Where did the notion of writing a musical based on "The Wild Party" come from?
In 1995 my first musical, John & Jen, was running in New York City, and I was looking for something else to write. I was in a Barnes & Noble and thought, "I'm going to maybe set some poetry to music." In those days, I didn't write lyrics. I looked through the poetry section, and sitting on a shelf was a skinny little volume with a wonderful cover called "The Wild Party." I cracked it open and the inside of the book had a red fuzzy liner, sort of like "Pat the Bunny." I was already intrigued. Then I turned to the next page and saw these gorgeous drawings by Art Spiegelman, and saw the poem start: Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still, And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
There was something about the beginning of that poem, the description of that woman, that spoke to me personally. I didn't clearly know it at the time. I just knew that I was more excited about something than I'd ever been in my life. I thought, "I want to make this into a musical." And I thought, "I can," because I was gonna do it like Cats; I was going to set the poem to music. I found out later that that wasn't going to work.
The poem was almost exclusively third-person narrative, and I got weary of writing in the third person. I wanted to write "I feel…," "I am...". I hardly knew anyone in the theatre in those days, so necessity was the mother of invention. It was like the movie "Cast Away." I had a coconut and a palm frond and I was gonna make a television out of it, you know? The lyrics to "Poor Child" were among the first lyrics that I wrote. I played them for a friend of mine, the Broadway producer Jeffrey Seller, who later went on to be one of the co-producers of the show with Kevin McCollum and the Manhattan Theatre Club. Jeffrey said, "Well, who wrote the lyrics?" I said, "I did." He said, "Why don't you keep going?" That was enough encouragement.
What were those first lyrics?
It's a part that's not on the record, when Kate sings:
Here we go
Take the bait
Black and Queenie integrate
Watch her fall for him
Call for him
She'll wager it all for him
And when the trap is set
I'll be there
To catch Burrs
He thinks he's hers
But he's in for some news
Light the fuse and place the bets And then Black sings, "Poor child, poor child." It was actually in the poem; there's a moment where he says something about how she was a "poor child." And it struck me as something that was coming directly from a character, singing about how they felt in that moment about what they intended to do afterwards. The other notion behind the song was a musical one; it's based on a quartet from Rigoletto. Sort of an odd mash-up — Rigoletto and the Roaring Twenties. It sounds like a downtown play: Rigoletto and the Roaring Twenties, starring Mare Winningham.
The 1997 workshop of Wild Party was at the Eugene O'Neill Theater Center. Kristin Chenoweth was in the cast, right?
Yes. I don't know how it is today, but in those days you didn't have auditions at the O'Neill; you just got together with the casting director and looked at lists and tried to just get people you knew. Kristin had been recommended to me by an actor friend, and I didn't know anything about her, so I said, "Is she funny?" My friend said, "Oh, yeah, she's really funny." I said, "Well, if you think she's funny and she can sing, I guess that's fine." (laughs) It became a very long love affair. To this day we're still making songs, which I just love. She did this Disney movie called "The Descendants" that premieres July 31, and I wrote her big number.
Who did she play in The Wild Party?
She was Mae. I wrote "Two of a Kind" for her. The song really exists because Kristin did that workshop and I realized, "Oh, this character needs something to do." The song is all about her being really short and the guy being really tall — because that's what it was that week. (laughs) I didn't have the notion that the character was going to be tiny. But because Kristi did it, that's what stuck.
Do you have memories of working with Steven Pasquale on the original Off-Broadway production?
Well, Steven was Brian d'Arcy James' understudy. Steven was very, very young when we did the show, and I think that he auditioned for the role of Burrs and was great, but was way too young to play the role. And now, years later, Steven gets to play the part. It's very exciting.
You've said that the movie of "Into the Woods" emboldened you to make changes to The Wild Party for this production.
Yes, I've taken a page out of Stephen Sondheim's playbook. I even sent Steve an email saying, "There's so much to celebrate about that film, but I celebrated the fact that you're still willing to look at your pieces and rewrite them." I mean, he's willing to do productions with six musicians; he's willing to do actor-musician versions of his shows; he's an artist who wants to keep testing the limits of his art and explore how his work lives in different environments. I told him, "Before I saw the 'Into the Woods' film, I was planning on doing some rewriting of The Wild Party, and after seeing the 'Into the Woods' film, I'm planning on doing a lot." And he's so lovely and kind to me — he wrote back right away and said, "Thank you, and I hope the rewrites are going well." That's the writer's life, man.
Sondheim calls his early shows "baby pictures." Is there anything about The Wild Party that really feels like part of your past?
There is a vestigial Andrew who dates back to fifth grade who wants very much to be chosen for the thing — whatever we were asked to raise our hands for — and wants to be approved of, and wants to feel he belongs. That feeling got transplanted, or dragged, into The Wild Party. It is a part of me that I have since worked to — not extinguish, but to feed in other ways. Now I'm a calmer and happier person, and I can let my art be my art. My art doesn't have to speak on my behalf or solve any problems for me. So in approaching The Wild Party, I'm much, much happier to contemplate making changes.
Can you talk about some of the changes you've made?
I've seen productions of the show all over the world in multiple languages, and those are blessed experiences, because I get to see other artists wrestling with some of the issues of putting on this play. Sometimes the answers they come up with make me go, "Oh, that's a very good answer." I always felt that it took a little too long to get to the party, so I've done quite a bit of work clearing out some things in the first 20 minutes of the play to condense the action and make it possible for Queenie and Burrs to get to the party as quickly as possible. Are you thinking of Queenie as being played by Sutton Foster, and making changes on that level?
We are tailoring the show to fit her, which means exactly that. When you buy a suit, the suit is the suit—but they fix it a little bit to make sure that it doesn't pucker in the back, and that the sleeves are the right length. With Sutton, I'm doing the same thing. But it's not drastic, cause she's perfect to play the part. It's not like I'm trying to rewrite Queenie for Betty White.
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What makes her perfect for the part?
Gosh, there's a whole plethora of things. One of them is her essential stage quality, which has often appeared as likeability. The audience just gravitates to her. She can harness joy, but when she harnesses sadness, it's a sadness that you feel you once had as well. That's a really powerful quality in a character who goes through a lot of shit, because the audience will still feel empathy for the actor playing it as much as for the character themselves.
You've written a new song for Sutton, right?
The one big new song is the last song of the show, and that came out of a lot of conversations with Leigh Silverman and Jeanine Tesori about the nature of Queenie and what she has learned. As often happens when you make a musical, you make changes at the beginning and you realize, "Oh, I've cleared away the brush, and now that the character is clearly going after what I want her to go after, the answer at the end is different." At the end of the original production, Queenie moralizes a little bit. Looking at her again, I didn't want her to moralize. I wanted her to express her deepest feelings and fears. I'm very excited about this new song, which is called "A Happy Ending." It's very much a story song; it lets you in on what she's learning and what she plans to do with it in the wake of this tragedy.
That's really exciting, though I have to say that I love the original finale — "How Did We Come To This?" — so much.
(laughs) I know. It's a big choice for me to take a song out that people are so fond of. At the same time, I want the character of Queenie to sing the exact right thing at the right time. I would suggest to those people who really love "How Did We Come To This?" that we all crowd-fund a backing track and send it to Beyoncé and say, "We paid for it; all you have to do is sing it."
Is there anything about the show that you refused to touch?
I remember that Stephen Schwartz — another friend and mentor — saw a developmental version of the show around 1998. I asked him for his thoughts on the show and he said, "I have two notes that are really not gonna be helpful." I was like, "Okay, what? He's gonna be like, Get out of show business and lose thirty pounds." But he said, "The song ‘Life of the Party' — I don't know what you're thinking about, whether it wants to stay where it is in the show, or who's going to sing it, but you can't cut that song. I know we talk all the time about how everything's on the chopping block, but you can't cut that song. That little vamp on the left hand — that's worth a lot of money." What he meant by that was not literally a lot of money; he meant there was something about it that was captivating and unique and sucked you into the world of the play. I remember he said that about another song —"You can't cut that one either." In this new version of the show, I didn't cut it, but I moved it. And I kept hearing Stephen Schwartz's voice in my head. I thought, "Oh my god, am I breaking some rule he told me not to break?" And then I thought, "Well, if I am, I am." No matter who says what, you can go and make any change that you want. It's your play.
Matt Weinstock writes for the publications at New York City Center.