For some reason musical theatre aficionados, more so in my experience than any other group within the theatre community, tend to have a zealously obsessive streak and a penchant for holding a wide array of Broadway stars and icons in the highest of reverential esteem. No one really exemplifies this trend quite like Seth Rudetsky, Broadway host of Sirius Radio, pianist for more than a dozen Broadway shows, musical director, producer, actor on and off Broadway and author of The Q Guide to Broadway and Broadway Nights: A Romp of Life Love and Musical Theatre.
I remember having moments as a child listening to the cast albums of Broadway shows for the first time when I realized that I could often predict the way a melody would unfold. Even at nine and ten years old I was recognizing the patterns of the genre and not just in how the composers chose to write their songs, but also in how the singers chose to perform them. At the same time, I also knew there were certain aspects of my favourite songs that had the ability to crack my heart open and set off the fireworks of joy in my chest, and these were the ones that I always insisted on listening to over and over and over again. I know I’m not the only one who has grown up having this experience.
Seth Rudetsky’s relationship to musical theatre is enriched ardently by his extensive knowledge not only of American theatre history and minutiae, but also the very technical aspects of music, which means that he not only experiences this same joyful elation when listening to exquisitely well performed numbers, but he is also able to explain precisely why we react this way to certain performances and not others. This analysis of musical theatre performance is the basis of Seth Rudetsky Deconstruction, a video blog where Rudetsky focuses on either a particular song, show, or a particular performer and takes his audience through a step by step examination of all the aspects that are either “a-mah-zing” (his own catch phrase to denote anything exceptionally brilliant), “a-MAH-zing” (with a coordinated mimed headache action; which denotes anything that is an exceptional degree of terrible that also makes it oddly irresistible) or simply anything that is quirky or fascinating in the performance that he finds worthy of note or obsession. On Tuesday evening I attended the Live Show version of this Video Blog series, entitled Deconstructing Broadway, at the Isabel Bader Theatre here in Toronto and it was one of the most joyful evenings that I have spent in a theatre in a long time.
What makes this concept work so seamlessly, as both a blog and a show, is that Rudetsky is a natural performer, with terrific comic timing, sharp, witty banter and stories from his life spent hobnobbing with Broadway’s brightest stars, and with just enough self-depreciating humour to remind us that he is still a Jewish boy from Long Island with a devastating accent. He lip synchs, performing along with all the songs that he plays (often playing a multitude of parts), in a way that entertains, delights and clearly illustrates his points. While most of the time his commentary on the songs he has chosen addresses something specific, such as Janis Paige’s flatness in The Pajama Game, Gavin Creel’s vibrato, Billy Porter’s riffing and Patti LuPone’s odd switching from chest to head voice, sometimes he inserts his own hilarious speculation about the conditions surrounding an odd moment or choice and acts those out for the audience as well.
Rudetsky also brings his own tapes with him from New York, often as cautionary tales for us, such as what happens when one uses too much vibrato, as he did when he was twelve, when one tries to belt far too high, as a girl he was in Godspell with in 1986 did, or when you add a blue note, devastating riffs and inappropriate hostility to “Tomorrow” as he did once on a tape that he almost sent to his pen pal Debbie from Pennsylvania. A-MAH-ZING. He also has visual material for his audience to watch, especially clips from the Short Lived(but utterly cra-zay-zy) Brady Bunch Variety Hour, which is a hot mess in sequins and a flashy stomping ground for ridiculous stories and “what the HELL were they thinking!?” analysis. We also watched a clip of Cher playing four different parts from West Side Story and having all four of them sing the “Tonight Quartet” together and turning “I Feel Pretty” into a “dramatic monologue.” There is ample opportunity for the audience to participate in this deconstruction too, and apart from being a deliciously entertaining performer, Rudetsky is also a capable teacher, for I found myself quickly being able to listen to the songs he was playing, mostly ones I had heard hundreds of times before, with a more finely tuned and critical ear.
Rudetsky proves that joyful enthusiasm is contagious, as he certainly submerges the entire audience into his meticulous world of obsessive musical theatre bliss. He is really a master at helping to uphold and perpetuate the tradition of cherishing American theatre legends and thrusting classic shows from the Broadway musical canon into the forefront, in a way that I wish we did more of here in Canada. It’s interesting, and a little distressing, to know that while Rudetsky kept checking in to see if we, all the way up here in Toronto, had access to the mainstream staples of American popular culture (The Brady Bunch? American Idol? Dynamite Magazine? Of course we do.), the truth is that we are far quicker to join in the hullabaloo for Hollywood or Broadway stars than we are in advocating for a system that recognizes the importance of revering our own musical theatre stars and the theatre history of this country.
However, for those of us who think that Broadway, and all of those who dance within it, is fascinating, it was absolutely delightful to have Seth Rudetsky’s Deconstructing Broadway here in Toronto and to see a stronger connection being forged between the theatre community here and the one in New York. If you haven’t already mined Rudetsky’s website for all its a-MAH-zing goodness, you should do that now. Prepare to become obsessed.