Friday, July 17, 2009

Which wild party for you?

The poem was widely banned in 1928. Joseph Moncure March's first published work was provocative, sexual, and well...wild. But many who managed to get their hands on a copy loved it, and it was considered successful-though March learned from the experience and toned down his subsequent poems.

The poem was book length and entitled "The Wild Party". The story centers on two vaudeville performers: Queenie, a gorgeous blonde, and Burrs, her jealous and bad tempered lover with whom she lives. One evening they throw a party, where Queenie's friend Kate brings a man named Black. The two quickly fall for each other, angering Burrs and resulting in a climactic confrontation. Other characters populate the poem, including lesbian Madeline True, bisexual Jackie, the incestuous brothers D'Armano, a prize fighter named Eddie, his showgirl wife Mae, Mae's young sister Nadine, producers Gold and Goldberg, and a stripper named Doris.

In 1994 a new edition of the poem was published, subtitled "The lost classic." Upon reading this, two composers saw a potential musical. Michael John LaChuisa was a young composer with some success, including several major award nominations for his musical "Hello Again" (another incredibly sexual piece based on Arthur Schnitzler's LA RONDE), his Public Theatre production of the innovative "First Lady Suite", and the Broadway show "Chronicle of a Death Foretold."

Andrew Lippa had been a graduate of...that's right, my alma mater, the University of Michigan musical theatre program (which I shall promote at every turn in case you haven't noticed) and had found work in various areas of the theatre for several years. He had worked with Tom Greenwald to compose the sweet two person musical "john & jen" (which my theatre company produced in 2008). At the time of "The Wild Party", his career was still blossoming; the year before The Wild Party debuted, Kristen Chenoweth sang his song "My New Philosophy" on the Tony Awards, and later won herself the title of Best Featured Actress in a musical for "You're A good Man Charlie Brown". Lippa had written new songs for the Broadway revival of this beloved musical.

So then we come to "The Wild Party." Lippa's opened first on February 24, 2000 at Manhattan Theatre Club off-Broadway. Julia Murney (Wicked) starred as Queenie, Brian D'arcy James (Shrek) as Burrs, Taye Diggs (Rent) was Black and Idina Menzel (the original Elphaba in Wicked, Maureen in Rent) was Kate. Lippa's version was told in a mostly traditional musical theatre style, with cast members occasionally breaking the fourth wall (the barrier between the action and the audience) to narrate using passages from March's poem. Though there are occasional distractions, such as a moment for Madelaine True to belt about how she needs an "Old Fashioned Lesbian Love Story" or for mismatched newlyweds Eddie and Mae to claim they are "Two of a Kind", the majority of the action centers around the four main players. Lippa's version ran for 54 performances (about 7 weeks). Gabriel Barre directed.

LaChuisa's version opened on Broadway on April 13, 2000. Film star Toni Colette (The United States of Tara, Muriel's Wedding, The Sixth Sense) made her Broadway debut as Queenie. Mandy Patinkin (a Broadway legend of Sunday in the Park with George, among others, and accomplished film and television actor) played Burrs. Yancey Arias (TV's NYPD Blue, One Life to Live, CSI, and others) played Black. Tonya Pinkins (Jelly's Last Jame, Caroline or Change) was Kate. In a notable supporting role was the legendary Eartha Kitt (as in Catwoman!) as hooker Dolores. Also present was Mark Kudisch (currently starring in 9 to 5 on Broadway) as bisexual Jackie. LaChuisa tells the story in a series of vaudeville sketches, allowing each character to have at least one featured moment and developing many secondary storylines outside of the love triangle. Though nominated for 7 Tony awards, including Best Musical, it won none, which caused it to close after 36 previews and 68 performances (about 13 weeks). George C. Wolfe directed, and used much more stylized, choreographed staging in the tradition of a vaudeville show.

The differences are MANY. Since this post is pretty long already I'll point out a few of the larger ones:

-LaChuisa's version is more historically based, focusing on the fact that at the time this poem was written Manhattan social circles were changing, and blacks and whites were becoming more integrated and changing neighborhoods. Lippa's featured a multi-racial cast as well, but did not delve directly into the issue.

-As mentioned above, every character in LaChuisa's version is given a chance to shine. In fact, the focus on the supporting characters make an even more obvious difference: Certain characters from the poem that don't even appear in Lippa's version have entire songs in LaChuisa's version, such as Broadway producers Gold and Goldberg and Madelaine True's new love Sally.

-The character of Jackie is silent in Lippa's version, his most prominent moment being a dance solo at the conclusion of the party. In LaChuisa's version, Jackie is a much more fleshed out character with several featured numbers.

-Likewise Dolores is a non-singing supporting role in Lippa's version and a prominent character (as played by Eartha Kitt) in LaChuisa's.

So which is the preferred version? Obviously that depends on who you talk to. I will start by saying that my theatre company will be producing Lippa's version of The Wild Party next summer. However, LaChuisa's has always been my favorite of the two. The music in LaChuisa's version is tightly focused on the style of music from the era it takes place in. I also am a fan of unconventional storytelling methods. But mostly I think there is just more substance to LaChuisa's version, focusing on issues of race, sexuality, discrimination, the American Dream-there is so much to take away. I find LaChuisa's musical style incredibly exciting, though it is an acquired taste for some people. My favorite songs, which I think are also very accessible, are "Uptown", "A Little Mmmm", and "Blame it on the Gin".

Lippa's, on the other hand, is also fantastic. Though he never settles on one musical style, Lippa's music is undeniably rousing. The 11 o'clock number "Let Me Drown" is one of those songs where the performers can throw caution to the winds, let loose and go nuts. There are almost too many showstoppers in Lippa's version: The fast paced "Raise the Roof" at the beginning of the party, Madalaine True's obscene "Old Fashioned Love Story", Queenie and Burrs example of their upcoming show "Wild Wild Party", Kate's opening for Act II "Life of the Party" and the climactic "Make Me Happy" are all examples of the energy one normally only sees a couple of times in most musicals. Lippa uses vocal acrobatics in many of his songs, adding runs and belted high notes for effect. Unlike many composers who use this tactic however, Lippa uses it only in moments where it is naturally called for. The story is still engaging, and the main characters well crafted. Lippa's in short, is the equivalent of a really well crafted beach read, while LaChuisa's is more of a literary work to be studied by English classes.

It is worth noting that Lippa's version is also produced far more often regionally because it is easier to cast and the music much easier to learn, if more difficult to sing.

Idina Menzel in "The Wild Party" off-Broadway

The Tony Awards performance of LaChuisa's Broadway version

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