Laughing at Our Neighbors

The last two rehearsals have been very cool and we've really moved the ball forward. Monday night we ran Act II and last night we ran Act I. Next week we move into the theatre and start running the whole show together. I can't wait for that!

After Monday night's rehearsal, the cast had a million questions for me, which I was very happy about! That meant they were comfortable enough with lines, lyrics, harmonies, staging, choreography, etc., that their focus was now shifting to the Bigger Things, style, tone, character, motivation, objectives, relationships, etc.

They had lots of questions about who they were at different moments in the show. What's fascinating about The Wild Party is that the whole cast has named characters to play, and sometimes they are playing these characters being at this party, and sometimes they are playing these characters, but as narrators or Greek chorus, standing outside the action, narrating or commenting on it. And sometimes those two functions turn on a dime -- they'll be narrating, third-person, to the audience, and on the next beat, they're back living inside the story. It's very bold, confident writing, but a fairly complex, conceptual idea for an actor to play. Urinetown sorta worked this way, but not to the extent that Wild Party does.

The published WILD PARTY poemI think part of what makes the show so unique is its source material, Joseph Moncure March's amazing original poem. At first, Andrew Lippa planned just to set the poem to music, but he soon realized that there's very little dialogue in the poem, and so it would make a very inactive show. Instead, Lippa used some language straight from the poem, but allowed himself to stretch outside the boundaries of his source material. The brilliance of his writing is how well he straddles the twin ideas of narration and direct action; and the back-and-forth between the two is part of what gives the show the considerable energy that propels the story forward.

We also talked Monday about the Big Picture. This story is essentially a two-person story. At the very beginning, Queenie tells us directly that she thinks the way to re-spark her relationship with Burrs is to throw a party and publicly humiliate him. (Nice couple, huh?) It's very much a Jazz Age Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf? -- humiliation as sport.

I talked with the cast about how Burrs' humiliation is only public -- and therefore, substantially more painful and destructive -- if they are there. They have to participate in that humiliation. They are accomplices to the tragedy at the end. They have to collectively drive Burrs towards his drunken nervous breakdown in Act II, and his song "Let Me Drown."

I found myself using the word creepy a lot the last two nights...

And that conversation revealed something new to me. I had been seeing a parallel between The Wild Party and the many scandals of the last ten years in America (Enron, AIG, wars and tax cuts that weren't paid for, dishonest political debate, really disturbing reality TV, screaming pundit cable TV, etc.) -- lots of selfishness, immorality, irresponsibility, disregard for others, lies, betrayals...

protester in Washington DCBut I see another, perhaps more interesting parallel -- the death of civility. There's such a nastiness in our national discourse now, arguably going all the way back to 1994 and the Gingrich Revolution. Before that, politicians compromised and cooperated. In the 1980s, President Reagan and Democratic Speaker of the House Tip O'Neill would go to battle over some issue, work until they found a compromise, then have a drink together when it was all over. Not anymore. Can you imagine Congressional Republicans kicking back with President Obama after the healthcare bill passed?

The Wild Party seems to be either metaphor or microcosm for those moments in American history when anger and fear supersede reason and decency. It happened during the Depression and during the 1960s. In recent days, protesters in DC have actually spit on members of Congress, calling them "nigger" and "faggot." Is that all that far from Burrs calling Queenie a "lazy slut"? It's not a surprise that Lippa wrote this show during the latter years of the Clinton presidency.

This isn't as dark a show as Love Kills, because at least in The Wild Party, there is some self-awareness, some clarity, maybe even redemption of sorts, at the end. As the show ends, Queenie asks the party-goers -- and the audience -- "How did we come to this?" But the real question is will we ask ourselves that? And if we do, what will we do with the answer?

If there is a message here (I keep telling the cast that this is a fable at its heart), maybe it's that those darker impulses and emotions are inside all of us, and we're not always conscious of when they take us over. It takes real effort and vigilance to keep those dark forces at bay, to keep them from destroying the people around us and ourselves (a message this show shares with Bat Boy). It's not always easy to be civil, but when we give up trying, we get America in 2010...

We're all so sure.
We're all so wise.
No limits,
No bound'ries,
No compromise.
Laughing at our neighbors,
Smiling through a hiss,
How did we come to this?

We're all amused,
We're all inspired,
So cunning,
So clever,
And so admired.
Easy to be angry,
Easy to dismiss,
How did we come to this?

Tell me I've been
living in a daydream,
Tell me I've been talking in my sleep.
If I've been awake,
Pardon my mistake,
But time is running low,
And talk is growing cheap.

We play our games,
We place our bets,
No witness,
No weakness,
And no regrets.
Filling up with frenzy,
Killing with a kiss,
How did we all come to this...?

Yeah, no shit.

Long Live the Musical!