Backstage: Seeing Double Diana Ross

Al Watson

Want to get behind the scenes for upcoming theater events? Frank Rizzo’s column will be a hotline to the major players behind the leading shows each month — along with insider info about hits yet to come.

Just as the touring company of Broadway’s Motown: The Musical is leaving The Bushnell in Hartford at the end of March, Diana Ross arrives April 3. I wondered if Allison Semmes, who plays an uncanny Ms. Ross in the touring production, is going to be leaving a note in the dressing room for the divine one? “I have been portraying her for almost two years and I have been blessed to meet and been embraced by every living Motown legend from Stevie Wonder to Smokey Robinson,” she says. But, so far, no Ms. R, who has been mum about how she is presented in the show. “I must admit a part of my heart is broken that I haven’t met her yet, but I’ve come to peace with it,” says Semmes. Sometimes you just can’t hurry love.

Feeling Wicked?

Stephen Schwartz — the composer of the Broadway smashes Wicked, Pippin and Godspell — will have a spotlight of his own when he takes the stage at the Ridgefield Playhouse (not far from his Litchfield County home), performing songs from his shows with a group of Broadway pals and sharing some backstage tidbits. But what about the green-lit Wicked movie? Schwartz tells me he is working with Winnie Holzman on “the overall film structure, on which Holtzman will base her screenplay. I do think there will be a couple of new songs.” Schwartz is also writing music and lyrics for a new show, Schikaneder, which opens in Vienna in September. Also on tap is a stage adaptation of the film Prince of Egypt and a new musical movie with composer Alan Menken. Who do you want to see starring in the role of Elphaba? Email me at or tweet me @ShowRiz.

Founding Daddy

Was the father of our country gay? After all, the good general loved to be surrounded by handsome men in crisp uniforms. That’s what Larry Kramer asserts in The American People: Volume 1: Search for My Heart: A Novel. I remember talking with Kramer years ago and the gay activist (founder of GMHC, ACT-UP), author (Faggots), screenwriter (Women in Love) and playwright (The Normal Heart) was deep into his opus — at that time, already 20 years in the writing. He told me he wasn’t sure if he would finish the epic work before, well, you know, his own final chapter. But last year the book finally came out, and Kramer is still here and hard at work on the book’s Part Two. He will no doubt be speaking ever boldly at Hartford’s Mark Twain House & Museum on April 16 at 7 p.m. And yes, he asserts Mark Twain was gay, too.

Do you think I’m sexy?

When David Harris starred as Jean Valjean last year in UConn’s Nutmeg Summer Series production of Les Miserables in Concert, the Aussie hunk elicited many a swooning sigh from audiences, singing “Bring Him Home.” (There were quite a few in the audience who wanted to do just that.) Now he’s starring in the Goodspeed Opera House’s Anything Goes, in a role that isn’t particularly famous for its sexual heat. But Harris may change all that. Witness a shot of Harris showing his washboard abs to an admiring Betty Buckley, which is making the Facebook rounds. “She’s a hoot,” says Harris of Buckley, with whom he worked Down Under. As for his Instagram-friendly physique, Harris, who is now based in New York City, says he’s always been a healthy guy. “The gym is my church,” he says. Amen to that. The show runs April 8 to June 16.

And more sex appeal

How does a director cast actors when the main ingredient is sexual combustibility? That’s what faced Rob Ruggiero for Sex With Strangers, a play he is staging at Hartford’s TheaterWorks, now playing through April 17. Ruggiero first cast Patrick Ball as half of the strangers-with-benefits couple and then watched how Ball responded to auditions with other actresses. When it came time for Courtney Rackley to try out, “there was something special there,” says Ruggiero. Ball confided to the director, “She’s so the kind of girl I would hit on.” Bingo!

Behind the curtain

There was much to-do when it was announced that screenwriter-playwright Aaron Sorkin (Steve Jobs, The Social Network) would pen a new stage adaptation of To Kill a Mockingbird, based on the beloved book by the late Harper Lee. But overlooked was the fact that Pulitzer Prize- and Oscar-winning writer Horton Foote, very quietly, penned for Hartford Stage an uncredited adaptation in place of the not-very-good stage version that Lee originally OK’d just for schools, which over the decades made its way onto regional stages. The 2009 Hartford production starred Matthew Modine. Foote, who would have been 100 last month (he died in Hartford in 2009) won an Oscar for his elegant screenplay. Foote fans will no doubt keep careful watch to see that nothing from the screenplay — which featured elements not found in the book — is used in the new Broadway-bound production.

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts+entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned, with nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.

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Frank Rizzo has covered the arts-entertainment scene in Connecticut since disco reigned in the ’70s, including nearly 34 years writing for The Hartford Courant. Email him at Follow him on Twitter @ShowRiz.