Medea, The Musical; Tragedy, San Francisco Way

Medea, The Musical; Tragedy, San Francisco Way The idea of a musical version of Euripedes' Medea, a Greek drama about an abandoned princess who seeks revenge on her unfaithful husband by killing their kids, seems tragic in and of itself. However, the response to John Fisher's farcical satire, Medea, the Musical, has been anything but tragic. Sold out houses have forced the hit to continually extend it's San Francisco run, moving from venue to venue for over a year.
EROS (Shayna Samuels - left) and APHRODITE (Jane Paik), two goddesses of love from Medea, The Musical
EROS (Shayna Samuels - left) and APHRODITE (Jane Paik), two goddesses of love from Medea, The Musical (Photo by Photo by Pat Johnson)

The idea of a musical version of Euripedes' Medea, a Greek drama about an abandoned princess who seeks revenge on her unfaithful husband by killing their kids, seems tragic in and of itself. However, the response to John Fisher's farcical satire, Medea, the Musical, has been anything but tragic. Sold out houses have forced the hit to continually extend it's San Francisco run, moving from venue to venue for over a year.

Performed by Sassymouth, a troupe of dexterous actors who worked previously with Fisher at Berkeley University, the play has received unanimously great reviews. Not only did the play receive the SF Chronicles highest rating; a graphic that depicts a "Jumping-Clapping Man," but the local production was reviewed in Variety, whose Dennis Harvey remarked "this show juggles play-within-play camp parody, smart romantic comedy and sheer silliness with seductive ease." The show received six 1995 Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle Awards, including "Best Musical Production."

Medea, the Musical doesn't exactly follow Euripedes' plot. In fact, the play within a play begins with a rehearsal of Medea, the Musical, a gay interpretation of the classic for a Euripedes Festival. The lead actor's gay portrayal of Jason infuriates the feminist actress playing Medea, claiming it's too "homosexist and misogynistic." Surprisingly, the gay actor and feminist actress fall in love, and their new off-stage relationship changes their onstage interpretations. The director and the rest of the cast are furious and arguments persist, while the lead actress and her new partner petition to avoid having Medea commit the central action of the play, the highly 'un-feminist' act of killing her children. All the while, rehearsals of scenes and musical numbers continue.

The show's ending features, a la Noises Off, the onstage, opening night catastrophe of Medea, the Musical. All of the songs in the show are lyrics re-written to 70's pop numbers, which according to playwright/director/actor/producer Fisher are "essentially the refuse of American music, the schmaltziest and most tired of pop tunes that we re-vamped to make fun of them."

One example is Barry Manilow's gold single "Copacabana", whose title is replaced with "Aphrodite," a comic dirge about the shows lovelorn Greek characters such as Phaedra and Hippolotus. A line from the "Solid Gold" like choreographed number goes, "The power of Venus /enlarges the penis." Other spoofs include "I Will Survive," "Misty," and Gershwin's "Of Thee I Sing." The reported hilarity, the surprises, the performances, the subject matter and the characters are all contributions to this theatrical sensation, that wins over audiences who have never even heard of the famous Greek tragedy. Fisher admits, "I just assumed that everyone had heard of Medea, but people actually pronounce it Media the Musical...(I've heard every pronunciation)... We sometimes have this weird experience the first 15 minutes of the show, when the audience sits there and stares, and there's this weird silence. They always get it eventually and by the end they're really into it. I don't think it's what there used to seeing, but they make the adjustment."

Bay area audiences have been catching on to Fisher's work for a few years now. The 32 year-old multi-talent first attracted attention while attending the theatre graduate program at University of Berkeley, where he fought the pretention of the "haughty taughty classics attitude" by adapting the highly revered classics into musicals, such as Cleopatra, the Musical (a drag musical) and Orestia, the Musical.

According to Fisher, when he started producing his work outside of the University, he "got out of drag and became vaguely naturalistic." His drama Combat! a World -War II story about gays in the military was well received. The big break came in 1994, when Fisher's hit homosexual romantic comedy The Joy of Gay Sex, (also performed by Sassymouth) ran for a year, opening in a little theatre in Berkeley and transferring to different venues around San Francisco. Fisher feels that Joy... "was the one that broke the shell," and attributed its closing to two factors: Medea... became a huge success and it was easier to promote one show than two, and "There isn't a producer in the world who liked the title." Fisher wasn't willing to change the title, which he feels confronts the audience with what the play is about.

The idea for Medea... came about when he wanted to fill a slot at Berkeley with "Carrie" the musical. When Fisher was denied the rights, he had to come up with something fast, and thought, "what is the most outrageous thing I could think of?"

Fisher chose Euripedes' Medea because of the mixed themes and interpretations of the play. He was studying feminist interpretations of classics at the time, and was shocked to discover that Medea is considered a feminist play. Fisher's opinion of Medea's offspring kill-off is that it's misogynist, not feminist

Medea ,the Musical then became simply about refuting stereotypes. In a gay theatre company, a straight woman is playing the lead, and a gay man falls in love with her. Fisher explains, "It's a reverse coming out story where a gay man can have heterosexual desires....[Medea, the Musical] is about not accepting the stereotypes that the media gives us."

Up until now, Fisher's process has been analogous to some New York theatre in that his company will open a show in Berkeley (which he likens to New Haven) for two weeks, make the necessary changes and then move it to San Francisco. However, the string of John Fisher's successes is now naturally tugging him in more expansive directions. Whether or not the play will tour to New York or Los Angeles is still not definite. "We are currently doing well where we are, " says Fisher. "It's tourist season here....In the fall we are going to start very actively pursuing a move to either location."

Woody Allen's co-producer Charles Joffe is interested in taking Medea... to Los Angeles' Cannon Theatre in Beverly Hills, currently occupied with Bermuda Avenue Triangle starring Bea Arthur. Although Fisher would be happy to tour there, he would prefer to move first to an off Broadway theatre in New York. Two years ago, Fisher and producers Bob Fisher (no relation) and Jonathan Zimmerman looked at the Westbeth Theatre, which recently housed Nicky Silver's hit farce The Food Chain. The negotiations were put on the back burner while the play toured San Francisco. They reportedly are still in contact with the Westbeth. Fisher feels "In New York, everybody would get all the jokes."

The pressure of touring the show adds to Fisher's current overload as writer, director, co-producer, and actor. "I'm busy every night of the week." says Fisher, who onstage plays the director, an "evil version" of himself. He describes,"It's a very weird experience because I can never forget that I wrote it. I always have one eye on the audience and one eye on the cast. I tend to be frustrated every night, which is good, I suppose, because the character is very frustrated."

In addition, Fisher also teaches an undergraduate acting course at UC Berkeley. He hired another actor to replace him two nights a week, so he could have some freedom, but he has spent that time in the role of director, watching the new actor. The experiences of Medea... and Joy... have also given Fisher first hand knowledge of long runs. "I'm gonna write a book about the long run," Fisher claims,"You have to come up with a whole new way of acting, and you have to change things...keep it fresh, because you get so bored. I teach acting, and it's very interesting for me to have new insights into this old lesson."

The obvious question for someone with as much talent as Fisher involves what's coming next. Fisher claims that if Medea ever closes, he's going to produce a farce about the university, an institution that "people still think is untouchable" and has not previously been satirized. His idea was sparked by the University of California's choice to get rid of affirmative action, a choice that Fisher does not approve of.

Despite the outrageous success of Medea, the Musical, Fisher still has his moments of doubt. Perhaps in part due to his multiple roles, and because of the nature of the show, many times onstage he thinks to himself, "...this is the audience that's gonna start throwing things." But then he realizes, "they always come around." And around. And around.

Medea, the Musical is currently playing Wed-Sat 8pm; Sat &;Sun 3pm at the Stage Door Theatre, in San Francisco, through September 8. Tickets are available by phone at (415) 433-9500 or (510) 762-BASS. The Medea, The Musical Web address is http://www.webcom.com/shownet/medea.

--By Blair Glaser