Loved it or not, The Wild Party was one of the most buzzed about limited engagements this summer. When Andrew Lippa was approached to revive the show in NYC as part of Encores! Off-Center, he got to work on "a lot" of rewrites. The opening number, "Queenie Was a Blonde," with lyrics pulled directly from the poem that inspired the musical, was cut and replaced with a completely re-imagined beginning. Material was altered for the show's headliner, Sutton Foster, including a new closing number titled "A Happy Ending." And, the show was tightened and re-envisioned by director Leigh Silverman.
New York City was all abuzz about the show's changes, since the musical has since become a cult classic following its 2000 engagement Off-Broadway with Manhattan Theatre Club that starred Julia Murney, Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel and Brian d'Arcy James. So, we catch up with Lippa a month later to talk about what inspired the re-writes. Why make the risky move of altering a work that has become a popular title among musical theatre fans? After 15 years, and numerous productions, fans of the musical know the show by heart, and few would have said the show was in need of a makeover. Why now?
I loved finally getting to see The Wild Party. You made significant changes to the piece, and audiences were very responsive — one way or the other, but still excited to see that the piece was alive. You completely revamped the beginning of the show. What was the driving force behind doing something completely new with this?
Andrew Lippa: Part of it was about the nature of the presentation — the idea of how things are done at Encores! And, it's also about how the conversations [of what will] happen and what actually happens are sometimes different, meaning they're meant to be "staged musicals in concert," [where] the orchestra is onstage and people have the books in their hands, and there's minimal choreography. [But] then, of course, what happens is everybody gets so excited and eager to do all of the prep work and learn as much as they can, and we have the greatest singing actors alive, so they just jump in, and they learn tons of stuff, and it ends up looking like a full production.
Sutton Foster and Steven Pasquale Have a Wild Party at City Center! See the First Production Shots
It's fantastic how that happens, but at the beginning, the genesis of the conversation with [director] Leigh Silverman and [Off-Center artistic director] Jeanine Tesori — we talked about: Were there things that I had seen or experienced in the past 15 years since the Manhattan Theatre Club production that excited me, or that I wanted to try, or things that I wanted to look at — things that I wanted to change? And, I said, "Yeah, I've seen a few productions around the world, and I've seen productions in America, and it seems like a wonderful opportunity." It seems like stating the obvious, but I'm alive, and I'm a thinking, breathing, living thing, who has an opinion about the [show] I made 15 years ago. So I wanted to see, if we did this, what would that do to the piece? How would people perceive these characters if we changed this and if we moved this around? So, it seemed like a really good opportunity to go back to work, which is what I love to do. Sitting there and watching the finished product, how do you think that it went over? What is your reflection on the changes that were made to The Wild Party?
AL: When I conceived The Wild Party, I conceived it as something that never stopped moving. It was always about choreography; it was inspired greatly by Dreamgirls and my experience of Dreamgirls when I saw it when I was 17 — how it never seemed to stop moving, and it always seemed to be very cinematic… There were these giant light trusses that moved all around the stage, and suddenly you were upstage, suddenly you were downstage, suddenly you were backstage. It was just this fantastic sleight of hand that Michael Bennett had achieved so seemingly effortlessly. So, when I wrote The Wild Party, I wanted it to dance. The original production harnesses that in a way that the [production] we did at Encores! is slightly different. I love the fact that I got to experiment and that I got to see a new way of looking at the characters. I think the ending is more powerful the way we did it at Encores!, and I'm hoping to include that in the licensable version of the show — this new song I wrote called "A Happy Ending." That song was one of the big things, for me 15 years later… I was different; you learn a lot in 15 years. If you're lucky and you're paying attention, you hope that you grow and change and learn and try to get better — not only getting better as a writer, I'm talking about getting better as a human being. So, when I get to the end of this story, and I see what happened to this woman, the original ending has an impact, but as a 50 year old, I see what happens to this young woman, and I see it differently now. I'm happy that she makes a choice not to take the easy way — that she recognizes that she has to take some responsibility for her life and for her actions. I really was very excited by the new ending of the show.
Speaking of licensing, what is going to be the licensable version?
AL: You know, the original production is very powerful and very successful. Every time I see it, it does what I've always wanted it to do, and so I believe that's the one we're going to keep making available to people. The challenge of making any changes in the licensing version of a show is that if you don't have an accompanying recording, it's difficult to encourage people to do your production. And, at the moment, we don't have plans to record the production from Encores!, so if anyone out there is reading this and wants to record The Wild Party, give me a call! [Laughs.]
You had such an amazing cast — those voices! Seeing Steven Pasquale do "What Is It About Her?" was pretty breathtaking…
AL: I wish I could talk about Steve in someone else's show because it seems so self-serving to talk about him in mine, but I don't know of anybody in our generation of people who can do what Steve Pasquale can do. I was blown away by Steve in Bridges of Madison County; I thought he was just extraordinary when he got to "It All Fades Away," the end of that musical it just took my… I couldn't; it was so overwhelming. It's a gorgeous song. To hear "What Is It About Her?" sung like that is just… He's a unique presence, and again, I'm very careful about… I want to praise the actors who did it, but I also, 15 years ago, got to work with those four principles who've gone on to incredible success. They, too, from the original cast, were every bit as powerful, so I can't believe how lucky I am 15 years later to have Sutton [Foster] and Steve and Brandon [Victor Dixon] and Joaquina [Kalukango]. I don't know if you'd ever seen Joaquina before… She was amazing, she was new to me, and Idina Menzel is the one who laid down the template of that part. Joaquina just fearlessly jumped into it and said — you could see the subtext — "I'm gonna make this part mine; I'm gonna do my thing." And, she did.
She is completely different from Idina Menzel. They're just two totally different types of performers. Did you encourage her and say, "Go for it! Go and make it your own"? Her Kate was very different than any Kate I've heard or seen before.
AL: She brought that into the room. I mean, there's no time in these settings to have those kinds of conversations. We go so fast putting the show up, that it's just like, "No, that's a C-sharp not a C-natural," and Leigh Silverman — I've never seen a director so in control and so powerful and so completely aware of everything all at once so quickly. Leigh was so profoundly exciting in the room every second we were there, and I'm sure she talked to the actors to help them find their characters. One of my favorite stories I tell young actors is the story about [Idina Menzel's audition].
Young actors, when they ask me [if they] should sing material by the composer or lyricist if that person is in the room, my answer is always: Idina Menzel, when we asked her in 1999 to sing from the score, she came in and sang "Life of the Party." And, much of what Idina sings in "Life of the Party" sort of laid down the template for the song. [The notes she sings] aren't always exactly the pitches I wrote down on the page. Sometimes it is, and sometimes she riffed and made her own thing, and it was as if the subtext was, "Thank you for this fantastic song. Now I'm going to do it the way I want to do it, and I'm going to show you this is how I do it." Because she's Idina Menzel, and she's so incredibly gifted, she made the hair on the back of our necks stand up, and she brought "The Life of the Party" [to] pretty much the way you hear it on the recording. I've never given a standing ovation at an audition before, but I remember all of the creative people stood up and applauded, and it was just that extraordinary. And, I think Joaquina, in her way, did the same thing. She just brought this energy into the room and said, "Okay, I get it. I know what this is supposed to be, and this is me inhabiting the [song]," And, in fact, it was that way with all of the actors. They just were so wedded to the score and to the story: Sutton, in particular, who just brought this incredible authority into the room every time she was there… Not authority meaning, "I've been in a lot of Broadway shows, get out of my way" authority; it was the sense of, "I am grown up. I am a woman. I understand what this is about," and she was in no hurry. The thing about her performance that really chilled me was that she was so measured, and she just took her time with everything. It had this great accumulation…this great cumulative effect that, by the time she got to the end of the play, she was so moving that I was so with her. It was an amazing week in my life.
Speaking of Sutton Foster, tell me about adapting and changing material for her. Were you changing material specifically for Sutton? Why cut "Queenie Was a Blonde" and "Out of the Blue" and make a different beginning and make a different ending? What was the inspiration behind it?
AL: You know, working with the finest singing actors in the world — which I always have to pinch myself that I get to work with these extraordinary people — I see myself as the tailor, quite literally. The suit's made particularly in this situation. It's an old suit, and the suit is made, and now they're putting on the suit or the dress, and my job is to say, "Oh, I just need to take it in a little here, and I just need to tuck it a little here," and, "Oh, that hem should be just a tiny bit shorter." So, that is how you make sure that a song fits the actor perfectly. I don't care about keys… I care about keys in relation to [other] keys in the show — I care about key relationships, just because I care about how the music interacts with itself, but I don't care about whether anyone sings it in the key that anyone else has sung it before. There's no virtue in singing it in the same key; this isn't the opera. Even in opera, there are examples of tenors and sopranos who take it down a half step, so it's just a question of what tells the story best and how it fits them best. Sutton's energy is Sutton's energy, so I wanted to harness that energy in relation to the piece. Whatever was going to work best for Sutton was going to work best for The Wild Party, and that's how I approach everything I make.
Also, tell me about the reason behind cutting the character of Jackie. We didn't really get to see "Jackie's Last Dance"…
AL: Part of that was about time. We don't have a lot of time to do choreography in the Encores! setting and, believe it or not, as much choreography as gets done, there could have been a lot more, so it's a question of how much time you get for the musical. We were curious to try what happened in that show where we didn't take a pause. The idea behind "Jackie's Last Dance" was that there's a bit of a pause, and we wanted to see what would happen if we took that out.
I kept on thinking, "I want to see even more of this on a Broadway stage, with" like you said, "blown-out choreography." What's up next for The Wild Party?
AL: Nothing I can announce. The exciting part about the whole experience at Encores! was that it was akin to a rock concert or music event where people come knowing the material, and the music started, and people started screaming. It's the kind of thing that happens when you go see your favorite band, and that was incredibly exciting and very much an only-in-New York kind of experience that you every once in a while get to see. There's a lot of support for the show and excitement for the show and for this cast, and getting a show from one place to another is a big, long process, so we're in conversations about what the show could be. So many people have expressed support and excitement for it and a desire to see it again, so we'll see if we can make that happen. And, if not, it was an absolutely exquisite week. We sold out — like 14,000 tickets in five days — and it was a major success on its own terms. I'm just thrilled that people want to revisit the work, and if we don't transfer anywhere, I hope that in 15 years, when I'm 65, we'll do it again with a new group of people. And, whoever's running Encores! then, I hope they're listening now.
(Playbill.com features manager Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)