While Broadway waits for Batman: The Musical to be penned by Jim Steinman and David Ives, Off-Off-Broadway has already arrived with a comic-strip-based musical -- albeit one far removed from masked superheroes and catwomen. Instead, The Carbon Copy Building is a dark but bemused look at the lonely, eccentric and fringe-dwelling denizens of nighttime in New York City.
Drawn -- literally -- from a Ben Katchor comic strip published in Metropolis magazine, the piece looks at both sides of the urban experience, from the wealthy and weird to the old and forgotten. Hundreds of drawings have been appropriated for this "comic book opera," which features music by Michael Gordon, David Lang and Julia Wolfe, founders of the experimental musical festival "Bang On A Can."
Bob McGrath, co-founder of OOB's Ridge Theatre, directs The Carbon Copy Building. Most recently, McGrath staged Charlie in the House of Rue at MA's American Repertory Theatre. Founded in 1987, The Ridge Theatre has received acclaim and numerous awards for their experimental opera/theatre productions. The work, a conglomerate mix of contemporary opera and musical theatre, uses projections, film and scrims in its storytelling.
Officially opening Sept. 30, Building had one preview (Sept. 29) and runs to Oct. 9 at the Kitchen, 512 West 19th Street. The plot hinges on a messenger delivering a package from one building to another.
Those seeking a glimpse of a lost, haunted and very particular old New York are probably familiar with the comic strips of cartoonist Katchor, whose work has appeared in the Jewish Daily Forward and New York Press ("Julius Knipl: Real Estate Photographer"). Katchor tried to capture the essence of late-night diners, moody janitors, scheming geniuses in one room, cold water flats, old men with harmless but puzzling fetishes -- a weird, chiaroscuro look at the Manhattan no one sees in its day-to-day traffic. It's a perspective he recently brought to the full-length graphic novel, "The Jew of New York," which interweaves a half-dozen different stories - one of them theatrical -- in and around 1830s New York City. As for the construction of Building, in a New York Press interview (Sept. 29), the cartoonist explained the show's title: "We learn about two buildings that were sort of a phenomenon in architecture -- the carbon copy. One building is put up using the exact plans of an earlier building. And they've both led different lives. That gets set up, and then a delivery gets made between the two."
Led by music director Martin Goldray, singers in The Carbon Copy Building include Tony Boutte, Theo Bleckman, Ketie Geissinger and Toby Twining.
In the show, Katchor told Playbill On-Line, "All the images are front and rear projected drawings of mine. It's two-dimensional but stereoscopic in view. Too many adaptations of comics try to build sets and make them feel like the real-world instead of remaining two dimensional. Here you can keep the two dimensional feeling but have a space where human beings can walk around."
Asked about the collaborative process, Katchor said, "It's all my words, literally taken from my strips. Very little was edited out; it's almost verbatim what I handed them... [The score] is not songs with rhymes in it; the text wasn't restructured to "make songs" like they do in musicals. This is my text set to music. Some are silent moments, where the words are projected and you read them. Also, every word sung is projected. I know a problem in musical theatre is you can't hear half the words. This is all very much spelled out...you can read along."
Continued Katchor, "There are a few perfect moments that feel exactly what my strip feels like to me, musically. If you have a few of those moments, what more can you ask for? Other moments don't quite. It gets out of synch, musically, theatrically, narratively. But when it's working, it's great, and I like the music, it feels right for the strip. I think my readers will have a non-theatrical view of this. They'll look at it as the realization of the strip as another medium."
This feeds into Katchor's hesitations about typical musical theatre. "When I was a kid and in college," he told PBOL, "it was a period where I saw everything on Broadway. But since them I've been seeing more film. Or I listen to musicals and operas on records. I find the contemporary performances disappointing; they're not up to what you imagine. For example, when they do Gilbert & Sullivan, the actors aren't funny enough, so eventually you stop looking and enjoy the music. Which is what you can do when you listen to records."
No recording plans are imminent for The Carbon Copy Building, though Katchor notes there are attempts to set up a European and/or U.S. tour of the show. "That's up to the interest of other presenters," he said.
For tickets ($15-$20) and information on The Carbon Copy Building call (212) 255-5793.
-- By David Lefkowitz