage observing, but not singing. Like how during “I’m The Greatest Star,” Fanny sings the entire song while Eddie is there, listening. Or, “What More Can I Say,” from Falsettoland, Marvin sings that entire song in bed next to a sleeping Whizzer. I thought it would be fun to do an entire concert where people in the audience get to “play” the other roles during these songs or, in other words, just stand there.

So, before Norm sang, I decided to try out my idea. I asked for a volunteer, and someone came up onstage. I told him that when Jean Valjean sings “Bring Him Home,” all the revolutionaries on the barricade are asleep. So, I had this nice guy lie down and told him to close his eyes for the entire number. He did! And Norm sounded amazing. 

After we finished that, Norm and I planned on doing the Javert/Valjean “Confrontation.” As you probably know, that happens right after Fantine dies. So again, I called up an audience member (this time Anastasia Barzee, Norm’s costar from Miss Saigon and Golden Boy) and told her she had to be dead Fantine. But then, I told her the Jenna Russel story in which Jenna decided to be a “different” Fantine, and she died with her eyes open. Then, Jenna realized she had to keep them open for the entire number. I told Anastasia she had to recreate that and be dead with her eyes open, Jenna style. And she did it! For the entire “Confrontation.” I don’t know why that skill would ever be needed, but if you’re looking for it, hire Anastasia stat.

A few days later in Vegas, at Rachel Bay Jones’ show, we talked about her first job (understudying various roles, including the lead in Meet Me in St. Louis), and then her next gig (which was playing a telephone operator in the national tour of Grand Hotel). The Baron on the tour was the fantastic Brent Barrett, who now lives in Vegas. He replaced the late, great David Carroll, who was too ill from AIDS to continue on Broadway in Grand Hotel. That’s why Brent is on the Grand Hotel Tony Awards presentation. It’s known as one of the greatest numbers on the Tony Awards and features the late, great Michael Jeter. Watch!

Anyhoo, when Rachel heard Brent was coming, we decided to ask him to do a duet with her. There wasn’t anything apropos from Grand Hotel, but I had seen Brent in Annie Get Your Gun opposite Reba McEntire, and he was so fantastic. I asked him if he still remembered “Old Fashioned Wedding,” and he did. Rachel told us she’d wing it. Of course, they both sounded great. Rachel even took the optional high E at the end! The most amazing part to me was beforehand. Brent came onstage and told us that he and Rachel didn’t have much to do together onstage during Grand Hotel, but he remembered the time he and Rachel spent Easter together on the Grand Hotel tour in Tempe, Arizona. He didn’t see her for years after that, until he saw Pippin in 2013. He was so impressed by Rachel’s performance as Catherine. As he was telling us, he started crying. It was so sweet to see him so moved for Rachel coming into her own. Through tears, he told us that he felt Rachel was the heart of Pippin and he was so thrilled for her. I really love seeing artists supporting other artists. It makes me so happy!

This all happened during the matinee performance. That night, Adrian Zmed, with whom I did Grease on Broadway and who also lives in Vegas, was in the audience. This time, I didn’t warn him in advance. I just brought him onstage and asked him to sing “Summer Nights.” Thankfully, he had sung it a few years ago with Olivia Newton-John (!) so he remembered it well. Naturally, Rachel was Sandy. I was joined by my friend Tim Smith, who was also in Grease with us and now also lives in Vegas, to play the various Pink Ladies and the T-Birds.

P.S. That original cast recording has some of my favorite scooping, especially from the original Sandy, the wonderful Carole Demas. Here’s my deconstruction!

Speaking of Grease, that’s the show that started my years-long gig writing for The Easter Bonnet Competition as well as what was then called The Gypsy of the Year Competition (which is now called The Red Bucket Follies). I was looking for videos for this column and found one so apropos in terms of the people in it. This is the first parody sketch Grease did. I wrote it with my good pal Paul Castree (who played Eugene). The song featured Barry and Fran Weissler, who produced it, and their quest to find a Rizzo to replace Rosie O’Donnell, who had left the show and had been replaced briefly by Maureen McCormick from The Brady Bunch. I am, of course, playing Fran Weissler, but what makes it timely is that Barry Weissler is being portrayed by the actress who was Frenchie in the original revival cast, Jessica Stone. Jessie is now up for her second Tony Award. Not for continuing to play Frenchie, but for directing! Last year, she was nominated for Kimberly Akimbo, which won Best Musical, and this year it’s for Water for Elephants, which is also up for Best Musical (and more)!

P.S. My sketch co-writer (and performer in the number) is Paul Castree, who is in the Water for Elephants cast. And the Rizzo we finally choose at the end of the number is none other than Brooke Shields, who is running to be the new President of Actors’ Equity. Also featured in the number is Jennifer Cody, who is running for Equity Council. Maybe in a few weeks, Jessie will have a Tony Award, Jen will be on the Equity council, and Brooke will be our president!

Watch here!

Back to Rachel’s show! Not only did she sing up a storm, but she also told so many interesting stories. At one point, we were talking about working on a new musical and how difficult it is to perform in readings or workshops for very little money in the hopes that the show will go to Broadway. Rachel had done the very first reading of Dear Evan Hansen and was involved with every reading or workshop after that. But, at one point, the producers asked her to do another workshop right when she was offered one of the three leads in the musical adaptation of The First Wives Club.

The offer was to do the First Wives Club workshop, which would then lead directly to the Chicago production and then go to Broadway. It was a good salary, and Rachel, who has a daughter, felt she had to take it so she could earn a steady income. Of course, she was devastated to turn down the workshop for Dear Evan Hansen. It was so hard for her. She had helped create Heidi Hansen. Songwriters Pasek and Paul had written “So Big So Small” for her voice. Ugh. She bowed out of Dear Evan Hansen and started working on First Wives Club. 

And then, a twist ending! Before that show went to Chicago, the producers fired her. Rachel immediately called the Dear Evan Hansen creative team and, amazingly, they hadn’t hired anyone to replace her yet. Phew! She got Heidi back. And then the twist ending became a happy ending! Rachel wound up winning her first Tony Award for her performance in Dear Evan Hansen. From fired to a Tony!

This reminds me of a story Christine Ebersole told me during one of our concerts together. Christine had just graduated from theatre school and was working as a waitress at the Lion’s Den on the East Side. She had auditioned for the revival of Angel Street, which is the play that became the film Gaslight. She was up for the role of the maid (the part Angela Lansbury played in her film debut), but the fabulous Christine Andreas got it. Well soon after, Christine Andreas was offered the role of Eliza in the My Fair Lady revival, which needed an immediate replacement. Christine Ebersole’s agent called her and said, with a 1940s accent, “Darling, you’re on Broadway!” 

Christine immediately gave notice at the Lion’s Den. Goodbye! Her days of waitressing were over. Her version of her resignation went a little like this. “Goodbye little people! I’m going to Broadway and shan’t see you again.” She was now, and forevermore, going to make her living as a Broadway star. Well, Angel Street closed three weeks later and, as Christine told me, “I ran to the restaurant, begging for my job back!”

Rachel Bay Jones and Ben Platt, 2017 Joseph Marzullo/WENN

Now onto my next trips. I’m going to California on Monday for a celebration of Lizzie Weiss’ 10th year as the cantor at Temple Emanuel in Beverly Hills. Lizzie is originally a musical theatre gal, so her show is called From Broadway To The Bima. Lizzie’s show will feature amazing Broadway performers like Arielle Jacobs, Jelani Remy, and Ana Gasteyer. Come see us!

A few days later, I’m back in California. This time, I’ll be in Costa Mesa, for three performances with one of my Broadway idols, Lillias White! We’re going to be at the Segerstrom Center May 16, 17, and 18. You can get tickets here!

In case you wonder why she is one of my idols, I’ve made a little reel highlighting her amazing singing. Watch here and peace out!

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