Disaster!, the new musical featuring 1970s hits with a book by Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, is the stuff of comedians’ dreams. The musical, which is playing at off-Broadway’s St. Luke’s Theater, pokes fun at 1970s disaster films with the flair and timing that could only be pulled off by a fantastic creative team. Every possible disaster movie trope makes its way into the show, while the cast balances the book’s wacky humor with a big dose of heart. Haven Burton plays Marianne, an independent woman whose world is rocked when she runs into someone from her past in the midst of crisis. Haven is no stranger to the stage and has made her mark in shows like Rent, Shrek and Legally Blonde the musical. She took a few minutes between belting at the St. Luke’s and raising a toddler with husband Denny Paschall to chat about backstage antics, working with Seth Rudetsky, and 70s pop hits.
SDD: Want to tell me a little bit about how you got involved with the show?
HB: Seth had emailed me and asked if I was available for the run, and if I was interested in meeting with him. I said “yeah, of course!” So I met with him and originally read for the part of Jackie. He came back and told me that he loved me but I was a little too young for the part and he would like to have me come in for Marianne. So I came in and auditioned for Marianne, but I didn’t really understand that it was an audition, because it was just an interview with him at first. So I came into this room of producers and a musical director and he asked me to bring my book. Then it was in the theatre space, and so I had to do this audition onstage and they said “do you have a headshot and resume?” I was like “nope, I didn’t know this was an audition!” So I did an audition piece for him that he later recorded for his Obsessed! videos on Playbill. Then they had me come back to do a callback and I read with a couple of other people. I read with Jonah (Verdon), who plays Lisa and Ben, and I read with Matt Farcher who plays Chad, and then got the offer a couple days later. I was very excited and have just been rehearsing and doing previews and then opening and it’s been really, really fun.
SDD: What has it been like to rehearse with songs that are already very well-known?
HB: It’s so funny because to be very, very honest, the song that I sing in the show is “I Am Woman,” and that’s the one that I always used to make fun of at karaoke. So it wasn’t a song that I was particularly fond of. But I’ve grown to really, really love it and they’ve done such a great job at arranging it and giving it a lot of power at the end and I’ve got a big finish. I get to sing it with Jonah who plays a little boy and a little girl. It was really fun.
SDD: Jonah’s role is so funny!
HB: Yeah, it’s hilarious. It’s such a great gag and Jonah’s wonderful. I had a really wonderful time creating the scene with him and changing all the music and fitting it in. I think that a lot of people, if they are familiar with the songs, start to predict what’s coming but it’s in a way that they’re like “Oh no, they’re not really gonna do this song are they? – oh no, they’re doing it!” and it’s been great. The rehearsal process was really, really short. We only rehearsed for something like twelve days and then had our first performance in front of an audience. So that was a very new experience for me, but really fun. Everyone’s in the same position and we’re working with a lot of pros here, so given that amount of time we still were able to put up a pretty great show!
SDD: Has it been fun working with Seth?
HB: I love him, he’s terrific. He’s a musical genius. Watching him work and being able to be onstage with him is just a real treat. He’s crazy and neurotic and talented and works a mile a minute. It’s hard to keep up with his brain sometimes but he’s a genius. He’s fantastic. It’s been a great opportunity to work with him and get to know him and his family and they’re wonderful, generous loving people, and it’s been really great.
SDD: Is there a big 70’s hit that you wish had made it into the show but didn’t?
HB: I think one of the biggest comments that we get from some of the audience members is that they want the “The Morning After” from The Poseidon Adventure. They always assume that that’s going to be what we’re closing with. So that’s one that I’ve heard a lot, but they cover such a vast amount of songs, it’s hard to tell. And they’re all so fun and surprising. I don’t know, maybe some fun Gary Puckett songs – “Girl, You’ll Be A Woman Soon” or something like that maybe would’ve been fun.
SDD: What is it like to do a show with such heavy physical comedy?
HB: It’s a lot of fun. We have expert comedians in the cast, so it’s always fun to watch other people’s process. For myself, I love doing comedies and have been able to do a couple of physical comedies myself. I did Legally Blonde and Shrek and those are comedies. I played comedic heroines before and it’s really, really fun. It’s also very challenging because you walk a very fine line of being dead serious and also playing to a genre and working amongst clowns. So it’s like working seriously amongst absurdity, and that can be fun and also very challenging, but in a show like Disaster!, I’ve never been in a show that the audience is laughing from start to finish. Like, every single night. Even at a Wednesday matinee, which is a hard audience. And that’s very rewarding. We’re in it for the attention, and when you get attention and laughs it’s very rewarding.
SDD: On that note, does being in such an intimate space as opposed to a giant Broadway theatre make a difference?
HB: I think so. I think a show like Disaster! really lends itself to being in an intimate space and to being kind of gritty and raw with funky props. You force the audience to use their imagination as opposed to doing a lot of spectacle – that would take away from a lot of the humor, you know? All of these old movies, or even B horror films, have a cult following because of the ridiculousness of the special effects and the cheapness of props and stuff. Our show is the perfect example of absurd B horror props.
SDD: Does the humorous nature of the show make for a funny atmosphere backstage?
HB: Well, St. Luke’s Theatre is connected to St. Luke’s Church. St. Luke’s Church runs a soup kitchen on Tuesdays. The soup kitchen is backstage. So lot of my cast mates’ quick changes are next to an oven. So the environment lends itself to being kind of silly because there aren’t enough chairs for all of us backstage. None of the other shows in that space have as big of a cast as we have, so it’s not really designed to have that many people getting ready, but it’s a lot of fun. At intermission we’re all giving ourselves black eyes and split lips and cut arms and things like that, and that’s funny. And the space is so tight that there’s just a lot of juggling and running around each other and not falling off the stage. But it’s a blast.
SDD: If you could choose one thing for audience members to take away from the show, what would it be?
HB: I think obviously just having a nice time. To be able to forget your problems at the show is great, but there are also so many characters to relate to and the show does really have a lot of heart at the same time. And listen, it’s a comedy, I think what we want audiences to go home feeling is that they had a really great time. That they were entertained and that they had a great time.
SDD: Stage or screen?
SDD: Do you have a favorite word?
HB: Pineapple. Isn’t it so pretty?
SDD: What is your current obsession?
HB: Right now I’m into the Christmas spirit – I’ll say hot apple cider.
SDD: What is the last great show that you saw onstage?
HB: Oh, that’s easy! Last night I went to the opening night of Billy Crystal’s 700 Sundays, and it was the most remarkable thing I’ve seen in ages. That man is a genius and it’s just so amazing. If you have an opportunity to see it, you need to see it.
SDD: Who is the last person who made you feel starstruck?
HB: Last night, Elvis Costello was sitting like four rows in front of me. So, Elvis Costello makes me feel starstruck.
SDD: Which Broadway star would you most want to get a drink with?
HB: Sutton, she’s a friend of mine and I just love her. We have a lovely time when we get together. Sutton Foster.
SDD: Describe yourself in five words or less.
HB: Zany, goofy, blonde, bouncy, and clumsy. We just have so much fun. We’re just messing around and having a good time, and this is my favorite show that I’ve ever done.