Seth Rudetsky is all over the airwaves as Satellite Radio host of On Broadway and Seth Speaks and otherwise divides his time as a performer-pianist-composer-writer-and all around best pal to everybody on Broadway. His popular YouTube series Seth Deconstructs dissect the applied techniques and indelible vocal qualities of past and present stars- Bea, Patti, Elaine, Barbra- to mention a few. He is also on the road with a concert series accompanying Broadway stars on piano and chatting them up about their lives in the theater.
Earlier this month, Rudetsky was trucking down Broad St. in Philadelphia, clutching a large coffee and landing in the lobby of the Merriam Theater for his performance in a few hours with six time Tony Award winner Audra McDonald in the first of three concerts he has planned in Philly.
"I've done so many talk shows and music shows, so I combined them. We starting doing those in Provincetown for funsies and it went well and then we started going to different cities, New Orleans, San Francisco, Miami, London and Australia," he said. "Every show is different, but with Audra, I've known her so long, we can be spontaneous. She has so many stories."
Rudetsky jokes they both started out together 25 years ago and she went on to win Tonys and his career was in stasis. Tony or not, when he walked onstage at the Merriam a few hours later, the packed house broke into wild applause when Rudetsky strolled onstage and was only slightly upstaged when McDonald came on in a gorgeous black form fitting gown. Even the Philly crowd was dressy for this one nighter, and a rarity these days in any theater.
"I met Audra when we both started out. She was still studying at Juilliard and I was just out of school and was playing auditions. I was volunteering with this group through LifeBeat, called Hearts and Voices, which I still do, where we bring singers to hospitalized AIDS patients. Audra came in and I asked her if she wanted to sing at a prison AIDS ward and she was immediately on board with it and we just became friends. "
Rudetsky is just as versatile at the keyboard as McDonald is vocally. Seated at a grand piano on stage in this art deco-era theater, he is equally in his element as he is in the rehearsal studio or in the pit in a Broadway show. McDonald possesses a huge stylistic range, and is Broadway opera belty, but mostly she is a singer-actor. She can have a silvery mezzo, a vaulted contralto and a stratospheric soprano finish, whatever the song requires.
A powerhouse on such standards as 'Make Someone Happy' and 'Climb Every Mountain,' but just as lustrous on quieter tunes like "Stars and Moon" by Jason Robert Brown, a dreamy song of regretted love or Stephen Sondheim's 'Moments in the Woods' with Rudetsky playing understated, supple Sondheim.
Most of the selections are standard repertoire in her many concert performances with symphony orchestras. McDonald can sometimes ride the dramatic arc of a song over the top to divadom. With just piano accompaniment, she scales back and it is just as impressive.
In between the numbers, Rudetsky coaxed some great backstage stories from McDonald, many about Broadway royalty. She does a dead on impression of Liza before their segue into performing 'Maybe This Time' from 'Cabaret' Rudetsky giving it a Weimar dive cabaret vamp on the keyboard and Audra making it the beltiest torch song.
Some of the stories didn't have big punch lines, and some of the talk was too casual, but the audience was loving all the backstage lore with McDonald talking about her favorite singers, Lena Horne, Judy Garland, Barbara Cook and Patti Lupone and Bernadette Peters.
McDonald and Cook appeared in concert at Verizon Hall in Philly several years ago. McDonald mentioned that Cook is always cool backstage and she simply 'goes onstage and tells her stories.' McDonald is very much typifies this approach in her vocal technique
Seth prompted Audra to tell the story of her first part onstage as the witch in Hansel and Gretel when she was 10 and discovering her singing voice and insisted on a post show solo, the Bette Midler movie tear-jerker The Rose. She stepped up to the mike to relive the moment, but kept busting up at that embarrassing memory, so Seth kept her on track he guided her in some fine two part harmony. And Seth even got the audience to join in amazingly on key.