Michael John LaChiusa's new Broadway musical, The Wild Party, begins previews March 10 at the Virginia Theatre, luring the curious to the second New York musical of this season to be based on a 1928 poem that few heard of before 1999.
Composer-lyricist LaChiusa wrote the libretto with George C. Wolfe (who directs), drawing on the narrative poem by Joseph Moncure March, who imagined a debauched Jazz Age party populated by playboys, show folk, drinkers, gangsters and hosts Queenie (a sex-driven chorine) and Burrs (her lover and a brutal vaudeville clown).
At Off-Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club, composer-lyricist librettist Andrew Lippa's version, also called The Wild Party, opened February 24 to mixed reviews. It will run through April 8, as scheduled, but not move to Broadway, despite producers who were waiting in the wings to move it.
Coincidentally (or perhaps not, considering the source material), both shows have an opening number called "Queenie Was a Blonde," which is the opening line of the poem. *
Producers of the LaChiusa version threw an "open rehearsal" for media Feb. 16 at The Public Theater, with the cast, including Academy Award nominee Collette, performing four numbers from the aborning show.
Collette, deadpan and bluesy, sang "The Low-Down Down" as Queenie, a vaudeville chorine whose party turns orgiastic and violent before the cops rush in.
Collette has been nominated for a Best Supporting Actress Oscar for "The Sixth Sense."
Wolfe and La Chiusa were in attendance for the Feb. 16 press preview, which included Patinkin (as brutal partier Burrs) and company singing "Gin," leggy Kitt as vampy Dolores, singing "Movin' Uptown," and the company performing the show's abstract, presentational opening number.
The production, with a lean cast of 15, is produced by The New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater; Scott Rudin/Paramount Pictures; Roger Berlind; and Williams/Waxman.
The cast includes Norm Lewis (Side Show), Jane Summerhays (Me and My Girl), Marc Kudisch (The Scarlet Pimpernel), Yancey Arias (Miss Saigon), Nathan Lee Graham, Adam Grupper (I Love You, You're Perfect Now Change), Leah Hocking (Grease, Guys and Dolls), Michael McElroy (The Who's Tommy), Brooke Sunny Moriber (The Dead), Sally Murphy (Carousel), Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jam) and Stuart Zagnit (Off-Broadway's Kuni Leml).
LaChiusa (Hello Again, Marie Christine) has said the 1920s milieu and the bigger-than-life personalities offer him the chance to write set pieces, or "numbers." His previous Marie Christine at Lincoln Center Theatre was a hybrid of styles, including blues, jazz, show tune and sections some called "modern opera." The composer has publicly dismissed such labels and definitions and said he is free to borrow from all forms that tell the story as potently as possible.
Joey McKneely (The Life) choreographs.
Designers are scenic designer Robin Wagner (The Life, City of Angels, Angels in America), lighting designers Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer (Ragtime) and costume designer Toni-Leslie James (Footloose, Jelly's Last Jam, Angels in America). Tony Meola is sound designer. Todd Ellison is musical director.
Was director and co-librettist Wolfe familiar with the poem before LaChiusa put it on his desk?"
"No, not at all," Wolfe told Playbill On-Line. "I thought it was very, very exciting. It had a toughness and a smartness to it that I instantly responded to. If I start to see a project, or feel it emotionally inside me, I know, oh my God, I'm supposed to work on this thing."
The poem is set in a party, which is a claustrophobic setting. Did Wolfe and LaChiusa look for ways to open it up?
"It's conceptually opened up," Wolfe explained. "The beginning and the end of the show takes place in a more abstract world, but once it ventures into the party, it stays inside the party because there's something about confinement that is so essential to this piece. At the same time, that confinement begins to deconstruct as these characters' lives begin to reveal themselves. There's a larger visual conceptual thing that Robin Wagner and I have evolved in terms of the look of the show. It's one of his most stunning designs. You're dealing with the literalness of the apartment and at the same time there are these manifestations of a Victorian sensibility that...suffocated the period before and the Depression's going to do the same thing afterward. It's evocative...the era is extraordinary."
When approaching such a dark world, is there a responsibility to look for the light?
"I think that's a responsibility in theatre because theatre, to me, is about ideas and possibilities," Wolfe said. "The piece journeys to a dark place but part of that journey is about people letting go of the things that they used to hold onto in order to survive so they can get in touch with some other kind of truth about themselves. To me, it's fundamentally: the masks that we create to protect ourselves ultimately get in the way, at one point, of us growing and experiencing other kinds of sensations in life, and one of those sensations is love."
There are survivors? Queenie is a survivor?
"Yes," Wolfe said, "she's a changed person. Yes, she's definitely a survivor."
Was it attractive to Wolfe, as producing artistic director of The Public Theater, that "The Wild Party" poem was in the public domain, requiring no payment for the rights to the property?
"Well, yeah, but you don't think about that," he said. "If the material is really exciting you go to whatever lengths you can to retrieve it. An artist [LaChiusa] was very passionate about a piece, and then myself as an artist became passionate about the piece, and we began this journey. You do that and you try to be fiscally responsible because you're a not-for-profit institution. One of your jobs is to try to support the artist as fully as you can."
In the LaChiusa-Wolfe version, Kitt, 70, will play Dolores, a character March describes as weeping and wailing (and having scarlet nails). It will be Kitt's first major appearance on Broadway since 1978, when she starred in Timbuktu! (and was nominated for a Best Actress Tony Award). Her first splash on a New York stage came in New Faces of 1952 (although she had previously danced in the revue, Blue Holiday). She memorably played Catwoman on the 1960s TV series, "Batman," and has released a number of recordings, including "Back in Business" and "Eartha Kitt, Greatest Hits." One of her signature songs, from New Faces, is "Monotonous." She is known around the world for her purring, ravenous vocal technique.
Patinkin, who'll play the brutal vaudevillian, Burrs, is the vocal powerhouse who played Che in Evita on Broadway and originated the roles of George in Sunday in the Park With George and Uncle Archie in The Secret Garden. He has performed frequently at The Public Theater and has a number of recordings on store shelves ("Experiment," "Dress Casual," among them). Last season he sang Yiddish favorites in the Broadway concert, Mamaloshen. He is currently seen as Dr. Jeffrey Geiger on CBS-TV's "Chicago Hope."
The Australian native Collette is remembered by moviegoers for the title role in "Muriel's Wedding," in which she played a chunky outsider (and ABBA fan) who stumbles into an arranged marriage with a gorgeous sports figure.
She earned a Best Actress Golden Globe nomination for the 1994 film role. She also appeared in "Velvet Goldmine," "Emma" and "The Boys." She recently shot the film, "Shaft."
Collette has appeared on stage with the Belvoir Street Theater and the Sydney Theater Company.
Tickets are $25-$85. The Virginia is at 245 W. 52nd St. in Manhattan. For information, call (212) 239-6200.