Brian d'Arcy James and Julia Murney are hosting a raucous, gin-drenched, Jazz-Age bash Feb. 24, the official opening of Manhattan Theatre Club's The Wild Party, the first of two new musicals this season based on the same source material.
Composer-lyricist-librettist Andrew Lippa's version for MTC's Stage I began performances Jan. 25. He draws from Joseph Moncure March's 1928 narrative poem about a violent, boozy 1920s party.
James (Titanic) and Murney play vaudevillians Burrs and Queenie, whose party takes a murderous turn. Producers Jeffrey Seller and Kevin McCollum (who shepherded Rent to Broadway) are reportedly keeping a close eye on the show, with the idea of taking the staging to a commercial life -- perhaps Broadway, depending on venue availability -- beyond MTC. The producers had no official word.
The other tuner based on the poem opens April 13 at Broadway's Virginia Theatre. Composer-lyricist-librettist Michael John LaChiusa and co librettist and director George C. Wolfe are behind that version. It uses the same title and, as of this writing, has the same opening number title: "Queenie Was a Blonde," which is the first line of the poem.
Meanwhile, the MTC company includes former Rent stars Taye Diggs and Idina Menzel, in the respective roles of Black and Kate. Gabriel Barre (Off Broadway's Stars in Your Eyes, jon & jen) directs and Mark Dendy is choreographer. Among song titles in the Lippa score are "Out of the Blue," "What a Party," "Raise the Roof," "Look at Me Now," "Poor Child," "An Old-Fashioned Love Story," "A Wild, Wild Party," "Two of a Kind," "Maybe I Like It This Way," "What Is it About Her?," "The Life of the Party," "Who is This Man?," "Listen to Me," "The Fight," "Come With Me," "How Did We Come to This?"
Also singing and dancing are Todd Anderson, James D. Beeks, Kevin Cahoon, Jennifer Cody, Charles Dillon, Kena Tangi Dorsey, Felicia Finley, Peter Kapetan, Lawrence Keigwin, Alix Korey, Kristin McDonald, Raymond Jaramillo McLeod, Megan Sikora, Ron J. Todorowski and Amanda Watkins.
The first line of the 1928 March poem on which the musical is based reads, "Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, and she danced twice a day in vaudeville."
The story concerns sex, drink and violence at a debauched Jazz Age party populated by seedy showfolk, gangsters and slumming playboys.
Lippa is composer and co-author of the Off-Broadway musical, jon & jen, and wrote new material for the recent Broadway revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown.
James made a name for himself as the soulful stoker, Frederick Barrett, in Titanic and is sought after for concert readings, workshops and recordings (he also appeared in Broadway's Les Miserables, Carousel and Blood Brothers). The Tallulah-eyed Murney played the slinky modern love interest in the 1999 workshop of the time-travel tuner, Time and Again (opposite James) and has appeared in regional and Off-Broadway stagings.
After playing Benny in the original company of Rent, Diggs went on to success in film in "Go" and "How Stella Got Her Groove Back." Menzel played performance artist Maureen in Rent.
After Lippa's Off-Broadway musical, john & jen, was up and running in 1995, Lippa faced one of the great and daunting challenges for a musical theatre writer: Finding source material for a new musical.
Lippa told Playbill On-Line (Feb. 1, 1999) he came across March's narrative poem while wandering through Barnes & Noble's poetry section, searching for a story to musicalize. He'd never heard of March's piece, and did not know the 1975 James Ivory film version of it starring James Coco and Raquel Welch.
"The spine stuck out at me, and I read it, drooling in the aisle," said Lippa, who saw musical possibilities in it. "It's a show business story, a dark tale of love gone very wrong."
Best of all, Lippa discovered that March's dark yarn about a raucous show business party was in public domain, meaning the copyright had lapsed or not been renewed, which meant he did not need to pay a royalty or get permission to use it.
The poem, he said, reads like a script, with a clearly delineated story. Lippa is writing book, music and lyrics, and said he has created some of his own characters for the story.
He said the story’s focus is a "love quadrangle" with vaudeville performers who are "very two-bit." The party, thrown by down and-out characters, happens in real time. They "throw a party rather than kill each other," he said.
But, he added, "it ends very violently."
Is there hope? Do any of his characters find "happiness," the word that is the metaphor of Charlie Brown.
"We'll see..." said Lippa. "It's a parable: Beware how much you party."
Lippa said he's been witness to certain destructive party behavior in New York City circles and drew on his eyewitness experience of "lack of good judgment" and the constant, mindless "desire to party."
Lippa's version is not set in Hollywood, as the film apparently was, but somewhere in the Midwest -- "like St. Louis," where itinerant vaudevillians may have found themselves stranded.
How much does Lippa know about he LaChiusa project?
"I don't like to hear about it, I like to focus on what we're doing," he said in early 1999, adding that he and LaChiusa are acquaintances.
Lippa's Wild Party had previous readings by MTC and the O'Neill Theatre Center in 1997 and then MTC artistic director Lynne Meadow OK'd the workshop.
Lippa, who was raised in the Detroit area, also produced the Charlie Brown cast album for RCA/Victor and also scored a new 20 minute theme park musical for Universal Studios in Orlando, FL.
The recorded-voice character show is in Universal's Toon Lagoon, and Lippa wrote for characters such as Betty Boop, Popeye and Bullwinkle, working with classic voice actors June Foray (Rocky the Flying Squirrel) and others.
At the Virginia Theatre, The Public Theater version of The Wild Party will star Toni Collette as Queenie, Mandy Patinkin as Burrs and Eartha Kitt as Dolores.