Sitting in my theater seat, waiting for the curtain to go up, I usually peruse the credits in the theater program. Almost always, I can find a line of connection between the members of the artistic team for the show and the actors. George Street Playhouse’s current production of “[title of show]” has taken this to an extreme.
“[title of show]” follows the frantic efforts of two friends to write a musical in time to make the upcoming deadline for a competition for the New York Musical Theater Festival (an annual three-week event showcasing new work). The show they write evolves as a show about writing the show.
In real life, they met the deadline and their musical was selected for the 2004 festival. Of course the two guys, Jeff Bowen (music and lyrics) and Hunter Bell (book), played themselves in the show. Two actress friends, Susan Blackwell and Heidi Bickenstaff, joined to complete the company, playing themselves. Success led to a production two years later at The Vineyard Theater, known for fostering new work (“Avenue Q” was born there). Next stop: Broadway, where it played at the Lyceum Theater from July through October, 2008. Bell was nominated for a Tony Award for the book. Other productions have been mounted all over the United States and as far away as Australia. Now: George Street Playhouse, New Brunswick, New Jersey, now in previews and opening Friday, November 19, starring Seth Rudetsky and Tyler Maynard as Hunter and Jeff. One very big connection: Bell, Bowen, Rudetsky and Maynard are friends.
George Street artistic director David Saint says, “I have known Seth for a long time, having worked together over 15 years ago, and I have known Tyler’s work for quite a while as well. They both possess enormous, idiosyncratic skills as comedians. In addition, they are friends, so the chemistry between them as Hunter and Jeff will be palpable and truly hysterical.”
As I talk with Rudetsky and Maynard in the empty cafe of the George Street Playhouse, their camaraderie is obvious right away, as Rudetsky, eyeing my folder on the table, writes something derogatory by Maynard’s name. He writes: “Non Equity.” Not true, but it was a typical tease between actors. Throughout our talk, there was much back and forth between them. At one point, Rudetsky said, “Oh, tell her about Susan.”
Maynard complied with more cross references: “My mother was Susan’s English teacher and directed her in musicals in high school. As a kid, I had watched Susan (this is the real Susan, not the character Susan) in play practice and had asked her to marry me.” Another connection: while Maynard was appearing in Disney’s “Little Mermaid” in Denver, the real Heidi had gotten a call from Bell and Bowen begging her to come back to New York to appear in “[title of show].” “Of course, she needed to make money,” says Maynard, adding, “which meant Disney. All that is in the play. There I was in Denver chatting out her problem with her. In the play, my character is on the phone talking with the character of Heidi — while in real life, I had been on the other end of the line with the real Heidi.” Confused yet?
Rudetsky had done an industrial show with Bell and had seen him do his stand-up comedy routine. Bell then asked him to come see a show he was working on. “I remember I saw ‘[title of show]’ in a very early production at ‘The Nymph’ (the name concocted from the NYMTF, i.e. New York Musical Theater Festival), and I was obsessed with it. I think I saw it 10 times.” He attended investors’ auditions and talked about “[title of show]” on his show on Sirius Radio where he interviews and talks about all things theatrical. “I predicted it was going to be a big hit.” He adds, “It’s amazing that now I get to be in it after being obsessed with it for so many years.”
And it’s about time. Interestingly, both Rudetsky and Maynard at times during the progress of the show had been asked to be understudies, which neither was ever able to do. “They wanted me to understudy the two guys,” says Rudetsky with mischief in his eyes, “but Tyler one-upped me on that. They wanted him to understudy all four characters (male and female). They couldn’t afford to have two understudies at the Vineyard Theater Off Broadway. I think they were joking, but maybe that would work, in a weird way. But he was too busy doing Disney things that paid well.”
Rudetsky talks very fast, probably the result of growing up in a very talkative family. I ask if he has always been funny. To which he replies, “Oh, yes, all of my family is funny. They’re like me in drag.” (Both his parents were in education.) Growing up on Long Island, he began piano lessons when he was five years old. From his personal website, I learn that his first big role was the Cowardly Lion at Hillel summer day camp in the summer of third grade. But acting took a back seat. He and his two sisters all took piano lessons, but with Rudetsky, it became his focus. He graduated from Oberlin College with a degree in piano performance. In his bio on his website he writes that though he was trained as a classical pianist, he “essentially spent all of my free time doing Broadway stuff.”
So when he arrived in New York City to make his way in the theatrical world, he began as a Broadway pianist and conductor. From that beginning, he has added job after job, which makes it hard to categorize him. He’s a pianist, conductor, producer, musical director, radio talk show host, actor, stand-up comedian, and writer. (I’ve probably missed something.) He has published several books, including “The Q Guide to Broadway” and “Broadway Nights,” about subbing as an orchestra pit conductor. He also worked as a full-time writer for “The Rosie O’Donnell Show.” I regularly read his weekly column about Broadway happenings and people on “Playbill.com” and saw him perform in his Broadway acting debut in Terrence McNally’s “The Ritz” in the fall of 2007. Oh, yes, he’s also a father, to a youngster named Julie, added to his life when he coupled with his partner, James.
Rudetsky’s connection to David Saint goes way back. “He was my first director in my first show right out of college. It was a musical version of ‘Midsummer Night’s Dream,’ set in the ’60s at Laguna Beach. I got hired to do the vocal arrangements. It was a good experience, and we kept in touch.”
Maynard did follow in the real Susan’s footsteps and appeared in high school musicals and amateur musical theater productions. While attending the College Conservatory of Music at the University of Cincinnati, he appeared in a number of student productions. After graduation, he came to New York to find his fame and fortune. After a number of parts in Off and Off Off Broadway productions, he caught everyone’s eye in a standout performance in “Altar Boyz” in 2005. I saw him and was totally blown away; it was as if he had an inner follow spot that illuminated his performance. I later saw him as “Flotsam” in the original Broadway production of “The Little Mermaid,” and more recently in the Off Broadway musical that kicked off this theatre season in New York, “The Kid.”
Rudetsky and Maynard’s paths have crossed a number of times, specifically when the two of them performed in a one-weekend production of “The Great American Radio Show” in New York City. “Maynard made me laugh so hard,” says Rudetsky. When Maynard read for the show, the director later told Rudetsky, “Tyler spent his whole audition talking about you.” Maynard offered, “I bet he would do it; he loves the show so much. And it worked. Here we are.”
Rudetsky says the show “is so funny and moving for anyone who’s ever had a dream — to see a dream come true. Every time I leave the show, I say, ‘I have to do something creative in my life.’ It’s so inspiring. Each time I’ve seen the show and even more since I’ve been rehearsing, I leave and say to myself, ‘I can’t watch TV tonight, I have to create something.’” Maynard has also been inspired and has begun writing a journal. Maybe this, too, will someday turn into a play or musical.
“[title of show],” George Street Playhouse, 9 Livingston Avenue, New Brunswick. Previews Wednesday and Thursday, November 17 and 18, 8 p.m; opening night, Friday, November 19, 8 p.m. Musical comedy by Jeff Bowen and Hunter Bell. Through December 12. $29.50 to $79.50. 732-246-7717. www.gsponline.org.