PLAYBILL VIP SPOTLIGHT: Bill Russell Shares Elegies of the AIDS Epidemic With College Students at Marymount Manhattan

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23 Jan 2014

Tony Award-nominated book writer and lyricist Bill Russell revisits his Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens — the song and poetry cycle he created with composer Janet Hood — with students, faculty and alumni of Marymount Manhattan College.

Playbill.com takes a look at the production as part of our new PlaybillVIP.com Spotlight series. Organizations across the country can now create an authentic Playbill as part of this new venture.

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"I just have loved doing it with college students," explained Elegies author and director Bill Russell, who often revisits the material in college settings, "because they don't know a lot about the subject matter. Most of them were born after this all happened — the height of the AIDS crisis — and it's shocking how little students their age know about this. Several of them had no idea how to even contract AIDS, so it's kind of a shocking indictment of the education system in certain cases. They want to know about this and the subject matter. It's very important, this story."

The story the students, faculty and alumni of Marymount Manhattan College will tell (Jan. 24-25 at the National Dance Institute uptown on 147th Street) is inspired by the NAMES Project AIDS Memorial Quilt and Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology." Russell developed the piece in the late 80s alongside composer Janet Hood.

"I've done a number of productions both here and in the U.K., where it's done very frequently," continued Russell. "We — Janet Hood and I — updated the show. We did a production about a year ago in Kansas, and we updated some of the monologues and brought them into the present… This is that version."

With Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which boasts a cast of approximately 40 members of Marymount Manhattan, Russell finds himself not only staging the piece, but also educating young adults on a time when AIDS ran rampant throughout the LGBTQ community in the 1980s.

"I knew nothing," admitted MMC sophomore Pasquale Piccinonno, a Musical Theatre major. "I took a health class in high school, but there is just so much more and in-depth information that I didn't know, which [Bill] is telling us. This disease played such a big role back in the 80s, and it just effected so many people, and it [has fallen on] deaf ears a little bit. Everyone forgot about it. It needs to be brought to attention, and I think this piece is a great way to do it."

Bill Russell

Elegies delves into the lives of those living with HIV/AIDS in the 1980s and their tales of struggle, loss and hope. Stories in the song cycle — which premiered at the Ohio Theatre in lower Manhattan in 1989 and also played in the East Village — are told through spoken word, monologues and song.

At a recent rehearsal, Piccinonno sang "Learning to Let Go," a song that, he said, is about "celebrating the lives of the people who passed on."

"It hit home," Piccinonno confessed, "especially with the poems — the monologues… We had one girl, the other day, just break down in tears. It was really emotional, and it was really inspiring. And, everyone is so welcoming here, so it's very easy to become vulnerable in front of people because everybody is so supportive."

"The rehearsal process is extremely collaborative, which I really believe in," added Marymount junior Michael J. Rodd, who plays Paul, a Vietnam war veteran in Elegies. "All of us sitting on those bleachers from day one, watching people discover things about themselves and discover things about their characters… To be able to put the two together — everyday someone else gets to another level, someone else learns something new about their characters, you go up and do your monologue, and I know I feel something different. I elicit different things from the people in the audience. I feel differently. Bill is so supportive, and he lets you do your job as an actor."

Also taking on one of Russell's monologues in Elegies is senior Spencer Wilson, who plays Dwight, who he describes as a "Broadway hopeful who came from [a] bigoted town."

"I think [he] somewhat represents the Broadway community in the 80s-90s — people like Michael Bennett," explained Wilson, "who everyone wonders: Had he not passed away, what would he have done? He was this great talent — what could possibly have happened? Our community was completely destroyed by this."

Cast member Tyler Godden in rehearsal

Rodd, an upperclassman at MMC, added, "It's so important for people to see this right now because there are young people in this city — where this epidemic was so devastating — and I moved here three years ago and really had no idea…at all. I knew how you can transmit the disease, I knew what it does to you and your body, but nobody ever told me that there were emotional repercussions, that your family and your friends — your whole world — were completely destroyed… It's so poignant because [I interpret the characters as taking their] last stand… We will sit back down, and we will never be able to speak ever again — that's how I look at it. This is my last hope to teach somebody, to help somebody with my experiences. There's just so much passion involved in this piece and through Bill — he's been so illuminating on this whole topic."

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Patricia Hoag Simon is the musical theatre coordinator at Marymount Manhattan College. Elegies... is musical directed by Emmy Award winner Paul Jacobs.

Performances of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens will be offered Jan. 24 at 7:30 PM and Jan. 25 at 5:30 PM and 8 PM. For more information, click here or here.

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(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com as well as in the pages of Playbill magazine. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)