Do you enjoy stories about actors being made to look foolish on stage? Anecdotes of hilarious technical snafus in mid-performance? Tales of rampant egos and, on the other hand, extraordinary generosity on the part of theater folk? If so, then you are the target audience for Seth's Broadway Chatterbox, an immensely entertaining series of talks with performers, directors, choreographers, and other stage luminaries at the midtown cabaret club Don't Tell Mama.
Seth Rudetsky, the host and mastermind of the series, makes his living as a rehearsal, audition, and pit pianist for Broadway shows. ("I played for Brooke Shields when she auditioned for Grease!" he relates. "Yeah, I witnessed that audition. It was devastating!") He currently holds the position of assistant conductor for The Producers, and he is also well respected as a writer of song parodies and other special material for Rosie O'Donnell. To say that the guy has lots of theatrical contacts is a no-brainer. Much to the delight of his Chatterbox audiences, he has been able to persuade a slew of his friends, acquaintances, and associates to sit down and shoot the breeze with him at Mama's--everyone from Megan Mullaly to Marcia Lewis to Adam Pascal to Betty Buckley.
"I've done so many interviews by now, it's mind boggling," says Rudetsky, who has been presenting these gabfests since December 1999. The beauty of the series is its brilliant simplicity: Rudetsky sits on stage with his guest(s) for the evening and chats them up for the edification of a discriminating but highly enthusiastic audience. The setup is so wonderfully informal and non-threatening that almost all of the guests have no problem letting their hair down and telling tales on themselves and others. For example: "Diane Frantantoni told me that, one night in She Loves Me, Boyd Gaines came out for the "Vanilla Ice Cream" scene--but he forgot to bring the ice cream. Of course, they couldn't cut the bit, because there's a whole song about it. So he had to run back stage, run into the dressing room, run to the freezer, and get the ice cream while she just stood there on stage doing nothing. His body mike was on the whole time, and the audience could hear him saying, 'I'll be back in a minute! '"
The Chatterbox is not all talk; several of the guests have been known to warble for the audience. "Emily Skinner sang 'Someone Like You' for me," Rudetsky says, noting that "a lot of people don't realize that she was Linda Eder's understudy in Jekyll & Hyde. She told this story about how, two weeks into previews, they came to her and said: 'Alright, Emily, you're going on tonight. Linda's sick.' And she was, like, 'No. I am not going on. I haven't had a single fucking rehearsal!' So they made Linda Eder go out and lip-synch the songs while Emily sat backstage with a microphone and sang them--but they didn't even make an announcement to the audience! I thought, 'My God! Where are the people who got to see this happen?!"
Although he loves to chat with relative newcomers to the theater, Rudetsky feels that "It's really fun to talk to people who've been in show business for awhile. They're the best. Graciela Daniele was in the original Follies, and she told some great stories about that. She also told how she was doing ballet in Paris many years ago when she went to see a production of West Side Story. They did the show in English, which she didn't understand at all at the time. When the show started, she was reading the French titles that they had at the side of the stage--but, after the first five minutes, she didn't need them anymore. She could totally get what the show was about from the performance. It inspired her so much that she decided she had to do musical theater; she'd never seen anything like it before. So she flew to New York and, eventually, she got to assist people like Michael Bennett and Bob Fosse."
A popular feature of the weekly Chatterbox sessions is their audio-visual element. "I ask everyone to bring mortifying video clips from their past," Rudetsky explains. "Patrick Wilson brought a tape of himself playing Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors in the 10th grade. We showed a clip of Alice Ripley and Emily Skinner as the Side Show twins, separating when they performed a number in the Macy's parade; Alice said it was the worst day of her life! Marin Mazzie brought scenes of herself on V, that awful TV show about aliens. And Charles Busch and Julie Halston brought this amazing clip: They had to introduce these AIDS lecturers at some event and, instead of being able to go backstage after they introduced them, they had to sit on stage and watch and listen to these people give these long, 45 minute speeches. The person who was taping the thing was Charles' friend so, instead of taping the lecturers, he put the camera on Charles and Julie listening. You can see Charles go into what he called his 'listening phase'; after a half-hour, his chin is raised and his eyes are half closed, and you hear this voice droning in the background. It's one of the funniest things I've ever seen."
Known to have irons in several fires at any one time, Rudetsky tells TheaterMania that his latest job is as theater correspondent for New York Central, a new TV show on the Metro Channel that will be hosted by Broadway's Norm Lewis. Sponsored by New York magazine, the program will air Mondays through Fridays at 11pm, beginning April 23. ("My first segment is on the full Monty," he tips.) He has also written a one-man play that he's trying to get produced.
Still, his fans will be pleased to hear that the Chatterbox will continue indefinitely on Thursdays at 6pm at Don't Tell Mama. The list of upcoming guests includes Lauren Ward, Erin Dilly, Richard Roland, and Joey Sorge from Follies (April 19) as well as musical theater veterans Alice Playten (April 26), Cynthia Onrubia (May 3), and Donna McKechnie (date TBA). For more information on Seth and his Chatterbox, click here to visit the series' website.