Suburb, the new musical comedy about urbanites considering a move to greener pastures, gets its New York City premiere, opening March 1 in staging by the York Theatre Company.
Billed as a musical comedy "about four lives on the edge of town," the intimate show was penned by composer and co librettist Robert S. Cohen and lyricist and co-librettist David Javerbaum. Previews began Feb. 13. Performances continue to March 25.
Suburb received the 2000 Richard Rodgers Development Award and had a well-received reading at the York in May and June 2000. The authors made changes in the script following the reading.
The show focuses on a young couple, Alison (Jacquelyn Piro) and Stuart (James Ludwig), struggling with the idea of leaving their tiny apartment in the city and starting a family the world of conformity, barbecues, manicured lawns and strip malls. Jennifer M. Sanchez and Roberta Plutzik Baldwin are the producers who will take the show to a commercial future if such a sprawl is warranted.
Composer and co-author Cohen is the author of God in Concert (One Night Only) and Knots, which was presented at the Clark Center for the Performing Arts. He has worked with the National Shakespeare Company and Manitoba Theatre, and is a graduate of Brown University. Lyricist and co-author Javerbaum is a graduate of the NYU Musical Theater Program and is a comedy writer nominated for a 1999 Emmy Award for his work on "The Late Show With David Letterman." He is also the co-author of two best-selling books: "Our Dumb Century" and "The Onion's Finest Reporting," both from the popular satiric newspaper called "The Onion," where he has worked three years. He's also a writer on Comedy Central's "The Daily Show."
Both Javerbaum, 29, and Cohen, 55, grew up in the New Jersey suburbs, and know of what they sing.
"I had an idea for a show set in the suburbs and I had written one and a half lyrics for it at the point when I met Bob," lyricist and co-librettist Javerbaum told Playbill On-Line. "I didn't want to base it on any [existing source] because I'm inclined to write original things."
Javerbaum and Cohen met in 1996 through mutual acquaintances and started exploring material, working on songs and seeing if they were a match, a process that is "like dating."
"It's really evolved from a revue to a book show, and that evolved gradually over the first year of us writing it," he said. Out of the revue form, a young couple emerged. The collaborators decided that a two-couple structure — a staple of many musicals, especially in the Rodgers and Hammerstein era — suited the show.
The goal was to view the suburbs with affection "without being satirical or mean-spirited." The musical is not anti-city, said Javerbaum, who lives in New York City: "It was not written to defend or make a personal argument for one or the other." Some of the revue-style material survived in songs that "touch on the familiar rites and rituals of the suburbs," Javerbaum said. For instance, you can guess from the following titles what the show addresses when not focusing strictly on the couples: "Mall," "Commute," "Mow," and "Barbecue."
But beyond the neatly observed songs (ranging from the tribal, comic "Barbecue" to the expressionistically existential "Commute"), which are played out by a tireless quartet chorus, there are conflicting hearts in the main characters of Alison and Stuart. The couple struggles over the idea of moving out of the urban jungle to raise their baby in the burbs: She doesn't want to become her mother (her mom grew gray and unhappy in the burbs) and he wants to face adulthood (and the burbs represent that).
In contrast to the young couple are the hungry, caustic real estate agent Rhoda (Alix Korey), and a widower named Tom (Dennis Kelly), who is thinking of selling his home.
"It's set in the suburbs, but ultimately it's about human beings," said Javerbaum. "We wanted to explore the suburban landscape and tell a story about moving on. It's about the story."
An earlier draft of the show featured a number in which the ensemble played singing appliances. That's been cut. "We replaced it with a number with the two men...the older man who is having a hard time moving on, and the younger man questioning whether [moving] is something he wants or something he thinks he wants."
Did Javerbaum, a comedy writer for such hip, flip TV programs as "The Daily Show" and "The Late Show," have to resist being full-out comic?
"I realized that there were loftier things achievable than perhaps being funny — not that being funny's not worthwhile," he said. " I like to think that as I get a little bit older I recognize there are other things you can accomplish. I think there's a lot of funny stuff in the show, and a lot of it is character-based."
Song in the show include "Directions" (which includes the history of humankind), "Do It Yourself," "Suburb," "Not Me," "The Girl Next Door," "Ready Or Not," "Duet," "Handy," "Walkin' to School," "Bagel-Shop Quarter," "Trio for Four," "Everything Must Go" and "Someday."
Ludwig appeared in York's After the Fair, and Piro was in Miss Saigon and Les Miserables on Broadway. Alix Korey, the Drama Desk-nominated actress of Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, plays a crazed real estate agent.
The company includes Adinah Alexander (Parade), Ron Butler (York's Merrily We Roll Along), Jennie Eisenhower (a young actress who is Richard Nixon's granddaughter), Dennis Kelly (Broadway's Annie Get Your Gun, Damn Yankees) and James Sasser (Broadway's Riverdance).
Jennifer Uphoff Gray, associate director of Copenhagen, Cabaret, The Blue Room, directs, repeating her workshop chore. Musical direction is by Jeffrey R. Smith, choreography is by John Carrafa (Dirty Blonde), scenic design is by Kris Stone, costumes are by Jan Finnell, and lighting is by John Michael Deegan. Steven Tyler is music supervisor.
Tickets are $45-$50. York Theatre Company, at St. Peter's Church in the Citigroup Center, 619 Lexington Ave. at 54th Street). For tickets, call (212) 239-6200. Visit the website at suburbthemusical.com.
— By Kenneth Jones