Rachelle, Tituss, and Antonio
BY DAVID NOH | Rachelle Rak, the ultimate Broadway gypsy in a plethora of shows, ironically emerged as the star of a movie in which she played a definite loser. “Every Little Step,” about the making of the 2006 revival of “A Chorus Line,” devastatingly showed Rak losing the perfect-for-her role of Sheila — though, as she said, “I would never mark in an audition if I had a friend sitting behind the table, or anyone!” The heartbreak she experienced was a definitive show biz portrait, and now — glory be! — she actually gets to play Sheila in the current Paper Mill Playhouse production of that show (Wed.-Sun. through Oct. 28, Millburn, NJ; papermill.org).
“When I think back,” Rak said, “I realize that there’s no time in your life when it’s your turn. I had started to actually believe the hype, ‘I amSheila! But you know, it’s not just talent that keeps you in the business, it’s endurance, being able to pick up your bag and your face and walk out of an audition when they didn’t call your name, and chachapu to the next audition.
“The film built up that final day in a dramatic way, but I had told [casting director] Jay Binder weeks before that I did not want to leave the Broadhurst Theater without an answer. I think after eight months, giving every drop of talent, an actor deserves some sort of respect and dignity, not just wait at home by the phone. You have to have some sort of value of yourself to say, ‘This is what I need,’ and this is something that we don’t have the opportunity to do enough, always at the mercy of ‘Do you like me?’”
The film is particularly frustrating when Rak is told to do what she did at her very first audition — and her inability to recall just what that was defeats her.
“I remember wearing a mesh peach top and trunks and I was bringing something to the character on Day One that they loved. Months went on and they asked me to wear a leotard, change subtle things. Those little changes take away that initial thing they thought was so great, which ultimately wasn’t any better. It was just different. When you’re with a director, like the brilliant Jack O’Brien, who’s specific like, ‘Too emotional, have more of a sense of a humor,’ that’s helpful without telling you exactly how to do it. But to say, ‘Do it like you did last night’ is the most absurd thing I’ve ever heard in my life.
“I never thought I would play Sheila. No one called and gave me this part. When they asked me to audition, my husband said, ‘You really wanna open that up again?’ Now I’m so glad I went back and faced that. I went in, read the part, sang a little bit of ‘At the Ballet,’ and danced my butt off like everyone else. There wasn’t anybody from the senior dance division like me, no one I knew, just a lot of young people.”
After the film, Rak stepped away from show business, a hard time during which she wasn’t being cast.
“My energy changed, maybe it was insecurity and hurt. Then I saw the movie ‘The Yes Man’ and, corny as it sounds, I decided to say yes to everything. I worked free for a year — benefits, concerts, choreographing. I met Daniel Robinson and he said, ‘Sas, you have no idea how you affected the young dance community when you did ‘Fosse,’ which changed their lives. Let’s just pick a song and shoot a video, something creative.’
“I became unstuck, started to write songs and do music videos for nothing. I did ‘Sessions’ in a small theater, the first time I ever got to do a monologue and play a character, and remembered why I do this.”
Rak has also been an integral part of the annual “Broadway Bares” benefit and cites her “life-changing” moment: “I played Amelia Earhart in my first lead strip, and at the 9:30 show, I was standing on three guys with my arms in the air in pasties and a g-string. I came down from the lift and put a scarf around me and realized that I’m only wearing one pastie. Instead of covering up, I ripped the other pastie off me and threw it into the audience. Since then, I’ve never stopped being a part of it in some capacity, and I would do anything for [“Bares” creator/ choreographer] Jerry Mitchell.”
Coming up for Rak, who also performed in the wonderful, important “Heat Wave: The Jack Cole Project,” are workshops of the shows “Pippin” and “Flashdance.”
“I saw that film when I was 14, and now I am a proud Equity member for 25 years. If anyone had told me I would be in that show, set in Pittsburgh, where I’m from, that I’d still be around, forget about it. Dreams do come true!”
Jack Cole taught dance to Gwen Verdon, another important person for Rak. Cast in the ensemble of “Fosse” (1999), Rak was always standing in the corner, trying to soak up the choreographic style. She gradually moved up from the chorus to featured dancer.
“When I had to understudy for the ‘I Gotcha’ number, Gwen asked me [a perfect imitation of Verdon’s quavering voice]: ‘Ra-a-ak, did you get the notes for “Gotcha”? No? Oh, I want you to do a big hip roll and slap the floor!’
“I’m a nervous wreck backstage. I do the number and the dance captain said, ‘Would you like to get your notes from Gwen? Well, she was sitting in the sound booth, singing along with you, and she turned to me and said, “She is great! One hundred percent trash!”’”
Rak was married last year to financial trader Danny Hoey.
“I have a stepson and moved out of Hell’s Kitchen to a house in Jersey we bought in January. We met at the Starbucks on Ninth Avenue! He always makes fun of me, ‘Do we have to talk about you again? Don’t you wanna come and watch mework for a change?”
Tituss Burgess also met his boyfriend in the nabe,in the coveted window seat at my favorite, the Ninth Avenue Saloon, one of the few civilized gay bars where you can actually have a conversation and not be reduced to a screaming maniac over house music.
“He’s Latino and not in show business, thank God,” Burgess told me. “He didn’t even know what I had done.”
The latest thing Burgess, a Broadway veteran of “The Little Mermaid” and “Guys and Dolls,” has done is his self-produced CD “Comfortable,” which features his gorgeous voice.
“I wrote the whole thing,” he said, “except for one live track, ‘For All We Know.’ I originally came to New York to be an R&B singer-songwriter. I got an agent and, because of this competition I won, suddenly found myself on Broadway.
“After ‘Guys and Dolls’ closed, I honestly did not want to get another Broadway show. I had had enough of making other people’s work look and sound better, if I may be so bold. Every song here is autobiographical. The title track, ‘Comfortable,’ is about my desire to be in this city, being not what the industry calls mainstream, and the profound courage it takes to say, ‘I’m gonna do it anyway.’ Also, to go on the dating scene without maybe having a 29-inch waist. There’s so much more to human beings than that.
“‘I’ll Be All Right’ I wrote after a series of dates with someone that got really intense really fast and then died down. I won’t say his name, but it shook me so hard, I had a little breakdown. I choose to lead a life where I put the spiritual side on display, so I don’t find myself among people who don’t value the energetic and spiritual compositions that make up human beings.”
Burgess’ efforts are both welcome and rare, especially for gay men, who have rarely had one of our own speak for us in song, making do with female singers, from Judy to Whitney to Gaga, speak for us emotionally.
“Yes, who’s doing it, apart from Frank Ocean, who just came out and is truly wonderful? I want to be a voice for my brothers and sisters who are trying to get it right, maybe wanting to lead lives with the dog and kids because our culture is so heavily associated with partying and its downside.
“We do know what love is, experience the same pheromonal, deep-seated yearning as heterosexuals. It’s probably even more intense because we’ve been forbidden for so long that it’s not just desire for another person but for a connection. There’s strength in numbers, so when someone understands you, it’s more intense — and when someone tosses you away, the pain is even greater. If you don’t have a strong spiritual base of some sort, you will go spiraling out of control real fast.”
Burgess’ beautiful voice recalls Luther Vandross, who was never able to fully come out.
“Bless his soul. I read his autobiography shortly after he passed and it was sad — he all but says it. I don’t want to live like that, and we don’t have to. We aren’t just the icing on the cake for heterosexuals to party and laugh with, we arethe cake. More of us need to write about the human part of LGBT experiences to truly bridge the gap.
“If I had had an out Luther Vandross to look up to when I was a little girl in the South, coming up, I think things woulda turned out differently. I recently got an email from a young man who said, ‘I’ve been following your career.’ I’m only 33 and thought, ‘How dare you?’ [Laughs.] But he said he saw me as a little kid in ‘The Wiz’ in La Jolla, where I did the Cowardly Lion as representative of the LGBT community. It was a conscious decision which [director] Des McAnuff allowed me to make. Little did I know that it would start this thing with the audience and ‘Be a Lion’ become something of an anthem.”
Burgess pursues both his musical and spiritual sides with regular attendance at Middle Collegiate Church (112 Second Ave. at E. Seventh St.), where he just gave a live streaming concert of his new gospel album “Welcome.” Give it, as well as “Comfortable,” a listen, and know what it is to be truly lifted (tinyurl.com/8khnrw6 ).
The Suzanne Geiss Company (through Oct. 20, Tue.-Sat., noon-6 p.m., 76 Grand St, btwn. Wooster & Greene Sts.; suzannegeiss.com) has a ravishing exhibit of the fashion art of Antonio Lopez (1943-87), whose death from AIDS left this world a drearier, less glamorous place. In the 1970s and ‘80s style mavens eagerly awaited his brilliant illustrations in newspapers and magazines that depicted an exotically populated peacock world with superb Boldini-esque élan. Unique, fabulously caparisoned beauties like Grace Jones, Pat Cleveland, Tina Chow, Jerry Hall, and Jessica Lange were his muses, and they are all gloriously on display, along with red-hot Latino stud portraits and Polaroids of an achingly young, sexy bear named Karl Lagerfeld.