It's rare enough to have two distinct musicals by two composer-lyricists based on the same source. But in the spring of 2000, two musicals based on Joseph Moncure March's 1928 poem "The Wild Party" by two then-up-and-coming composers opened in New York. And for months, online theatre forums were filled with posts from fans passionately debating the merits of each show and analyzing their qualities.
Both musicals follow the same basic storyline of a vaudeville-era couple who throw the titular wild party that descends into sex, drugs, violence and murder. But the presentation of the two shows, which were developed independently, is decidedly different.
Michael John LaChiusa's The Wild Party opened on Broadway at the Virginia theatre and ran from April 13 to June 11. With Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, Tonya Pinkins and Eartha Kitt in the lead roles, the one-act musical earned several Tony Award nominations and has since been produced around the world. Set explicitly in the 1920s, the score was strongly influenced by era-appropriate jazz and the story focused on all attendees of the party and their individual stories. It has also become a staple for advanced college theatre productions.
Andrew Lippa's two-act adaptation of the poem, meanwhile, opened Off-Broadway at the Manhattan Theatre Club and ran for 54 performances in February and March. With more of a contemporary score, the story focused on the four main leads, played by Julia Murney, Brian d'Arcy James, Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel. Four years after its New York run, it was produced at the Edinburgh Fringe Festival, and returned to New York for a month-long engagement at Brooklyn's Gallery Players in 2008. Fifteen years later, both Lippa and LaChiusa have created numerous other musicals that have been performed around the world. (LaChiusa, in fact, just workshopped a new musical, Rain, at Vassar College upstate this past weekend.) But even after a decade and a half, fans still discuss the two Wild Parties and what made each work. Some of those debates can still be found in the archives of the Rec.Arts.Theatre.Musicals listserv, an early space for theatre fans to discuss musicals before the widespread availability of social media and messageboards.
"Both productions had their virtues and flaws," a fan going by the handle Carolyn Marie — who claimed to have seen the Lippa version twice, the LaChiusa version once and read the poem in advance — wrote at the time. Lippa's version, in her opinion, was more "conventional" in that it focused more closely on the four principals, as did the poem, and had many brassy Broadway songs and beautiful ballads for Queenie. Calling the LaChiusa version "more ambitious," she noted that the piece focused on weightier themes like race, domestic violence, drug abuse and maturity. "Like many good shows, both serve as a wonderful Rorschach test for the denizens of this newsgroup," she added.
Perhaps presciently, another fan noted that both musicals asked audiences to focus on more complex material than what was popular at the time. "The thing that seems to be selling on Broadway these days are light revivals," the anonymous poster wrote, "and while I can take a good throwback musical anytime...I think there has to be room for some experimentation and creativity if live theatre is going to survive in any meaningful form with growth. However, N.Y. (and certainly the rest of the country) doesn't seem ready for this."
This observation seemed to be accurate: In the 15 years since the post was sent around to theatre lovers around the world, challenging musicals like Urinetown, Avenue Q, The Light in the Piazza, In the Heights, Spring Awakening, Next to Normal, Fun Home and Hamilton have all enjoyed long runs, award wins and critical success — a sign, perhaps, that New York's theatre scene simply wasn't ready for either version of The Wild Party in 2000...or, perhaps, that the two shows paved the way for more complex material.
Adapting the Party for Encores!
Since his show ran off-Broadway, Lippa has seen numerous productions of The Wild Party around the world. "Those are blessed experiences, because I get to see other artists wrestling with some of the issues of putting on this play," Lippa told the City Center Playbill in a previous interview. "Sometimes the answers they come up with make me go, 'Oh, that's a very good answer.'" The new production has offered new opportunities to revisit the piece and make changes. For example, he's tightened the first 20 minutes to get the main characters to the party as quickly as possible, and added a new song for Sutton Foster, who will play the lead role of Queenie in the musical's upcoming revival as part of the City Center Encores! series.
Sutton Foster and Steven Pasquale Have a Wild Party at City Center! See the First Production Shots
"As often happens when you make a musical, you make changes at the beginning and you realize, 'Oh, I've cleared away the brush, and now that the character is clearly going after what I want her to go after, the answer at the end is different.'" The new song, "A Happy Ending," expresses Queenie's deepest feelings and fears, Lippa continued. "It lets you in on what she's learning and what she plans to do with it." With Foster in the leading role, Lippa told the City Center Playbill that the new production has been tailored to fit the star's talents. "When you buy a suit, the suit is the suit — but they fix it a little bit to make sure that it doesn't pucker in the back, and that the sleeves are the right length," he said. "With Sutton, I'm doing the same thing. But it's not drastic, 'cause she's perfect to play the part."
The quality that makes Foster an ideal Queenie, he added, is what he calls "her essential stage quality...The audience just gravitates to her. She can harness joy, but when she harnesses sadness, it's a sadness that you feel you once had as well. That's a really powerful quality in a character...because the audience will still feel empathy for the actor playing it as much as for the character themselves."