Welcome to my final column of 2022! Holy cow, it’s going to be 2023. Remember when the year 2000 seemed far away? For those of us who were kids in the 70s, remember when 1984 seemed far away? Now, 1984 is far away, but in the opposite direction.
Now, I know all of you have been closely following my hernia surgery progress. I’m here to tell you it’s “all good,” as the kids say. I went in for my check-up, and the doctor gave me the okay to start exercising again. At first, he told me I could exercise after the four-week mark, but the nurse who was helping me recover said it was actually a six-week exercise break. That had me spiraling. When I spoke with the doctor at my check-up, he did not understand my sass. You be the judge! Here’s the conversation:
My doctor says to me, “You can start exercising after 4 weeks.”
“I knew it!” I reply. “Ugh! Downer McGhee told me I had to wait six weeks!”
“Four weeks is fine,” my doctor said, and then paused. “Who’s Downer McGee?”
“Your nurse!” I sassed back.
I texted a recap of the conversation to my friend Aaron Dai who immediately researched the name “Downer McGee.” It turns out, she does exist!
Aaron is also a pianist and composer, and he wrote an orchestral version of ’Twas The Night Before Christmas that The Chelsea Symphony performs every year. He is always able to get a star to perform the reading with him. In the beginning, he used Andrea Martin, but has since had so many amazing people join him like Charles Busch, Caroline Rhea, Rachel Dratch, and BD Wong. During lockdown, John Lithgow read virtually. It’s such a great orchestral piece. Watch!
During the concert, there is a raffle to determine which member of the audience will come up and be the special guest conductor for “Sleigh Ride.” Last year, I was with my friends Paul Castree and Stephen Spadaro. I won the raffle and got to conduct. It was the absolute best time, and I ended up posting a video of the momentous holiday occasion.
This year, I sadly couldn’t go, but Stephen Spadaro attended with our friend Tim Schultheis. Stephen must be a lucky charm because Tim wound up winning! Unfortunately, that’s where the similarities stop. Apparently, Tim’s conducting was much more enjoyable and memorable than mine, because a video of him conducting went viral and wound up being the number three story trending on CNN. I was outraged, but happy for him.
Check him out in full sass!
Next week, I’m going to Carmel, Indiana to deconstruct '70s variety shows. Here’s a clip of me from years ago. This was filmed at the Gershwin Theatre on a night Wicked was dark. I was asked to be part of a fundraiser for marriage equality called “Defying Inequality.” I did some deconstructing some of the The Brady Bunch Variety Hour, mainly featuring Mike Brady’s “dancing” and Alice’s solid gold-level funkiness.
I’ll be featuring a lot more clips like this on Friday and Saturday, January 6th and 7th.
Click here for tickets!
I’m also excited to say I’ll be doing one of my signature concerts with Jessie Mueller in San Francisco on January 21st. Here’s a little clip of us performing one of her hits from Waitress. It features my doggie Bagel doing an incredible button. If you don’t know what a button is, watch this.
Then watch me, Jessie, and Bagel.
And get tickets here!
In sad news, the hilarious and talented Ronald Dennis passed away recently. Ron was the original Richie in A Chorus Line. We became pals over the past few years, emailing each other quite often. Our friendship began when I deconstructed “At The Ballet” a few years ago, passing the song along to various A Chorus Line alumni. The original Sheila, Kelly Bishop, sent it to Ron who, turns out, listened to me on SiriusXM. He emailed me directly, knowing I would love to hear some inside scoop on A Chorus Line or ACL, as he calls it, and Michael Bennett, or M.B.
Here are some of the highlights from the email he sent me.
I came to ACL by default for the very last workshop of the show.
Candy Brown is one of my close girlfriends. Candy and I met doing Hello, Dolly! with Pearl Bailey, which is another story unto itself. Chile!
Candy had worked for Bob Fosse in Liza With A Z and in Pippin. She was offered Chicago, which was going into production at the same time as A Chorus Line. Candy joined Chicago because, as she told me, “Chicago was a sure thing!”
I had auditioned for Michael Bennett several times over the years leading up to being hired for A Chorus Line. I went in to audition for any role that might be open, and Baayork Lee, the original Connie, and Michael’s assistant, told me that after my audition Michael turned to her and said, “The part calls for Candy’s story!”
Baayork asked him, “Why does it have to be a girl? You’ve always liked Ron.”
I got the part.
Baayork and I had a song that we shared, called “Confidence,” right at the beginning of the show. We sang it for the very first audience invited run-through.
Baayork was on the line at the very same position that she remained on throughout and I was next to Trish Garland, who played Judy Turner. I would look down the line in Connie’s direction and sing:
"I’m sure that Connie thinks she’s got it.
"But she’s wrong, if only she could spot it.
"I have got that special quality
"It’s written plain all over and will remain all over me!"
After that first run-through, the opinion from Michael’s invited friends, actors, and regular civilians, and our producers, was that opening the show with “Confidence” right out of the box was just “too musical comedy.”
I did not feel that way 39 years ago. It was no laughing matter for me while I watched everyone have their moment in the sun, creating, rehearsing, and showcasing their songs. Looking back now, I do believe that M.B. was doing some type of manipulative director thing by ignoring me, working on all the other things that was filled his amazing mind. He pushed my "Black Jones" flame up too high.
I’ve told people that I was so pissed during the rehearsal period. My jaw was so tight I could have been the lone Black face on Mt. Rushmore! Mind you, I was not going to let my anger get me fired like what had occurred to so many during that last workshop. I did what I was told and did it well, too.
Lo and behold, about two weeks before we were to open at the Neuman, M.B. comes to me just before lunchtime and says that he needs to see me in the rehearsal room. I’m thinking, “Oh sh*t. Now what?” I meet him and find Fran Liebergall and Bobby Thomas, our drummer, with Michael.
Our director proceeds to sing lyrics that will become “Gimme The Ball.” He sounded exactly like if Joe Cocker needed some serious auto-tune.
Fran, Bobby, and I came up with a very rough version of the song in Michael’s mind. At the end, he turned to me and said, “Here. Go home and make something out of this.”
Gobsmacked, but not one to back down to an order or a challenge, I went home, retreated to my bedroom, and channeled Aretha Franklin. Sadly, I signed away all royalty rights in our original contract, being naive and not knowing anything about asking for writing credit or payment. Hindsight! What is it good for? Absolutely nothing. Oy!
The rest is history. A Chorus Line was truly an amazing, amazing, amazing experience and career high. Each and every night, during the end of “One,” the audiences would leap to their feet en masse, just like they would when Donna ended “Music In The Mirror.”
Last year, when my ACL family performed the “One” number for The Public Theater celebration, the very same thing happened with the audience at The Delacorte. It was amazing and heart-warming beyond words. Melissa Manchester was quoted later as saying that the singing in the number after ours sounded like the after-dinner mint. LOL.
Here is Ronald doing "Gimme the Ball" during the original run of A Chorus Line at The Public. He starts around seven minutes in, giving incredible energy. The double pirouette right before the last, “scared!” Breathtaking.
I really treasure our correspondence over the last few years. What a talented, warm, and truly funny person. He will definitely be missed. I’m very happy to say that he made his forever mark on Broadway.