Comedy Icon Rita Rudner Returns
to the Boards in New Musical, Two’s a Crowd
By: Ellis Nassour
July 19, 2019 — Dancer, singer, actress, New York Times best-selling author, Vegas top-draw headliner, TV and film star, playwright, and, above all else, one of our top comedy icon Rita Rudner returns to the New York stage after a much-too-long absence (40 years) in the new musical comedy Two’s a Crowd, which she co-wrote with husband Martin Bergman, who’s directs.
Rudner describes it as a “light–hearted musical comedy that’s a perfect summer confection” runs through August 25 at 59E59 Theatres. Music and lyrics are by L.A.-based Brit Jason Feddy.
“They say opposites attract,” says Rudner, notable as one of our top comediennes and, in a rarity for a U.S. comic, has quite a U.K. following, of her uptight Wendy and co-star Robert Yacko (L.A.: Ma Rainey’s Black Bottom, The Price)’s freewheeling Tom, “but theyhaven’t met yet. They’re forced together by a computer error, ruminating on the happiness they gave up on long ago and doing their best to ruin their Vegas vacation. The bright lights of the Strip convince them to take a chance on happiness.”
Also co-starring are Kelly Holden Bashar (FX’s Fargo), and Brian Lohmann.
Rita Rudner, in her mid-60s, was born in Miami. She informed her father and step-mother she was moving to New York to study ballet and pursue a career as a Broadway dancer. She was 15. Rudner did a number of special classes to graduate high school early. “You do what you have to do to go where you want to go!” she notes.
“My path was quite different. Mom died when I was very young. Dad’s wife wasn’t fond of me. He was ambivalent. Oddly, he was an attorney, but one who didn’t like confrontations. He sided with her on just about everything. I was uncomfortable. It was a bad scene. When I told them, he said, ‘Okay. Go to New York.’ He said he’d support me until I got a job, and that I could always come home. I lived in the Barbizon Hotel for Women on East 63rd Street [now a condominium], studied ballet, jazz, and tap and made the rounds.”
As Rudner segued into her new career, was the family experience fodder for her stand-up? “No. It wasn’t funny. I couldn’t make that funny! In my act, I always made my parents happily married for a lot of years, but driving each other crazy.” She also proved that “clean” comedy didn’t have to be boring.
Rita Rudner has quiet a musical background and a background in musicals. She appeared in them on Broadway for 10 years. At 17, her first job was a 1970 Zorba tour, starring Chita Rivera, John Raitt, and Barbara Baxley. Six shows followed: Promises, Promises (1968), Follies (1971), The Magic Show (1974), Mack and Mabel (1974), So Long 174th Street (1976), and in 1980, joining Annie as Lily St. Regis.
And now, Rita Rudner’s back in New York with Two’s a Crowd. “With the spate of jukebox musicals, Martin and I wanted to do something all original with Jason. With so many shows being aimed at youth, and as much as I adore young people [the couple have an adopted daughter, now 17, and working in theater], we also wanted to do something an older audience could enjoy.” The show gives Rudner an opportunity to dance again.
“A little!” she says quickly. “59E59 is not the biggest of stages, so I won’t be doing any triple grand pirouettes and grande jetés.”
As far as her daily dance routines, the 5’ 4 ½” dynamo says, “I’m still quite limber and a good stretcher, but unlike the good old days, I don’t do any power kicks. My calling card, my gimmick, when I auditioned was doing a kick above my head, sometime kicking myself. I always got the job.”
It was while she was appearing in Annie that Rudner was drawn to New York’s comedy clubs. “I’d been quite blessed working in musicals for ten years, but it got to the point where I stood in the wings, Number 67 or something, waiting for my turn. I’d hear the most fabulous singers and they didn’t get hired. You had to have the right look, the right size, be the right age. I was taking acting lessons, but I knew I’d never be a great actress. And I didn’t love it. You have to love it. I loved dance, but I’d been doing that since age four. I decided to go for comedy because women’s stand-up was a much less competitive field then (the 80s).”
Rudner is asked, “Were you funny?” She blurts, “No! I had to learn how to become funny. I applied the same learning techniques I did as a dancer to comedy. I spent hours studying recordings by Jack Benny, Woody Allen, Bob Newhart, and Gracie Allen analyzing how their comedy was constructed.
“But I bombed,” she adds. “Audiences were laughing between my jokes not at them. I had to learn to be myself, to make what I was saying funny rather than doing a joke, a joke, a joke.”
Eventually Rudner developed a kooky, neurotic, and slightly vapid kind of stand-up. It wasn’t long before she was up there with her comedienne idols Joan Rivers, Phyllis Diller, and Totie Fields and endearing herself to late night audiences on The Tonight Show with Johnny Carson and Late Night with David Letterman.
In 1984 Rudner met Bergman, a British producer and writer, and began collaborating professionally as well as personally. They wed five years later.
The movie Peter’s Friends, starring Kenneth Branagh, Stephen Fry and Hugh Laurie (then, the comedy team Fry & Laurie), Imelda Staunton, and Emma Thompson, was their first produced script. It won London’s 1992 Evening Standard Peter Sellers Award for Comedy and Thompson captured a Best Actress Award. Here, it was nominated for Best Original Script by the Writers’ Guild.
The couple created 1996’s popular cult favorite A Weekend in the Country, about New York strangers meeting under unusual circumstances in California wine country. It starred Faith Ford, Christine Lahti, Jack Lemon, Richard Lewis, Dudley Moore, Rudner, and Betty White. It marked Bergman’s directing debut.
Bergman produced tours for the Bolshoi, Royal Shakespeare Company, Moscow Circus, and skaters Torvill & Dean as well as Rudner’s 2003 syndicated Vegas series Ask Rita, which also featured Two’s a Crowd’s Bashar.
It was at Laguna Playhouse where the couple created their first play, from Rudner’s book Tickled Pink: A Comic Novel. Other plays followed here and in the U.K. “We wanted to bring something to New York,” says Rudner. “We decided with my background in musicals, ‘Let’s do a musical.’ And that’s how Two’s a Crowd was hatched.”
She says being directed by her husband isn’t always such a pleasant experience: “It can get a little dicey because he’s always so polite to the rest of the cast. However, when it comes to me, it’s ‘Rita, do this, do that, put a little bit more emphasis on that.’ Sometimes, I want to say, ‘Pretend you don’t know me.’ That aside, he has a good sense of comedy, and I immensely respect him.”
Rudner has performed throughout the U.S. and had sell-out tours of Australia and England. She’s filled Carnegie Hall three times and the huge Universal Amphitheatre in L.A. twice.
Her first solo HBO special, Rita Rudner’s One Night Stand, was nominated for several awards, as was her BBC TV show which later appeared on A&E. Specials, such as Born to Be Mild and Married without Children, were ratings blockbusters. Her 2018 Rita Rudner: A Tale of Two Dresses can be streamed on Amazon Prime.
She was a perennial favorite on the Vegas strip, playing the M-G-M Grand, Harrah’s, and the Venetian. When Rudner became the hottest ticket in town, M-G-M built her a 450-seat room at sister property New York New York. Her witty one-liners helped make her the longest-running solo show in Strip history. She received the 2017 Casino Entertainment Legend Award.
“Las Vegas is constantly changing. Every ten years, it seems to reinvent itself. It had its headliner, ‘What happens in Vegas,’ Cirque du Soleil, and family fun paradise phases. Now, it’s a nightclub town. Instead of performer names on the marquees, it’s DJ Diplo, Scoobie, Yellow Claw, Deadmau, Marshmello. They’re the big deal.”
However, it is her kind of town. “But as exciting as it is and as much as we love Vegas,” she states, “when it gets too hot, we head to Laguna Beach.” Her comedy act and New Year’s Eve shows are huge draws at Laguna Playhouse.
Rudner co-wrote the 2001 and 2003 Oscars with longtime friend Steve Martin. One of her greatest honors was headlining with Bette Midler, Clint Holmes, and Sheryl Crow performing for President Barak Obama at Caesars Palace’s Colosseum at 2009’s Vegas fund-raiser for Senator Harry Reid.
In addition to Tickled Pink, her semi-autobiographical tale about a dancer who moves to New York to find success and turns to comedy, this princess of punch lines leashed her deadpan wit on four more books, including I Still Have It…I Just Can’t Remember Where I Put It, Rita Rudner’s Guide to Men, and the best-seller Naked Beneath My Clothes: Tales of a Revealing Nature, a collection of stories “about men, women, childbirth, plastic surgery, and life before remote control.”
Tickets for Two’s a Crowd, 85 minutes, no intermission, and produced by Impro Theatre in association with the Bergman’s Ritmar Productions, are $25 – $70 ($49 for 59E59 members). Visit the 59E50 box office, online at www.59e59.org, or call (646) 892-7999.