When Broadway theaters were shuttered March 12, effectively putting countless theater professionals out of work, Seth Rudetsky and husband James Wesley saw a tweet from actress Jennifer Cody challenging her peers: “Can anyone do something to help?”
No strangers to show biz fundraising, the duo sprang into action. Rudetsky had the idea of recording piano tracks and sending them to Broadway stars who would do mini-concerts from their homes and stream them online. They would request donations to The Actors Fund, an essential lifeline to the performing arts community.
Wesley, a writer and producer, expanded on that idea. He envisioned a combination of “Seth Speaks,” Rudetsky’s SiriusXM talk show about all things Broadway, and “Concert for America,” a benefit for nonprofits like the Sierra Club and the NAACP that features entertainment and commentary about social justice issues. Wesley researched streaming services and found a platform that was simple to use, as the two were far from tech savvy.
“Health experts are saying we should all keep connected, so we thought we could bring the connection to our stars,” said Rudetsky, taking time out between shows to chat with Gay City News. “The idea came to us on a Saturday and we began live-streaming on Monday.”
“Stars in the House” now streams live twice daily at 2 p.m. and 8 p.m. (episodes are archived for future access) and the response has been overwhelming. Little did they know they were creating a vital infotainment outlet for countless theater geeks who are going through withdrawal, helping them muddle through #StayAtHome. They vowed to continue producing shows until Broadway theaters reopen (the shutdown was officially extended to June 9, though it could be much longer).
The roster of stars is mind-blowing — Kelli O’Hara, Kristin Chenoweth, Raúl Esparza, Santino Fontana, Lea Salonga, Audra McDonald, and Jonathan Groff, to name a few. In just over three weeks, they’ve recruited more than 100 stars to join in the fun. Rudetsky steals moments to play the piano, and often guests provide their own live musical accompaniment.
Chenoweth appears every Saturday night from her bathroom to maximize the acoustics.
“Kristin is special because she’s the only one who asked for a regular slot,” Rudetsky explained. “She’s a big star and we are elated to have her. It’s bizarre and wonderful that she’s broadcasting from her bathroom.”
Ever the jokester, Rudetsky loves to surprise featured guests with their friends. For instance, Jason Alexander was bowled over when Chita Rivera popped up on the screen. They starred in “The Rink” together on Broadway in the 1980s.
“I do a lot of pre-show trickery,” he said. “I casually ask which Broadway star is their favorite. Or I secretly ask their husband. Then I track them down and they miraculously appear on the show.”
For variety, the show is peppered with amusing photos or video snippets. Rudetsky said he learned this technique as a comedy writer on “The Rosie O’Donnell Show,” which relied on cutting to visuals at key moments.
One of their signature questions is “What are you and your family doing to stay healthy?” According to Rudetsky, people fall into two camps. They are either trying to get really fit, or they are giving in and gaining what he likes to call the COVID 19.
For many fans, the appeal is seeing larger-than-life celebrities in their own homes, casual and unfiltered. Shirts are wrinkled, hair is tousled, and beds are unmade. In a recent episode, Laura Bell Bundy confessed she was wearing the T-shirt she slept in, though she did put on a bra for the show.
“I have no fashion sense, guests can appear however they want,” Rudetsky said. “Often they ask, ‘Do I have to wash my hair?’ and I say ‘I dunno, whatever.’ Apparently everyone is opting out of hair-washing these days.”
The only dress code is on Saturday nights, when the hosts wear a suit (the top half, anyway) and Chenoweth dons a concert gown and full hair and makeup. Once she appeared in a gown that she had worn for a Lady Gaga concert, then put it up for auction, and it fetched $2,000 for the fundraising effort.
“She’s the grand diva,” said Rudetsky. “Everyone else is not showering, not shaving, no dyed hair, whatevs.”
One of the most affecting episodes featured Gavin Creel, who had to cut short his stint in “Waitress” in London’s West End due to the pandemic. When he returned to the US, he got hit with COVID-19 symptoms. He recounted the shame and stigma of having the illness, and being advised by his doctor to stay home and not get tested. His voice was too hoarse to perform a song.
“I didn’t know what that episode was going to be,” admitted Rudetsky. “I wasn’t sure how it would be helpful, since everyone knows the symptoms. But it turned out to be wonderful because he was raising topics rarely discussed, such as feeling like a leper. You must stay isolated but can’t help but feel bad when someone says, ‘Stay away from me for your own good and my own good.’ So glad he came and spoke about it.”
“Stars in the House” exudes a keen sense of authenticity as it connects our humanity. Not only entertaining and informative, it’s also oddly therapeutic. Was that part of the plan?
“Our original goal was to raise money,” said Rudetsky. “But we’ve discovered it’s also a way for folks to stay calm and instill some regularity in their lives. It’s become appointment viewing. People tune in and make comments on the side in real time and we read selections during the show. We get comments from Singapore, Australia — all over the world. It’s like one big get-together, while maintaining social distancing.”
As a counterpoint to the songs and conversation, Dr. Jon LaPook, chief medical correspondent for CBS News, offers tips and updates about the pandemic that are frank and easy to understand.
LaPook first met Rudetsky and Wesley when he interviewed them about “Broadway for Orlando,” their benefit for victims and families of the 2016 Pulse nightclub massacre. They stayed in touch.
“He contacted us about a month ago and asked us to write a song about hand washing, since Happy Birthday wasn’t cutting it,” Rudetsky recalled.
They wrote the song but then Broadway shut down the next day, and the performers could not get together to record it due to social distancing mandates. LaPook called in a panic asking how they could make it happen, but by then Rudetsky and Wesley were occupied with “Stars in the House.” LaPook offered to give medical advice on the first episode, which was such a sensation that he appears on every show.
Not long after the show’s debut, the couple introduced a spinoff called “Plays in the House,” readings of cherished plays, often by the original stars. The live readings stream twice a week, but are not archived due to single-use rights. Coming up is “The Divine Sister” with Charles Busch and Julie Halston, and Judy Gold’s “25 Questions for a Jewish Mother.”
Not surprisingly, these are not polished productions. Truth be told, the technical problems and other glitches enhance the charm. During “The Tale of the Allergist’s Wife,” for example, Faith Prince’s dog started barking and she improvised a line to explain the disruption, then got up and disappeared from the screen to wrangle the pup.
During “The Heidi Chronicles” there were so many folks on the platform that cast members were being kicked off and the show stopped cold. Rudetsky was able to stay on with one of the actors.
“I tried doing an impromptu interview but he was crazy shy, giggling, and giving one-word answers. He is an amazing actor but did not want to speak as himself. When we resumed, people lost their place. The mistakes humanize the actors. We don’t care because it’s entertaining nonetheless.”
Another homey touch is ending each episode by unleashing their boisterous dogs into the room. LaPook displays his pup as well.
“Stars in the House” is a surprise hit, though it’s tricky to measure exact viewership. Rudetsky says they attract thousands of viewers per live episode, and since most shows are archived via Facebook and YouTube, viewership keeps growing. For instance, the premiere episode with Kelli O’Hara has racked up nearly 70,000 views.
Producing two shows per day is no easy feat, and Rudetsky credits their team of hardworking volunteers who help with tasks like scheduling, social media, and video editing.
“This is actually more work than when I co-wrote and starred in ‘Disaster! The Musical’ on Broadway,” he said. “It’s much more important, so it’s fine with me.”
Despite the long hours, the couple appears to be having a blast, laughing and sharing stories and dishing with friends.
“All our work has been canceled except my radio show, so doing this show is a lifesaver,” Rudetsky said. “It’s a bit depressing what’s happened to my career. I make my money from everything that infects people, such as live concerts or Broadway cruises. Our way to stay healthy — and sane— is to do this show.”
Naturally, the fundraiser includes a telethon component, urging viewers to donate to The Actors Fund. Donors are thanked by name during the show. To date, they’ve raised more $170,000.
According to Rudetsky, The Actors Fund is a misnomer. It’s not just for actors, but for staff behind the scenes, as well. It supports anyone in the performing arts in New York and across the country. A recent episode spotlighted real-life cases.
“The fund helped a diabetic actor who lost his job and couldn’t afford health insurance for April so they paid it,” he said. “There was a woman who moved to New York to stay with friends, was exposed to COVID-19, and had nowhere to go, so the fund found her a place to stay for two weeks. It assists with crucial needs like rent, medical bills, and childcare. It’s not going to someone’s 401K or whatever. I don’t even know what that means because I don’t have one. But I know it’s something fancy.”
STARS IN THE HOUSE & PLAYS IN THE HOUSE | Watch on StarsintheHouse.com | Live-streamed daily 2 p.m. & 8 p.m. | Listen on SiriusXM VOLUME”at 9 a.m., Mon.-Fri. | Until Broadway reopens | Free; 60-80 mins.
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