Joe Iconis has made his name as a songwriter/dramatist and bandleader in New York City with such shows as Bloodsong of Love and The Black Suits, which had a workshop production last year at Massachusetts’s Barrington Stage and will premiere at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Los Angeles, Oct. 27–Nov. 24. His upcoming works include a musical about Hunter S. Thompson for La Jolla Playhouse.
What was your first theatrical experience?
The original production of The Little Shop of Horrors, which was at the Orpheum Theatre. It was my sixth birthday. The movie had come out while the original production was still running, and I saw commercials for the production and said to my parents, “Oh, that’s that movie I like—can I go see the play?” It was the most influential moment of my young life—I was immediately hooked onto musicals. And I consider myself lucky that it was my first theatrical experience, as opposed to, say, Cats. Then I saw Anything Goes and Into the Woods right after that, so I was set.
Since The Black Suits is about a high school garage band, I feel we should also ask you about your first concert.
My first concert was Debbie Gibson at the Westbury Music Center, which has to be the least cool first concert ever. I can say pretty confidently that it has had no effect on my life.
So did you have a high school rock band yourself?
I definitely did not. I was not cool enough to even be in an uncool band. I was a good piano player, and sometimes people would ask me to play piano for a concert or something. In the writing of Black Suits, I was more inspired by working as a musical director with the pit bands for shows, and all those guys were in local bands.
Do you think of the show as a kind of backstage story?
I don’t. What I’ve been trying to do is to take the emphasis off of it being the story of kids trying to win a Battle of the Bands and have it be a story about the kids themselves. I was really influenced by Robert Altman movies; Dazed and Confused was also a big influence, where you feel like you’re peering in on some people just being themselves.
But they’re singing. Is that why your lyrics are really conversational, like dialogue set to music?
Absolutely. Content dictates form. It’s kind of a no-brainer that if you write a song for a kid in the suburbs in 2013, it should sound like a kid in the suburbs in 2013. I love finding that—the rhythm, the music in everyday speech. I love when the lines between are-they-talking? and are-they-singing? are kind of blurred. And I always like it in theatre songs when the big “a-ha” moment of the song surprises the person who’s singing it. For me, that’s kind of the whole point.
If you had the chance to live high school again, would you?
I would not. Nothing that great happened I’d want to revisit. I much prefer to continue to write about it as an old man, and exorcise high school demons while not in high school.
What are the main differences and similarities you see between rock and theatre?
In a rock show, it’s solely about the music and the feeling that you’re getting from the music. It’s supposed to be engaging the audience on a gut level, even if it’s the most cerebral band in the world, and moving, sometimes in a literal way. Theatre is a different beast. I feel like theatre, musical or otherwise, can move you the way a rock concert can, but it’s telling a story. And I’m most excited to find ways to bring the energy and the passion of a rock concert to a piece of theatre. I want my work to be theatre pieces with a rock-and-roll sensibility, as opposed to song cycles.
What three things would you take on a desert island?
A ceramic Indian-head bust that belonged to my grandfather, a copy of the movie Nashville, and Shel Silverstein’s A Light in the Attic.
Annie Golden is in The Black Suits, but you’re also writing a whole show around her, aren’t you?
Yes, it’s called Annie Golden: Bounty Hunter, Yo!.
Explain your fascination with her.
It is a multipronged fascination. She was always an actor I really, really loved—particularly in Assassins. And the more I learned about her, the more I was amazed and in awe of her. She had a punk band in the ’70s. She’s an honest-to-goodness New York character. Everyone in theatre knows her, but she’s never really had a huge-ass starring role in any musical. So Lance Rubin and Jason SweetTooth Williams and I are writing her one.
What’s the last Broadway musical you loved?
The Pippin revival [directed by Diane Paulus]. That show had a rock-and-roll spirit; it felt like a show from a different time, in a great way. It so clearly sprang from somebody’s vision—somebody intent on making a great piece of art that happens to be a great musical.