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Open Book: DISASTER! Co-Authors Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, From Sketch Comedy To Broadway

OPEN BOOK is BroadwayWorld's new series placing a well-deserved spotlight on some of the least appreciated of theatre artists, those who write the books for musicals.

DISASTER!, which debuted at the Triad Theatre (now Stage 72) in 2012 and was remounted the next year at the St. Luke's Theatre, is the first book musical written by either of its co-authors, Seth Rudetsky, who is also in the cast, and Jack Plotnick, who also directs.

Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick

Jack Plotnick briefly pursued a stage career after graduating from the acting program at Carnegie Mellon University, but that all changed when he met Seth Rudetsky, who was a pit musician while Plotnick was performing in the campy Off-Broadway musical hit, PAGEANT.

"I had seen Seth in a comedy show and asked if he would write one with me. Things just took off for us with sketch comedy so we wrote and wrote and wrote. For ten years we were performing sketch and we had a long running show at Caroline's Comedy Club."

Faith Prince, Kevin Chamberlin and Kerry Butler
in DISASTER! (Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

"I really discovered that creating comedy was more satisfying for me than the theatre I was doing, but I loved musical theatre and I knew that was what I was going to be doing with my life. I had breaks in film and TV so I went to Los Angeles, but I always wanted to return because I loved musical theatre."

Over on the west coast Plotnick assembled a lengthy acting resume and eventually added writing, directing and producing credits. Meanwhile, Rudetsky's eccentric and hilarious personality, combined with an extensive knowledge of musical theatre, led to his becoming one of New York theatre most popular personalities, as a music director, cabaret talk show host, Emmy-nominated comedy writer for "The Rosie O'Donnell Show" and Sirius/XM Satellite Radio host.

"It's not that I wanted to write a musical," Rudetsky says of DISASTER!. "I wanted to write this. I always wanted to write a disaster movie as a musical and I always wanted to put in certain songs."

He names the 1975 hit single "Mr. Jaws" as an inspiration. The record was one of numerous comedy singles by comedian Dickie Goodman, who would narrate three-minute stories using quick cuts from hit songs as punchlines. In DISASTER!, inspired by the 1970s disaster movie genre, full performances of hit songs of the decade are used as punch lines.

Plotnick learned about writing musicals from a Carnegie Mellon teacher, Charlie Willard, a former Broadway stage manager.

"From him I learned the form of musical theatre. The elements in the machinery that make a hit show like THE MUSIC MAN as opposed to one that doesn't have an engine that runs. He would call THE MUSIC MAN the Cadillac of musical books. I was obsessed with that class and so it was a natural progression that we would write all of these comedy shows, many of which included musical bits, to say let's actually do a musical."

On the other hand, Rudetsky says, "I'm not big on taking classes. When I wrote my first novel, I just wrote it. And I would bounce it off of people as I was writing it. As far as writing DISASTER! goes, I was just writing what I thought was interesting. Jack helped me with the form because he gave me the feel of disaster movies, which was a bunch of disparaging people get together and the disaster brings them closer and they grow from each other. Jack made me understand that. I love an image he gave me that said in the second act you put your ingénue in a tree and then you shoot at her."

When it came to creating the story, the pair simply went where the characters took them.

"The image that I give," says Rudetsky, "is that you're on the 10th floor of a building and there's all this empty space in front of you and then you put a brick down and you step on it. And then you put another brick down and you step on that. So as you're writing that show you don't really know what's going to happen. It's weird. You just keep putting these bricks down and you keep going forward."

"We started with the disaster," he continues, "and then we thought, there's always a nun. So we put a nun in and there's always an ingénue so we wrote an ingénue. I wanted to be in it so since there's always a specific expert on whatever the disaster of the movie is, we just made me the disaster expert."

Jennifer Simard in DISASTER!
(Photo: Jeremy Daniel)

"It wasn't until we were halfway through that we realized none of these characters were capable of expressing love, but the disaster teaches them how to love. That became the theme. We started writing because it was fun and enjoyable but we didn't know what the theme was going to be until we were halfway through. It was like in FIDDLER ON THE ROOF, where they wrote the show and then they wrote the opening number 'Tradition.'"

"That's how Seth and I write,' says Plotnick. "We don't worry about what other people will think and we don't copy what other people are doing. We like what we think is entertaining and we move in that direction. We figure if we enjoy it then other people will as well. We have a very similar sense of humor but we each have our own individual strengths that balance each other out very well. I keep more of a lookout for form and then Seth is this whirling dervish of incredible comedic ideas and situations. Often I would say, I feel in my gut that I think this song belongs in the show and then he'll say he needs to think about it and then come back with, 'Oh my God, do you know what we can do with this!' It's an instinctual thing that we've been doing for years. A lot of the joy of doing this was the opportunity to reconnect with Seth again."

Of course, constructing a score from a decade's worth of hit songs was a challenging task.

"Some of the songs are in the show because they're the most popular songs of the decade," Plotnick explains," and others are in the show because they were the answer to a question or that we needed a song to convey something specific.

"I definitely wanted 'Hot Stuff' to be in the show but I didn't know the title was going to have that triple meaning until we started writing it," adds Rudetsky. That became a theme of the show. Taking these lyrics and spinning them.

One example is the ballad "Feelings." After Plotnick suggested it be used for a particular moment, Rudetsky figured out how to twist part of the lyric into a pun that gets a big laugh.

It's interesting to note that the two songs most associated with disaster movies, "The Morning After" from "The Poseidon Adventure" and "We May Never Love Like This Again" from "The Towering Inferno," both Oscar winners recorded by Maureen McGovern, didn't make the cut.

"They're from disaster movies, so where's the joke? Where's the spin?," explains Rudetsky.

"We never saw the show as an actual parody of those 70s movies," adds Plotnick. "It's a homage. We never wanted to have a show where anyone would have had to have seen any of those movies to enjoy it. We wanted to make sure that the humor didn't come from a wink."

When asked if the pair might consider creating another musical, Plotnick answers, "We just follow our artistic drive. I never thought I'd be a screenwriter and a director but we go where the inspiration takes us."

Coming to Broadway, come hell or high water is the new musical comedy Disaster!. Earthquakes, tidal waves, infernos and rampant wildlife can't stop an outrageous cast of characters from dancing, gambling and singing the night away aboard New York's first floating casino and discothèque. Disaster! features some of the most memorable pop, rock and disco hits of the 1970s, including "Hot Stuff," "I Am Woman," "Knock On Wood," "Daybreak" and more.

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