There's never been anything like it: Two major musicals in one New York season, both based on the same source material. Both shows shared the same title, were the work of rising young writers, and were supported by first-class director/design teams. And, sadly, both works were unsuccessful at the box office.
Welcome to the phenomenon of The Wild Party. Joseph Moncure March's 1928 poem was long considered a literary curio. However, a new edition, in 1998, featuring illustrations by Art Spiegelman, revived interest in the work. In a bizarre twist, two different adaptations were announced for the past season: one version by Andrew Lippa for Off Broadway's Manhattan Theatre Club, and a Broadway production, with music and lyrics by Michael John LaChiusa and a book by LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, who also directed. (Wolfe is artistic director of the Joseph Papp Public Theatre/New York Shakespeare Festival; the company was one of The Wild Party's co-producers.)
In this case, the more was not the merrier. Both Wild Parties received sharply mixed reviews, with The New York Times filing a negative notice in each case. As a result, plans were abandoned for the Broadway transfer of the Manhattan Theatre Club production and the LaChiusa-Wolfe production was struggling to survive at Broadway's Virginia Theatre. (As we go to press, The Wild Party announced its closing on June 11.)
It's an unfortunate story, since both productions were among the most interesting the season had to offer. The LaChiusa-Wolfe version is easily the most fascinating Broadway show of the year; it's also a first-rate lesson in adapting difficult material to the stage. March's poem is a harsh melodrama, told in rhymed couplets, about a booze-soaked soiree that goes fatally wrong: Queenie (Toni Collette) and Burrs (Mandy Patinkin) are a pair of small-time vaudeville performers whose love affair is sputtering out. To liven things up, they throw a party for their circle of friends. To ignite Burrs' jealousy, Queenie makes a play for Black, who arrives with her friend Kate. But Queenie succeeds too well; as the party degenerates into an orgy, tensions explode in a series of ugly confrontations, climaxing in Burrs' death.
March's poem is full of atmosphere and incident; the characters are deliberately two-dimensional, a collection of types meant to illustrate a certain aspect of the New York underworld. LaChiusa and Wolfe have made no attempt to convert March's piece into a book musical with a conventional narrative. Instead, their Wild Party is a kind of nightmare set to music, a parade of bizarre characters and jarring incidents meant to evoke the racial, sexual, and intellectual ferment of New York in the 20s. Burrs is a Jewish singer in the Al Jolson mode, who performs in blackface, while Queenie is, as the lyrics note, "sexually ambitious." Among the guests are the "ambisextrous" playboy Jackie; the lesbian stripper Madeleine True; Sally, her drug-addled girlfriend; and the D'Armano Brothers, a pair of black, gay, incestuous songwriters. Presiding over theaction is the seen-it-all diva Dolores (Eartha Kitt), who offers one and all some harsh lessons in survival in the eleven o'clock number "When It Ends."
The war between illusion and reality is at the heart of this Wild Party. The revelers are desperate creatures, grabbing at any sensation to distract them from the knowledge of their authentic selves. Interestingly, Wolfe--aided by scenic designer Robin Wagner--has given the production a theatrical metaphor. The action takes place in an abandoned theatre. The stage is framed by a false proscenium dotted with tacky Tivoli lights. Certain scenes are staged in front of blatantly artificial painted drops. Queenie and Burrs' apartment is a skeletal arrangement of walls and furniture placed on a turntable at stage center, surrounded by large, imposing walls, with multi-paned windows and topped by a ceiling with a skylight. The effect is of a rehearsal set placed on the stage of an altogether different production.
The lighting design, by Jules Fisher and Peggy Eisenhauer, further heightens the surreal, disconnected atmosphere. Characters appear half-shrouded in the darkness, while others are exposed in cruel bursts of saturated color. Carefully cued crossfades result in odd, dreamlike transitions, while the use of different layers of intensity and color produces images of startling depth. At other moments, the lights are harshly theatrical, a brutal parody of showbiz lighting. And everywhere, everywhere, there are shadows, casting a menacing presence across the stage.
In some ways, the use of shadows provided Fisher and Eisenhauer with the key to their design. Early on, Wolfe gave the LDs a copy of the book Sin in Soft-Focus: Pre-Code Hollywood, by Mark A. Viera (published by Harry N. Abrams). This lavishly illustrated volume is filled with photos from late-20s to early-30s Hollywood films featuring gangsters, showgirls, kept women, gigolos, and shopgirls on the make--a racy genre that was wiped out by the adoption of the Production Code in 1933. These films represent an apex of black-and-white cinematography and consequently many of the book's photos make evocative use of shadows.
"George kept talking about shadows," says Eisenhauer, and she and Fisher took the director up on his concept. The shadow idea is established right at the top with the opening number "Queenie Was a Blonde," in which the characters assemble on an empty stage and Queenie does a striptease that leaves her naked to the waist. The shadows reappear in the number "Black Bottom," as the partygoers cut loose, their shadows undulating on a set suffused with luridly colored light. Later, Eddie Mackrel, a boxer, beats up Jackie, who has tried to rape his sister-in-law--the altercation casts giant shadows on the set's rear wall.
The shadow metaphor also directly keys into the show's text, which makes numerous references to real and artificial light. In "This Is What It Is," Queenie describes her feelings for Black in terms of living in daylight, as opposed to her night life with Burrs. In "When It Ends," Dolores demands a harsh, revealing light to present her astringent philosophy. The teenaged Nadine describes in song her fantasies about "The Lights of Broadway," a melody later echoed by a pensive Queenie.
Fisher cites the number "Tabu" as an especially effective use of shadows. The song cues one of the show's turning points, when Queenie and Black first experience their mutual attraction. "There's a singer at the piano," says Fisher, "his profiled face edge-lit with a unit built into the floor, a 3" fresnel, buried under Plexiglas. At center stage, Black is with Queenie, and the [Vari*Lite(R)] VL5s(TM) make a swirling pattern on the floor. It looks like a scene from the [Viera] book--a stylized, unreal glamour profile." As the number ends, the pool of light on Queenie and Black opens up to reveal Burrs and Kate watching them intently, an elegant way of setting up the play's central dramatic tension.
In order to achieve such shadow effects, Eisenhauer came up with a very novel idea--to put six VL6B automated units into footlight positions, creating moving shadow sources. The configuration of the Virginia Theatre is ideal for this strategy, she says: "You couldn't do this in nine out of 10 Broadway theatres, because of the size and location of the edge of the stage." Fisher adds, "The units have to be high enough to make shadows, but also low enough to be thoroughly masked and out of sight." Besides the footlights, there are five L&E striplights sunk into the downstage floor, to help make shadows, light the downstage drops, and to add to the overtly theatrical atmosphere. Other shadows are created thanks to another atypical technique--there are three Strand 10,000W fresnels placed in front-of-house positions. "We adapted them to be shadow projectors," says Fisher. "Each one lights the entire stage, using a color scroller. They make a flat shadow, with dark colors," a look that adds to the sinister atmosphere.
The Wild Party begins with stylized theatrical lighting (complete with footlights) for the opening number, then moves toward a flat, bright look for a scene of domestic discord between Queenie and Burrs, played, like a burlesque sketch, in front of a cartoonish drop. Once the action moves to the party itself, Fisher and Eisenhauer faced a new challenge: how to make the apartment expand and contract as necessary as the focus shifts from group scenes to smaller, more intimate moments. Another complicating factor: lighting positions were limited by the set, which has three walls and a ceiling.
Fortunately, the ceiling includes a skylight, approximately 12' (4m) square, located over the center stage area, so Fisher and Eisenhauer placed above the skylight two concentric rings of truss containing VL6s and VL6Bs. "George wanted to have one scene move offstage as another moved into focus," says Fisher, adding that the Vari*Lites are timed to move at the same speed as the turntable, allowing scenes to fade in and out in cinematic fashion. This technique is most notably used during the musical's nightmarish climax, in which Burrs threatens Queenie with a gun. "You see Burrs, a Victrola, the bed, and the door," says Fisher. "They're turning in a complete revolve, with a pool of light on each set piece." This minimalist tableau heightens the tension of this climactic moment.
Because of the show's highly stylized nature, Fisher and Eisenhauer's lighting is expressionistic by design, moving from various configurations of deeply saturated color to stark washes of white light. Sources cued to the wall sconces give certain scenes a soft, candlelit glow, but as the party wears on the lighting becomes less naturalistic, more rooted in the characters' emotional states. The designers have done extensive work with floor patterns; when Queenie sings the number "Welcome to My Party," a group of diamond patterns comes together to form a spotlight on her. When Burrs finishes his bitter tirade "Wouldn't It Be Nice?" the spotlight on him splits into a dozen smaller spots that spread across the stage, while the center stage wash changes color, providing a graceful transition into Queenie's introspective lament, "Lowdown-Down."
The orgy sequence is staged behind Kate, who sings the number "Black Is a Moocher," while rolling in bed with Burrs; behind them the half-dressed bodies of the party guests are revealed in a spinning blue light. Later, with most of the cast lying about, sexually spent, Sally sings the haunting "After Midnight Dies;" the walls and ceiling are removed, with the circular trusses flying out as well. ("There's just the back wall and a mirror," says Fisher.) This stripped-down look banishes any hint of the outside world, with the characters trapped in a psychological prison of their own making. Dolores performs "When It Ends" in front of the curtain, which then lifts to reveal the climactic sequence, the three-way showdown between Queenie, Burrs, and Black.
LaChiusa's score is enormously complex, using jazz-inspired vamps and rhythms in an almost Cubist way, repeating and reconfiguring melodic ideas to create discordant butunforgettable music. (Fisher and Eisenhauer are familiar with the composer's work, having also designed his chamber opera Marie Christine earlier in the season, as well as the 1994 musical Hello Again.) The designers' cueing for The Wild Party is, therefore, according to Eisenhauer, "born of his musical style. We worked not to make it too conventional, visually speaking. We broke cues down, performed some surgery on them so the audience wasn't lulled into" offering up applause after each song, which would break the show's tension. (The Wild Party is a one-act show, built on a single line of mounting dramatic intensity.) Both designers agree that, in this respect, this approach to cueing recalls their work on Grand Hotel, another dark show that sustains an uninterrupted musical and dramatic line.
Controlling the automated lighting is an Artisan(R) console from Vari-Lite, with a Strand 530 console handling the conventional lighting, which consisted primarily of ETC Source Four and Altman units, with Wybron coloram scrollers also used. Lighting equipment, except for the Vari*Lite units, was supplied by Production Arts/PRG. Other key lighting personnel included assistant lighting designer Bobby Harrell, moving light programmer Richard Tyndall, production electrician Richard Mortell, head electrician Gregory Husinko, assistant electrician Derek Healy, and followpot operators Tom Galinski and Sean Fedigan.
Having established their repertory of looks for this theatrical Wild Party, Fisher and Eisenhauer boldly break from their own conventions for the show's finale. After Burrs' death, the scene moves back to the empty-theatre look of the opening. Queenie stands at center stage, surrounded by the other characters. The set pieces have vanished, leaving the players in a dark void. At this point, as Queenie rubs off her makeup, stripping herself emotionally bare, Fisher says, "We build in a soft, warm, revealing light that allows the audience to look at her. We're using a low sidelight position that creates a new look in the show." It's a startlingly theatrical moment, a last-minute perspective on Queenie's character, as she arrives at a moment of painful yet joyful recognition. The moment ends abruptly, unsentimentally, almost before the audience can quite take it in. The party's over, an appropriate finale to a musical that boldly uses the techniques of theatre to discomfit and engage the audience at the same time.
To read about the Manhattan Theatre Club's production of The Wild Party, with lighting by Kenneth Posner, see "Another Wild Party," online at www.etecnyc.net.