PROVINCETOWN — Ordinarily, one suspects, booking one of the most acclaimed stage performers of our time is a more formal process than this, involving managers and agents and a gantlet of harrumphing intermediaries.
But when it comes to his Broadway at the Art House series, Seth Rudetsky is nothing if not hands-on. Or thumbs-on, in this case.
So while he’s sprawled on a couch in a near-empty theater, Rudetsky takes a brief break from an interview and texts Audra McDonald, the Tony Award-winning star of “The
Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess,’’ to ask if she’d be willing to perform here on New Year’s Eve — the holiday incarnation of a series that has become quite a hot ticket in Provincetown this summer.
Rudetsky finishes his tapping, and then, sounding casual: “OK, let’s see what she says.’’
It is not unfathomable that even McDonald, with her trove of Tonys, would say yes. After all, a couple of other big-name Tony winners, Patti LuPone and Betty Buckley, have recently appeared onstage with Rudetsky, even though they typically play venues more spacious than the 130-seat Art House theater, tucked away on Commercial Street. Buckley was here last weekend, singing songs from “Pippin’’ and “Sunset Boulevard’’ and “Sweeney Todd’’ (and telling the audience that she believes she would make a darned good Sweeney). LuPone kicked off the season in robust style on the Fourth of July, singing not just “Don’t Cry for Me, Argentina’’ but a few other songs from “Evita’’ that she had not done in public for more than 30 years. “My whole life I had dreamed of hearing Patti LuPone sing songs from ‘Evita,’ ” says Rudetsky, who is 45. “My head almost exploded.’’
After launching last summer with eight shows, the series, hosted by Rudetsky and produced by Art House artistic director Mark Cortale, has grown to 11 this year. Charles Busch is doing a pair of dates there this weekend, “Will & Grace’’ star Megan Mullally is slated for next week, while Andrea Martin, Judy Kuhn, and Alice Ripley (a Tony winner for “Next to Normal’’) are scheduled for September. The lineup this season has also included Faith Prince, Marilyn Maye, and Mario Cantone of “Sex & the City.’’ (Margaret Cho, who’s wrapping up a weeklong run at the Art House, is appearing in the venue’s smaller, 120-seat space.)
So far, every show this summer has been a sellout. Indeed, the series has proved so popular that Cortale and Rudetsky are finalizing plans to expand it to New Orleans and Los Angeles. During an interview, they toss around names — Kristin Chenoweth, Bebe Neuwirth, Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster — they would like to add to the Provincetown roster next year.
But the stars are not the only reason the series has become a hit. Much of it has to do with the freewheeling, quick-witted Rudetsky. He has played piano in the orchestras of numerous Broadway musicals (“Phantom of the Opera,’’ “Les Miserables,’’ “Ragtime’’); he hosts two shows on SiriusXM satellite radio, “Seth’s Big Fat Broadway’’ and “Seth Speaks Broadway!”; and his weekly live interview show, “Seth’s Broadway Chatterbox,” is a Theatre District mainstay in New York. That means he has either worked with and/or interviewed virtually everyone whom he or Cortale ask to appear on the Art House stage, including McDonald.
Rudetsky, who calls himself “Broadway-obsessed,’’ is a walking compendium of musical-
theater lore. By the time he was 3, he was already singing songs from Frank Loesser’s “The Most Happy Fella’’ around the house. “On pitch, by the way,’’ he says. He saw his first Broadway show — “Hair’’ – at age 4.
Onstage with the leading lights of musical theater, he blends the passion of a fan, the skill of a professional musician, and the instincts of a comedian. The just-between-us vibe he creates within the performance/interview format of the series puts the stars at ease. He chats and banters with them about their careers on side-by-side stools, and when they rise from their seats to sing, he accompanies them on a white piano.
“I’ve worked kind of very intimately with all these celebs,’’ says Rudetsky. “I’ve played so many auditions, I’m a good sight reader, and I can transpose anything. So singers are very confident that I’m not going to [mess] up their show. The pressure is off the singer to create the show here.’’
Rudetsky and Cortale both grew up on Long Island; as youngsters, they auditioned for the same production of “Oliver!,’’ as they discovered when they met in the early 1990s. Cortale was rejected, but Rudetsky landed a part as a member of the ensemble. It was an important moment for a gay youth who was treated like an outcast by classmates, because it opened a door to a future in musical theater. “I knew there was an escape from the horribleness of school,’’ he recalls. “This thing I was obsessed with, I was now a part of.’’
Cortale, 44, began working as Rudetsky’s manager three years ago. (He is also the manager for Jeffery Roberson, a.k.a. Varla Jean Merman.) The idea for the Broadway series emerged on New Year’s weekend, as 2010 became 2011, when Rudetsky was performing his “Deconstructing Broadway’’ at the Art House. Cortale had just been appointed to the post of producing artistic director there, and was pondering how to program the summer of 2011. “I had this light-bulb [moment] of: What if we did a Broadway series?’’ recalls Cortale. “And I asked Seth if he would be interested in hosting it and curating it, and playing for the artists, and inviting people he has worked with to Provincetown. . . . At first, we both were a little unsure who would come.’’
Now they know the answer. It’s clear the stars feel comfortable performing with and opening up to Rudetsky, perhaps because his admiration for them is so palpably rooted in an appreciation for their craft. Jovial and irreverent though they are, the conversations afford audiences a glimpse behind the scenes.
LuPone, for example, was mostly the picture of jaunty self-confidence during her performance at the Art House on July 4, but she showed a vulnerable side when she told Rudetsky of the time legendary composer Stephen Sondheim excoriated her after a rehearsal for a concert version of his “Passion.’’ She winced as she recalled Sondheim telling her she had reduced his lyrics to “monotonous mush.’’
Last Saturday night, Buckley laughed good-naturedly when Rudetsky showed footage of the 1988 musical version of “Carrie,’’ a legendary Broadway flop, in which she — as Carrie’s fanatically religious mother — chases the teenager around and around a room before pushing her down into a cellar. (Buckley noted that when she looked down into the trap, she was gazing not just at the actress playing Carrie but at the burly stagehand who stood beneath the stage to catch the girl.) At Rudetsky’s coaxing, Buckley also gave an entertaining account of the time when, playing Norma Desmond in a London production of Andrew Lloyd Webber’s “Sunset Boulevard,’’ she accidentally fell down the staircase during the show’s climactic moment.
That insight into the reality behind the performance is what Rudetsky wants to give his audiences, while keeping the artists he admires safe enough to speak candidly.
“I think people really enjoy seeing a star humanized,’’ he says.
“I always say to myself: What would I enjoy as an audience member?’’ he adds. “So I’m always very confident with how my shows are, because I always go: I would enjoy watching this.’’