What a week of nostalgia for me on Stars in the House. On Wednesday, we had a reunion of Pageant, which was the first big gig I got in NY back in 1991. It’s replicates a live beauty pageant where audience judges vote for the winner… and all the female contestants are played by men.
It was created “out of boredom,” according to Bobby Longbottom who was the director/choreographer. He and Russell Garrett and John Salvatore were on the road at the Boston Shubert Theater with 42 Street and many of the cast members was trying out for La Cage Aux Folles. Lots of the guys were backstage seeing what it was to be in makeup and wigs and Bobby thought it would be fun to put on a pretend pageant and invite the cast.
Bobby went next door to the Bradford Hotel where lots of out-of-town shows would rehearse and he asked if he could use the ballroom for an afternoon. In between shows the following Saturday, they put on a Miss 42nd Street pageant and filmed it… but the battery in Russell’s camera didn’t last. They did it again the following weekend with a brand-new camera, but this time Bobby helped “the contestants” develop some characters and backstories and Bobby did some more formal staging.
It went so great, they did it again a month later, but this time called it Miss Bradford Hotel pageant… and they got the woman playing Dorothy Brock to play the former beauty queen. The woman was Delores Grey! And, ‘natch, Russell wore one of her dresses. Afterwards, Bobby wanted to keep developing it, so he showed the video to Bill Russell, Albert Evans, and Frank Kelly who wound up writing the script and songs and, after many workshops and numerous backers auditions, it opened at the Blue Angel to amazing reviews.
The late, great James Raitt was the original music director and hired me to as a sub conductor/pianist. After a few months, I got to take over and it was thrilling. The show was hilarious and the actors were all so comedically gifted. After a few months, my friend Eric Woodall, whom I met at Candlewood Playhouse, asked me if would coach his college pal from Carnegie-Mellon who had an audition. I said yes, and that’s when I met Jack Plotnick. Jack came over and his audition song choice was “New Girl In Town,” the theme to Alice, the TV show. I loved it! He was auditioning to cover all 6 contestants: Miss Texas, Miss Deep South, Miss Great Plains, Miss Industrial Northeast, Miss West Coast and Miss Bible Belt.
I suggested that he do each 8 bar phrase with a different flavor to indicate the various contestants, so he could show his versatility. He nailed his first audition, had a few callbacks, but the director/choreographer Bobby Longbottom, was concerned that Jack was perhaps too young (and not tall enough) to have the gravitas of Miss Texas. At his final callback, he told Jack to go backstage and put on Miss Texas’ evening gown. Jack came out and Bobby started asking him pageant questions and Jack had to improv answers as Miss Texas. At one point, Bobby asked him if he agreed with the term “Fur is murder” and Jack simply raised his eyebrow and confidently stroked the fur-lined collar of his gown. He got the gig.
We became friends during his rehearsals and then from hanging out backstage and soon he came to see the comedy act I was doing with Maria Bostick called Dial M for Marjorie. He loved it and asked if we could do something like that together. We started writing a sketch show and asked our friends Andréa Burns and Dick Scanlan (who was playing Miss Great Plains) to join. We called the show An Evening With Joyce DeWitt because the opening sketch was about a cabaret act starring Joyce who winds up not showing up and the dance captain has to go on. Here we are recreating it for Playbill.
Jack and I kept writing together and doing shows at Caroline’s and HBO Workspace and eventually we wrote Disaster! which went from a benefit to off-off-Broadway, to Off-Broadway and then Broadway. And, now that theatre is back again, I’ve been getting emails from MTI (which controls the rights) telling me that theaters across the country are doing Disaster! this summer. Yes, vaccine!
As you probably know, Stars in the House is a fundraiser for The Actors Fund (we’re now up to $926,000!) and Dick Scanlan told us about how the Actors Fund helped him back in the 90s. Dick had been diagnosed with AIDS and his health really started to decline after Pageant played Japan. He went to the fund for help and they helped him keep his apartment and his health insurance. One of the most significant things they did was look at his finances and tell him that he needed to take their money management course. He wasn’t making a lot of money then, but soon co-wrote Thoroughly Modern Millie and Motown the Musical and the help he got from the fund meant that he knew how to manage money when he didn’t have it and then when he did. He summed it up by saying “The Actors Fund kept me alive, and while they were keeping me alive, they taught me how to live better.”
Both Jack and I have such amazing memories about doing Pageant. It was what I had always dreamed theatre would be: super talented and unique people doing fun, artistic things. And it definitely led to us writing Disaster!. Both shows had a similar beginning with friends getting together and being creative. One of the best parts about doing Pageant was arriving early because there was so much hilarious improvising happening backstage. Each actor would do countless bits as their characters while they were getting ready. There was a long-running gag where unworldly and innocent Miss Great Plains (Dick Scanlan) thought she was engaged to me. Here’s our engagement photo which Dick still has hanging on his fridge.
The night after Pageant was a game night featuring Elphaba’s (Lilli Cooper and Stephanie J. Block) vs. Glinda’s (Alli Mauzey, Brittney Johnson, and Patti Murin). In the middle of the game, Brittney told us that “Thank Goodness” was her favorite song to do. Alli agreed, then Patti agreed-ish …basically because she remembered it was the song for which she got yelled at the least. I thought that was a hilarious/horrific way to measure what your favorite song is and soon the other women started talking about getting notes. Stephanie told us that she kept a detailed note journal so when someone would come to her dressing room and give a conflicting note, she could open it up, point to a page and say “Oh, that’s interesting, because the dance captain came to me on April 14th at 7 PM and told me the exact opposite.” YASSS! #PremptiveStrike
Stephanie will be with me this summer in Provincetown. Yes, my live concert series is back! I start in the beginning of July with Sierra Boggess. Visit PTownArtHouse.com for info and tix.
I’m still doing live concerts every Sunday as well and coming up next Sunday at 3 PM ET (and again at 8 PM ET) is George Salazar from Godspell and Be More Chill. Get tix at TheSethConcertSeries.com. When I was doing Seth Speaks at SiriusXM pre-pandemic, Joe Iconis played for George’s big song from Be More Chill. I filmed it and it was so thrilling to be right next to him as he was singing it. It was as if I was seeing a performance for the Broadway stage, but I was one foot away. Incredible! Watch then peace out.