by Andrew Barrett
There is no one on this planet who can get access to and get intimate with Broadway's greatest artists like Seth Rudetsky can. And this he does every Thursday afternoon at 6pm at Don't Tell Mama. With an impressive guest list - from performers like Betty Buckley and Audra McDonald, to composer/lyricists like Michael John LaChiusa and Jason Robert Brown -- the one hour "Chatterbox" is devoted to the whirlwind of a mouth, Seth Rudetsky, and his unequaled skill for letting an audience into the private world of Broadway. During this hour his victims, I mean willing celebrity volunteers, contribute loving stories of their careers and lives for an equally willing audience. There is more love in the back room at Don't Tell Mama than at the clambake in Carousel!
But sometimes it is tough love. Sometimes Seth has to bring everyone down to reality and just tell it like it is. After all, we weren't all born stars. Some, like the stunning Andrea Burns (Lucille Frank in the recent tour of Parade), got their fins wet at French Woods summer camp where 13 year old boys and girls pranced about on the stage in the most heartfelt version of Cats that you ever did see! Did Andrea want us to see this humiliating moment? Yes. And No. And Yes. It is the present and the past that make up the essence of "Chatterbox", which Seth dreams to be an archival collection.
It's always so easy to dish it out, but Seth can take it, too. He is currently starring in his own one-man autobiographical show, Rhapsody in Seth, at HERE on Saturday nights at 11pm. Through Seth's maniacally musical way of speaking and delivering a joke, we are passionately brought into a life with a lesson that is for everyone.
So now I have the pleasure of archiving a bit of Seth off the stage and out of the lights. We met for a brief conversation after an episode of "Chatterbox" and this wonderfully joyous man, who loves the theater more than anyone you will ever meet, answered a few questions for me. Seth, like the divas he worships, should be experienced live. I knew going into this interview it would be very difficult to capture his sheer kinetic energy on paper. So I decided if I do not edit his words, as so many print interviews do, and let his natural rhythm flow through his words, then maybe, just maybe, you can all enjoy Seth as much as I did.
Andrew Barrett: Seth, why do you want to interview Broadway artists? Why not Jewish grandmothers?
Seth Rudetsky: I realized that ... my favorite thing is going out to dinner with all my friends and just like - "What happened at the show?" I just love, "What was the latest mess that just happened." Plus anytime I ever met all those people I was obsessed with, like Priscilla Lopez, it's always like I'm pumping them, over and over, "What was the first rehearsal like?"
I was doing a show once and David Friedman came and he said after the show, "You're such a good performer but you're also such a fan". And I thought, I am a fan! I love talented people and I love talking to them, and then I just decided to put it all together.
AB: When was the moment you knew you had a gift for interviewing?
SR: I had no idea. I will say that I decided I really needed to do something more ... you know, I was writing for Rosie behind the scenes and then one day she was sick and she couldn't do the rehearsal and I did this scene with Martin Short and everyone was like, "Oh my God, you were so great!" And then I was like, "Wait. I do like performing. What am I doing just being a writer?" And I was thinking I have to do something. "What's special about me?" I mean I could play the piano, and I began thinking maybe I could do a talk show. Then I was talking to my agent and I told him, "I want to do a TV Talk show." And he said, "Just do it live and we'll bring people to see it." So I just did it. I scheduled the thing at Don't Tell Mama ... we had no idea what I was going to do! Everyone was like, "You have to have a hook, something different about yours." I just thought of the idea about having the video clips. That became my specialty. Everyone has to bring a mortifying video clip. I did it and I just told funny stories. It's funny because, I had a few friends come to see it and they were like, "Oh yeah, the show was fine" And I thought, "Wait a minute. It was good!" Then other people I didn't know were like "It's amazing!" I realized it's essentially what I was doing in my living room with my friends. I was always like "Oooh listen to this high note! Watch this tape!" And they were always like, "Yeah. Whatever." But people were never saying that now, they were saying, "It was so much fun." I don't know if it's a gift or not but I got really good feedback and I began to get comfortable.
AB: Who was your first interview?
SR: Paul Castree - because I was friends with him and I know we have sort of funny stories that we've always told about "Forever Plaid". I love Orfeh's voice and I was dying for her to sing "Nights on Broadway" but that's a duet so I booked Paige Price, too. So I booked the three of them and I really didn't know what it was going to be like.
AB: Who is your dream interview?
SR: Well, Betty Buckley was obviously, but I've had her. Patti LuPone. And she's going to do it. She is definitely going to do it. I've spoken with her and she's told me this story she is going to be telling and she has a video clip.
AB: What could you possibly do to completely humiliate yourself if you got to interview Patti LuPone?
SR: Well, I already humiliated myself when I first met her backstage at "Grease." I was playing [Seth played keyboards for the revival] and she came to see it. I was like "Act maturely. Act maturely." And then I was like, "I love you." [This is one of those moments you had to see how Seth said this. He thrust forward like someone was hitting him on the back. The look of utter terror was on his face like that of a cartoon character plummeting to the concrete below] "I love you." [singing] "I was DE-vistated!"
AB: Of those who are dead, which Broadway artists would you most like to interview and why?
SR: I'm really mad I never got Gwen (Vernon). I was so bad because I kept putting it off. Who did I grow up obsessed with that's no longer around? Definitely Ethel (Merman). You know I would be very curious to talk to her about "Gypsy". Leonard Bernstein, oh god, I would love to talk to him. There's a lot of people who are alive I just don't know. Like Susan Johnson who did "The Most Happy Fella". I'm dying to get her.
I decide to interrupt the flow of the line of questioning to delve into Seth's personal life. I think knowing this side of Seth further helps to know Seth. Not to mention that his magnificent one man show, Rhapsody in Seth reveals such an intimate portrait of him, I thought this would be a wonderful teaser for those able to attend.
AB: Are you single? And why?
SR: NO! I've been with Aaron for 4 ½ years.
AB: How did you meet?
SR: We met through mutual friends - that old chestnut. He had already met me and I knew that he has a crush on me. I went over to my friend's house to check him out for the second time because I didn't remember him the first time. Then I found out he was a Leo and I was like, "That's it. I'm in love with you."
AB: I ask this because it is so joyous in Rhapsody in Seth, after all this pain you've been put though, that it ends up some place, that your life, well you can live happily ever after.
SR: Yes. That is the point of the show. Thank you. I'm glad you said it.
AB: Where do you like to go on vacation? And why?
SR: P-town. [Provincetown, MA] I just started going there two years ago and it was the best time I ever had. You have the shopping, the beach, the basic food, and normal gay people. I love it. I love it.
AB: Where do you imagine the worst place to take a two week vacation and why?
SR: Libya. I've been reading a book about it recently. It sounds horrible.
AB: Can you tell me about your one man show, Rhapsody in Seth? How did it come about?
SR: My agent came to see a show I was doing with Jack Plotnik, my comedy partner, and you know, the whole joke was about "we don't want it to be a play". And he was like, "I know you don't want this be a play but what I really see the show about is two guys who don't fit in and they use their awkwardness and the things that don't make them fit in to succeed later on in life. And they're relatively famous and they're good friends with Divas." And I was like, "That would be sort of interesting". So we were at the gay pride march and I asked Jack, "Do you mind if I do this idea myself. Wrote it myself?" He said, "No. It's fine." I just came home ... and it was like ... I just wrote and wrote. It was so easy. There are so many stories.
AB: Is it 100% your life?
SR: Oh yes. It's the real truth.
AB: Have you spoken to all the people who are "in it"?
SR: No. I've spoken with the nice people. My parents, of course, have seen it and they loved it.
Let me interject to the reader that part of the joy of Rhapsody in Seth is watching him become the very people who humiliated or tortured him. For instance, Seth's father is "busted" in the show. Seth's interpretation of his father is somewhere between Jimmy Cagney with a toothpick in the side of his mouth ... and Katherine Hepburn.
SR: My father ... my father is totally busted in the show ... so after the show he says "You know, it's not 100% true". I'm waiting for him to finish. So I ask, "Oh what, Dad?" And he was like, "I mean we won that lawsuit about Greg's broken collar bone" I shockingly reply, "That's the only thing!? Like, your trying to make out with me is normal?!" I have spoken to a lawyer though about being liable. I think I'm clear.
AB: When you are alone on stage and you hear the audience laughing, what are you thinking?
SR: Oh ... you know me; it's a lot of feelings. One is, "This section's not funny" and I'm always annoyed at them and I'm like, "Don't they realize this is serious?" But I wrote the show for really political reasons. I really wrote it ... it's like; this is what it's like growing up gay. It's not about when I'm 20 when I decided to come out - it's like, I knew I was gay as a kid - you're tortured. I want people to know ... it's like ... "Gay education in school?!". "Gay Education in school?!" All those fucking idiots who know ... you're tormented you're whole childhood! I wanted the complete specifics of my story to open people's fucking eyes. But I also didn't want it to be, "Oh poor, poor me." But that's the point of why I did the show, it's a like a dream come true. It's like every time I see a show I'm like, "Oh I wanna conduct it, and I wanna do the lead, but I wanna right it" This is the first time I literally get to write it and be funny and ...
AB: You're George M. Cohen
SR: Exactly! It's like totally a dream come true. I love that. You know that it's all me. It's conceited, you know, no it's not conceited. It's every actor's joy. I love working with Jack. I love partnering. But there's something amazing about doing everything yourself. Except the directing. Paul (Castree) did the directing. Thank god.
SR: "Chatterbox"- my goal is to get in on TV. Have it live- streamed over the Internet. Then catalogue the tapes, the TV version and sell those. That's the point of my show - its archival. People talk about me going on TV and talk about "the latest show". But what's interesting to me is the history of people.
And Rhapsody in Seth - I want to tour it to colleges. I really want to do that. I wanna tour it around the country regularly. I wanna open it in NY- and then I wanna get it filmed for HBO. Those are my goals for it. I think it's possible.
AB: You're selling yourself and "Chatterbox" to one of those 20 year old power agents out in LA, and you have one minute, go!
SR: Oh my god!
AB: That's you're first ten seconds.
SR: It's a really funny Inside the Actors Studio. So you get all the information. And the depth and information you get from all the other shows. But it's really funny at the same time.
AB: If you could be any diva who would it be?
SR: I would have to be a combination of Patti (LuPone) and Betty (Buckley). I could never decide. I'm always having face-offs with myself. I'm like, "I'm sorry she's better. No, I'm sorry. SHE'S better!" I can't decide. I'd have to be either Patti Buckley or Betty LuPone.