Monday, July 14, 2014

'Wild Party' of Two: Broadway vs. Off-Broadway

The Wild Parties
Left: Wild Party Broadway Poster
Right: Wild Party Off-Bway Poster
...That awkward moment when you find the perfect source material for a musical, and two months after it opens Off-Broadway, another musical based on the same source material, with the same title, opens on Broadway. That's approximately what happened back in 2000 with the musicals called, The Wild Party.

As a fan of Idina Menzel and Brian d'Arcy James, I have known about The Wild Party for a long time, but never realized that the Off-Broadway and Broadway versions were totally different shows. So a couple weeks ago, when I was writing about BDJ in honor of his birthday (in which I included a clip from The Wild Party), I discovered this peculiar situation and had to explore it further.

While I don't know who actually started writing his version first, I do know that composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa (You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, The Addams Family, Big Fish) loosely adapted Joseph Moncure March's long poem of 1926, "The Wild Party" into a musical which opened Off-Broadway in February, 2000. Meanwhile Michael John LaChiusa (Marie ChristineGiant) had also written a musical adaptation which opened on Broadway a few weeks later.

Oh, and to add insult to injury, both shows' opening numbers had the same title, "Queenie was a Blonde," and since each track was based on the opening of the poem, the lyrics were ridiculously alike. The only other similarly-titled songs are, not surprisingly, each show's title song, which in Lippa's is called, "A Wild, Wild Party," but LaChiusa's is simply "Wild Party."

The original poem is about a romance-type situation between a violent clown, Burrs, and the beautiful, thrill-seeking dancer Queenie, who for some reason thought such a relationship would work. Spoiler: it doesn't. They host a party in which they invite the sketchiest people they can find (aka: their friends), and debauchery ensues, ending in many hurt feelings accompanied by overreactions involving gunshots. It was fairly depressing and shocking, especially for the time it was written, so much so, that it was banned from publication for a few years.

According to Patrick Pacheo of The LA Times, both LaChiusa and Lippa were attracted to the dark, vulgar prohibition-era poem because of the first two lines, "Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still / And she danced twice a day in vaudeville." But whereas Lippa talked about being influenced by a variety of classic pop writers and valuing a melodic score above all else, LaChiusa said his priority was to be edgy and test boundaries. It seems that each composer wanted his tunes to reflect the erotic nature of the story, as evidenced through the desperate undertones of many of their songs.

Check out this clip of the Biblical allusion number, "Wild, Wild, Party" from Lippa's Off-Broadway show, featuring Julia Murney (Wicked) as Queenie and Brian d'Arcy James (Shrek, Next to Normal) as Burrs. Bonus points if you spot Taye Diggs (Rent) as Mr. Black and Idina Menzel as Kate amid the partiers.

So what are the big differences? The writers, fortunately, took very diverse approaches to the poem, focusing on separate aspects. Looking at the original casts of each show could tell you that the shows must be pretty different, considering Brian d'Arcy James and Mandy Patinkin, two men whose talents I would never compare, played the same role in their respective shows. Lippa's has a 19-person cast, as opposed to LaChiusa's which has 15. In addition, according to an article in Dance Magazine, LaChiusa's was about five times as expensive as Lippa's.

Both casts were fairly star-studded (at least in hindsight), with Lippa's starring BDJ, Taye Diggs, Julia Murney, and Idina Menzel, and LaChiusa's starring Patinkin, Toni Collette, Yancey Arias, and Eartha Kitt (whom good '90s kids know as Madame Zeroni in Holes), among others.

Since both musicals channel the '20s-style music, the scores are fairly similar at times (the similarities could also be attributed to the fact that shows written in the same year often have a few of the same musical influences), though as Lippa's score has an obviously dark and foreboding tone, LaChiusa pulls a Cabaret. That is, he lures the audience in with a fun '20s score, setting up for a fun time, but contrasting it with the ensuing plot, which reveals that everyone involved is really messed up. Think Great Gatsby. While Lippa's songs can be used out of context fairly easily (take, for example, Lippa's showstopper, "Life of the Party"), LaChiusa's songs are more connected to the plot and have specific lyrics that make them less conducive to individual performances.

So watch the Tony Awards performance of LaChiusa's The Wild Party featuring Toni Colette, Mandy Patinkin, and Eartha Kitt below!

Probably the biggest disappointment for Lippa's musical was the fact that having a Wild Party musical on Broadway at all made the chances for a Broadway transfer for Lippa's show (which were rumored) very doubtful. Sure enough, it did not get a Broadway run.

In the end, the shows even fared similarly. LaChiusa's musical ran for 68 performances (following 36 previews), won only one award, a Theatre World Award, which went to Toni Colette, of the 12 awards for which it was nominated (across four award organizations). Off-Broadway, Lippa's show ran for 54 performances (whether the run was a predetermined length or not, I don't know) and was nominated for about 18 awards (across four award organizations) and won 6. Fortunately, both shows got an original cast recording, which are both on Spotify, so be sure to look those up! As far as the future of the productions, it does appear that Lippa's musical is the one that is more widely performed, due in part to its simpler cast, which makes it conducive to community theatres and such.

I did not get to see either show, but I would be interested to hear from people who did and find out how they really compared to each other and what kind of headaches such a situation produced for those involved in the shows. I can't even imagine how that would go down if it happened today! What do you think? Should this be allowed to happen?

Sally Henry // Twitter: // Facebook:

Read More: (yeah, this is basically a bibliography this time)
Wild Party Off-Broadway
Wild Party on Broadway
Wild Party Off-Broadway Review (Ben Brantley, NY Times)
Wild Party Broadway Review (Ben Brantley, NY Times)
"Two's a Party and a Crowd" (Broadway vs. Off-Bway analysis, LA Times)
The Wild Party Review (at Schoenberg Hall, 2003) by Variety
"Two-Party System" by Hilary Ostlere in Dance Magazine. Side note about this piece: it began as a look at both Wild Party musicals, focusing a little on the choreography, but digressed into a random fangirling sesh over Audra McDonald. Understandable. Those are always important. So, if it weren't for the fact that she misspelled Idina Menzel's name, I'd feel like this author and I should be best friends.
Outer Critics Circle Awards 2000
Drama Desk Awards 2000

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