With Seth Rudetsky resuming his Off Broadway solo show and also returning this Sunday to his acclaimed series of livestream special-guest concerts, one is tempted to begin an article like this by playing on the ubiquitous “Broadway’s Back!” slogan. But “Rudetsky’s Back!” doesn’t work. He never really went away.
During the entire Broadway shutdown, when it seemed just about everyone had gone into hibernation, Rudetsky and husband James Wesley kept the lights on through their very popular, very effective and very busy Stars in the House livestream series, raising well more than $1 million for The Actors Fund’s pandemic efforst by, among other things, reuniting Broadway casts from Annie and Dreamgirls to Jagged Little Pill and Beetlejuice.
The show has also brought together the casts from far too many classic TV casts to list here, so just a few examples: actors from ER (including George Clooney), Glee, Frasier, Taxi, This Is Us, thirtysomething and both iterations of One Day At A Time. Game show episodes, in which both hosts and guests engage in a sort of freewheeling mash-up of Match Game, Password, charades, Family Feud and Trivial Pursuit – routinely draw an assortment of the couple’s famous friends and the famous friends of those famous friends (a recent contest pitted the casts of Little House on the Prairie against The Waltons, while another saw Wicked‘s various Boqs go up against its Fiyeros. Watch them on YouTube or the Stars in the House website.)
Each Stars in the House episode also offers the latest Covid updates, provided by Dr. Jon LaPook, chief medical correspondent for CBS News, but as much as anything else, the show has given a face to a resilient Broadway and provided an outlet for its community to vent, commiserate and comfort. Over the past 18 months, Stars in the House, with its nightly (sometimes more) episodes, has been an expression of joyful perseverance and loyal camaraderie during a time when both were most needed by performers and their fans.
And Stars in the House isn’t going away, even now that Broadway productions have resumed performances. The need is still there, as Rudetsky discusses in this conversation with Deadline.
Deadline spoke with Rudetsky – and, unexpectedly and too briefly, his husband James – about Stars in the House, the appeal of cast reunions, his terrifically funny Seth’s Broadway Breakdown performances at the Off Broadway venue Asylum in Manhattan’s Chelsea neighborhood, and his new round of the unmissable weekly livestream Seth Concert Series on Sunday evenings, to be performed live from the Upper West Side apartment Rudetsky shares with Wesley.
Each week, Rudetsky, a longtime Broadway pianist, fundraiser, producer, actor, comedy writer, co-author (with frequent Stars guest Jack Plotnick) of the Broadway musical Disaster! and host of Seth’s Big Fat Broadway and Seth Speaks on Sirius/XM Satellite Radio, will welcome one of his many famous friends and colleagues to perform intimate, largely improvised concerts – with Seth at the piano and viewers making requests – live from his his living room-slash-studio. Beginning this Sunday, Oct. 3, at 8 p.m. ET, Rudetsky’s guest will be Shayna Steele (Rent, Hairspray), the first in an upcoming line-up that includes Justin Guarini (October 10), Jessie Mueller (October 17), Erika Henningsen (October 24), and Shoshana Bean (October 31).
And of course we spoke about all those little musical annoyances that Rudetsky so artfully deconstructs with hilarious precision in his solo show. Ticket information for Seth’s Broadway Breakdown can be found here, and for Seth’s Concert Series here.
Read on. And, what the hell. Rudetsky’s Back!
This interview was edited and condensed for length and clarity.
DEADLINE: As if you don’t have enough to do with Stars in the House, now you’re starting two new shows?
SETH RUDETSKY: Stars In The House actually is better for us now than it was because we’re just doing two shows a week. We were going to completely stop when Broadway came back, but then we realized like basically no one’s really working. Brian Stokes Mitchell says it’s going to take five years for the artistic community to recover, and we realized we can’t just stop. Just because Broadway’s back doesn’t mean people have recovered.
DEADLINE: With the Tonys, has this been an extra-busy time for you?
RUDETSKY: It’s not the Tonys, it’s more about having to start my career again. First of all, having to write Broadway Breakdown almost killed me. Writing that and selling tickets for that, and then James got the idea to do my Concert series. We just moved into a brand-new apartment on the Upper West Side, two weeks ago and the whole downstairs has been turned into my studio.
So, I booked all these stars, like Jessie Mueller and Shoshana Bean, are they’re going to come over once a week and do these concerts with me. We have sound designers coming over and lighting designers, plus doing Broadway Breakdown. That’s what’s completely overwhelming. My career really stalled for a year and a half, and now, it’s like I’ve got to start again.
DEADLINE: We keep hearing that Broadway is back, but for most people who work on Broadway, it’s not going to be back for a while.
RUDETSKY: Even in the best of theatrical and TV and film seasons, there’s tons of people that are desperate for money. Just because Broadway is back doesn’t mean suddenly everyone has money. I would say Broadway being back is best for audiences because they now have a plethora of Broadway shows to see, but in terms of helping out the artists and everyone that works in TV and film and Broadway over the last year and a half, it’s a very limited amount of people that are working now. That’s why Stars In The House has to continue.
DEADLINE: Let’s talk a bit about how you and James came up with the idea for Stars In The House.
RUDETSKY: James and I were in Texas, doing a political fundraiser, as is our wont, and that’s when Broadway shut down, which was a Thursday. We flew back to New York but we knew we couldn’t stay here because our daughter has asthma. We were just too scared of her getting it. So, we went to our Upstate house, and that Saturday, I said to James, listen, The Actors Fund is always inundated with requests. It’s going to be horrific. It’s going to be a nightmare for The Actors Fund. So I said, I’ll record some piano music and send it to some of our Broadway friends, and we’ll have these mini-concerts online and ask people to donate, and James said a couple of songs really isn’t going to be enough. We host so many events together, why don’t we just host it like a normal event?
WESLEY: And make it more like a traditional talk show. We talked to Brian Stokes Mitchell, and…
RUDETSKY: …he came up with the name. I really didn’t know how to do this. I thought what I was going to have to do is hold my phone up on FaceTime and put that to my laptop so our first guest, Kelli O’Hara, could be seen on my FaceTime. I had never done a Zoom or anything.
WESLEY: I said I think it’s going to be really important during this time to have something very structured because everyone’s going to feel, you know, untethered, and since our roots are in theater, we should do a 2 o’clock and an 8 o’clock show, a matinee and nighttime show. We stayed at that schedule until the end of June.
RUDETSKY: Within a couple weeks, we heard from people that weren’t necessarily singers, like Tony Shalhoub and Brooke Adams, who wanted to do something, and then maybe two weeks or one week later, we said we can actually do a reading of a play. I never thought that would work, that people reading into a screen would be effective. We wound up getting the original cast of The Heidi Chronicles to recreate their roles. It was crazy, and we began Plays In The House, I think, a week in.
WESLEY: The TV reunions were my idea. I didn’t grow up in New York like Seth did, watching Broadway shows. I saw shows on tour on occasion, but that was it. My background is watching a lot of TV as a kid. So, I was like, okay, well, I know that if I saw familiar faces from the past TV shows, I would feel comforted in this time of great crisis, and if I’m going to feel good from seeing these people, I know other people will, too. We were like, we know a person from this show, that show, the other show, and maybe if we ask them to put [a reunion] together, they’ll do it.
And sure enough, that’s what Marilu Henner did with the cast of Taxi, and we knew Chris Sullivan from doing benefits with him, and Kelli O’Hara, and so, we asked Chris, will you get people together from This Is Us, and he did. We knew Marcia Cross, and she got Desperate Housewives together, and then, when that show was over Dana Delany was like, well, I can get China Beach together, and then when we did China Beach, Bob Picardo was on, and he was like, well, I can get Star Trek together. It’s kind of organically happened.
DEADLINE: I did a post on Deadline about the game show episode with The Waltons versus Little House, and it was one of our top posts for days. The idea of seeing casts from these shows again is so comforting and appealing to people. Do you have any particular favorite Stars in the House episodes, or is that unfair?
RUDETSKY: No. It’s not unfair at all. Basically I always remind myself of that character Chris Farley played on Saturday Night Live, where he’s obsessed with Paul McCartney, and he’s like, Do you remember the time you sang “Yesterday”? So, basically, with shows that I’ve just been obsessed with, like The Comeback with Lisa Kudrow or SCTV with Andrea Martin and Catherine O’Hara, I get to finally say to them, oh my god, do you remember how funny you were?
In terms of musicals reunions, the one that was so particularly moving was Ragtime. Just seeing everyone on screen, you began to realize the unbelievable level of talent in that show. I got to play in that orchestra on Broadway, so it was very emotional for me because I’d been there 20 years before.
WESLEY: For me, our Free To Be You and Me special because I grew up with that. To be able to work with Marlo Thomas, to be able to work with Sara Bareilles on her cover of that song, all of that was incredibly amazing and surprising. And I would say since I grew up with the TV show Fame – I was a little bit too young when the movie came out – I was obsessed with the TV show, especially Debbie Allen. So, for Debbie Allen to come on and all those people, I’m like, oh my gosh, I cannot believe I’m talking to them. As far as Broadway shows, probably one of my favorites is one I wasn’t even hosting, and that was Dreamgirls because it was Seth’s Dreamgirls and it was…
RUDETSKY: …my concert version…
WESLEY: …his concert version for The Actors Fund with Heather Headley and Lillias White and Audra McDonald and so many others. It was incredibly moving to hear, as Seth’s husband, the incredible words of support and love from these artists to Seth because the concert happened only days after 9/11 in 2001, and to hear how Seth, as a producer of this event, put it together and brought the theater community together in the first big event after 9/11 was incredibly moving and touching to me.
DEADLINE: Everyone now seems to be doing these reunion fundraisers, and that has to have come from you. At least I never noticed so many of these types of shows before.
RUDETSKY: You sound exactly like my mother. She’s like, “Seinfeld stole your joke!”
WESLEY: I will say that I’m pretty sure that we were the first ones to do it as a livestream, as a charity. And I can promise you that there will be other reunion game nights that are coming up. The Waltons versus Little House on the Prairie has really inspired us with [Wesley exits the conversation.]
DEADLINE: I was there that first night when you performed Broadway Breakdown in front of an audience that included Betty Buckley and Beth Leavel and Joel Grey and Brian Stokes Mitchell and I’m sure I’m leaving many names out. [Ed. note: I was. Also at the Sept. 12 preview were Adam Pascal, Andrea Martin, Dana Delaney, Javier Muñoz, Bellamy Young, Andy Karl, Orfeh, David Burtka and Neil Patrick Harris ] Is that at all intimidating, or are you just kind of used to these people by now?
RUDETSKY: Once I got through doing a show in front of Barbra Streisand in Los Angeles, I feel like I could handle anything. That was like a out of body experience, as they say. I mean it was surreal, like everything I dreamed as a child actually happening. I’m like, wait, I’m actually doing a breakdown of Barbra Streisand’s voice in front of Barbra Streisand, and she’s actually laughing?
Doing the Broadway Breakdown in New York, I was so moved at the end. It was like my thank you to them, you know? They’ve meant so much to me in my life, and everything they represent. It was like I’m so glad I finally get to say thank you to these people and also have them understand why they’re brilliant. Because it’s very weird, but I’ll say to someone, do you understand how amazing you sound on this note because you’re adding vibrato to an E-vowel, and they’ll be like I didn’t even realize I did that. I love being able to say to someone, this is why you’re amazing. So, I wasn’t nervous. I was really happy to be able to thank them.
DEADLINE: Wait, did you do the Streisand joke in front of her about the D and the T? [One of the vocal recordings Rudetsky deconstructs onstage is the “Like a Straw in the Wind/Any Place I Hang My Hat Is Home” medley from 1966’s The Second Barbra Streisand Album, in which the singer inexplicably pronounces – in fact, over-pronounces – the word “apart” as “aparduh.”]
RUDETSKY: Not only did I do it, but afterwards, she came backstage and she’s like “maybe they took the D from “Don’t Rain on My Parade,” from the Funny Girl album, and they moved it over to my second album, and I was like, Reaaaally? That’s an odd thing for a recording engineer to do. But yes, I literally did it in front of her, and she was completely, like, Why did I do that?
DEADLINE: It struck me as someone who certainly is not trained in technical musical terms that going to your show is like going to the doctor when you have some general ache, some vague pain, and you don’t know what it’s called, and when the doctor gives you a diagnosis it feels so much better just knowing that there’s a name for what you have. One of the examples in your show that really hit me was your explanation of the difference between open vowels and modified vowels – something everyone recognizes when they hear it even if they don’t know the terms. Great Broadway singers tend toward open vowels – singing, say, the word “baby” as “bay-bee,” the way it should be pronounced, while pop singers often modify their vowels, so “baby” becomes “bay-bay” or “bay-beh.” No one ever says “bae-beh” in real life. In your show, you play a great example of the way it should be done – Betty Buckley singing “Memory” – “Touch meeeee, it’s so easy to leeeeve meee.”
RUDETSKY: That’s exactly the purpose of my show. Listen, obviously insiders will think it’s really funny just because it’s a comedy show and they get it, but Broadway Breakdown really is for people who just kind of generally love theater, and that’s why I say Broadway shows don’t want you to go see them and go, “uh, it was good.” They want you to understand why it was good. The purpose of my show is to say This is why you love it, because of this, this, and this, and I love that you notice how annoying it is when someone sings “Touch maaaee” because it’s stupid.
DEADLINE: It’s annoyed me for years and I never knew that anyone else felt the same way. So, thank you, I’m glad to know that.
RUDETSKY: Look, when you’re in an audience, you want to believe that whatever’s happening in front of you is really happening. You don’t want to think, “oh, there’s a performer that’s modifying their vowels because it’s easier on their larynx.” Because as soon as you hear, like, “I love yeow,” you’re like, what???
DEADLINE: What are some of the more common reactions you get from audience members? Is it about things they get annoyed at too?
RUDETSKY: Well, it’s interesting. Dana Delany said, oh my god. I always thought belting was easy and being a soprano was being a true singer [In the show, Rudetsky praises the great Broadway belters like Buckley and Patti LuPone]. And then right at that moment Betty Buckley said, “me, too.” I was like, wait, Betty, you didn’t realize how amazing you are? So that’s what I love, that I built a show that’s teaching people. And sopranos are incredible, too, and I show that whole Barbara Cook thing, but I think belters are overlooked as like, oh, they’re just yelling, and I’m like, No!
And audiences also do ask things like why would The Osmonds have performed Fiddler on the Roof? So they do ask legitimate questions.
DEADLINE: Why did The Osmonds perform Fiddler? [During his show, Rudetsky plays vintage audio clips to illustrate what should and shouldn’t be done on stage; in the latter category is a vintage recording of The Osmond Brothers performing an astonishingly bad and hilariously bouncy medley of Fiddler songs: “To life, to life, luck-i-em.”] But my favorite clip is Bea Arthur’s weirdly angry rendition of “Don’t Rain on My Parade.”
How did you remember those moments? Do you research these things, or are these just things that stick in your memory?
RUDETSKY: My whole life is my friends coming over and us going, oh my god, listen to this, and reenacting what must have happened in recording studios when these songs were recorded, like “Do-Re-M” from Sound of Music when Friedrich hits that terrible “la.” Like, I mean, we literally do that for each other. So, Bea Arthur was just one of those things. We were watching that clip one night, and we’re like, Wait, why is she speaking the end of the song with such an angry line reading? I’ve been doing this my whole life. Like I say in the show, I was kind of workshopping Broadway Breakdown at 11 years old when I would hold the phone next to the record player so my friends could listen. My whole life has been me saying, Oh my god, just listen to this!
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