How a 15-Year-Old Rita Rudner Was Cast in Zorba

Seth Rudetsky   How a 15-Year-Old Rita Rudner Was Cast in Zorba
 
This week in the life of Seth Rudetsky, Seth shares backstage stories from Rita Rudner’s Broadway days, plus memories of the late Hal Prince.
Rita Rudner
Rita Rudner

Hello from NY! It’s so nice to be home for a bit before I go on the road again. I have shows with Beth Leavel coming up in Provincetown, followed by a Cape Cod tour Labor Day Weekend with Audra McDonald. Plus, in October, I’m going to Ohio (where I went to Oberlin Conservatory) to perform Rhapsody In Seth in Lorain County, then on to Deconstructing Broadway (plus a master class) in Cincinatti. All info is at SethRudetsky.com.

This week I had comedian Rita Rudner on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXM talk show. Before she was a comedian, she spent her early childhood as a dancer. She studied ballet very seriously in Miami, but didn’t have “good feet,” so she knew she’d never really make it. BUT she knew she was a good dancer, so she decided to pursue musical theatre in NYC. At the age of 15!

Rita Rudner
Rita Rudner

Her mom had died when she was 13, and Rita basically took over parenting herself; she graduated high school early and got herself to New York where she was immediately cast in the national tour of Zorba, starring Chita Rivera and John Raitt. Thus followed a string of musicals, including one of my favorites: Promises, Promises. She was still a young teenager in that show and had to end one of the dance number (“Grapes of Roth”) smoking a cigarette, which she did not know how to do. (Yes, they still used real cigarettes back then.)

She then got cast in Follies, replacing Graciela Daniele. I remember a story Graciela told me which relates: Grazie (as she’s known) is originally from Argentina and danced a tango in the show. When she gave notice to Follies, she wasn’t as focused on the show anymore because she was thinking about her next gig. During a performance near the end of her run, she was in her dressing room and suddenly heard tango music…the tango music that played while she was supposed to be onstage dancing! She ran downstairs and started explaining rapidly to her partner how they could enter halfway through the number and still be able do part of the dance. While she was babbling, her partner suddenly yelled, “Grazie! Stop! You’re speaking to me in Spanish!” Si! Grazie was so panicked, she reverted to her native language!

Speaking of Rita and Follies, Michael Bennett wanted her to do the show in L.A., but she didn’t want to…mainly because she had never learned to drive. (She had left Florida at 15 and moved to NYC so she missed Driver’s Ed). Michael told her if she didn’t do it, she would never dance in one of his shows again. And, sadly, she didn’t!

P.S. The same thing happened when he cast Lillias White as the Effie cover in the L.A. production of Dreamgirls. She is from Brooklyn and never learned to drive, but he got her driving lessons, she understudied, took over the part and then played it later on Broadway! And then did my concert version! Here she is with Heather Headley and Audra McDonald on the Rosie O’Donnell show with me playing! So many belted F’s from Lillias!

Rita Rudner as Lily, Gary Beach as Rooster and Alice Ghostley  Annie_Broadway_Production_Photo_Rita Rudner as Lily, Gary Beach as Rooster and Alice Ghostley  Annie_HR.jpg
Rita Rudner, Gary Beach, and Alice Ghostley in Annie Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

The show Rita did for a long time was Annie, playing Lily St. Regis. I asked her what she was good at as a ballet dancer and she told me she had a great extension and, boy, did she! Check out her battement right before the end of the song!!! This is Rita doing “Easy Street” with two late, great stars: Betty Hutton and Gary Beach.

In the ’80s, she knew she’d have to eventually transition careers and, after researching, she saw that there weren’t that many women in stand-up. She went to the museum of broadcasting and watched tons and tons of comedians and tabulated techniques, styles of jokes, timing, physicality etc. She is extremely organized and diligent!

I asked her if she remembered one of her first jokes and she did: “My boyfriend and I broke up. He wanted to get married and I didn’t want him to.” #TwistEnding

Here’s Rita in the Just For Laughs festival:

She mentioned that her husband went to Oxford (!) and knew Kenneth Branagh, who stayed at their house one day in the ’90s. Kenneth told them he had funding for a film, but no film. So Rita The Organized wrote a film with her husband! It became Peter’s Friends, which I loved. The idea came because they had been visiting a castle in the U.K. and her husband thought it would be interesting to write something about a bunch of friends spending a weekend in one. The film has so many great people in it and I’ve always been obsessed with their beautiful version of “The Way You Look Tonight” (led by Imelda Staunton).

Right now, Rita’s co-starring in a play (with music) called Two’s A Crowd that she co-wrote with her husband at 59E59. It’s been called a sitcom with music…and she loves that description! Get thee!

Rita_Rudner_Seth_Rudetsky

When we went to take a photo, Rita noticed a safety cone in the SiriusXM lobby because it’s being renovated. She hauled out a plié, and I became a Swan Prince.

I want to end by re-printing highlights from the interview I did last year with the brilliant and groundbreaking Hal Prince, in honor of his passing. I had the amazing privilege of interviewing Hal Prince for Seth Speaks, which will play again this Tuesday at 7 AM and Wednesday at noon on SiriusXM Channel 72. There were so many things he told me about, but I’m fascinated with how he first began producing. He was stage managing for George Abbott and one day Bobby Griffith (with whom he worked) called him because he saw a review of a book called Seven and a half cents. He told Hal he thought it could be a musical. Hal read the review AND the book before lunch and then called the rights holder. Hal told him that he and Bobby wanted to produce it as a musical on Broadway. The guy wanted to know why he should give the rights to two young producers who had never produced before. Hal told him because he’d be able to get George Abbott to direct.

Well, even though another big producer was interested, the guy gave him the rights. Then Hal had follow through on his promise and convince George Abbott to direct. George at first said no, but finally said yes…. but told Hal to be in charge of getting the composer, lyricist, set person, lighting designer etc. So, Hal and Bobby approached Frank Loesser to write the score (great choice!) but Frank said no. But he recommended a young composing team…Adler and Ross. Hal then asked Jerome Robbins to choreograph but he told them that he wanted to start directing and would only do it if he could co-direct.

They knew Abbot wouldn’t go for it and soon their friend Joan McCracken recommended her husband, an up-and-coming choreographer, Bob Fosse (!). Abbott asked what had happened to Robbins and Hal didn’t give a straight answer. Abbot pressed and finally Hal told him that Robbins wanted to co-direct. Abbot told him to say yes! He said, “Give it to him. Everyone will know who really directed it!” So Robbins signed on as co-director (and helped Fosse a little with some of the dances).

John Raitt, Janis Paige, Marion Colby, Thelma Pelish, and Buzz Miller in The Pajama Game.
John Raitt, Janis Paige, Marion Colby, Thelma Pelish, and Buzz Miller in The Pajama Game. Friedman-Abeles / The New York Public Library

There is so much more to tell but take in this fact: Hal Prince was responsible for getting Jerome Robbins to direct his first musical and Fosse to choreograph his first Broadway show! He is at the center for shaping Broadway as we know it!

P.S. If you don’t know The Pajama Game, you should! It was the first show I became obsessed with at the age of seven. Here is John Raitt singing “Hey There” on the 1971 Tony Awards, and, naturally, he’s added one of his signature high notes to the song…listen at 1:00 and you “Won’t you take this advice I hand you liiiiiike a brother…”

Hal was also a wonderful philanthropist, which I heard about when he was honored by the Actors Fund. During his intro, it was said that it’s easier to mention the Broadway shows Hal hasn’t been involved with! I found out from people inside the Actors Fund that The Fund was running dangerously out of money in the ’80s. This is when The Phantom Of The Opera was the hottest ticket in town. Hal volunteered to donate his house seats to the fund, which began the FundTix program. That’s where you can buy great seats to Broadway shows that aren’t available to the public and make a donation to The Actors Fund at the same time. It’s raised millions for The Fund...and was started by the wonderful Hal Prince.

Joel Grey with the cast of Cabaret.
Joel Grey with the cast of Cabaret. Friedman-Abeles / The New York Public Library

During his intro, Joel Grey spoke about his own career in the ’60s and how he had great success doing nightclubs but was only seen as a replacement for Broadway shows. Hal called him at home one day and told him there was a role for him in his new Broadway show, Cabaret. Joel went to John Kander’s apartment to hear John and Fred Ebb sing through the show. He heard the opening vamp of “Willkommen” and loved it! And he originated his first Broadway role and won the Tony Award. And then did the film version and won the Oscar. Because of Hal Prince.

The other story I’ll tell counteracts those people who make actors come to callback after callback. It’s bizarre to me that you have to see someone eight, nine, 10 times to know if they can do a role: Randal Keith was living in Chicago and had the biggest audition of his life…auditioning for the national tour of Phantom. It was a horrible winter day and by the time he trudged through the snow and got there, he was told to go right in. No time to prepare! He started "Music of the Night" and after 45 seconds, Hal Prince cut him off. Yes, cut off before the signature high note! The people behind the table conferred as he awkwardly stood onstage. Suddenly, Hal looked up, saw him standing onstage and said, miffed, "Um…you can go." He went home and found out that day that he was cast! Hal didn’t need multiple call backs, wasting actors time. He could tell quickly who was right for a show.

In conclusion, there is no one that has ever matched what he contributed to Broadway. Even his so-called flops were fabulous. I’ll close with this deconstruction of Linda Lavin’s big song from It’s a Bird, It’s a Plane, It’s Superman. Incidentally, Linda is performing in Provincetown this week!

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