by Bruce D. Bossard
For most people seeing the April 2nd benefit of Bill Russell and Janet Hood's Elegies For Angels, Punks And Raging Queens at the Haft Theater at the Fashion Institute of Technology, it will probably be a first time experience. The show, usually performed with over 30 speaking roles and 4 singers, is rarely done because of the massive financial and casting considerations. It has, however, been a boon for colleges, community theaters and benefit organizations who would like to use as many actors as are available to them!
I have a long history with Elegies. I know the creators and have been alongside them from the very inception of the show. So Talkin' Broadway thought it might be nice for me to share a little bit of history about this very special theater piece with the denizens of our favorite web site.
The thought of writing a piece about the effect AIDS was having in the world came to Bill Russell when in 1987 he went to the first showing of the gigantic Names Project Quilt which was displayed in Washington, D.C. Bill was overwhelmed by the vastness of the quilt and the deep losses so many people, and Bill himself, had endured of many friends and theater co-workers. While thinking about a way to put this vast subject matter into a theatrical setting, Bill thought back to one of his personal favorite literary and theater pieces, Spoon River Anthology by Edgar Lee Masters, a series of poems about the townspeople of the fictional town of Spoon River who were all buried in the local cemetery. In 1963 Spoon River Anthology was adapted into a Broadway play using American folk music.
Elegies was initially titled The Quilt and Bill started writing a series of free verse poems, each one for a character who had died of AIDS. He based them on people he knew, stories he had heard and original character ideas. Then, with his longtime friend Janet Hood composing the music (a mix of pop, jazz, gospel and ballads) Bill wrote lyrics for the songs that would be sung throughout the show by "the living" - characters that were going on in life and remembering the friends they had lost from AIDS through song. At that time Bill, thinking economically, wanted four or five actors to each play several roles and one woman singer to sing all the songs throughout. And that is how it was first done in readings. One of the first actors to be in those readings was Justin Ross, who, as a fitting tribute to his longtime dedication to the show, will be doing the first poem of the evening in Monday's benefit.
During that time another show which was staged in Washington D.C. was also called The Quilt. Bill decided to change the name of the show and as he was bandying titles about, asked me "What do you think about the title Elegies For Angels, Dudes And Raging Queens?" I said that I really liked the concept of that title. It was odd and quirky, yet strangely catchy. But I did not like the word "Dudes" and suggested "Punks." He used it! That is my contribution to the project.
In 1989 Justin Ross took the show to off-off Broadway's TWEED, an organization that was planning a festival of theater works in Soho at the Ohio Theater. They were very interested in Elegies with Bill directing, but Kevin Maloney, the organization's artistic director, asked Bill that, since TWEED owed favors to a lot of actors, would it be possible for this production to use one actor per character - or over 30 actors. Bill thought that would be an impossible task, but after thinking more about it he thought that he might never have a chance to do something on that scale ever again. As it turned out so well, Bill now prefers that the show always be done this way.
The show was very successful in its two-week run at the Ohio Theater in May 1989, and was moved to the RAPP Arts Center in the East Village for an additional two weeks in February 1990.
Sadly, five actors from those original casts have died from AIDS.
The next major incarnation of Elegies came in 1992 when Bill was asked to direct it at the King's Head Theatre, a fringe theatre in London. It was a great success there and moved to the larger Drill Hall, another fringe theatre. From there, in a slightly altered production, it was transferred to the Criterion Theatre in London's West End in June 1993. It was this version that was recorded on CD by First Night Records.
Since then Elegies has been produced in many countries around the world, including Canada, Israel, Australia, Germany and Scotland; and here in the U.S. in cities as diverse as Dallas, Los Angeles and Tacoma. In 1993 AIDS PROJECT LOS ANGELES did an all-star benefit starring Charles Durning, Lainie Kazan, Tyne Daly, Judith Ivey and many others.
Monday's performance at the Haft Theatre at The Fashion Institute of Technology, 7th Avenue and 27th St., will benefit MOMENTUM, an AIDS organization. The cast, numbering over 50 for this special version, will include Side Show veterans Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner and Norm Lewis, as well as Lillias White, Anne Pitoniak, Bryan Batt, Stephen Spinella, Fisher Stevens, Edward Hibbert, Steve Burns ("Blues Clues"), Orfeh, Brian D'Arcy James, Mario Cantone, Deborah Yates, Stephanie Pope, Veanne Cox, Jan Maxwell, David Drake, Joe Piscopo, Bobby Daye, Stanley Wayne Mathis, Christopher Durang, Jay Rogers, Renoly Santiago (Paul Simon's The Capeman Drama Desk nominee), Danny Gurwin, Matt Bogart, Josh Prince, Erin Torpey (TV's "One Life to Live") Lesli Kay (TV's "As the World Turns"), Saundra Santiago, comedienne Kim Cia and Justin Ross.
Fynsworth Alley will be recording the music for release as a CD.
Bill Russell will be directing and Janet Hood will be the musical director and pianist. Tickets are still available on-line at momentumaidsproject.org or by calling Jenny Tzakas-Campise, Phone: (212) 691-8100 Ext 309.
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