Old friends reunite onstage

  • by David-Elijah Nahmod
  • Saturday January 19, 2019
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Sirius XM radio host Seth Rudetsky and Broadway superstar Audra McDonald will appear in "Broadway @ The Herbst." Photo: Sachyn Mital
Sirius XM radio host Seth Rudetsky and Broadway superstar Audra McDonald will appear in "Broadway @ The Herbst." Photo: Sachyn Mital

Broadway superstar Audra McDonald and Sirius XM radio host Seth Rudetsky will appear together at the Herbst Theatre on Jan. 20 for a lively evening of conversation and song. Proceeds from the evening will benefit San Francisco Gay Men's Chorus, Project Open Hand and Sandy Hook Promise.

McDonald has been wowing Broadway audiences for 25 years with her performances in shows such as "Carousel," "Master Class," "Ragtime," and as jazz great Billie Holiday in "Lady Day at Emerson's Bar and Grill." She has won a record six Tony Awards for her work, and remains an in-demand concert performer and recording artist. She has also appeared extensively on television, including four seasons on the hit series "Private Practice."

Rudetsky is the afternoon host on Sirius XM Satellite radio's "On Broadway." He is a published author, and recently co-wrote and co-starred in "Disaster!" on Broadway. An out gay man, Rudetsky and his husband, James Wesley, co-produced a recording of "What the World Needs Now" featuring Broadway luminaries Idina Menzel, Lin-Manuel Miranda and McDonald. The song went to #1 on iTunes and raised $100,000 to benefit the shooting victims at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando where 49 people died in a 2016 mass shooting. On Inauguration Day 2017, he launched "Concerts for America," a monthly series around the country that raises critical funds for five nonprofits being hurt by the current administration.

McDonald and Rudetsky are old friends. Both spoke to the B.A.R. about that friendship.

"We met almost 30 years ago," said McDonald. "We each got married around the same time, have kids the same age, and experienced a lot in the business together. Seth is one of my favorite people, and he's so, so talented."

Rudetsky recalled more about the history of their friendship. "I met Audra at an audition in the 90s," he said. "Right after I got out of Oberlin, and while she was still at Julliard. I volunteered every week at a hospital that housed prisoners with AIDS. I would put on shows through an organization called Hearts and Voices. I asked her to sing at one, she asked me to coach her and play auditions for her, and soon I was playing the Broadway section of her Julliard senior recital — that raised a few uptight classical eyebrows."

The two have worked together quite a bit since then. "Doing things like the Dreamgirls concert I put together for the Actors Fund," said Rudetsky. "Or the recording of 'What the World Needs Now' that my husband and I produced after the Orlando shooting. We both have a daughter the same age and got married within weeks of each other. I guess we're friends because we have a lot in common, except she has six more Tony Awards than I do."

Broadway star Audra McDonald. Photo: Autumn de Wilde  

"All I can say is that I am the one who's honored," McDonald said of her Tony wins. "I'm very grateful that people have enjoyed my work, and I'm so lucky to do what I do every day.

McDonald recalled what it was that first drew her to the theatre. "I was a very hyperactive child, and my parents struggled to find an outlet where I could channel all of my energy," she said. "One night, they attended a dinner theatre where a kids troop did the pre-dinner show. They immediately inquired about how I could audition and join, and I absolutely loved it. After that, the theatre became my second home!"

She added that she greatly enjoys all the mediums that she performs in, including concerts and television. "I don't really have a favorite," she said. "They all challenge me and are fulfilling in different ways. The only thing I'll say is that musical theatre is my first language. That's the first thing I started with, so it feels very natural to me."

McDonald, who is African American, said that she has been greatly influenced by many women of color who proceeded her, such as Billie Holiday, Lena Horne, Diahann Carroll and Ella Fitzgerald. She is still preparing for the Herbst show and isn't yet sure what she'll be doing when she takes to the stage.

"When it comes to concerts with Seth, I don't really know what to expect," she said. "We've been friends for such a long time, and he knows every song I know. Our concerts weave in and out of conversation and song, but we spontaneously stumble upon our favorite musical theatre or Great American Songbook works along the way."

Rudetsky promises "a ton of amazing singing and a ton of laughs."

"People don't realize that Audra is really, really funny," he said. "She has so many stories about getting busted that I will make her tell, including the one that happened at Oprah's house. Plus, she can sing anything. We'll be doing her amazing high soprano stuff like 'Summertime' from 'Porgy and Bess,' but also her Broadway belt stuff like a Barbra song from 'Funny Girl.' I always throw in something to surprise her as well. At our last concert in NYC, I brought out the entire score from 'Evita' and made her sing the title role!"

The evening will be completely improvised, he notes.

"Every concert I do involves interviews because I can't stand scripted patter," he said. "An audience knows it isn't special because they're hearing the same 'It's great to be here' that the audience heard the night before. So, these concerts that I've been doing in San Francisco and across the country are different every single time. There are always new songs added, and there are always new stories between the songs. I love getting inside Broadway dish, and I think it's fun for the audience to feel like they're in my living room. With Audra, it's especially fun because she has all those Broadway shows to talk about, plus her fabulous TV career, and yes, I'll be asking about the time her wig fell off during 'Ragtime.'"

McDonald said she was pleased to be appearing in support of the evening's beneficiary organizations. "It means a lot that this series is also focused on giving back," she said. "I think it's our job as performers to always shed light on others who need our help. These organizations provide such wonderful services to the community, so we're honored to do our part."

Mark Cortale Presents: Broadway @ The Herbst, Jan. 20, 5 p.m., Herbst Theatre, SF. Tickets: www.cityboxoffice