1. It Was a Dark and Stormy Night
Musicals these days are short on giant urns. I Love You, You’re Perfect, Now Change? One hundred percent urnless. Last season’s multiple Wild Partys? Not a giant urn in sight.
There’s a simple reason for the shortfall: Most musicals were not written and designed by Edward Gorey, the late virtuoso of the whimsical macabre. The eccentric author and illustrator, who died last year at the age of 75, coined a unique aesthetic—an alloy of morbidity, enigma, non sequitur and stuffy Edwardiana that gained him a cult following. Best known from the credit sequence of PBS’s Mystery!, Gorey’s art seeped into the theatre on several occasions, most recently in The Gorey Details, which premiered at Provincetown Repertory Theatre in Massachusetts and later traveled to New York.
Scored for keyboard, percussion and cello by Peter Matz, and directed by Daniel Levans, The Gorey Details conjured up the author/illustrator’s disarmingly ghoulish universe through miniature narratives and songs with titles like “The Weeping Chandelier,” “The Woeful Waking,” “The Insect God” and “The Unknown Vegetable.” All in all, the musicale (as the show’s subtitle put it) gave ample scope to urns—the giant-urn cutout marked “Mud,” for example, and the identical one marked “Suet.” Or the giant three-dimensional urn in which actor Kevin McDermott stood to recite the priceless nonsense monologue “The Object Lesson” (“The Throbblefoot Spectre still loitered in a distraught manner…. Heavens, how dashing! cried the people in the dinghy, and Echo answered: Count the spoons!…”)
McDermott’s bivouac in the urn was one of the high points of his performance as Ogdred Weary, the show’s recurring narrator and Gorey stand-in (the name is an anagram for Gorey’s). It was McDermott, in a pinstripe suit, white tennis shoes and a ne plus ultra handlebar mustache, whose entrance on a bicycle, at the start of Act 1, set the production into its outlandish motion—actors waving their arms in mock-balletic poses, or flitting across the stage in bat costumes, or striking deadpan stances that leaned away from the vertical.
“If we wanted it to truly look like Edward’s two-dimensional work, then it had to be a movement piece above all,” notes Ken Hoyt, artistic director of Provincetown Rep and longtime acquaintance of Gorey’s. Hoyt conceived of the show (which was initially titled, in urn-friendly fashion, Amphoragorey) when the five-year-old Rep was looking to do its first musical. “I wanted to do something different and unusual,” he says, “and the Gorey idea immediately presented itself.” One morning at the Yarmouth diner where Gorey had breakfasted every day for 15 years (the establishment had given him his own mug), Hoyt broached the concept. “I’ll send you everything I’ve ever done,” the author replied, “and you can do whatever you want with it.” Hoyt later flew to the West Coast to secure the talents of Emmy-winning composer Matz (whose lawn, it turned out coincidentally, Hoyt had mowed as a youth).
The notoriously reclusive Gorey saw the musical five times when it played in Provincetown (somewhat to the performers’ chagrin, he took flash photographs during the show). After his death, according to Hoyt, the five ticket stubs were discovered lined up lovingly on his dresser—the author’s favor, it seems, had been fully urned. —Celia Wren
2. My Dinner with Fanny
How fitting that Fanny at Chez Panisse, Joe Landon’s savory chamber musical, should premiere in cuisine-conscious Berkeley! Chez Panisse is, of course, the world-famous Berkeley restaurant of Alice Waters, a leader in the fresh-food revolution of the early ’70s. The musical, which played at the city’s Julia Morgan Center last September (under the auspices of San Francisco’s not-for-profit Z Space), is based on Waters’s 1992 children’s book of the same name, full of recipes and true kitchen tales seen through the eyes of her then-six-year-old daughter, Fanny.
For the stage version, Landon made Fanny 12, in order to allow an early-adolescent identity crisis to give the play focus. A school misfit with a halibut-wrapped-in-fig-leaves brown-bag lunch, Fanny can be herself only when surrounded by Panisse’s loving, quirky kitchen staff. Meanwhile, Mom (played by Maureen McVerry) is too absorbed in her own mission—promoting organic cookery—to help her daughter (the captivating 16-year-old Cecilia Foecke).
Landon, a composer and the author of the play Blessing, says that with Waters’s characters for inspiration, it was no trouble to cook up Fanny’s songs. “Now,” he adds, “I have to make the book justify itself.” Indeed, it was the music—scored for a four-piece band (the violinist doubled on bongos) in styles that included jazz, country, ’50s pop and more—that delighted audiences at the play’s opening last fall. Charmers like “Fanny Is the Nanny”—a rock number boasting the catchy refrain “arugula, arugula…”—and “Dessert,” a wistful lemon tart–recipe duet, perfectly melded the culinary metaphor to the characters’ daily activities and deepest longings.
Critics generally agreed, though, that Landon’s script, which traced a bumpy yet transformative day in Fanny’s young life, was weak. “I was most interested in the dynamic between mother and daughter,” says Landon, who is rewriting to focus more intently on that relationship. “Ultimately that may be an inherent limitation in the material, but that’s also what moved me to begin with: the struggle of a child separating from a parent. The restaurant—the food—becomes just the palette I’m using to express that.”
Will a rewritten Fanny play in, say, Peoria and other heartland meat-and-potatoes strongholds? The show’s Berkeley-based director Joy Carlin, who is also an actress and a longtime friend of Waters, believes so. “Its niche is rare,” she says. “It’s a family musical that all generations seem to enjoy.” Though there are no immediate plans for a remounting, several theatres have suggested they find the project appetizing. —Jean Schiffman
3. All in the Family, Queens Style
The experience of newcomers to the States seems a natural subject for the musical stage. Think of Anita and friends in West Side Story, sassily observing that everything’s free in America—”for a small fee.” Or consider Tateh in Ragtime, taking the first steps toward transforming himself from dirt-poor refugee to powerhouse movie mogul.
Now playwright Kate Moira Ryan (author of Damage and Desire and the upcoming adaptation of Dorothy Allison’s novel Cave-dweller for San Diego’s La Jolla Playhouse) and composer Kim D. Sherman (who scored the stage version of Willa Cather’s O Pioneers!) add to the tradition with Leaving Queens, a new musical that debuts at Maine’s Portland Stage Company on Jan. 30, followed by a run at New York’s Women’s Project and Productions, beginning Feb. 27.
The undertaking has been doubly challenging for Ryan, a second-generation Irish American. In Leaving Queens, not only is she dealing with semi-autobiographical material; she is making her first foray into the musical genre. Her tale’s protagonist is a troubled photographer named Megan, whose life is transformed when she learns an unlikely family secret—that her grandfather worked as a guard at Manhattan’s Museum of Modern Art. This and other Ryan family stories were first explored in a short nonmusical play called The Guard, performed at New York’s Primary Stages several seasons ago. Afterward, Ryan adopted a verse format and began expanding the material. Then Julia Miles of the Women’s Project commissioned a full-length musical version, and teamed Ryan with Sherman. The show was workshopped at Carnegie Mellon’s summer theatre last year.
With no formal musical-theatre training, Ryan schooled herself quickly in book and lyric writing. After studying “tomes” of lyrics and arming themselves with a thesaurus and rhyming dictionary, Ryan and Sherman wrote much of Leaving Queens hunkered over a piano in the Hell’s Kitchen headquarters of New York’s New Dramatists.
The resulting score is best described as eclectic, drawing on a variety of musical traditions. On some numbers, Sherman adds distinctly Celtic sounds, while the song “At the Movies” harks back to the Rodgers and Hammerstein musical-play tradition, with emotion expressed unapologetically in a straight-ahead lyric. Another selection, “Lamp in the Dark,” is “sort of modeled on a Sondheim song,” Ryan says.
Ryan definitely believes there are more musicals in her future. “I’ve sort of got the bug,” the first-time librettist says, “but I think I’ll take a breather.”—Mark Dundas Wood
4. Fast Times at St. Celia’s
Putting the pop in opera is what bare—a new musical designed to speak to high school students—is all about. Devised by musical-theatre neophytes, bare focuses on six high school seniors at St. Celia’s Catholic boarding school, and tells all about the forbidden love between two boys. Despite the title, bare doesn’t feature any nudity—just some shirt-doffing and some tastefully simulated acts of sex. Still, it has been a sold-out success at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre on Hollywood’s theatre row.
Bare’s creative team includes Damon Intrabartolo, an Emmy-nominated University of Southern California music school dropout; Jon Hartmere Jr., a grade school teacher who turned down grad school at Harvard to become a first-time lyricist; and Kristin Hanggan, a director who, at 23, is younger than most of the actors in the play. The production, replete with such Rent-like images as head mikes, also contains God-light dramatic spotlights and singing saints—some looking suspiciously like the Supremes. Indeed, Intrabartolo says, bare is written “on the same page as Rent.” Yet unlike Jonathan Larson, Intrabartolo and Hartmere didn’t base their alternative rock-and-pop-musical tale on an opera. The show’s characters—the clandestine lovers, Jason and Peter; the lonely Nadia who hides behind her cello and sarcasm; and the bed-hopping Ivy, who gets used by the sexually confused Jason—are all drawn from Intrabartolo and Hartmere’s own experiences in Catholic elementary schools, where they found their sexual orientation at odds with their religious beliefs.
But bare isn’t Catholic-bashing from an equity-waiver pulpit. According to Hanggan, its message is love and acceptance. But its real allure for audiences is the commonality of experience—alienation, fear of rejection, confusion of sexual identity and the poignancy of marginalization. Hartmere says he knew they had a hit “the first night it was sold out and I didn’t recognize people in the audience. And no one left at intermission!” —Jana Monji
5. Secrets and Lies
A cursory look at the canon of African-American drama reveals myriad plays that focus on working poor or middle class families struggling to, as the saying goes, “get mine from man.” Rarely do playwrights of color write—or theatres produce—works that deal with the wealthier African-American population. Ophelia’s Cotillion: An Invitation to the Nightmare Years, a new musical offering from collaborators Elmo Terry-Morgan and Clarice LaVerne Thompson, attempts to mend this oversight. Audiences at Providence, R.I.’s Rites & Reason Theatre got a first look at the in-progress musical in 1998.
Ophelia’s Cotillion opens with a black crow sweeping across the stage and then nestling into the trees, observing and shadowing everything that follows. The crow is a straightforward symbol, the embodiment of the Jim Crow laws that transformed the lives of blacks across the country, even wealthy African Americans living as far north as Philadelphia.
“The musical is set in 1896, the year of the infamous Supreme Court decision, Plessy v Ferguson,” comments book writer Terry-Morgan. “Ophelia Bancroft McKenna fears being unmasked by the old families of Philadelphia’s Negro elite, just like many of the colored at the time feared losing what few rights and privileges they had.” The general insecurity is well founded, for as the social order of the era shifts, the annual Jewel Cotillion and Lilac Ball is in jeopardy. “The new separate-but-equal laws send the colored aristocrats into confusion,” adds Terry-Morgan. “For the first time they are being kept out of the white hotel and forced to use the rear entrance, even though this ball has been held at the same hotel for years.”
The play’s McKenna family owns the black lumber mill, and the matriarch screens the debutante and escort list for the ball. “There was an actual black lumber mill owner in Philadelphia during the 1850s who was worth over $100,000,” Terry-Morgan notes. The name of the ball is fictitious, he says, but cotillions were quite popular among the black aristocracy of the time—and still are. Why is Ophelia so obsessed with hiding her identity? “Ophelia was once a maid,” Terry-Morgan explains. “When her now-deceased husband, Jonathan, fell in love with her, he did the Pygmalion thing on her, and brought her back to Philadelphia and passed her off as one of his set.”
Terry-Morgan began Ophelia as a commission from the Gaslamp Quarter Theatre in San Diego in 1988. “It was to be a vehicle for Cleavon Little,” he explained, “but when he died in the early ’90s, interest in the project lapsed.” Then Terry-Morgan experienced writer’s block. Only after he changed the lead character to a woman did the ideas begin to flow.
His collaborator helped, too. Thompson and Terry-Morgan worked on the 1979 Song of Sheba, which received eight AUDELCO awards. “She’s created a score for Ophelia that calls for a combo and a banjo. There’s a ragtime feel to the music,” Terry-Morgan explains of the composer, “with touches of blues, parlor, gospel and show-tune inspired songs.”
Ophelia’s Cotillion has more substance than your typical Cinderella story, though the musical does culminate in an all’s-well-that-ends-well final scene. Terry-Morgan calls Ophelia a “drama/comedy/musical complete with production numbers—as well as the much-anticipated waltz at the Lilac Ball.” While there are no productions pending, Terry-Morgan declares, “we’re eager to jump-start the project again.”—Lenora Inez Brown