‘Elf: The Musical’ conductor Jeff Rizzo.
by Donalevan Maines
One of Jeff Rizzo’s favorite things about working in theater is the company he keeps. So spending Thanksgiving and most of December in Houston is a holiday treat for the out musical director and composer from California, whose ninth job in the Bayou City is Elf: The Musical, this month at the Hobby Center.
The production reunites him with his Theatre Under the Stars (TUTS) friends whom he counts as colleagues along with celebrities such as Glenn Close in Sunset Boulevard, Roseanne Barr in The Wizard of Oz, and singer Fantasia (who vied for the part of Effie in the movie Dreamgirls).
“When a movie star is in a show, their movie-star friends come, so Glenn Close had a lot of friends come backstage: Barbra Streisand, Diana Ross, Michael Eisner, who was at Disney then, Regis Philbin,” says Rizzo, recalling the 1993–94 pre-Broadway run of Andrew Lloyd Weber’s musical of the 1950 film classic Sunset Boulevard in Los Angeles.
“Meryl Streep would come between shows and bring her daughters and Glenn’s daughter, and they would play onstage, which they weren’t supposed to do.”
Meanwhile, in London, Patti LuPone had premiered the Norma Desmond role and was looking forward to hitting Broadway when Lloyd Weber decided that Close should star on the Great White Way. LuPone sued for breach of contract, placing Rizzo in the midst of “a lot of machinations.”
“I never had to testify,” he says.
Nor did he get pulled into the squabble over the composer’s decision to drop plans for Faye Dunaway to replace Close in the L.A. production.
Rizzo, who was prepping Dunaway for the role, says, “I felt really bad for her. She had not sung a lot. She could sing, but I think she had a lot of trepidation. She was taking voice lessons several hours a day.
“One day, I told her I thought [some of the music should be in a different key] for her, and when I heard that they weren’t going to do that, my antennas went up,” he says. When L.A. ticket sales did not meet expectations, the producers decided to close that production and concentrate on Broadway.
(In 1995, the musical won seven Tony Awards, including Best Musical and Best Actress for Close, although in both instances there was only one other nominee. Dunaway was consoled with a 1994 Emmy Award as outstanding guest actress in a drama series for an episode of TV’s Columbo. Jubilantly accepting her trophy in the telecast from Pasadena Civic Auditorium, Dunaway gushed, “I’m here to tell you: this town has a heart.” To which David Letterman quipped, “Is she talking about Hollywood, or is she talking about Pasadena?” LuPone settled her lawsuit for a seven-figure sum that more than paid for “The Andrew Lloyd Webber Memorial Pool” addition to her home in Connecticut, which she described in her 2010 memoir.)
Rizzo was born in Utica, New York, where he lived until his family moved to Sacramento, California, when he was eleven. “It was culture shock,” he says. “Utica is a small, old, cute little town. At school we wore slacks, nice dress shirts, sweaters. In Sacramento, everybody wore blue jeans. I didn’t even own a pair of jeans!”
Sacramento also had profes-
sional summer stock, where Rizzo appeared in the musical Oliver! and first heard the word “homo.”
“Kids were talking about the boy dancers or someone in the ensemble—I don’t know,” he says. “I asked them what homo meant, and they explained it to me. I thought, ‘Uh-oh.’ It had never crossed my mind ’til that moment.”
Then, between his junior and senior years in high school, says Rizzo, “Again, doing theater . . . a guy helping with costumes—he was my first, and we were together for eleven years. We were high school sweethearts. We bought a house together. We broke up when we were in our late twenties. A year later, I met my current partner, Eric Andrist. I guess I’m a relationship person.”
The couple celebrates their thirty-first anniversary this month as Rizzo raises the baton on Elf in Houston. Andrist is staying home in Valley Village, California, to take care of their three dogs. “It’s akin to staying home to take care of kids,” says Rizzo. “I’ve spent many Thanksgivings on shows in Houston, but [TUTS musicals] close the Sunday before Christmas, God love them, so I go have Christmas at home.”
The November–December slot at TUTS is Rizzo’s favorite time to enjoy Houston. “When they put us up near the Galleria, I drive back through the River Oaks area and see all the lights and decorations. It’s very Christmas-y with no cold weather, and it’s not hot and humid. If it snows, it doesn’t stick. It’s like old home week, and I love the barbecue and Shipley’s donuts and kolaches. They don’t have those in California.”
Andrist was an assistant stage manager on a production of Annie in San Bernardino, California, when the couple met. Now he’s a mobile notary whose services include such things as certifying voters, taking fingerprints, and registering people for marriage licenses.
However, a wedding isn’t high on the couple’s priority list, says Rizzo. “After thirty-one years, we’re ‘pretty committed,’ we’re not going anywhere. If we do [decide to get married], it will be for legal or financial reasons,” he explains. “The part of town we live in is the nice part of north Hollywood, but it’s surprising the number of gay couples and lesbians. We look around and say, ‘When did our neighborhood become the Mecca?’”
Esther Williams once lived in a house nearby that has a swimming pool in the front yard, while Kirk Alyn, the first actor to play Superman on screen, once owned the couple’s home, along with his wife, deadpan comedy actress Virginia O’Brien. Ever the movie buff, Rizzo remembers O’Brien, who appeared in Thousands Cheer with Mickey Rooney. Rizzo worked with Rooney and Eartha Kitt on a cast album for The Wizard of Oz that was nominated for a Grammy Award.
In another production of The Wizard of Oz, Rizzo recalls how Roseanne Barr, as the Wicked Witch of the West, would “melt” into the orchestra pit by descending on what they called “the witch-evator,” about ten minutes before the end of each performance. “They put out a lot of pillows and a television for her, and she stayed below until the curtain call,” he explains. “One night I heard a whirring sound, so I asked what that was. It was a blender. They would make her a daiquiri and she would watch television. When she would go back up for her curtain call, she always looked very happy.”
As the audition pianist for the 2006 movie Dreamgirls, Rizzo says he saw a number of actors, including Blair Underwood and Terrence Howard. He also helped gay activist Rory O’Malley land the role of Dave, who performs the song “Cadillac Car.” “We just called the character ‘White Cadillac Car,’” says Rizzo, describing him as a Pat Boone type who covers a rhythm-and-blues song and makes it a hit. “Rory came in and was going to sing a Rodgers and Hart song, but I said, ‘Geez, Rory, don’t you have something more R&B?’” So when O’Malley (who was later nominated for a Tony Award as closeted Elder McKinley in The Book of Mormon) agreed to sing Otis Redding’s “(Sittin’ On) The Dock of the Bay,” Rizzo persuaded him to sing it “real white” by properly pronouncing sitting, for example. “He did it exactly as I suggested. It was great. He got the part,” says Rizzo. “A casting director told me that I got him that part. I don’t think I did, but I was involved in that way.”
Elf: The Musical is based on the 2003 movie starring Will Ferrell as an oversized elf orphan who was raised in Santa’s workshop at the North Pole. When he embarks on a journey to New York City to find his birth father, he helps everyone rediscover the true meaning of Christmas.
What: Elf: The Musical, presented by TUTS
When: December 6–22
Where: The Hobby Center
Tickets/info: Tickets (starting at $24) available at online at tuts.com, by phone at 713/558-TUTS (8887), or at the TUTS box office, 800 Bagby at Walker.
Donalevan Maines also writes about Dr. John Hudson in this issue of OutSmart magazine.