What Happened When Gwen Verdon Called a Number in Broadway’s Fosse ‘Trash’?

Seth Rudetsky   What Happened When Gwen Verdon Called a Number in Broadway’s Fosse ‘Trash’?
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares stories from the Rhone River cruise—including scoop on The Phantom of the Opera and Fosse.
Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity.
Gwen Verdon in Sweet Charity. Friedman-Abeles / The New York Public Library

Au revoir, Paris and Blimey, London! I just flew in to Heathrow this morning from Lyon, which was last stop on the Playbill cruise. Wowza. France is beautiful. One of the excursions was a bike ride around Lyon and, man, that city is stunning! Here I am with Rebecca Luker and Marc Kudisch and, if you can’t tell from my body language, it was fre-zee-zing.

Seth 4.15.19

And here I am doing my signature arabesque sur la bicycle that I haul out whenever I get on a bike. #StillGotIt

Seth 4.15.19

The week had fabulous shows with glorious music and insider Broadway stories…my favorite combo! Rebecca Luker was first and she sang up a storm including a gorgeous song that Jeff Blumenkrantz and Beth Blatt wrote for her. Rebecca is from Alabama and the song is about the “lovely lies” that southern women say to each other to keep each other in denial.

I also asked Rebecca about auditioning for the original company of The Phantom of the Opera. She had studied opera in college so she felt confident going in. But, this was the old days when you auditioned on a Broadway stage and could hear the people before you. She got extremely nervous…until she heard the person right before her: a man singing a duet from Porgy and Bess….as Porgy and Bess! Literally both roles and in both octaves. She thought it was so hilarious and bizarre that it totally relaxed her. She sang an aria from The Ballad of Baby Doe…and soon became the Christine Daaé understudy and eventually took over the role!

If you don’t know, the entire title song of Phantom is lip sync’d. She went to the studio to record it (for if/when she went on) and was very happy to get out the final note: a high E. Right after that first take, the music director said, “Rebecca…I’m wondering what you’re thinking about when you hit that high E.” She looked at him and said, “I’m thinking that I have only one more in me! Now push record!” And he did and she did!

Rebecca told us about when she first went on. When she got to the moment in the song when the Phantom is leading her to his lair, she was so excited to be playing the role that she got completely lost in the music. Suddenly, she heard Michael Crawford whisper “Sing! Sing!” Yes, those are the Phantom’s lines at the end of the song, but at this point he really meant it. Turns out, Rebecca was so lost in the music that she forgot to move her mouth along to the pre-record! So, the audience just heard her lovely voice and saw Christine with a completely closed mouth. The Phantom of the Ventriloquist?

Marc Kudisch did the next show, and I asked him about being in the Broadway version of The Wild Party. For those that don’t know, there was an Off-Broadway musical called The Wild Party by Andrew Lippa and a Broadway musical called The Wild Party by Michael John LaChiusa that played the exact same season! Well, turns out, Marc was offered the role of the boxer in the Off-Broadway version, but he had just played Gaston in Beauty and The Beast and thought it was too similar. Then, he was on the subway and, coincidentally, so was Michael John. Michael John told him that he was a fan and he was writing a role in The Wild Party that he thought Marc would be great for…even though it was not like anything he had played before. Marc auditioned and got it the role of the (sociopathic?) playboy, Jackie. He was fabulous!

We had a great time on the ship…despite the unresolved tension of this video:

Marc’s amazing wife is Shannon Lewis, who regaled us all with stories of starring in Fosse. She told us that Gwen Verdon was telling them how to walk backwards to the bar in “Big Spender.” They had to shoot energy towards the audience out of their back. Everyone kept trying until finally Gwen got up and showed everyone how it’s done. Not one to mince words, she said, “I’m 75-years-old and I can do it better than any of you!” (FYI, Shannon said that Gwen was always 75. Throughout the years of rehearsing and performing the show, Gwen would always refer to herself as 75. No one knew if she was older or younger. That was her go-to age.)

Shannon also told a hilarious story about a female understudy going on for a big dance solo. Brad Musgrove, who was the dance captain, stood in the audience, prepared to write down whatever notes Gwen said during the dance. Usually, throughout an entire number, she’d be telling him various things to notate and then tell whoever was dancing. The song that was being performed was really sexy and aggressive. This time, however, Gwen didn’t say anything. She was silent throughout the entire number. Finally, when it was over, she turned to him and (in full Gwen Verdon voice) said, “Well, that was 100 percent trash.” That’s it? The weird thing was…Brad didn’t know if that was a compliment or an insult! Was it “trash,” like throw out the trash? Or “trash,” like Gwen was proud that the dancer really got the down-and-dirty sexiness that was needed? He decided to simply not to give “the note” and the show went on.

Back to France: One day, I had to take a taxi from a nearby city all the way back to the ship. I was trying to haul out my French and at one point the driver replied with a long sentence. I told him there was no way I could understand and he then, while driving, spoke into his phone and showed it to me. Apparently, he had a translator app that could take his French and put it into English. However, he was driving and it was bumpy and the sentence came out as, “Are you in rush? I must take grandmother to hospital!” It reminded me of how my voice-to-text translates what I say. I always have to go back and change 60 percent of what it writes out. I told him the translator app did a bizarre job, but I knew it something about me being in a “rush.” I didn’t want him to speed through lights so I told him I was not in a rush. Well, the next thing I knew, we were going to a suburban area because…he literally had to take his grandmother to the hospital! Turns out, the translator was completely and thoroughly accurate! We eventually stopped in front of a house, an elderly lady got in and we then went to a hospital. Bonjour, Madame.

Back to the ship: Lillias White was next and, OMG, her voice and her musicality is so incredible. After singing non-stop 11 o’clock numbers (including “Home” from The Wiz, “Don’t Rain On My Parade” from Funny Girl, “The Oldest Profession” from The Life, etc.), we decided to do an encore. We sang the fight scene from Dreamgirls with her as Effie and me as everyone else. It’s hilarious how we don’t have to practice it all and we both have it completely memorized. If you’ve never seen Lillias as Effie, watch this incredible behind-the-scenes video I put together showing the entire making of the Dreamgirls concert with Lillias, Heather Headley, and Audra McDonald.

The final show was Melissa Errico, who was born with such an amazing tone to her voice. It’s so pretty in any range. Here we are re-creating one of the most hilarious body mic misadventures ever!

The most wonderful concert of the week was when we went to a very old cathedral in Viviers and performed for the ship’s guests as well as the townspeople. It was so beautiful and so French! Melissa and Rebecca learned the duet from the opera Lakme and I cannot tell you how stunning it was. Someone told me they should go on tour around the country and the entire concert should just be that one song. Their voices combined with that music was unbelievable!
I had suggested they learn that song and everyone thought it was because of my classical music background. Well, the reason I know that song is not because of my Bachelor of Music in Piano Performance from Oberlin Conservatory, but because of my super fandom of Varla Jean Merman! I had heard Jeffrey Roberson (who plays Varla) sing it with super soprano Nell Snaidas a few years ago in the concert Classical Varla, and when I had to think of a song for two sopranos, it was the only one I knew! Watch Varla and Nell do their thing:

Anyhoo, I’m here in London this whole week doing Deconstructing Broadway at Crazy Coqs and then I do Rhapsody In Seth in Pittsburgh April 22 & 23 and then in L.A. April 29 (ending the week doing a show with Sarah Silverman at the Wallis). Find out how to get tickets to any and all here!

Until then, au revior, cheerio and peace out!

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