saints and sinners of the stage and screen
saints and sinners of the stage and screen
Seth Rudetsky's Deconstructing Broadway
Leicester Square Theatre
10th August 2014
Photography provided by Leicester Square Theatre
Seth Rudetsky is an author, actor, professional Broadway musician, radio host, comedy writer and more, whose deconstructions - which form the basis of this show - have also made him a YouTube star. A "deconstruction" involves him examining an audio or video clip of a Broadway performance and whether the effect is "a-mah-zing" (good) or "a-MAH-zing" (bad), and explaining, with examples, precisely why. It might sound dry and worthy on paper, despite the cartoonish language. But this isn't at all the case across a 90-minute show which is educational, but primarily hilarious.
Audra McDonald once described him as "the mayor of Broadway". If you have no idea who she is (actress, singer and six-time Tony award winner, just so you know), there’s a good chance that much of this rapid-fire material will fly right over your head. This "stand-up about musicals" is certainly geared towards those with at least entry-level knowledge of the genre. If you don't know your Hair from Hairspray, or your Matilda from The Music Man, you’ll probably have feelings about this show similar to my feelings towards Match of the Day - it'll wash over you while you gawp cluelessly at the spectacle in front of you.
However, Seth ensures that absolutely no formal music theory is needed, beyond simply having ears and eyes that work. He explains each of the basic terms he uses most often, in funny and accessible ways, such as modulation ("basically a key change that Barry Manilow invented in the 70s"), and illustrating head versus chest voice by imitating his mother's nagging. Rudetsky's explanations span the senses, including everything from physical gestures (straight tone and vibrato are mimed by a straight or wobbling arm) to little snatches of music played on the black Yamaha piano, highlighting the difference between flat versus sharp and so on.
The whole thing is treated with tongue firmly in cheek, beginning with a glorious entrance, mimed with gusto to the showstopping strains of Barbara Streisand's "Any Place I Hang My Hat is Home" before Rudetsky introduces himself as "the American Elaine Paige" in reference to her weekly Radio 2 theatre show. (Which you of course already knew, right?)
There's an infectious sense of energy about the show, from the mile-a-minute delivery to the way he zips between the piano, video screens and front of the stage. For those with a deep and obsessive love for musical theatre there are treats galore. The show welcomes the beginner and also rewards the expert, with rapid-fire jokes, comparisons and even stinging asides. Don't get him started on the judging in American Idol. Just don't.
The first half mostly utilises audio clips as we are educated in the art of deconstruction, the second half mostly video, which adds in an extra level of visual humour, especially in sections titled "What Are You Wearing?!" and "Look Who's Famous Now" featuring a very young Bette Midler at the Tonys in 1968, performing in Fiddler on the Roof. The section in which he deconstructs Cher, starring in her made-for-TV one-woman production of West Side Story, is every bit as horrifying and humorous as it sounds.
Self-deprecation is probably the key which unlocks our love for this rapid-fire performer, who can take it just as well as he doles it out. Beginning with a clip of himself as a toddler singing Ooh! My Feet from lesser-known Loesser musical The Most Happy Fella, and serving up his 11-year-old self's version of Tomorrow from Annie as the most appalling riffing he could find, the trifecta is completed by a high school video of him dancing jazz backup for a fellow student's rendition of I Am What I Am. The Gloria Gaynor version, obviously. It's as much of a car crash at is sounds, and Rudetsky turns it to his advantage by carefully and riotously explaining the worst parts precisely, performing the steps in time with the grainy video. A-MAH-zing.
Rudetsky seems genuinely taken aback by the level of knowledge and love in the room. Cheers to the most passing of references to actors ("Do you guys know who Shoshana Bean is?") or shows earns the audience many a surprised "Bravo!" and at one point he ad-libs a little tribute to Gavin Creel’s recent Olivier win - again, to huge cheers from the room.
The general level of interaction means that the audience really feels like the other half of the show. Whether playing a few bars of something and asking for guesses (well done to whoever got The Pajama Game in a few phrases!), picking on famous faces in the audience - Frances Ruffelle! - or choosing an audience member to come on stage in the second half, there's something warmly collaborative about the evening. One segment included specially for the London audience about Diana: The Musical elicited a mixture of both horrified gasps and laughter. Yes, this was a real show. No, Seth did not invent it to troll us. Quick, someone phone the Daily Express!
The technical skill which goes into a show like this is astounding in and of itself; making sure that he sticks to the right order so that the video and sound clips are correctly aligned is utterly marvellous, the slickness with which he achieves this is highlighted on the rare occasion he checks his running order, to make sure the new, London-specific segments are lined up correctly.
Straddling the lines in between stand-up, commentary, masterclass and academic lecture, this show educates and informs while tickling the audience's funny bones non-stop. Watch, learn and go forth and deconstruct - or at the very least enjoy a new-found appreciation for both delicious vibrato and bizarre diction choices. If you need me, I'll be on YouTube listening to Gavin Creel adding vibrato to "What a dis-graaaace" over and over again (a-mah-zing!), or maybe that all-Cher production of West Side Story (A-MAH-zing). I'm sure you can guess which is which.
Seth Rudetsky's Deconstructing Broadway ran on 10th August at the Leicester Square Theatre.
Nearest tube station: Leicester Square (Northern, Piccadilly)