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10 big Broadway disasters, according to Seth Rudetsky

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Wicked Shoshana Bean 02
Joan Marcus

It’s a not-so-hidden secret that there are hundreds of surprising stories lurking beneath every board on Broadway. Luckily, there’s at least one guy out there who’s willing to spill.

Seth Rudetsky—Sirius XM host, comedian, playwright, music director, and more—is known inside the theater community for sharing the secrets of the stage and deconstructing every high C ever belted. In his book Seth’s Broadway Diary, Rudetsky chronicles just about every scandalous secret he’s seen, so EW decided to tap into Rudetsky’s well of knowledge and pose this question: What are the 10 biggest Broadway disasters he’s been around for?

Not defying gravity

“Shoshana Bean was starring in Wicked on Broadway and got to the big number at the end of act one, ‘Defying Gravity.’ As most people know, Elphaba rises up during the whole last section and ‘flies.’ In actuality, she’s on a cherry picker that lifts her while an enormous dress blows around her. The cast then runs onstage and points upward while she belts out the ending. Well, one night she got to the part where she rises and sings ‘It’s me-e-e-e-e‘ and… she didn’t rise. The cherry picker didn’t work, but she had to finish the song. So, she just walked off the cherry picker and kept singing the end of the song. But what about the ensemble? They’re supposed to run out and point up at her, flying above them. They decided the only way they could point up at her is if they ran out…and laid on the floor. So, the entire end of the number was Shoshana belting how she was ‘defying gravity’ while standing 5’2” off the ground and the whole ensemble singing ‘Look at her! She’s wicked!’ while laying on the floor. And that’s live theater!”

Snug as a bug in a pit

“I was playing the piano for Seussical on Broadway. Around halfway through act one, I noticed the other pit musicians looking above my head. Why? Because there was, directly above me, an enormous water bug. He was perched on the ceiling straight above my right arm. I am completely terrified of water bugs. He was clinging to the ceiling above me and I was terrified he would fall right onto me. Suddenly, it became even scarier because a dance number had begun onstage. Why was that so scary? Because the ceiling of the pit is also the floor of the stage! So, the entire cast was jumping around doing Kathleen Marshall choreography which was shaking the stage, hence the ceiling of the pit, hence at any moment the water bug could lose its grip and drop on my bare arm!! Of course, I had to play, so I couldn’t run screaming out of the pit, which is what I wanted to do. I had to sit there playing the jaunty song in a full panic/emotional shut down. The good news is he somehow crawled away. The bad news is I have post-traumatic stress disorder.” 

What I did for pee

“Priscilla Lopez, the brilliant actress who was the original Morales in A Chorus Line, was in the chorus of the 1960s show, Her First Roman. In order to wear a wig, chorus girls have to pin wig caps to their hair, and because Priscilla’s hair was short, it was hard to attach the caps. She found out that if she stuffed some clothes underneath the wig cap, it would help fluff it out and make it easier for the pins to be attached. She stuffed anything she could find into her wig cap: underclothes, socks, whatever…it all worked. While she was with the other chorus girls in the dressing room, applying leg paint to themselves so they’d look Egyptian, she told them of her new discovery. Priscilla happened to look up at the dancer in front of her during the procession and noticed a white bra hanging from underneath the wig and swinging freely. Priscilla wanted to laugh but of course couldn’t because it was supposed to be a sad scene. She tried to suppress it, but all that did was cause incredible pressure, which finally resulted in her … peeing onstage! She couldn’t stop and was mortified that it was also causing her leg makeup to run in rivulets to the stage. Soon she was even more horrified because the stage was raked, meaning it sloped forward. Well, what comes down must go further down, apparently, because soon the pee was running downstage and overflowing off the stage and into the pit! I’m obsessed thinking about those poor musicians sitting in the pit wondering what was dripping on them. Hopefully, they felt some comfort in knowing it was from a future Tony Award winner.”

Patti Lupone is a star

“Les Miserables was first done by the Royal Shakespeare Company and their policy was that every lead be in the chorus when they’re not playing their role (except Valjean and Javert who are constantly coming onstage). Hence, Madame Thenardier is in ‘At The End of the Day’ and Eponine and Cosette are prostitutes in the background during “Lovely Ladies.” But, for some reason, even though Fantine dies fairly early on and, therefore, has plenty of availability to join the chorus, she doesn’t do any chorus work in act one. But then, for some reason, joins the chorus in act two. It’s all because of one Tony-winning actress who wasn’t good at hide and seek. Patti LuPone was in London doing a play when she got cast as Fantine in Les Miserables. When rehearsals began and Patti heard they wanted her to do chorus, she thought, N to the O. But Fantine’s part ends early in act one… there was a lot of ensemble work for her to do after she croaks. What to do? Well, every time the director told Patti to join the chorus, she would point to her throat and tell them that she had to go home and rest because she was doing another play at night. It worked! She got out of doing everything from ‘Master of the House’” to ‘One Day More.’ Then the other play she was doing closed. Now it was simply a matter of hiding. Patti showed up for act two Les Miz rehearsal and planned on hiding out in the back till the ensemble staging was over. But, unfortunately, before she could duck behind the back row of chairs, she was spotted by an eagle-eyed dance captain and told to join the ensemble. This time, she had no excuse. Patti was so irritated she decided to be contrary and insist that her act two character be a boy. That’s why every Fantine in Les Miz sings ‘I Dreamed A Dream,’ never enters again during act one, and then comes back in act two–bizarrely dressed in male drag. All because Patti didn’t duck fast enough!”

The chocolate soldier

“Andrea McArdle (original Annie!) was playing Fantine in Les Miz on Broadway and actually loved playing a boy for act two because her costume had deep pockets and she could stand offstage and munch on quarter-pound bags of M&M’s. One night, she was very excited because she had friends in the audience and decided to show off and do a really dramatic death. The big fight scene came, she got on the barricade and when she got shot, she hooked her foot to the top of the whole thing and flung her body completely backwards…forgetting she had a quarter-pound bag of M&M’s in her pocket. Suddenly, the stage was awash with a rainbow of colors as all the M&M’s skittered down the barricade. They all wound up falling into the pit and I guess the musicians appreciated those candies more than Priscilla Lopez’ pee.”

Kiss of the Spider Panic Attack

“I had to play keyboard in the orchestra for Kiss of the Spider Woman. My keyboard had a regular pedal and a volume pedal, which controlled how loud the sound was. Well, I was just an understudy and the first time I played I wasn’t really prepared. I began to have an anxiety attack because I knew director Hal Prince was in the house and Chita Rivera was on the stage. Suddenly, the conductor told me there was something wrong with my keyboard. Every note I played had a crazy vibrato. It was wider than Ethel Merman’s. The sound people came in and tried to fix it but nobody knew what was wrong. Finally, I realized that I was so effing nervous, I was causing the keyboard to emit non-stop vibrato. How? Because my leg was shaking on the volume pedal. I lifted it off and it stopped. Post script: I never told the sound people what happened.” 

Evita is down but not out

“Nancy Opel was Patti LuPone’s understudy in the original Evita. After a year of waiting, she finally got to go on! No one had warned Nancy that there was a big bundle of wires that ran across the stage. She happened to avoid them during the matinee and the show went perfectly, but then came the night show. She finished ‘Don’t Cry For Me Argentina’ and went to cross the stage in her beautiful white dress with the enormous hoop skirt. Suddenly, she was down on the ground. It was old school ‘I’ve fallen and I can’t get up.’ Literally. Because she was wearing a hoop skirt, she couldn’t get any leverage. Ironically, while she was completely wiped out, she was supposed to be showing the audience how stunning she was. As a matter of fact, while she was on her back, rocking back and forth like an insect that can’t stand up, Mandy Patinkin was singing ‘High Flying, Adored!’ and indicating her. Finally, she dragged herself up. But, she suddenly thought, what does the audience think happened to me? She felt, as a Juilliard trained actress, she had to justify her fall. Aha! Evita dies at the end of act two from reproductive cancer. That’s it!, she thought. So, as she stood up, she doubled over for a moment, clutched her abdomen and tried to indicate the subtext, ‘Ow! My uterus.’ I’m sure the audience totally understood.”

Kelli O’Hara makes it snappy

“Kelli O’Hara wanted to audition for Sweet Smell of Success but she was doing Follies at the time and could only leave during her lunch hour. She took a chance and went to the audition, hoping they’d see her. The Sweet Smell peeps were on their lunch hour, too, but they agreed to see her even though the whole artistic team wasn’t there. The audition pianist was at lunch so someone else volunteered to play. Kelli started singing and felt the guy was playing way too slow so she snapped at him to get him to pick up the tempo. That night, she went home and, after she told her roommate the story, her roommate got a theater book and pointed to a picture. ‘Um…was this the guy you snapped at?’ Kelli said it was. Turns out, the pianist that was playing ‘way too slow’ was also the composer… Marvin Hamlisch! The good news is, Kelli got a call back and got the role! The bad news is, Marvin loved to tell the story to everybody whenever they would do concerts together. ‘Let me introduce Kelli O’Hara… the girl who snapped in my face!'”

Audra McDonald at lunch

“A few years ago, Audra McDonald was invited by Oprah Winfrey to a special Legends weekend. There were legends like Toni Morrison, Gladys Knight and Maya Angelou and ‘young’uns’ like Audra, Brandy and Angela Bassett. Audra was incredibly intimidated. She sat at a table surrounded by tons of big stars. It was too much to handle! Every star had a little nameplate in front of their chair. They decided it would be fun to autograph them all as a memento! They were passed around, but soon the nameplates got mixed up. Not to worry!, Chaka Kahn said, she’d pass them all back. Audra looked around at all the smiling faces and finally thought, You know what? Maybe I do belong here! I’m one of them! At that moment, Chaka started handing back the nameplates, held up Audra’s and slowly sounded out ‘Au-drey Mac-Donald???’ Pause. ‘‘Who’s that?'”

The Phantom in the Orchestra

“I was playing piano for Phantom and there’s a moment in act one when Christine rips the mask off of the Phantom in act one (yes, spoiler alert, but it’s been running for 25 years! Where have you been???) One night I heard something clink and clank in the pit. What the H? Turns out, the mask had fallen off the stage and into the pit! The Phantom’s Mask! Of course, I put it on. Suddenly, I’m playing the organ in the pit and I begin to feel like the Phantom. So cool! I was trying to get a laugh out of the viola section because they’re notoriously uptight, but simply got stared out. Finally, I look up and see the conductor frantically telling me to take off the mask. Hmph. What was the big deal, you ask? Well, turns out, the masks are not made of plastic like the ones you can buy in Broadway-themed stores. No, they’re made of pliable material that molds specifically to the Phantom’s face. When I put it on, it changed the mold from the actor playing the Phantom’s face and more into my, shall we say, Semitic face. As far as I know, that mask can now only be used if a Rabbi takes over the role.”