A Broadway songwriter and an L.A. punk may sound like strange bedfellows, especially once they're joined by the rocker's BDSM (Bondage, Dominance, Sadomasochism) mistress. But this month, Jeff Marx of Avenue Q, Fat Mike (A.K.A. Michael John Burkett) of NOFX, and professional dominatrix Goddess Soma premiere their collaboration Home Street Home for audiences at Z Space, right in San Francisco's Mission District.
Marx's last partnership was more a traditional Broadway collaboration with lyricist and composer Robert Lopez, but that ended with him departing from The Book of Mormon while it was mid-development. When he's asked about that split, Marx shrugs, "I'm not sure what to say about that. After we wrote a big chunk of Book of Mormon, we parted ways. I went out looking for other stuff, something bold."
His search would lead him to this street-savvy drama about teen runaways dabbling in drug abuse and prostitution as they form a surrogate family. But he had to leave Broadway and New York altogether, first to California and then to its storied punk scene. To help put this unexpected endpoint into context, Marx discussed his career as he grabbed a meal in between notes with Home Street Home's director, Richard Israel, and the show's second preview.
He helpfully describes his earlier work, on Avenue Q, as "born out of a lot of fighting to make it better, but it always came to butting heads. There was a lot of compromise and almost coming to blows, a lot of yelling — Jeff Whitty storming out and taking a cigarette break." However, Marx demurs from specifics about Book of Mormon, saying only that it was a case of "too many cooks in the kitchen." But his decade in the limelight had its upbeat moments too. Between Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, Marx and Lopez wrote a musical number for an episode of the TV sitcom "Scrubs," which involved a trip to L.A. (and later an Emmy nomination). He sets the scene: "I rented a Mustang convertible, and started driving around with sunglasses and my shirt off. It was a very enjoyable lifestyle and I ended up staying out there to visit my sisters. I stayed a little longer, and a little longer, and before I knew it, I had a boyfriend. And dogs!"
Marx sounds like a man who's found ease and well-being in the California sun. This impression partly comes from his dabbling in the ordinary activities of creative artists on the West Coast — he brushes off a stalled TV show and mentions a solo album in progress. "I had a song on 'Glee' last year, and a song that won the International Songwriting Competition this year called 'The Hustler Store' in the comedy category. It's a little bit embarrassing that I entered a songwriting competition. But I thought 'Why not?' It was fun!" This tongue-in-cheek ballad, about a gentrifying sex store on Sunset Boulevard, seems to acknowledge his adoption of L.A.
It was at a party he threw for the touring cast of Avenue Q that he found that bold project he was looking for. "I invited all my new L.A. friends, and a friend of a friend brought Fat Mike and Goddess Soma. They were only people there who were dressed in latex and leather and tattoos and piercings and bright red hair — he had a mohawk. I thought, 'Who are these people?' They were fascinating and they were lovely."
He continues, "I had never heard of NOFX, and Mike just said, 'I'm a punk musician.' So I said 'Really, so do you do gigs and albums?' He was like, 'No I've had a career for 30 years and I own a label and I've sold six million records.' Then the mohawked singer came out as a fan of Avenue Q, explaining to the songsmith how "Everyone's a Little Bit Racist" is actually a punk song, at least in spirit.
"And then he said, strangely, at the end of their concert, they play the recording of the cast album and pantomime to each other, 'I'm not racist, you're racist!' It's weird — you can see it on YouTube. He told me it's a punk mentality, and it goes with the punk aesthetic to just act it out from the recording. I thought, 'Great! I don't get it, but I'm glad you're having fun with it!'"
With that punk homage to a subversive showtune, Marx and Mike found they shared a common sensibility. And it wasn't a surprise to hear that a punk/BDSM enthusiast would enjoy The Rocky Horror Picture Show and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. But while Marx's tastes are more orthodox—"I like Seth Rudetsky on the Broadway Sirius channel. I love Sondheim and I love A Chorus Line. I love Rodgers and Hammerstein." He bonded with Mike over a passion for the Fab Four: "We both think music starts and ends with the Beatles and everything outside the Beatles is second-level."
This shared enthusiasm sparked their collaboration. Mike confided that he'd been working on a musical with his partner; Marx asked to hear a few songs. He was floored by the songwriting and storytelling: "It was just so real, so devastating, and also so tuneful. And I thought, 'If the rest of the score is like this, this could be fantastic.'" He also loved the raw authenticity of the nascent musical's book, which Goddess Soma had based on her teenaged experiences of living on the street. Energized by what he heard, Marx offered to help in any way. At first he provided pointers as an informal sort of dramaturg, then he began to introduce Mike and Soma to creative managers and producers. By the time Home Street Home received workshops at the Academy for New Musical Theatre, feedback from the B.M.I. Workshop, and even a residency at the O'Neill Theater Center, Marx had stepped into a more active role on the piece.
But Marx sees that as a perfect marriage of two worlds. As he explained, "It's just like Rent and Spring Awakening, to some extent American Idiot and Hedwig too. But American Idiot was putting an album on stage and putting a story on top of it. This is cut from whole-cloth like a musical, it's all geared to telling the story."
The comparison to American Idiot is apt, since Green Day came out of the same era of California punk as NOFX. But where that band courted popular success, Fat Mike and his bandmates consciously rejected the music industry. Similarly, in conceiving of a musical, Marx explains that Fat Mike "wanted to create something that's not necessarily going to be loved by everybody but really adored by some people, like Rocky Horror and Hedwig."
Now Marx, Mike and Soma are taking the show before a public audience for the first time. Marx says that it can be difficult to explain to his friends and colleagues in show business. Being frank, Marx admits that before he'd met Mike and Soma, he'd seen kink as little more than a punchline or maybe a Halloween costume. But California has mellowed him, by bringing him into contact with a diversity of lifestyles. "It's really neat to be exposed to a segment of society that wasn't part of my world at all. I've come to see what's beautiful about it and what we can all be enriched by."
"Both of them have lived on the streets. The show is about that, about teenagers forming a street family of runaways and prostitutes and drug abusers. It's got great integrity and authenticity." Before heading back to the theatre for the show's second performance, Marx concludes, "It's been an amazing, beautiful collaboration and I'm insanely proud of what we've created."
Visit homestreethomeonstage.com for more information.