PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Joanne Bogart & Eric Rockwell

PLAYBILL.COM'S BRIEF ENCOUNTER with Joanne Bogart & Eric Rockwell In The Musical of Musicals — The Musical! Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell do double duty: Not only did they write the wickedly funny parody of musical-theatre styles, they star in it.
Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell (middle), with castmembers Craig Fols (top) and Lovette George (bottom)
Joanne Bogart and Eric Rockwell (middle), with castmembers Craig Fols (top) and Lovette George (bottom) Photo by Carol Rosegg

Following a popular run by The York Theatre Company in 2004, the musical is now nesting in an open-ended commercial run at Dodger Stages in the Manhattan theatre district, reuniting the York cast: Bogart, Rockwell, Craig Fols and Lovette George. Rockwell is on triple duty: He also musical directs and is the pianist of the intimate piano-and-voice musical.

In a little more than 90 minutes, Bogart and Rockwell and company spoof the popular musical theatre styles of five writers or teams of writers: Rodgers and Hammerstein, Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb. The same essential plot — girl can't pay her rent to evil landlord, boy enters, and jaded woman gives sage advice — is spun out by the cast five different times, giving you five musicals for the price of one.

The original music and lyrics will remind you (on purpose) of the Tony Award-winning writers who made their marks on musical theatre long before Bogart and Rockwell arrived. Embraced by theatregoers as accurate and melodic and hilarious, The Musical of Musicals isn't out to bash show tunes, but celebrate them.

Does the team have another show in them that will boast their own style? In the closing number of the show they joke, "Probably not."

But you imagine the best is yet to come. Playbill.com: Was there ever talk that you might spoof more than five styles — maybe add a Cy Coleman section or a Lerner and Loewe piece?
Eric Rockwell: In the process we talked about everyone, right down to Wright and Forrest. We were examining every possibility. At one point the show wasn't long enough, so we felt we needed other variations.
Joanne Bogart: The other names that come up would sort of compete with the ones that were there. For instance, Lerner and Loewe: We know those inside things, but to a more general audience it would sound a lot like Rodgers and Hammerstein, in a musical way. The other one we really worked on hard was Cole Porter. The problem with him was that he doesn't really have that body of work, in terms of shows — the two [well-known] show were Anything Goes and Kiss Me, Kate
ER: Also, Cole Porter has a similar problem we discovered with Jerry Herman. That is, it's much easier to do a satire on an artist who takes himself very seriously. Jerry Herman was difficult because his material is so light and he doesn't take himself with great importance. He was the most challenging. To write a satire of bubbly champagne-like lyrics is not as funny.

Playbill.com: Did you write a full Porter section?
JB: We had a draft.
ER: It will never be heard!

Playbill.com: Your show gets better and better on repeat listens. There are tiny touches — like the dialects in your Rodgers and Hammerstein spoof, Corn — that are so accurate. Anyone who knows Carousel or Oklahoma! knows that Hammerstein hyperextended the dialects of the regional characters.
ER: I'm glad you noticed that. It's a detail. I think it's so odd that Carousel and Oklahoma! take place in opposite areas but they have the same accents…

Playbill.com: Have the composers come to see the show?
JB: Yes. We had Mr. Stephen Sondheim. We were just absolutely thrilled. They didn't tell us beforehand that he was going to be there, thank God. After the show, there he was backstage. We were just floored. He was so gracious, absolutely so gracious and warm.

Playbill.com: What's the phrase? "Imitation is the sincerest form of flattery."
JB: John Kander came, Hal Prince, and Arthur Laurents and Carol Channing, they've all just been enthusiastic and warm. It's been great.

Playbill.com: And Andrew Lloyd Webber is writing you hate mail?
JB: I guess so. [Laughs.] He hasn't shown up.

Playbill.com: There is one inane song in the Lloyd Webber section [Aspects of Junita] where characters are meant to be on roller skates, as in Starlight Express.
JB: It is kind of mean, I have to admit.
ER: He can take it!

Playbill.com: It seems like a general enough show that even casual theatre fans around the world would "get" a lot of it. Are you hoping for a regional life for the show?
ER: There's talk of productions all over. We have high hopes for it. We think it will play nicely in all the big cities.

Playbill.com: The conceit of the Off-Broadway presentation is that it's almost like a backer's audition, or a concert version. Is this the final form of the show?
ER: No, this is one interpretation. I really look forward to it once the licensing is settled and it gets out there in the real world. I think it could be done in so many different ways, including a full production. There's a chorus in all five musicals, there could be sets and props. I don't think you need them, and I think [director] Pam Hunt was smart to not go in that direction. I think we all embarked on this all on the same page: Minimalism, so the focus could be on the music and lyrics. I think the narration is part of the show, though I'm sure some college production will decide not to do it. At this point, those stage directions are meant to be heard. But if a production is fully realized, you might not need them.

Playbill.com: How did you two meet?
JB: We met in summer stock, back in '87. We’ve both been actors a long time.

Playbill.com: Were you always a lyricist, Joanne?
JB: No, actually, that started very late. That wasn't even a thought. Eric was in the BMI-Lehman Engel Musical Theatre Workshop [as a songwriter] and I was coming in as a performer doing some of his work. When you do that, as a performer, the rule is you can come in and stay for the rest of the class. You can't really participate but you can listen. And it just opened my ears. I thought, I could do this! Eric was very encouraging. He said, "Y'know, you're very funny, why don't you try to write something?" As it turned out, the first thing I ever wrote was "Follow Your Dream"….

Playbill.com: The spoof of inspirational Rodgers and Hammerstein ballads?
JB: And it's in the show! I wrote it for my audition song to get into BMI.

Playbill.com: Eric, you're a composer from way back?
ER: I started composing pretty early — somewhere in the mid '80s.

Playbill.com: Were you your own lyricist?
ER: No, I worked with a college friend. We went into BMI together.

Playbill.com: There's a joke at the end of The Musical of Musicals that self-referentially asks, "Couldn't they write a new show?"
ER: We're thinking about a lot of different possible projects. We've read everything there is in the public domain.
JB: What we do want to do is get out of the parody world. So the next thing won't be Musical of Musicals II.

Playbill.com: Have you worked on other shows together?
ER: Yes. I was music director at TADA!, a youth theatre here in the city, and we've written two children's shows for them — a version of "Alice in Wonderland," and a parody of Mickey and Judy musicals called Golly Gee Whiz. And we wrote another children's musical for the Lucy Moses School, called David and Goliath. So we were writing these small one-hour children's musicals all during the process of writing The Musical of Musicals.

Playbill.com: Did you write The Musical of Musicals with you two in mind as performers? Did you know you would be like Comden and Green in it?
ER: No, uh-uh.
JB: When we first started writing it we were writing for four actors. In BMI, you come in with your material and it's critiqued, the two of us performed all of it, just out of necessity. Everyone kept encouraging us: "You're wonderful performers! You two should do it!" So for a long time we did all of it together, and it was a lot of fun. But obviously it kept it more of an "act" than a show. The venues for it would be more like cabaret spaces. We had higher hopes for it, we wanted to open it up, have dance — a little more movement.

Playbill.com: One of the great surprises of the production directed by Pamela Hunt is that all four of you play piano.
JB: [Sing-song.] Not as well as Eric! [Laughs.] But enough to do a song or too.

Playbill.com: Was it conceived that way, or did that come with this production?
ER: Oh, no that was a last-minute discovery. It was out of necessity —
JB: To get Eric away from the piano!
ER: Because I had these solos, and I was stuck behind the keyboard. First we realized Lovette could play, then, in the ballet, Craig could play, and we found a place for Joanne to play. Everyone has a moment. I go through this hour and 40 minutes of constant playing and singing and performing. After one show I went out into the lobby and someone said, "Was that a player piano?" I'm thinking, if we could use that it would really make my job a lot easier!