Seth Sykes gets happy (with a little help from Judy)
Overalls, a tractor, and a 1991 Radio City recording … Seth Sikes was smitten!
The way he tells it (and he tells it well, musically, to a packed house), he was this cute farm kid growing in Paris, Texas, wondering what the future might hold, when a dark-haired, overall-wearing girl-next-door drove a tractor right into his heart.
One burst of “Howdy neighbor, happy harvest” and he was hooked. Smitten. Summer Stock Judy Garland had won Seth Sikes’ heart and, in the process, changed his life forever.
“I just have this memory of how amazing I thought it was to see her driving around singing this big, fabulous song. It just made me so happy, I don’t know why.
“Then in one scene, she does this number Get Happy, which is such a great song and she’s dancing, and I guess it was really the first time I’d been exposed to old-fashioned showbiz like that.”
The farm. The voice. The spark. And a slight similarity to his grandmother. “She was somebody you just wanted to hang around with,” he says. He was obsessed.
Seth could sing too. Everyone knew it. But it wasn’t until he was in high school and someone told him about this business called musical theater that he connected the dots, moved to Manhattan, and signed up for musical theater school. Cue jazzhands.
The rest should have been history. But he found the process of auditioning so excruciating – “and I was so bad at it” – that he slipped out of the spotlight and moved backstage instead, working as assistant director on shows such as The Nance, Tribes, and Pageant, avoiding the pain of exposure in auditions. Life was simpler that way.
He describes himself as a “poor Hell’s Kitchen boy” (he’s lived in the neighborhood for 12 years, though even when he lived in Astoria for his first couple of years in NY, he always came over for “fun or dinner”). He hangs out at the Galaxy Diner “more often than I should – you see so many showbiz people there, having meetings, it’s sort of the staple”, Wine Escape (“I go there to read”), Kashkaval Garden, Vice Versa, Arriba Arriba, and works out at Planet Fitness. So far, so comfortable. But he was feeling burnt out by the rehearsal process, and the siren call of Judy still beckoned. For his was a love affair not just with the singer, but with the songs. So when his heart was broken, he’d be singing The Man That Got Away. Or if he need to get pumped up before a show, it’d be a fun, uptempo number.
“I was missing singing so much,” he says, “that I was filling the void by going to piano bars and singing around the piano with people all night long. And I mean, like, every night of the week.”
More than that … people seemed to like what he did. They REALLY liked it. So, maybe he should do something about it?
“I was shopping around for a full-time job in the industry (I still am by the way) and lightning sort of struck because, as I was talking to a producer about taking a job, he said: ‘You’re really conflicted. You need to think about what you want to do.’
It was supposed to be one-night only. This crazy thing he did to get it out of his system. But it sold out. Word spread. He had fun. Word spread some more. And it became six shows.
“I happened to say this out loud in front of the right friend one day: ‘Before I make this change in my life and take a full-time job, there’s this thing I really want to do.’ He said: ‘What is it?’ and I said: ‘I really want to do a concert with a big band and do these Judy Garland songs, and write a show about it.’
“He said: ‘OK, I’ll back it.’”
Within two months he not only had a backer, he had a venue – Feinstein’s/54 Below – a band, and a show. He told his story, singing the songs from his heart, not as an impersonator but in good, old-fashioned cabaret style. It was supposed to be one-night only. This crazy thing he did to get it out of his system. But it sold out. Word spread. He had fun. Word spread some more. And it became six shows.
Then he pulled the plug just as the crowds and the critics were clamoring for more. Why, Seth, why?
“Well,” he explains, “back at home, we had Summer Stock, and Wizard of Oz, and this other movie, For Me and My Gal. That was it – that was all the Judy stuff I knew. But we also had, weirdly, this VHS of Liza Minnelli at Radio City in 1991. So one time, I don’t know why – I was probably just bored – I watched Liza at Radio City and it really knocked me off my seat. I’d never seen a live performance like that. So Liza became my new obsession for quite a number of years.”
And so, after six sell-out Judy shows, it seemed timely to mark Liza’s 70th birthday – on March 12 – in style. “It’s going to be fun for my next show, which is going to be all Liza on March 12, to say: ‘OK, so you know how I said I loved Judy first? It was kind of a fib …’”
QUICK FIRE ROUND
Backstage or spotlight?
Cabaret or theater?
Glam Judy or tomboy Judy?
I’ll go glam.
Cocktail or smoothie?
NY summer or NY winter?
Citibike or subway?
Love of your life?
Fire Island, on the beach; or singing songs on the piano with friends.
Clubbing or cosy night in?
Cosy night in.
Showgirls the movie.
This interview originally appeared in the February 2016 issue of W42ST magazine. Stay in touch with W42ST and be first to read stories like this when you receive our daily newsletter. Join the conversation at w42st.com.