Broadway Pianist Seth Rudetsky Takes Center Stage
Few have more connections in the Broadway ecosystem than Seth Rudetsky. He played the piano for Audra McDonald’s senior recital at Juilliard – long before she was a star. He’s Patti LuPone’s go-to accompanist and Tina Fey attended the opening night of his new off-Broadway show.
The Broadway pianist, radio show host, author and playwright can always be counted on for dramatically over-the-top stories along with his computer-like archive of Broadway trivia.
But perhaps his most endearing trait is that the jack-of-all-trades, the “Ahmaaazing Rudetsky,” as he’s referred to on his hit Sirius XM Radio show, is as much ardent fan as he is performer. He still gets emotional when he gets to perform alongside his childhood favorites like Andrea McArdle. (He recently got her to reprise the role of “Annie” on a cruise and cast himself as an orphan.)
Rudetsky has played the piano in the orchestra pit for some of Broadway’s biggest hits, including “Ragtime” and “The Producers.” He had a cameo on NBC’s “Smash” and was a judge on MTV’s reality show casting of “Legally Blonde: The Musical.” His comical Jewish shtick, which is laden with jabs at his mother, has made him a popular force behind the New York theater scene. But Rudetsky has taken center stage more recently as the off-Broadway 1970s-style musical “Disaster!” which he co-wrote and stars in.
On his days off from fighting earthquakes, tidal waves and killer bees, Rudetsky travels the country doing shows with Broadway’s leading ladies including LuPone, Megan Mullally and Megan Hilty. Little in the show is scripted. Typically, LuPone doesn’t even know what she’s singing or what questions he’ll ask when she walks onstage.
“He pays enormous respect to the music and shows an enormous amount of love. You want someone coming at it with a pure heart and that’s Seth,” says LuPone. But he’s also “extremely witty and very fast.”
Rudetsky, who started playing the piano at the age of 5, honed his comedy roots rebelling against the stodginess of Oberlin College’s prestigious conservatory, wearing a red bow tie with his tux or playing Gershwin instead of more serious composers. The school frowned on musical theater, so Rudetsky staged shows himself.
He credits that do-it-yourself attitude for propelling his career. As the musical director for several shows for the Actor’s Fund charity, he recruited mega-watt stars including Idina Menzel, Sutton Foster, Whoopi Goldberg and Kristin Chenoweth for various scenes in “Funny Girl,” Jennifer Hudson for “Hair” and McDonald and Heather Headley for “Dream Girls.”
It’s all about “making the audience love what I love,” says Rudetsky.
When Rudetsky moved to New York in his early 20s, he was a sought-after pianist for Broadway auditions and rehearsals and ended up meeting many of the actors and directors that would help shape his career – and give him plenty of backstage material to dish in his stand-up and radio show. By the age of 25, he was a substitute pianist for “Les Miserables” and “The Phantom of the Opera” and doing sketch comedy on the side.
In typical Rudetsky style, he once tried to get a laugh out of the viola section by grabbing the phantom’s mask when it bounced off the stage and landed next to his keyboard.
He didn’t know the masks were pliable and custom molded to each actor’s face “so when I put it on, it molded to my face and there are no Jewish phantoms, so pretty much the mask was destroyed.”
He weaves similar humorous, self-deprecating tales throughout his stand-up, radio show and books.
“He’s going to make you laugh within 30 seconds of meeting him. There’s great power in that,” said McDonald, who said one of her favorite memories with Rudetsky was during an encore of “Can’t Help Loving That Man of Mine” during her senior recital. Rudetsky apparently didn’t think it was sassy enough so he changed keys in the middle of the song. McDonald turned around and playfully gave him the middle finger.
He brought his spunk to the Rosie O’Donnell show as a comedy writer and ultimately penned two opening numbers that O’Donnell performed at the Tony Awards. The two met while Rudetsky was playing piano in a mid-1990s revival of “Grease” where O’Donnell was playing the role of Rizzo.
Rudetsky, who received a copy of “Evita” for his bar mitzvah, has often crafted his career just to be close to the singers he admired most as a child. Last year, while accompanying LuPone in a song from “Evita,” he had a good sentimental cry.
“My dream was to see her do it live and now, not only am I seeing it live, but I’m playing for her … it so surpassed anything I could have hoped for when I was 13 years old,” he said.
But he’s not content to end with the sappy. It must be known, he says, that another reason those moments are so magical is because his mother had an unfortunate habit of taking him to see every show after the iconic leading lady had left.
“Evita,” “Annie” and so on, he says with mock exasperation.
So now he makes sure they’re standing beside his piano.