Manhattan Theatre Club's ongoing developmental rehearsals for Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party has some major vocalists and rising talents involved.
Technically dubbed a "musical development project," per Actors' Equity, the Wild Party-goers through mid-May include Marin Mazzie (Ragtime), Kristin Chenoweth (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown), James Barbour (Beauty and the Beast), Alix Korey (Triumph of Love), Elizabeth Parkinson (Fosse) and Sara Ramirez (The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm), among others.
Ramirez, Parkinson and Chenoweth are all 1999 Outer Critics Circle nominees for performances their current shows.
The composer-lyricist-librettist Lippa, who wrote john & jen and new tunes for the current Broadway revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, draws his latest work from a 1927 narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March. The project was scheduled for April 12-May 24.
Gabriel Barre directs and Mark Dendy choreographs. Also in the musical development company are: Kevin Anthony, Luther Creek (Rent), Robin Irwin (Titanic), Lawrence Keigwin, Bill Kocis, Michael McElroy (Rent), Allison Munn (The Fantasticks), Bill Nolte, Steven Ochoa, Jason Paige, William Ryall (High Society) and Dennis Stowe.
The developmental project is one of many sponsored by New York City's major nonprofit theatre companies, and does not guarantee a future production by the sponsor theatre.
After Lippa’s Off-Broadway musical, john & jen, was up and running in 1995, Lippa faced one of the great and daunting challenges for a musical theatre writer: Finding source material for a new musical.
Lippa, 34, told Playbill On-Line (Feb. 1) he came across March’s narrative poem while wandering through Barnes & Noble poetry section, searching for a story to musicalize. He’d never heard of March’s piece, and did not know the 1975 James Ivory film version of it starring James Coco and Raquel Welch.
“The spine stuck out at me, and I read it, drooling in the aisle,” said Lippa, who saw musical possibilities in it. “It’s a show business story, a dark tale of love gone very wrong.”
Best of all, Lippa discovered that March’s dark yarn about a raucous show business party was in public domain, meaning the copyright had lapsed or not been renewed, which meant he did not need to pay a royalty or get permission to change or adapt the work.
The poem, he said, reads like a script, with a clearly delineated story. Lippa, 34, is writing book, music and lyrics, and said he has created some of his own characters for the story.
He said the story’s focus is a “love quadrangle” with vaudeville performers who are “very two-bit.” The party, thrown by down-and-out characters, happens in real time. They “throw a party rather than kill each other,” he said.
But, he added, “it ends very violently.”
Is there hope? Do any of his characters find “happiness,” the word that is the metaphor of Charlie Brown.
“We’ll see...” said Lippa. “It’s a parable: Beware how much you party.”
Lippa said he’s been witness to certain destructive party behavior in New York City circles and drew on his eyewitness experience of “lack of good judgment” and the constant, mindless “desire to party.”
Lippa’s version is not set in Hollywood, as the film was, but somewhere in the Midwest -- “like St. Louis,” where itinerant vaudevillians may have found themselves stranded.
How much does Lippa know about he LaChiusa project?
“I don’t like to hear about it, I like to focus on what we’re doing,” he said, adding that he and LaChiusa are acquaintances.
Lippa’s Wild Party had previous readings by MTC and the O’Neill Theatre Center in 1997 and then MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow OK’d the workshop.
Lippa isn’t only attracted to dark subjects: He contributed three new tunes to the Broadway revival of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, which opened at the Ambassador Theatre Feb 4.
“The experience has been blessed, so rare and so beautiful,” he admitted. “I did know a couple of the songs as a kid, ‘Happiness’ and ‘Suppertime’...I music-directed it years ago.”
Lippa, who was raised in the Detroit area, also produced the Charlie Brown cast album for RCA/Victor and also scored a new 20 minute theme park musical for Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.
The recorded-voice character show is in Universal’s ’Toon Lagoon, and Lippa wrote for characters such as Betty Boop, Popeye and Bullwinkle, working with classic voice actors June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and others.
The MTC test of the mostly sung-through, in-progress Lippa musical is one of two “parties” aborning: The Public Theater is developing a Michael John LaChiusa musical drawn from the same source material by poet March. The Public held its Wild Party workshop Feb. 15-26 with Vanessa Williams, Mandy Patinkin and Eartha Kitt among the performers.
A full Public production of the work, with a libretto and direction by George C. Wolfe, was planned for February 1999, but due to availability of performers, has been bumped to the 1999-2000 season.
Also in last month's Public workshop-reading cast were Keith David (Jelly's Last Jam), Debbie Shapiro Gravitte (Jerome Robbins' Broadway), Jane Summerhays (Lend Me a Tenor, Me and My Girl) and an ensemble of nine.
Choreographer Joey McKneely (The Life) was also present during the workshop, which culminated in a Feb. 26 reading.
Still on board, as previously announced, are scenic designer Robin Wagner (The Life, City of Angels, Angels in America), lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Ragtime) and costume designer Toni Leslie-James (Footloose, Jelly's Last Jam, Angels in America).