Mamma Mia! Is Ruining Broadway


Name a Broadway show and Seth Rudetsky can recite it, critique it, and perform it backward in Latin while doing the Charleston from Grand Hotel. The Long Island–born wood nymph has made a living out of writing, appearing in, and deconstructing shows, all while chattering faster than a rap number in The Music Man.

An actor, author, and musical director, he hosts Big, Fat Broadway on Sirius/XM, a show for people who go to see Chicago again every time there’s a new Mama Morton.

Our recent “I want” duet in the form of a one-act phone interview went exactly like so:

Me: Hi, Seth. Why is Broadway not only in your jazz hands but in your blood?

Rudetsky: My parents lived Broadway. They took me to Hair in 1972 right before it closed. I was obsessed, but I was really obsessed with The Pajama Game revival with Hal Linden and Barbara McNair in 1973. I hate that nowadays there are shows “for children.” Back then, when you were a kid, you just saw a Broadway show.

Me: What was the turnaround moment for you?

Rudetsky: I saw Annie, and while I was waiting for autographs, the stage door opened and I looked inside and it was so thrilling. I said, “That’s the world I want to live in.”

Me: And, shazam, you do. Were you in all your school shows?

Rudetsky: I was, until I was blacklisted. I was conceited—I was like, “This is the one place where I know that I’m superior.” They tried to teach me a lesson by punishing me. It was traumatizing. But I took lessons and went to musical theater summer camp, where I did appropriate shows like Jacques Brel Is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. I sang “The Old Folks,” the most depressing song: “The old folks never die/They just put down their heads and go to sleep one day.”

Me: A real showstopper. Your favorite Broadway show?

Rudetsky: In the Heights. I’ve seen it 10 times. It’s so anti corporate theater. It’s so organic and real.

Me: Least favorite?

Rudetsky: Mamma Mia! because of the lip-synching and the nine-person orchestra. The whole megamix, as you call it, at the end—they’re singing along, but it’s all pre-recorded. It’s like Las Vegas. What’s ruining Broadway is a show like Mamma Mia! because people think a theme-park show is the same as Broadway. Though it’s not an awful show.

Me: I think the favorable Times review was the beginning of the end of culture.

Rudetsky: But it was the first show after 9/11.

Me: Well, Glitter came out right after 9/11, too, and no one took pity on that.

Rudetsky: That went too far!

Me: What’s the best Broadway foul-up you’ve ever witnessed?

Rudetsky: I subbed for the piano player in The Kiss of the Spider Woman, and I went on. Everyone noticed that the piano was vibrating. Finally, I realized that my leg was shaking on the volume pedal of the piano!

Me: How about other people’s mess-ups?

Rudetsky: Once, when I saw A Chorus Line, the bass player forgot his bow, so he literally got a hanger out of the closet and it sounded fine.

Me: Joan Crawford would have gagged.

Rudetsky: And when Priscilla Lopez [currently in In the Heights] was in a show called Her First Roman, she would stuff her wig cap with clothing items so it would attach better. The other chorus girls took her advice and started doing the same thing. Well, one night, during the funeral procession scene, Priscilla spotted a big white bra sticking out of a chorus girl’s wig cap! She wanted to laugh, but she couldn’t—it was a funeral—so from the pressure, she started wetting herself.

Me: She’s so organic and real.

Rudetsky: It was a raked stage, so the stream must have reached all the way to the oboe player.

Me: Top that, Urinetown. I know you’d like to play more character roles. But what’s the perception of you?

Rudetsky: When people hear me on the radio, they think I’m 300 pounds and 70 years old. One interviewer met me and said, “Oh, my God, you’re not morbidly obese and you’re not 70!” The casting director for Hairspray once told me, “You should try out.” I said, “But I’m too old for teenage roles.” He said, “No, the Dick Latessa role.” Dick was 72 when he did it! Once Elaine Stritch leaves, I’m a shoo-in.

Me: What’s the future of Broadway?

Rudetsky: There’s no excuse for having a smaller orchestra—and yet ticket prices aren’t going down! But people will always love live performances. As much as American Idol gives me a splitting headache, people are thrilled to see live performances. And that’s what Broadway will always provide.

Me: Bravo!

Charles in Charge

Playwright/performer Charles Busch always remembers to bring his bow (for his hat). What’s more, he has never lip-synched to a megamix and his bra is placed way under his wig cap. He’s a pro! At a birthday tribute at the LGBT Center last week, the hilarious grand diva was celebrated with a showing of the documentary The Lady in Question Is Charles Busch, which he told the crowd is “up there with The Sorrow and the Pity and Shoah—but with more laughs.”

Busch is moving his nun comedy The Divine Sister to a larger theater, and he’s thrilled about it because “the habits are so flattering. I always want to work in a wimple—they cover everything!” He said he wrote the play when the Lifetime TV movie he was scripting didn’t pan out. That was no joke—Lifetime really approached him, and, as Busch remembered it, “I said, ‘Really? Has the entire roster of the Writers Guild been decimated?’ ” It turns out they were dead serious, though they ultimately rejected his script with a note saying, “It’s just a little too Charles Busch.’ ” “But I am Charles Busch!” was his sensible response.

The lady in question was Judy Holliday at the Fringe Festival’s Just in Time: The Judy Holliday Story, about the tremulous-voiced blonde who beat Gloria Swanson for the Oscar (“For a comedy!” as Swanson bitterly exclaimed). The loving play is a winner, using some interesting storytelling techniques—a taping of What’s My Line? surreally turns into the HUAC hearings—and Marina Squerciati and the cast are tops, and not just for a comedy.

Living divas appeared as their alter egos in large portraits displayed at Mike Ruiz‘s “Transformations show opening at Leslie/Lohman. Who’s the Logo star’s favorite subject of all? “Me!” Ruiz exclaimed without pause. (That’s mine, too. Me, that is.) “Adam Lambert is great,” he added. “He’s a sweet, unassuming guy, and then he opens his mouth and it’s like, ‘Who are you?’ And Kathy Griffin is sweet and generous and nice and . . .” “Stop right there,” I advised. “You’ll ruin her career.”

Meanwhile, Vanessa Paradis is très giving, too (which is good news for Johnny Depp). At a dinner for the fluffy French comedy Heartbreaker, director Pascal Chaumeil told me that Paradis called him four weeks before shooting started and generously declared, “The ending is not good.” But she was right, he swore; things needed to wrap up faster and funnier, so he promptly added some zing. As Chaumeil told me this story, the dinner itself was reaching a fast-paced climax. The film’s other femme, Julie Ferrier, was grabbing croutons from the communal Caesar salad by hand, while the male lead, Guy Pearce look-alike, Romain Duris, was exclaiming across the table, “Jerry Lewis is a fucking brilliant actor.” Ah, the French. Au revoir. I’m off to see The Lion King again. I hear they have a new meerkat.