Friday, March 20, 2015

Theatre: Wild Party - Lachiusa vs Lippa

Wild Party is a book-length classic narrative poem written by Joseph Moncure March in 1928 that was meant to be a "dark Prohibition-era morality fable".  It tells the story of vaudevillian performers and lovers Queenie, the dancer and Burrs, the clown, who have a volatile and abusive relationship.  As a way to make up after a violent fight, they decide to throw a party for all of their friends, with Queenie harboring the additional secret agenda of trying to stick it to Burrs by finding someone to flirt with.  The party turns into an orgy filled with gin, cocaine and both gay and straight sex and even an incestuous brother pairing.  Trouble brews when Queenie meets and develops a deep connection with the mysterious Mr. Black, leading to an explosively climatic conclusion (pun intended).

Even for the roaring 20s, this poem was quite scandalous and the book was widely banned.  Interest in Wild Party was not revived until 1994, when graphic novelist and cartoonist Art Spiegelmen (who won the Pulitzer prize for Maus) created the illustrations for a new publishing with the subtitle "The Lost Classic".

Suddenly, Wild Party was popular again, and resulted in two musical adaptions being produced in the same 1999-2000 theatre season.  Wild Party by Michael Lachiusa had a brief 68 show run on Broadway and starred Mandy Patinkin (Saul on Homeland) and Toni Collette (the mother in Sixth Sense and About A Boy - who knew she could sing?!?) as Burrs and Queenie.  The second Wild Party by Andrew Lippa ran for 54 productions off-Broadway, featuring Idina Menzel (Wicked, Frozen) and Tayne Diggs (Rent, Private Practice) as party guests Kate and Mr. Black who form a tragic love quadrangle with Queenie and Burrs.  Had Lippa's version made it to Broadway as intended, there would have been a chance for two musicals with the same name, based on the same source, to be nominated for a Tony award in the same year.  Sadly, this did not come to pass.

Having bought the soundtrack for Andrew Lippa's version of Wild Party many years ago, I love those songs and know them by heart.  Learning that The Wild Party would be playing at the Canadian Stage Berkley Theatre, I immediately assumed it was the version I was familiar with, and I was excited that I could finally see the songs performed live. Instead, it turned out that this was the Lachiusa version of the musical–the one that I knew nothing about.  After watching this version, I am now able to compare and contrast the two Wild Party musicals.

Both productions start with the same-titled first song and the identical initial lines of lyrics, taken verbatim from the first lines of the poem–"Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still, and she danced twice a day in vaudeville...".  But that is where the similarities end.  Although based on the same source poem, these two musicals are very different both in plot emphasis and musical style.  The differences are easy to spot by examining the first song of each show.  Lippa's version of Queenie Was A Blonde has a smooth, sultry cool jazz feel, featuring muted trumpets, saxophones and piano as the primary instruments.  Lachiusa's version is highlighted by blaring horns and brass, giving it a swing jazz or big band feel that is more representative of the era in which the story takes place.

On the whole, I much prefer  Lippa's Wild Party, since the tunes are more hummable, memorable and accessible.  His storyline is more intimate, focusing mainly on the tensions of the four main characters of Queenie, Burrs, Kate and Black, with the rest of the party guests acting merely as peripheral fillers.  In this respect, the plot is probably a bit closer to the poem than in the Lachiusa version.  In general, the music in the Andrew Lippa version sounds more modern and typical of contemporary Broadway fare.  Ballads and torch songs such as Poor Child, Maybe I Like It This Way, and What Is It About Her flesh out the motivations and relationships of the foursome, allowing you to become more invested in their plight.

By contrast, many of the Lachiusa songs seem like they are disparate acts or sketches pulled right out of a 1920s vaudeville show, in the spirit of Al Jolson or Eddie Cantor.  Despite being less melodic for my tastes, this music is definitely more authentic to the times.  Expanding on the poem, the plot is also more substantial, exploring deeper, serious themes such as racism, antisemitism, and violence against women.  Each of the party guests has a distinct story arc and is given multiple songs to further explore or develop his or her character.

Eddie is a formerly successful black boxer known as "The Champ" who has a white wife named Mae.  In their first song Eddie and Mae, the couple seem like the picture of wedded bliss.  But as the party progresses and Eddie flirts with other women, the strains of the relationship emerge.  Eddie feels he gave up boxing for Mae, while Mae gave up dancing in vaudeville for Eddie.  Although he is called "The Champ", he still experiences racism as shown in the lyrics of the song When Golden Boy Goes Down–"You're the pride of your race; Hey wait, use the back door; remember your place.  You can look at the white girls, sure;  But Champ, don’t you touch."

Oscar and Phil are performing brothers who also seem to be incestuous lovers!  Their bond is tested by the lecherous Jackie, who has the hots for anyone and everyone at the party, and is termed "ambisextrous" both in the poem and in the lyrics of his introduction song Breezing Though Another Day.  Jackie seduces Oscar, then later, while high on cocaine, tries to rape Nadine, the young sister of Mae.  Nadine starts the party as a young innocent who dreams of being on Broadway, but is corrupted by Jackie and ends up snorting cocaine before he attacks her.

Lesbian Madeline has brought her new conquest, drugged-up morphine addicted Sally to the party and is desperate for Sally to love her.  Sally spends most of the party in a catatonic state, but eventually awakens and in the song After Midnight Dies, she clearly sees all the revelers as they really are–"Down goes the wall; Down goes the guard; After midnight dies, it ain’t so hard to see the truth.  No need for lies.  What we are is all we are"

Delores is a faded vaudeville star who longs to reclaim past her past glories.  In that pursuit, she seduces a pair of Jewish theatre producers, Gold and Goldberg, hoping they will include her in their plans to move "Uptown" to Broadway.  Last to arrive are Queenie's best friend Kate, and her escort/gigolo Mr. Black.  While Kate makes the moves on Burrs, Black is immediately drawn to and falls in love with Queenie, sparking the main conflict to come.

One prevalent theme, that is illustrated by the behaviours of multiple characters, is the concept of hidden identities.  The song Gold and Goldberg deals primarily with the theatre producers arguing over whether they should hide their Jewishness by changing the name "Goldberg" to "Golden".  While most productions take the line "Queenie was a blonde..." literally and cast a Jean Harlow/Marilyn Monroe-like blond bombshell, Michael Lachiusa interpreted a later line in the poem stanza to mean that Queenie was actually black, but trying to hide that fact since "Her face was a tinted mask of snow".   At the end of the show, she finally removes her makeup and reveals her true self.  Lachiusa was originally going to cast African-American actress Vanessa Williams in the part, but recast with blonde Toni Collette when Williams became pregnant.  And finally, Burrs performs his clown act in black face, putting it on almost like
warrior paint.

The Canadian Stage production of Wild Party resurrects Lachiusa's original concept of making Queenie a lighted-skinned mulatto (played by Cara Ricketts from Book of Negroes) but ups the ante by also casting a black actor, Daren A. Herbert, for the role of Burrs.  This led to the interesting proposition of having a black man wear black-face makeup, something that actually happened in vaudeville and minstrel shows in this period of history.  An interesting article in the Globe and Mail describes this practice as using a "clownish caricature" to accentuate blackness.  Herbert in particular is magnificent in his portrayal of the "sad clown" with a violent streak who struggles during the entire party to keep his emotions in check, until they explode at the end.  Herbert plays the role with enough pathos that you actually feel sorry for Burrs despite his volatile and destructive nature.

This CanStage production made choices for set and staging that take full advantage of the large floor space, fire escape staircase, upper balcony and even the aisles of the Berkeley Theatre to move the party goers around, allowing them to congregate or find private moments as required.  The dimly lit set had a smokey, grimy feel that was befitting of the debauchery that evolved over two-hour intermission-less show.

Of particular interest were the stage directions for the "secondary characters" who stayed onstage in the background while a main scene of dialogue or song was being performed.  While the spotlight shone on the main scene, demanding your attention, you could not help but glance around and notice various couples in the background making out, doing drugs, having an argument or even stripping nude and climbing into the bathtub–you definitely did not want to miss that action!  These secondary scenes were both fascinating and distracting at the same time.  In the Q&A session following the performance, the actors indicated that while it was scripted in general where they should be and who they were interacting with, much of what was actually happening in the background was improvised and changed from night to night.

In the end, while I still prefer the music of the Andrew Lippa version of Wild Party, I have come to appreciate the depth, complexity and period authenticity of the Michael Lachiusa version.

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