Composer-lyricist-librettist Lippa draws from Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem about a violent, boozy Jazz-Age party. The tuner officially opens at MTC's Stage I Feb. 24. James (Titanic) and Murney play vaudevillians Burrs and Queenie, whose party takes a murderous turn.
This is one of two musicals based on the same source and using the same titles this season in New York City. George C. Wolfe and Michael John LaChiusa's version opens on Broadway April 13, at the Virginia Theatre. Previews begin March 10.
Meanwhile, the MTC company includes former Rent stars Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, in the respective roles of Black and Kate. Gabriel Barre (Off Broadway's Stars in Your Eyes, jon & jen) directs and Mark Dendy is choreographer.
Also singing and dancing are Todd Anderson, James D. Beeks, Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Cody, Charles Dillon, Kena Tangi Dorsey, Felicia Finley, Peter Kapetan, Lawrence Keigwin, Alix Korey, Kristin McDonald, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Megan Sikora, Ron J. Todorowski and Amanda Watkins. Designers are David Gallo (sets), Martin Pakledinaz (costumes), Kenneth Posner (lighting), Brian Ronan (sound). Orchestrations are by Michael Gibson, musical direction is by Stephen Oremus.
The first line of the 1928 March poem on which the musical is based reads, "Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, and she danced twice a day in vaudeville."
The story concerns sex, drink and violence at a debauched Jazz Age party populated by seedy showfolk, gangsters and slumming playboys.
Lippa is composer and co-author of the Off-Broadway musical, jon & jen, and wrote new material for the recent Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
James made a name for himself as the soulful stoker, Frederick Barrett, in Titanic and is sought after for concert readings, workshops and recordings (he also appeared in Broadway's Les Miserables, Carousel and Blood Brothers). The Tallulah-eyed Murney played the slinky modern love interest in the 1999 workshop of the time-travel tuner, Time and Again (opposite James) and has appeared in regional and Off-Broadway stagings.
After playing Benny in the original company of Rent, Diggs went on to success in film in "Go" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Menzel played performance artist Maureen in Rent.
The poetic source material for Partyis so ripe it has spawned another musical version in 1999-2000: The Public Theater's production of The Wild Party by George C. Wolfe (co-librettist and director) and Michael John LaChiusa (music, lyrics, libretto). At the Virginia Theatre, the Public version will star Toni Collette as Queenie, Mandy Patinkin as Burrs and Eartha Kitt as Dolores.
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 told Playbill On-Line (Feb. 1, 1999) he came across March's narrative poem while wandering through Barnes & Noble's 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 use it.
The poem, he said, reads like a script, with a clearly delineated story. Lippa 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 apparently 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 in early 1999, adding that he and LaChiusa are acquaintances.
Lippa' 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, 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.