It's a day to which every one of us looks forward: that terrific moment when we're handed our high school yearbooks. We all tear them open, check out our picture, and see what the yearbook staff said about us. So imagine how Seth Rudetsky felt when he opened his Hewlett High School yearbook in 1984 and saw that, under his picture, he'd been described as "Queerboy."
Seth fully admits that he suspected he was gay when he was four: He was most interested in his babysitter's son, especially when the lad was getting into the shower. But did his sexual proclivities justify thousands of snide remarks over the years, topped by this ultimate slap-in-the-face in his yearbook? Bad enough that he was shorter of stature than most kids (though he was tall--that is, from side to side). "And," he notes, "it's one thing to grow up in New York, but quite another when New York means Long Island."
Throughout grammar school and junior high, Seth says, he had mood swings where he went from feeling that he was talented with a terrific sense of humor to believing that he was a worthless freak because he was gay. Many of his classmates seemed to have the same feelings about him, applauding him after he delivered his latest parody or played a dazzling piano piece and later calling him the detestable "F" word in the corridor or saying "SEH-eth" in a sing-song, girlish way. His tormentors included Stephen Baldwin, who used to ask Rudetsky in front of a group of kids, "Are you gay? I just want to know, that's all." (Today, Rudetsky asks: "Stephen, are you the idiot who made the movie Threesome? I just want to know!")
What's nice about Rudetsky is that he doesn't consider himself an entirely innocent victim; he fully admits that he often acted superior in the arenas of music and drama. As he puts it, "I'd walk into the Chorus room with an attitude of 'You suck and I'm amazing!'" But who could have expected the boy not to over-massage his ego when it had been so severely beaten during the school periods that preceded Chorus? Not that performing was an automatic ticket to approval; Rudetsky still remembers playing the first movement of a Haydn piano sonata and receiving polite applause, only to have the glorious Andrea Langs walk in thereafter and have their teacher proclaim, "Andrea is late because she just auditioned for Annie on Broadway!" The house went much more wild for that announcement than it had for Seth's sonata. "Why does an audition merit cheers and actual performing only a fade out?" Seth still wants to know.
Annie would provide one more disappointment for Seth. He saw the show when he was around 11 and noticed that it didn't just feature little girls but also little boys in the "N.Y.C." number, which meant that he could audition, too! Then he looked closer and saw that the little girls were playing the little boys. ("I was devastated," he says, "to learn that they were 11-year-old drag kings.") Still, the Broadway musical was a wonderful refuge--especially Dreamgirls with Jennifer Holliday, and anything that starred Patti LuPone or Betty Buckley.
As a pre-pubescent, Seth did wind up auditioning for professional theater, using as his song not the usual kiddie fare but "Brother, Can You Spare a Dime." Laugh if you will, but he was cast as an orphan--not in Annie, but in Oliver!, at the Northstage Dinner Theatre. Seth was in heaven, for it was "the one place I wasn't scared to be me." After the show shuttered, Seth found himself writing in his date book the anniversary of the first rehearsal, the first preview, opening night, and the painful closing as he endured junior high hell, followed by high school hell.
There was hell at home, too, for Seth's parents weren't getting along but planned to stay together until his Bar Mitzvah. Living without love isn't easy for parents, who can sometimes do dumb things--such as Seth's father telling his son, "You're considered a musical genius now but, in a few years, you'll just be another 13-year-old playing the piano." No wonder Seth acted out. "I felt, if they found out that other kids considered me a loser, they'd feel like losers." Nor did teachers help him when the "gay" label was applied, "so all the hostility I was afraid to show other kids went right to my teachers." Seth so antagonized his drama club teacher that he didn't get cast in much during his years at Hewlett. "I'll grant you, I behaved like a 16-year-old," Seth admits. "But that teacher did, too--and he was 45."
Finally, there was the "Queerboy" incident. Says Seth, "The thing that was mind-boggling is that no student editor or teacher thought it was strange I'd put the nickname 'Queerboy' on my yearbook sheet. My friend Helen Kwah put her ambition to be 'not rich and famous' and the school called her to ask, 'Are you sure you want us to print that?' I finally saw the yearbook sheet that I filled out and it was obvious that someone else saw it in the bin at the front office, took it out, and wrote on it. Because you see a big line through the nickname I wrote and next to it, in enormous letters in totally different handwriting, you see 'Queerboy' scrawled."
But, ho-ho-ho, who has the last laugh now? Certainly not the high school drama club teacher, who attended Pageant one night and saw that Seth was conducting it. Seth hasn't just met LuPone, Buckley, and Holliday, but has worked with them all. He's written for Rosie O'Donnell and the Tonys, too. Last September, he was a producer and musical director of the Dreamgirls concert at the Ford Center. Finally, there's Seth's Broadway Chatterbox, his live talk show at Don't Tell Mama on Restaurant Row in NYC. Here, Seth sits with his favorite Broadway performers and dishes both the dirt and the delights. More often than not, there's a Tony-winner on hand: Audra McDonald, Priscilla Lopez, Andrea Martin, Scott Wise, and Bebe Neuwirth have all stopped by to pay a call, even though they've been told in advance that they'll be embarrassed. "Every guest is required to bring a mortifying video clip from their past," Seth explains. Kristin Chenoweth brought a tape of the moment when she was competing for Miss Pennsylvania and the announcer gave the name of the winner--and it wasn't she. The expression on her face wouldn't win her Miss Congeniality, either.
I wish that, in two years, I could attend Rudetsky's 20th high school reunion. I'd love to watch and listen as all those thirtysomethings who once harassed Seth and are now working in boring, non-theatrical jobs hear about all he's done and see him looking so svelte. I especially want the person who wrote "Queerboy" on that sheet of paper to learn what Seth has accomplished.
[To contact Peter Filichia directly, e-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org]