“Wow. This would make a great musical.”
That’s what two separate up-and-coming musical-theatre writers said, around the same time, when each came across the same extended narrative poem, Joseph Moncure March’s The Wild Party (1928). The long out-of-print work had received renewed attention when it received a 1994 reissue, with illustrations by Pulitzer Prize-winning illustrator Art Spiegelman (Maus). After becoming captivated by the theatrical possibilities of the poem, both Andrew Lippa and Michael John LaChiusa set about turning the work into a stage musical.
Of course, Lippa and LaChiusa didn’t know at first that someone else had the same idea. Since the poem was in the public domain, there was no necessity to negotiate with the author’s estate, and thus no immediate way to know about each other and their respective efforts. Indeed, wasn’t until both shows were announced for the 1999–2000 theatre season that people became aware of this uncanny artistic coincidence.
Lippa’s version of The Wild Party is currently being presented as part of the Encores! Off-Center series, which this season also featured productions of William Finn’s A New Brain and Menken and Ashman’s Little Shop of Horrors. The Encores! production of The Wild Party features Broadway stars Sutton Foster, Steven Pasquale, and Brandon Victor Dixon, and plays through Sunday, July 19th.
When Lippa’s and LaChiusa’s respective versions first appeared, there was much discussion among theatre insiders as to not only how two composers could have the same idea, but how two prominent and respected institutions—the Public Theater and the Manhattan Theatre Club (MTC)—could have scheduled competing versions from the same source. But the confusion didn’t stop people from seeing both versions and championing the version they liked better, both in person and in online theatre forums.
Aside from the significantly divergent takes that Lippa and LaChiusa had on the piece, both productions also featured some pretty high-profile names in their cast. The MTC version had Taye Diggs, Idina Menzel, Julia Murney, and Brian d’Arcy James. (It also featured Steven Pasquale in the ensemble, and covering the part of Burrs, the role he is currently playing in the Encores! staging.) The Public Theatre production boasted Toni Collette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt.
But despite the stellar names, and the prospect for theatregoers to compare the two versions, neither version ignited much interest beyond the cognoscenti. Although both productions had Broadway in their sights, only the LaChiusa version made it to the Main Stem, where it quickly folded after 68 performances. The Lippa played Off-Broadway and closed after 54 performances.
Both shows live on through their respective cast recordings, as well as numerous regional and collegiate productions, and together they offer a fascinating case study in the artistic choices that creators make when adapting a work for the musical stage. Lippa and LaChiusa take significantly different approaches to setting the story to music, approaches that embody a fascinating dynamic in musical theatre that continues to this day: the tension between the traditional and the experimental, art and commerce, honoring the past and creating the future.
The 1928 poem was extremely racy for its time, and was accordingly “banned in Boston.” But the piece was also a compelling refection of the louche, gin-soaked Jazz Age milieu of the 1920s. The story centers around a “sexually ambitious” vaudeville performer named Queenie, her abusive lover Burrs, and Black, a handsome stranger who comes to their titular party. Much drinking, carousing, soul-searching, and chest-thumping ensues. Poet March, a former managing editor at the New Yorker, spent two years trying the get the poem published, as the subject matter was too risqué for most publishers.
Interestingly, although the source material was already in verse form, both LaChiusa and Lippa eschewed the impulse to simply musicalize the text as is. But both versions feature the evocative first words of the poem:
Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville
From there on, the shows return to the actual text of the poem only occasionally, with Lippa borrowing textual snippets a bit more liberally than LaChiusa.
Both versions adhere to the poem’s focus on character and atmosphere, at the expense of specific events or action. Lippa focuses in on the interactions among the central characters, whereas LaChiusa creates more of an ensemble work, giving more voice to the colorful array of minor characters, including the pugilist Eddie, the predatory Madelaine, and the pansexual Jackie. LaChiusa gives the characters a bit more flesh, most notably in his haunting duet for Queenie and Black, “People Like Us.”
The shows also differ greatly in their musical styles. LaChiusa’s score is more firmly set in the 1920s, presenting a pastiche of the music of the day. Lippa’s score has more a mixture of styles, modern and historical. (Witness the oft-maligned electric guitar replete in the show’s orchestrations.) Lippa as composer seems more concerned with creating standalone set pieces with his songs, while LaChiusa veers more toward overall musical cohesion and dramatic integration. Lippa’s melodies are more accessible, more melodic, but also more pedestrian. By contrast, LaChuisa’s music is challenging, uncompromising. Lippa’s score is far easier on the ears, but LaChiusa’s is more dramatically satisfying.
Both shows, and authors, have their detractors. Lippa relies a bit too much on slant rhyme (pairing “vicious” with “wishes”) and faulty scansion (“lesbian love story” becomes “lesbian LOVE sto-RY”) for some people’s taste. And some of his lyrics seems like placeholders, as if they exist only to take up space or make things rhyme. As for LaChiusa, there are those who say that he’ll only ever become a truly great artist if he finds his heart. His work often feels too clever by half, focusing more on the concept than the people, a bit like a master’s thesis set to music.
Both gentlemen are still actively working in musical theatre: LaChiusa is currently working on First Daughter Suite, a companion piece to his First Lady Suite (1993), and an adaptation of the Somerset Maugham novel Rain. Lippa just finished his acclaimed I Am Harvey Milk, about the celebrated gay-rights activist, and wrote the music and lyrics for the recent Broadway musicals Big Fish and The Addams Family.
Will the current Encores! production fuel renewed interest in either version of the show? Might the Lippa version finally make its way to Broadway, buoyed by the presence of Sutton Foster, as occurred two seasons ago with the musical Violet? Lippa is reportedly making changes to the piece for the new production, based on the years of distance and having witnessed numerous other mountings of the show. Has the age of these uniquely convergent adaptations, like Queenie, “stood still”—or is it perhaps time to move on to the next party?
Christopher Caggiano is a full-time faculty member at the Boston Conservatory and the musicals and theatre expert for About.com.