The man behind the MAC Award-winning series with Broadway show tunes is the merry man behind the piano: Ricky “Razamatazz” Ritzel. We had six questions for him. Conveniently, he had six answers for us and we now share them with you. He’ll be sharing lots of great Great White Way winners July 28 with his hand-picked performer pals with a cast of cabaret veterans and piano bar singers. This Friday fun-fest is at Don’t Tell Mama, appropriately, as it is the NYC cabaret named for a song from the musical called Cabaret written by John Kander and Fred Ebb, who wrote the score for one of the three shows examined and celebrated this time. So, without further ado, or even a drum roll, here are the six questions and answers.
1. NiteLife Exchange: Can you share with us a few things about Friday’s edition — such as why you picked certain singers for certain song assignments for the shows and if there’s a common factor about the musicals besides two of them having scores by Jerry Herman?
Ricky Ritzel: I try to have either a common thread or choose three shows that are so markedly different — with absolutely nothing in common. This month, July, it turns out that the common thing for all three is the Palace Theatre. All three played there between 1979 and 1987, with a few shows in between. There are fewer group numbers this time than there have been recently. It’s always fun for me to cast the shows, and this month is no different. I needed a personality for Woman of the Year, so I asked everyone’s gal-pal, Sue Matsuki. And the piano bar character Sean Bernardi is perfect for Zaza [the drag queen] in La Cage aux Folles, as he did Edna in Hairspray for over a year on a cruise ship.
And I’ve always been in love with another Jerry Herman show: The Grand Tour, so Eric Michael Gillett and Aaron Morishita will be splitting the Colonel’s songs, Tara Moran will be Marianne and I’ll slip into Joel Grey’s tiny little shoes as Jacobovsky.
2. NLE: So, do you sometimes make a choice because you know someone’s right, ready, willing, and able because he or she has been in a full production of the musical you want to include? And then you proceed to find other numbers from that show that will be good choices for other singers already on board?
RR: That happens sometimes. For example, Fran Leonardis, who’s in the show this week, played Rose in a New Jersey production of Gypsy. I lined that up, using Jay Rogers as Herbie and Christina Aranda — who has regrettably moved to Texas — as Louise. The Wednesday before the show Fran calls and tells me her mother just passed away and there was no way she could do the show Sunday. So, I called the only other person in town I knew who’d played Rose: Karen Mason. And she said, “What time should I be there?” I am so lucky!
3. NLE: You’ve mentioned in the past that the Musical Comedy TonightTV programs hosted by Sylvia Fine Kaye, the songwriter, educator, pianist, wife of Danny Kaye —whose story was the basis of a long-running musical that played on the same block as Don’t Tell Mama—were kind of a model for Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway. How are your focus, hosting style, and approach different in what you choose to talk about in your narration, just one of your roles beyond playing the piano?
RR: Sylvia Fine didn’t play the piano for those specials regularly. She basically stood at the piano as if she were holding it up — or maybe it was holding her up, because she always seemed as if she were just coming in from having one too many. She mixed world history and what was going on when the featured show was on Broadway. I dig deeper into how the musical was written and stories about the show and its creators. I learn so much from the research. I love learning — learning new things every day and I try to make it fun when I’m writing the commentary For example, I’d had no idea when Oliver! opened on its pre-Broadway tour that the set wasn’t painted and through some of Act One painters were still working. They came back at intermission. And some of the reviews mentioned that the painters bowed with the cast at curtain call! Fabulous!
4.NLE: You’ve been doing the series for quite some time now. How has Ricky Ritzel’s Broadway changed since it began as an idea from Ricky Ritzel’s brainwaves and you did the first installment?
RR: The first one featured three flops and one mega-hit: Hello, Dolly!; On a Clear Day You Can See Forever; Henry Sweet Henry; and Cleavage — whose original production lasted one night on Broadway. Its cast included Jay Rogers [seen at left in photo by Russ Weatherford]. We’re just entering our third year this month, and when we started it was a cast of five, plus me. Each show added a few more — and maybe different — people. Jay and Aaron Morishita were the first ones I bounced the idea off, and Jay ended up directing and staging and Aaron choreographed what we needed, and they both appear regularly. I always wanted Sidney Myer and he’s always anxious to be in them.
5. NLE: Speaking of the audience-pleasing and sensational Sidney, his showstopping, fearless performances, sometimes in semi-drag, are hard to top. What are some memorable examples from your history with him in the series and is there a number he declined to do or that you still have on the top of your wish list for him?
RR: I only decided on covering Hello, Dolly! because Sidney Myer would play Dolly. I was determined to do the entire title number — so Jay and Aaron choreographed the whole thing and the two of them made up half of the “ensemble” we had. It was such a hit that it’s the only time we repeated a performance the following Sunday, but people know now that if you want to see a particular show, be there— because you won’t be able to see it again. That’s why we video every show — for posterity. As far as Sidney goes, he’s played all the Jerry Herman “Girls”: Dolly, Mame, Aurora in Dear World. He’s butching it up this month doing Georges in La Cage. There are a few more “divas” in his future, if I have my way. A Little Night Music and Sunset Boulevard come to mind. Stay tuned!
6. NLE: We’ve come to Question Number Six in our Six Questions feature and that’s about audience feedback. What is the question they ask most often after it’s all over and what can your audiences hope to see in coming months?
RR: More and more, audience members would ask where I found this performer or that one— Jon Satrom, Laura Pavles, etc. And I would answer “Go to the next room—the piano bar. At least two of the people you saw perform tonight are working in there regularly.” Jon, Laura, Tommy J. Dose, Tara Moran, Michelle Dowdy, Alison Nusbaum, Brian Malinowski, Lauren Turner, and Paul Pilcz all sing and sling drinks next door. Amazing talent. As far as what Broadway musicals we’ll look at next, well, I try to do two hits and one flop every time. Sometimes that doesn’t happen. We did a show earlier this year that featured three dance-heavy shows — and we had no dancing: Cats, West Side Story and A Chorus Line. No flops there, but we did numbers that had been cut from two of those and I noted each show has less than spectacular revivals. I’d love to do Whoop Up, Golden Rainbow, Minnie’s Boys….maybe even Home Sweet Homer. I have thoughts about doing themed groupings, like all Off-Broadway musicals. Or the the musicals that closed on the road. There’s so much more to do. As long as these crazy gifted people want to do them and the audience keeps coming, I’m in luck!
Reservations for the July 28 show can be made by phone or by phone by calling 212-757-0788 or online at this link:
There is a two-drink minimum plus a cover charge of $20, with a $5 discount for members of MAC.
Don’t Tell Mama is at 343 West 46 Street in Manhattan. You can also find the talented happy Mr. Ritzel at Happy Hour there most Mondays in the aforementioned front piano bar. Not just drinking at the bar. No, we mean at the piano—from 5 PM until 9 PM.