The composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa, who wrote john & jen and new tunes for the current Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, is center-stage May 20-21 for two Manhattan Theatre Club- sponsored readings of his new musical, The Wild Party.
MTC's musical development project (the technical term, per Actors' Equity) for songwriter-librettist Lippa's sung-through take on Joseph Moncure March's 1927 poem began April 12, with James Barbour (Beauty and the Beast), Kristin Chenoweth (You're Good Man, Charlie Brown) and Marin Mazzie (Ragtime). Chenoweth subsequently left the project.
As the title suggests, the poem tells of a "wild party" populated by craven showbiz types, including sexually raucous Queenie (played in the presentation by Mazzie). "It's a show business story, a dark tale of love gone very wrong," Lippa told Playbill On-Line in February 1999.
For the three private, theatre industry readings May 20-21, Gabriel Barre directs Kevin-Anthony, Barbour, Luther Creek (Rent), Robin Irwin (Titanic), Jillian, Lawrence Keigwin, Bill Kocis, Alix Korey (Triumph of Love), Mazzie, Michael McElroy (Rent), Allison Munn (The Fantasticks), Bill Nolte, Steve Ochoa, Jayson Page, Elizabeth Parkinson (Fosse), Sara Ramirez (The Gershwins' Fascinating Rhythm), William Ryall (High Society), Jessica Stone and Dennis Stowe.
Mark Dendy is the project's choreographer, music direction is by Steve Marzullo. The show is performed without an intermission. Musical numbers include "Queenie Was a Blonde," "One in a Million," "The Apartment," "What a Party," "Raise the Roof," "A Wild, Wild Party," "What Is It About Her?," "Let Me Drown," "How Did We Come to This?," "Make Me Happy," "The Life of the Party," among others.
After his 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, 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.
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 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.
The developmental project is one of many sponsored by theatre companies in New York City's nonprofit community, and does not guarantee a future production by the sponsor theatre.
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 current musical development project.
Lippa isn't only attracted to dark subjects: He contributed two new tunes (plus a rewrite of the opening number) 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 recently scored a new 20 minute theme park musical for Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.
The MTC test of the 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 artists' schedules, has been bumped to the 1999-2000 season.
Also in the February 1999 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).