Chasing Down Betty Buckley’s High E in The Mystery Of Edwin Drood

Seth Rudetsky   Chasing Down Betty Buckley’s High E in The Mystery Of Edwin Drood
 
This week, Seth remembers Graciela Daniele's surprising staging of A New Brain, meets virtual bestie Dana Delaney in real life, and more.
The Mystery of Edwin Drood
Jana Schneider, John Herrera, Larry Shue, Betty Buckley, Patti Cohenour, and George Rose in The Mystery of Edwin Drood Martha Swope/©NYPL for the Performing Arts

Happy almost Tony Awards! I’m not going to talk Tony's this column because I’m going to dedicate an entire column to inside Tony Award stories—so stay tuned for that. I will however say that I am hosting a Tony Award Watch Party during the show. It starts at 7 PM ET (‘natch) and it’s at Asylum NYC. You can hang out with me and not only watch the festivities, but do singalongs, answer Broadway trivia, get some sassy prizes, and “much more” (as Luisa sang in The Fantasticks). Get thee here for tix.

Speaking of Asylum NYC in Chelsea, that’s also the theatre where I’m running my new show Seth’s Broadway Breakdown. I did a preview performance September 12 and it was so amazing. The show’s premise is that in order to never take Broadway for granted again, we need to break it down to understand what makes it amazing. My first performance had me emotional because there were people in the audience whose singing I played examples of. I talked about Cabaret and there was Joel Grey. Of course, because he directed the Yiddish Fiddler, I also felt the need to apologize when I played the Fiddler medley sung by The Osmonds. They do “To Life” with the groove of a Barry White makeout song. It’s a “Shanda.” #IfYouKnowYouKnow

Orfeh, Seth Rudetsky, and Andy Karl
Orfeh, Seth Rudetsky, and Andy Karl Arin Sang-urai

I also do a whole section on belting and there was Beth Leavel and then there was Adam Pascal (I showed that his final note on his big song in my show Disaster! is the same final note as Ethel Merman’s as Mama Rose…for reals). And I did a whole section on riffing that, at one point, featured the amazing Orfeh and she was in the front row. Here’s me doing a breakdown of Orfeh and Mariah Carey. Orfeh was there with her amazing Tony-nominated, Olivier-winning husband Andy Karl and they did fab posing with me on the red carpet with so many other peeps. Watch this TikTok boomerang created by TheBroadwayWiz that features some of the stars who came to my show doing sassy poses.

Most thrilling for me was the fact the Seth’s Broadway Breakdown features so much Betty Buckley, and she was right there in the second row. Incredible! If you don’t know, one of the notes I’m obsessed with is her sustained E in “The Writing On The Wall” from The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. It was originally written to be a B but Betty arbitrarily went up to the E during the backer’s audition and people flipped out. I actually have a recording of that very backer’s audition and did a breakdown. Watch here.

We talked after the show and she reminded me that when I first met her, I had immediately told her that she devastated me in the early ’90s. Here’s the story: when I was doing the workshop of A New Brain, it featured Alan Campbell in the role that Norm Lewis would eventually play in the Off-Broadway production. Alan was starring in Sunset Boulevard opposite Betty at the time and he knew I was obsessed with her (because I would relentlessly talk about her brilliant singing). She mentioned to him that she was looking for a pianist for her voice lessons, he recommended me, and I got the gig. Dream come true! However, I still had to bust her—I basically introduced myself by telling her that I would constantly listen to her high E at the end of “The Writing On The Wall” from the cast album and always be depressed because I never got to see her in the show. I fantasized I could travel back in time to witness it, but finally accepted I couldn’t.

Betty Buckley and Cleo Laine in <i> The Mystery of Edwin Drood</i>
Betty Buckley and Cleo Laine in The Mystery of Edwin Drood Martha Swope

Then, I discovered the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. They have an archive of Broadway shows that have been filmed. And yes, they have The Mystery Of Edwin Drood. I freaked out—I could finally see Betty hit that E. I showed up at the archive incredibly excited. If you don’t know, it’s the final note of the final song in the show. Well, I didn’t want to immediately skip right to it. I wanted to savor the anticipation of what I was going to finally witness. I plugged in my headphones and started watching. The excitement built and finally, after two and half hours, the big number came. The song started, she sang and sang, and then she didn’t hit the E—she opted for the B, four steps down. There hasn’t been that big of a let down since Geraldo Rivera opened up Al Capone’s vault and found what amounted to a low B. It was a library with a code of silence, but I couldn’t contain my involuntary “No!” There was glaring from the other headphoned patrons; I’m still recovering.

Even though I was there to play Betty’s voice lesson, I “confronted” her on what I deemed a betrayal. Instead of kicking me the hell out of her private lesson, she gave me the backstory. Betty explained that when she first hit the note, it was not a big deal to her. But everyone else in the cast flipped out. She realized it was impressive that she could belt and sustain an E. Then, the wonderful choreographer Graciela Daniele staged the number so that the entire cast would turn towards her right before the note. Betty said she would get to the moment where was going to hit the note and see the faces of her fellow performers in a state of panic, subtextually asking, “Will she nail it?” Betty wanted them to chill out, so she would opt back and forth between the E and a B so they would stop being so visibly nervous. End of story: she opted for the B on the day of the Lincoln Center recording. Even though I didn’t see it at the library, there is an amazing version of her hitting the note here.

By the way, that’s not the last time Daniele pulled ye olde “on the spot” staging; back in the ’90s, I was asked by Jason Robert Brown to assist him at the Public Theater on a new Bill Finn musical which turned into A New Brain. Jason left the future incarnations of the show because he was working on his own show, Parade, but the beautiful vocal arrangements he wrote were used when it finally opened at Lincoln Center. By then, Ted Sperling was the music director and he asked me to be his sub. It was a piano/conductor chair and, because Ted is multi-talented, the final number featured him playing violin. I learned the piano/conducting part and when I looked at the violin part, I saw that it was out of my skill set, but I knew I could fake it well enough to not force the show to close.

After all, I figured, who was going to really hear or see me? The “pit” was offstage and we could only see the stage on a video monitor, so I didn’t know what was happening during “I Feel So Much Spring,” the final song where I had to play. Ted just told me that when the number started, I should leave the piano, get my violin, come out onstage and stand stage left. I was not really nervous to have to play my violin in front of the audience, even though I knew I was not up to snuff, because the whole cast would be crowding the stage and I assumed I could stand out of sight, in the shadows behind them. So, it’s my first performance in Ted’s position. I play and conduct the whole show and finally get to the finale. I’m standing backstage and start walking on to play the first little violin solo I have.

Well, what Ted neglected to mention is that when the violinist comes onstage, Daniele directed the entire cast to turn away from the audience and make a space so everyone can see him. They then indicated towards me as if to say “Here comes our amazing violinist! Attention must be paid.” What? I came onstage to hide, not to be presented to the audience as the next Itzhak Perlman. I completely freaked out—and let’s just say my violin playing was on par with the sounds our cat Romeo makes when he sees a sexy lady cat. A New Brain should have been immediately retitled A New Sub. If you think I’m exaggerating and I’m probably a good violinist and just hard on myself, please watch this.

James Wesley, Dana Delaney, and Seth Rudetsky
James Wesley, Dana Delaney, and Seth Rudetsky Seth Rudetsky

OK, enough with my personal trauma, back to Seth’s Broadway Breakdown. One of the other wonderful things about my first preview is that James and I got to meet people in-person whom we had only known virtually. One of our favorite TV shows ever (and definitely my favorite TV show in that style period) is Scandal. I can’t tell you how much we loved it. We got to know Bellamy Young from our two Scandal reunions on Stars in the House plus various game nights and political fundraisers, but had never met her in person. Along those same lines, James and I both watched every episode of Desperate Housewives and we were so happy to virtually meet Dana Delany on our SITH reunion show. We kept in touch with her and she also did political fundraisers for us as well as an episode of my podcast Seth Rudetsky’s Back-To-School where we talked about her high school years. But again, we never literally met her. So it was super-fun to finally be with them in ye olde flesh.

Seth’s Broadway Breakdown officially begins its run October 15, with performances on Friday through Sunday. Get tickets here. And finally, my live virtual concert series begins October 3, airing every Sunday at 8 PM ET. My first star is Shayna Steele from Rent and Hairspray. Here’s my “Shayna Steele Challenge” where I dare people to try to hit those crazy notes she hit in “Welcome To The 60s”. I tried….and wiped out. I love the applause immediately starts as she’s singing, before the song ends. Watch, then peace out!

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