Starcatcher Collaborators Return to Old Globe With New Musical Dog and Pony
By Evan Henerson
Rick Elice, Michael Patrick Walker and Nicole Parker talk with Playbill.com about creating and performing in the new romantic comedy musical Dog and Pony.
When a creative duo who are not romantically linked makes beautiful music (or plays or movies) together, it becomes human nature for onlookers to wonder whether that partnership extends to the bedroom. Once the artistic workday is over, so to speak, are these creators getting it on and, if so, does that romantic spark fuel the creative partnership? If things go sour on the personal arena, can the professional partnership continue?
Playwright Rick Elice has been ruminating on these types of questions — albeit in a human interest rather than TMZ vicarious way — since he did a stint acting in a play written by Elaine May more than a decade ago. There is a common assumption that the immortal team of Mike Nichols and Elaine May were an item as well, despite the fact that both writer-actor-comedians have long been married to other people.
"That experience of 10 years ago is coupled with my own experience of being in several intensely collaborative relationships in my life which were very intimate and very personal as well as professional," said Elice, whose new musical Dog and Pony, currently in performances at The Old Globe, tackles that very subject. "When you spend 20 hours a day with someone, it would be hard to not have (sex) happen.
"How the people in those relationships navigate that intimacy and that dependency and sometimes that dysfunction is fascinating to me," he continued. "It really becomes sort of a second family, sometimes more intimate than one's personal relationship."
Key members of the Dog and Pony creative team can likely relate to working in close collaboration. Composer/lyricist Michael Patrick Walker co-wrote his Off-Broadway hit Altar Boyz with Gary Adler. Elice's first two Broadway musicals, Jersey Boys and The Addams Family, were written with Marshall Brickman. And during her days acting and writing for "MADtv," Dog and Pony leading lady Nicole Parker cooked up a lot of yuks alongside writing partners Jordan Peele and Ike Barinholtz, often at the expense of Britney Spears and her then husband Kevin Federline.
"I remember writing jokes at midnight, having to make each other laugh or saving each other," said Parker. "There's a whole scene about that (in Dog and Pony) and a song that describes the nature of collaboration. It's so rich for anybody in the audience since everybody has had that kind of friend."
Dog and Pony focuses on a male-female screenwriting team (Andy and Mags) in part because an opposite-sex creative partnership in which both members would be on equal footing is still, according to Elice, a relatively recent phenomenon. The lineage of same-sex professional duos (for the theatre, think Gilbert and Sullivan, Kaufman and Hart, Rodgers and Hammerstein) largely outweighs opposite-sex pairings. George Burns and Gracie Allen both enjoyed successful careers before they became Burns and Allen (and before their marriage). Lucille Ball and Desi Arnaz had a pretty good 20-year run as well.
"It used to just be men and men in the workplace while women occupied the subordinate roles," said Elice, who maintains his focus is romantic comedy rather than an investigation of business environments. "Now with the equality of the sexes in the workplace, it becomes more of a question of how do you have a creative partnership within an opposite sex relationship that is intensely intimate and romantic, but not sexual? And what happens in the course of that when one or the other of those two people wants to move it to another stage?"
So it goes with Andy (played by Jon Patrick Walker, no relation to the composer) and Mags (Parker) who have a string of cinematic hits but work assiduously not to fall in love with each other. The fracturing of Andy's marriage throws a new wrinkle into things. Rounding out the ensemble are Heidi Blickenstaff, Eric William Morris and Tony Award winner Beth Leavel (The Drowsy Chaperone).
Director Roger Rees characterizes the play as being about "not lying to yourself and owning up to who you are." He says audiences may see a touch of Nichols and May or Burns and Allen in the Dog and Pony duo.
"They only really 'work' with each other and everyone else is less, and they know that," said Rees, Elice's husband as well as frequent collaborator, "and it's wonderful to see how energized they are by each other's brilliance. So, yeah, it helps to have that kind of person who promotes you and makes you better than you are."
San Diego and the Old Globe in particular have been fertile ground for the development of new musicals with such shows as Into the Woods, The Full Monty, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and Tony winner A Gentleman's Guide to Love and Murder all having out of town bows at the venerable theatre in Balboa Park. Elice's own Jersey Boys and Peter and the Starcatcher had pre-Broadway runs a few miles up the 5 freeway at the La Jolla Playhouse.
But despite the Globe's history of musical successes and the powerhouse credentials of its creators, Dog and Pony is a different animal: a small, five-actor show that is completely original with no movie or book on which it's based, no existing catalog of songs from an established pop hitmaker. The world-premiere production plays the Sheryl and Harvey White Theatre, the smallest of the three Globe spaces.
The Globe produced one New York reading in 2013. The five weeks of rehearsal have found Elice, Walker, Rees and the cast thrown into a whirlwind of creation, fine-tuning and refinement. And certainly — where librettist and composer are concerned — collaboration.
"We have a very similar sensibility, but at the same time we bring different things to the table," said Walker of his pairing with Elice. "There's a bit of irony here that the show is about two characters that write together and professionally collaborate, and while Rick and my relationship is nothing like the characters in the show, there is absolutely that sense that it's just like a relationship. Opposites can attract, but if you're too opposite, it doesn't work and if you're too much alike, that doesn't work either."
As the production moved into its run-throughs, the team came across a section of Act Two that found Andy and Mags taking on each other's personality traits in a way that needed rethinking. While that idea could carry forward, the approach was not working, and the team decided that 10 minutes of the show needed to be ripped out and reworked.
Elice and Walker went back into the rehearsal studio, talking things through for an hour, then went their separate ways — Elice to write a scene and a lead in, Walker to produce a new song, all in a period of 24 hours.
"It's much more in line with what the story is now," said Walker. "Certainly writing 10 new minutes is scary to do when you're about to go into tech, but it's also the kind of work that you have to do."
An exhilarated — if slightly exhausted — Parker agreed.
"If we had longer than a week and a half of previews, I think there might have been another song and another scene, and that's the exciting thing," she said. "Michael and Rick are so fast and so professional at what they do that they can make changes in such a short amount of time to help clarify the story. This is that rare musical where there's no movie or book or graphic novel to go back to and there's such independence and freedom in that. The creators can play with it and make sure that the second those lights come up, we know who these people are and how they sound."
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