There are musical theater queens, there are musical theater queens … and then there’s Seth Rudetsky
Seth Rudetsky is the quintessential Noo Yawkuh: He talks a mile a minute, to the point he sometimes sounds more like a ticker-tape machine than a human voice, and always in the Bawwwbraaaa drawl that can practically peg him to a few square blocks. He’s of course the preeminent gossip historian of contemporary Broadway, with an encyclopedic knowledge not just of singers and shows, but composers, scores, back-up dancers and stage door managers that he dishes about with abandon on his Sirius/XM radio show and on his YouTube channel.
“I spend a lot of time down there!” he admits on the phone from New Orleans, where he is performing.
Consider: Rudetsky’s husband, James Wesley, is a local boy, and his all-time favorite diva, Betty Buckley, is a Cowtown native. And add to that Rudetsky’s undying respect for one of our own theaters.
“Thank God for Lyric Stage,” he shouts. “If you listen to my radio show, you know my biggest cause celébré is what they do to orchestras on Broadway. What, Lyric [can mount 40-piece orchestras performing classic musical scores] and on Broadway we cannot afford it? Mamma Mia is probably one of the five most successful musicals ever, they perform in the same theater as West Side Story and what do they have?! A 9-piece band!
Why aren’t the critics saying this is a complete shame? It’s infuriating.”
If you sense passion driving Rudetsky’s opinions, you’re not far off. Love of musicals isn’t just a job for him, it’s been an obsession since he was 3 years old.
“My parents were educators, and there was a record player constantly playing in my house. My sister played piano, so I became obsessed with that. My parents took me to see Hair when I was 4, and when I was 11, I had a pen pal — but instead of sending her a letter, I sent her a 45-minute recording of myself singing songs from Annie.”
That recording, as personally embarrassing as it is for him now, makes an appearance in Rudetsky’s show Deconstructing Broadway, which he brings to the Meyerson Sunday as a guest of the Turtle Creek Chorale. It’s only fair: In the show, which he has performed in various forms for more than 10 years, Rudetsky celebrates and eviscerates the best and worst of the Great White Way, poking fun of the boondoggles and cheering on the divas that make American musical theater one of the world’s great art forms.
It’s like America’s Funniest Home Videos, but for Broadway,” he says. “It’s a love letter to Broadway, but also its horrificness. I do a whole segment on Betty Buckley and how unbelievably brilliant she is, and I analyze why she’s so good. Then I show the biggest mistakes on Broadway, and I have evidence of it, all this inside scoop. It’s totally for insiders and totally for novices.” His proof? “I did it in Waco, and if it can go over in Waco, it can go over anywhere.”
The germ of the show was when he used to perform bits of it in his comedy act. One time, Rosie O’Donnell saw him do it and said he could build an entire act around it. And once he became known as archivist of the awful, he only attracted more material.
“It grows because people know I’m obsessed,” he says. “People send me DVDs of impossible-to-find stuff, like The Brady Bunch Variety Hour where I get to show Alice the maid disco-dancing to ‘Shake Your Booty.’”
That’s not even among the best of his stuff. “I just did it in London and The Osmonds singing a medley from Fiddler on the Roof brought the house down,” he says. It’s not about bad singers doing bad songs, either. A lot of the show mocks legends of theater: There’s Liza Minnelli hitting (in a bad way) a high B-flat, Bea Arthur singing “Don’t Rain on My Parade” and even one of the singing icons of the 20th century, Aretha Franklin, screwing up with a rendition of “I Dreamed a Dream.”
“It’s about inappropriate pairings, but also [the humor comes from] someone like me, who has a lot of inexperience in the music business, analyzing what went wrong — I put the exact verbiage to why it’s horrific.
Just knowing the inside story makes it a lot funnier.” Anyone can listen to Leonard Nimoy singing badly and know what went wrong; it’s harder when the singer is Barbra Streisand. (And there are no hard feelings, he reports. “Most people are so thrilled when I put them in my show.”)
As curator of all things amazing about B’way, Rudetsky has his pets and his pet projects. His favorite musical of the last decade? In the Heights. But going back further is harder. “I can’t get enough of Funny Girl, Gypsy, A Chorus Line. West Side Story is a tragedy, but there are so many hilarious moments in it. And in terms of an entire show, the music is so unbelievably advanced. The dance breaks are entirely symphonic works that can be performed alone.”
His latest preoccupation is his own stab at putting on a musical that reflects his aesthetic: Disaster! is his just-opened off-Broadway jukebox musical, a send-up of 1970s-era disaster movies, with a score comprised of 37 songs from the disco era, inserted to fit into the plot.
“It’s amazing,” he crows.
But he’s still enthusiastic about his Dallas appearance.
“The show itself never gets old,” he says. “People clap in the middle and fall on the floor laughing. I love doing it every time.”
This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition October 18, 2013.