Last week the great Broadway star, Carol Channing, passed away. The closest I got to doing an interview with her was when I was working the Tony Awards red carpet for SiriusXM and she was there to present (with LL Cool J…watch her amazing dance moves). She came over to me and my microphone and, not surprisingly, after my fast-paced, horrifically enunciated barrage of questions, her response was simply “What?!”.
One of my favorite Carol stories was after she saw Rent. Apparently, she went backstage and said, (read this in full Carol Channing voice, with a huge smile) “I didn’t understand a word you said, but the energy…!”. I wondered if that story was apocryphal and then I recently saw Jason Graae’s post that stated after his performance in Forbidden Hollywood, she praised him by saying “I understood every word you said!” Apparently, that was major criteria for her. When Andrea McArdle (the original Annie) was 20, she did Jerry’s Girls with Carol Channing. Andrea had been asked to sing “Tomorrow” at some event and she was complaining about always having to sing what she called “The T Song.” Carol stopped those complaints from ever happening again: “Andrea!” she intoned, in her bass register. (And, FYI, she always pronounced it “Ahn-drea.”) She continued, “You are extremely lucky to have your own song. Do you know how rare it is for a Broadway star to have a song associated with only them? This way, when you win your Tony Award, they’ll know exactly what to play when you approach the stage!” The two looked at a photo of another famous Broadway star, who had never done a show with a classic score, and Carol continued, “Look at poor her! What are they going to play when she wins the Tony?”
I was chatting with Lee Roy Reams, Carol’s sometime co-star as well as the director of her Hello, Dolly! revival, and he was telling me hilarious stories about her. Apparently, Carol would sometimes change the original Hello, Dolly! blocking in rehearsal for the 1994 production and when he’d gently tell her that (original director-choreographer) Gower Champion had originally staged it differently and she’d reply, implying psychic ability, “Well, I spoke to Gower last night and this is how he wants it now.” Yes, Gower had died in the early ’80s, but she would claim to have had conversations with him where his wishes were quite clear. Then when Lee Roy would try the same routine, telling her that he had also spoken to Gower and Gower specifically wanted it the original way, she would decisively say, “Gower’s dead.” Best of both worlds!
My absolute favorite Carol Channing moment I personally witnessed was when I was hosting Gypsy Of The Year a few years ago and they honored her with a huge opening number that ended with her singing and dancing “Hello, Dolly!”. Afterwards, she stood onstage with Lee Roy, who was interviewing her. Every time he spoke to her, she would shuffle downstage, away from him. He would move towards her, ask a question and, again, she would shuffle downstage. I was thinking “Poor thing! She can still do her signature number because of muscle memory, but it appears she’s mentally out-of-it.” Well, right when she started shuffling away from him again, Lee Roy said, “Carol, why do you keep moving downstage?” She suddenly turned to him, with fire in her eyes and said, “I’m trying to get you to turn towards the audience! You’re addressing all these questions to me and nobody can see you face!” Brava! Turns out, she was anything but mentally out-of-it. She was a Broadway star who always wanted what was best for the audience! Rest in peace.
I interview Broadway composer William Finn on Seth Speaks, my SiriusXm radio talk show, and it was great to see him. I first worked with him around 1995 when Jason Robert Brown asked me to assist him on a new musical reading at the Public Theater. It was what became A New Brain, and I had such a fantastic time, even though it was during a freezing January. The score is wonderful and the cast was incredible for that first reading; the two male leads were Michael Rupert and Gregg Edelman and the mom was played by Dorothy Loudon, who was hilarious.
Bill, as he’s known, asked me to do some transcribing for him for the next show he was working on—which was a musical version of The Royal Family. Bill doesn’t write out music, so he recorded himself singing and playing the song and then gave me a lyric sheet. And because his singing isn’t always 100 percent accurate, he wrote the letters for the notes of the melody above the lyrics. Then I wrote it out in music form. That’s how he does all of this shows!
A New Brain was written because after Falsettos opened on Broadway (for which he won two Tony Awards for Best Book of a Muiscal and Best Score) he started passing out/falling down every once in a while. Everyone kept telling him it was because he was stressed about turning 40. Turns out, people shouldn’t claim to have medical knowledge they don’t actually have, because after passing out in a restaurant, he was rushed to a hospital and soon found out he had something seriously wrong with his brain! He had to get brain surgery to fix it.
While he was in the hospital, James Lapine (or “Lapine” as he calls him) showed up and told him, “I hope you’re taking notes.” Bill yelled, “I’m dying!!! You take the notes!” Regardless, he wrote a musical about it all and now there are two great recordings of A New Brain where you can hear that wonderful score (featuring Jason Robert Brown’s amazing vocal arrangements). Listen especially to all the various vocal lines at the end.
I couldn’t participate in the show when it was finally produced Off-Broadway at Lincoln Center Theater because, by that time, I was working as a comedy writer on the Rosie O’Donnell Show. However, during my summer hiatus, I was a sub conductor/pianist for musical director Ted Sperling. The scariest part for me happened at the end of my first performance: I had learned how to play and conduct it and was feeling confident. Usually, at the end of the show during the song, “I Feel So Much Spring”, Ted Sperling would come onstage and play violin while Steven Freeman, who played the other keyboard, would take over the main piano part. Well, I play violin so I told Ted I could do that as well. Now, mind you, Ted is an amazing violinist and I am probably at the level of a kid in ninth grade who plays in the second violin section of the school orchestra. Probably third chair. I’m basically the violinist version of Frederik Egerman in A Little Night Music when he talks about sitting in the nude to entice his wife: “That might be effective, my body’s all right. Though, not in perspective, and not in the light.”
My point is, I could play it ish …as long as no one was listening too closely to tone, intonation, or accuracy of what was written in the score. Ted told me that when the song began, I should leave the piano and stand backstage. Then right before I play my first violin part, walk onstage while the cast was singing and play. If you don’t know, a sub never gets a chance to practice the show with the orchestra and the cast. You practice by yourself and the first time you finally do it with everyone is literally in front of a paying audience. So, it was my first performance; I was waiting backstage with my violin and heard my cue. I walked out onstage and blended myself into the background. I’m standing in back of the cast, nervous about the sounds about to emit from my violin, but calmed myself down by thinking, “It doesn’t matter if I sound awful. Who’s going to be paying attention? There’s a whole cast facing the audience. That’s who everyone is looking at. ” Then, as I lift my violin to play, I found out that the song was staged by Graciele Daniele to have the entire cast turn around, look at me and basically tell the audience, “Please shift any and all focus to the brilliant violinist you’re about to hear.” Is it possible to play violin well while having a panic attack? It is not. “I Feel So Much Spring” became “I Hear So Much Squeak.” I’m not saying I ruined the show, but you’ll notice it is no longer running.
Okie doke, I just did a show with Audra McDonald in Scottsdale, Arizona, and then San Francisco and she sounded amazing. She wouldn’t give us any scoop on the upcoming season of her CBS show The Good Fight, EXCEPT to say that if we thought it was crazy last year, get ready. Yes, there might be singing on this upcoming season! Since there’s Christine Baranski, Audra, and an array of non-stop Broadway musical theatre stars constantly on the show (Christopher Sieber, Brian Stokes Mitchell, Katrina Lenk, Rob McClure, Carolee Carmello, etc.) I’m very excited!
It was just the 21st anniversary of Ragtime, so Audra performed “Wheels Of A Dream” with James (my husband) being a non-traditional Coalhouse. Here’s the last time we did it:
Speaking of Audra, she’s the one who told me to do my show Rhapsody In Seth again, which I first did in the early 2000s at Ars Nova and then Off-Broadway at The Actor’s Playhouse. I’m going to L.A. this week, not only to have some fancy meetings, but also to rehearse on the stage of Largo where I’m doing it on Monday, February 18!
Rhapsody In Seth is about my childhood, which I was not fond of, to put it mildly, and how my obsession with Broadway got me through it. It not only features me playing all my signature high school piano pieces like “Rhapsody In Blue” but also highlights the wrenching competitions I went through to get my various solos in chorus. (Yes, I not only was the lead singer on Neil Diamond’s “Love On The Rocks,” but I also won the coveted baritone solo in our “funky” rendition of “MacArthur Park.”) And it highlights the genesis of my “deconstructing.” The message is about how Broadway saved me. Here’s the first song I was ever obsessed with that led to a lifetime of deconstruction:
For tickets to “Rhapsody In Seth”, get thee to Largo-LA.com.
This coming Saturday I’m with Christine Ebersole in Boston for two shows at the Huntington Theater and then I’m in New Orleans with the amazing Beth Malone from Fun Home.
Here’s a little combo of two of the stars I have upcoming shows with: Beth Malone joining Judy Kuhn for “I Know Him So Well”! So good!