"I’m so happy," Mandy Patinkin says. "Happy to be in New York. Back on Broadway, where I belong."
Patinkin, a 1980 Tony winner for Evita and a nominee for Sunday in the Park With George, is starring as Burrs, a vaudeville clown with a heart of lead, in The Wild Party at the Virginia Theatre. It is this quintessential New York artist’s first time in a Broadway musical since Falsettos in 1993; in the meantime, in Los Angeles, he won an Emmy for portraying Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on “Chicago Hope.”
"I've been away for a long time," Patinkin says. “I do concerts, but I haven't done a musical. It’s like trying to learn how to walk all over again."
The Wild Party is based on a 1928 poem of the same name in syncopated rhyming couplets, a tragic tribute to jazz-age Manhattan written by Joseph Moncure March, the original managing editor of The New Yorker. It co-stars Toni Collette, the mother in "The Sixth Sense," and Eartha Kitt, who first appeared on Broadway in New Faces of 1952. The music and lyrics are by Michael John LaChiusa, composer of this season’s Marie Christine; the director is George C. Wolfe, the head of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater. The musical tells of a dancer named Queenie: "Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still," the poem begins, "and she danced twice a day in vaudeville." Queenie (portrayed by Collette) and Burrs, her angry lover, have a bitter quarrel, then decide to throw a party, where she meets another man. The party overflows with sex, violence and, eventually, murder.
Another musical version of The Wild Party, with music by Andrew Lippa and starring Taye Diggs, opened in February Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club. It was the first time anyone could remember two new musicals based on the same material and with the same title opening in New York in the same season.
"Completely different artists, sensibilities and belief systems are involved,” says Wolfe, a two-time Tony winner for Angels in America and Bring in ’Da Noise, Bring in ’Da Funk. "So they're not going to be the same show. It's a fascinating case study of how different collaborations and visions respond to the same material."
Wolfe says that the Public Theater commissioned LaChiusa to do a musical, and that the composer’s choice of The Wild Party turned out to be perfect for the director.
"I am a huge fan of the 1920’s, particularly in New York City," he says. "It was an incredibly complicated time, when black and white cultures were freely colliding, exchanging ideas, exploring and stealing from one another. Jazz began to dominate the world, not only as a musical form but as an energy force. I’m intrigued with what happens when cultures and identities collide. It can be exhilarating or incredibly explosive."
Wolfe says the poem deals with an idea that has long interested him: "that all of us cultivate weapons to survive, and at some point in our lives those weapons stand in the way of our growth."
LaChiusa, whose credits include the 1994 musical Hello Again, says he was attracted to the poem in part because he wanted to write in the jazz style of the twenties. "I've always had a fondness for the Duke Ellington Cotton Club recordings of 1928 and '29,” he says.
A line from the poem describing Queenie particularly grabbed him: "Her face was a tinted mask of snow." "The words leapt out at me," LaChiusa says. "I wondered what was beneath the mask. I wanted to know who she was, what propelled her to become who she was and what propels all of us to wear masks. The wild party itself is not just a party. It’s a metaphor for our day-to-day existence."
Patinkin says that his character, Burrs, "is a very jealous guy — but he knows that if there was once love, it can continue to grow, even after a drought. His way of articulating it, though, is pathetic. He tries to tell Queenie that he may have done things wrong, but he’s the best guy she can find."
Every time Burrs tries to tell her this, however, Patinkin says, "he messes up. It’s only when he is performing that he can express what he truly feels. He doesn’t stop trying, which is to his credit. But fate doesn’t deal him a kind hand."
Collette, a native of Australia making her Broadway debut, says that Queenie is "open-minded and closed-hearted. She’s a party girl, always seeking affection, but nothing ever touches her soul. Then she meets somebody who opens up something in her, and at the end, instead of dancing on the tables, she’s questioning what she’s doing with her life."
Kitt, at 73 still a sultry song stylist, is back on Broadway for the first time since winning a Tony nomination in 1978 for Timbuktu! She plays Dolores, a key party guest.
"Dolores is Queenie’s adviser," Kitt says. "She likes Queenie. She sees how self-destructive Queenie is and doesn’t want her to waste her time in this behavior. She says to Queenie, 'You remind me of a lot of girls I used to dance with. They were going to spread their wings and fly. Instead they spread their legs and vanished.'"
For LaChiusa, The Wild Party has given him a chance to compose music very different from the operatic sensibilities of Marie Christine, his updated version of Medea.
"When I write, I lose myself in the characters. They take over, and the music becomes what they want. In The Wild Party, the characters are all performers, and they lust for applause. So you have to give them numbers that will demand applause from the audience.”
Given the track record of the show’s stars and creators, applause is what they are sure to get.