What's New on the Rialto
Interview with Eric Rockwell, Joanne Bogart & Melanie Herman
of The Musical of Musicals
By Charles Battersby
The Musical of Musicals: The Musical! is rapidly developing a cult following among musical theatre enthusiasts. This witty parody of the musical theatre genre recently made the jump to Off-Broadway at Dodger Stages. The composer/writer team of Eric Rockwell & Joanne Bogart, along with Producer Melanie Herman, recently sat down with Talkin' Broadway's Charles Battersby to discuss the show.
Joanne Bogart, Eric Rockwell, Lovette George, Craig Fols
Charles Battersby: For people who haven't heard of Musical of Musicals: The Musical! what is it?
Joanne Bogart: It is a show for people who love musical theatre, and people who hate musical theatre. What we do is tell one story in the style of Rodgers & Hammerstein. Then the same story in the style of Stephen Sondheim, Jerry Herman, then Andrew Lloyd Webber, and finally Kander & Ebb. So we skewer them all.
CB: How did Melanie get involved in this project?
Eric Rockwell: We had done readings of the show at the York Theatre on their Monday night reading series. And Jim Morgan had decided to produce our show as part of the York's season.
Melanie Herman: I saw the first reading that you did at the York. So I was observing it from day one. I liked it very much, obviously. It was such a success at the York, both critically as well as the passion that developed in people, that we wanted to see the life of the show continue, and maintain its integrity. It was important that we moved the show - we did not want to bring in a group of producers who would decide by committee where it would go, what the costumes would look like, what the set would look like, etc, etc.
The York rearranged its schedule to bring it back again, there, for what was going to be a one or two month run but was extended into a five or six month run. During that period I raised the funding for a commercial transfer. The arrangement I made was that I would spearhead it for the York, maintaining the integrity so that the show we moved would be the same show that [audiences] would see. I became involved more and more and fell in love with the show, to the point of obsession, actually. I ended up becoming the producer and moving it to Dodger stages.
CB: This production deliberately uses a minimalist design, and you have a Stage Manager character read the stage directions aloud. Can you see a production where all of the set and costumes are real, and there are chandeliers and smoke machines, and 40 costume changes for one character?
ER: Absolutely. In order to write a show in all these styles, we needed to visualize full productions. So, in our minds as writers, there were full settings, there is a full chorus for each one. The choice to be minimal was so our audience here in New York could focus on the music and lyrics, and the story structure, without any visual distractions. But down the line theatres that want to can incorporate a chorus and production values.
CB: In the current version there are jokes written into the stage directions. You call a dream ballet "Run of de Mille". Will you be able to keep those?
ER: It could work both ways. You could have a visually realized production and still have a Stage Manager who is describing certain things in a comedic tone. As the script gets licensed, we of course want every word to stay in every production. But, possibly, the stage directions are the one item that some productions would want to let go of. I agree with you, though, that some of them are so fun that it'd be a shame to see them go.
CB: When this project first started, it was originally the one song ...
JB: ... "Follow Your Dream." It was my audition song for the BMI Musical Theatre Workshop. We had discussed, "Wouldn't it be a fun idea, one of these days, to do a Rodgers & Hammerstein parody?" The way Dames at Sea did with thirties movies, and Little Mary Sunshine and all that. Little by little it developed, and as we did the Rodgers & Hammerstein, we thought, "I don't know if this will hold the whole evening." Every time we hit a moment, it seemed best to hit it quickly and move on. You don't have to belabor it with a full-length song. We thought, "Well, why not take the same story and do a series of short pieces, all in different styles?" And that's how it was born.
CB: You started this at the BMI workshop, but you knew each other before that.
JB: As good friends from our acting days in '87.
CB: May I ask what production that was?
ER: It was a production of Camelot in New Hampshire. I was playing Merlin and Joanne was playing Nimue. But we were also in the chorus. The Camelot chorus has a lot of free time, so backstage we developed our chorus characters further and started making up songs for them. We would improvise songs that would have been in Camelot had it been eight hours long. That was kind of the beginning of our camaraderie and our sense of fun with writing. We didn't know we were writing at the time, we were just playing. But it turned into writing years later.
CB: Is there any chance of that project turning a Rosencrantz & Guildenstern & Lancelot?
ER: That's a good idea, we're looking for a new show idea.
CB: You two live together as well.
JB: We call ourselves the middle-aged Will & Grace.
CB: When you work on projects, do you have official writing time, or do you fire things off around the apartment?
JB: If we're very disciplined, and very good, we set aside the official writing time. But, of course, our discussion carries over into dinner conversation, and can go on all the time. On the other hand, it can disappear completely unless we actually schedule it.
CB: Now, about all this writing you do ... there's a Marvin Hamlisch reference in the epilogue. That's kind of a red herring, because there's not a full Hamlisch sequence. Are there other parodies that were going to go into the show that got cut?
ER: Of course. When we were first thinking about which teams to do, we thought about the team of Wright & Forrest, because they had a tendency to use the music of classical composers and build a whole show around them, like Kismet and Song of Norway. But this would have required me to simply adapt famous classical melodies rather than truly compose in a certain style. Plus, we thought it would be kind of a one-trick pony. We also decided that the team of Wright & Forrest wasn't in the Mount Rushmore of musical theatre, and that the five creators and teams we currently have in the show truly are the Mount Rushmore. Cole Porter came very close, close enough that we actually wrote some songs in his style. But it's very difficult to parody something that's already tongue-in-cheek to begin with. It's much easier to parody something that's dark, or that takes itself very seriously. Cole Porter also proved to be competing stylistically with Jerry Herman, as both are sort of show bizzy, witty and fluffy. Who else did we let go of?
JB: Cole Porter was the one that we had done the most work on. There were so many other great composers to choose from, like Lerner & Loewe for example. But if you already have Rodgers & Hammerstein, then Lerner & Loewe competes with them in a broad sense, whereas Kander & Ebb have a completely different sound. A distinctive style is the other thing we wanted to go for. As soon as you hear it, you immediately know who it is.
CB: You just burst into the public eye with this show, but I know you've done other work together, including some children's theatre.
ER: We've written two shows for TADA. We wrote a musical version of Alice in Wonderland with librettist Bill Brooke that we're really very proud of. The one-hour musical form for children is a great way for musical theatre writers to break into the scene, because your work actually gets produced ... so many musicals only get as far as a reading, and even then maybe a 45 minute reading. To see your work realized is rare. We also created a parody of the Mickey & Judy musicals called Golly Gee Wiz and ...
JB: ... we wrote David & Goliath with Bob Kolsby.
ER: For The Poppy Seed Players. I love the name of that company.
CB: So children's theatre is a good stepping stone for people who want to follow in your footsteps.
JB: It absolutely is, because you have to come up with an opening number, you have to come up with your "I want" song, an arc to all the characters. It's the same thing, it's like a Model-A car.
CB: Explain ...
JB: Eric had a friend who used to work on cars, and he said that the best thing to do before you get into all the bells and whistles is to work on something that's very basic, like a Model-A. Because you have your basic combustion engine, and if you know that works, then you can continue with more innovation on top of it. [Musical theatre] functions in the same way. You have to have all the basics - it has to be a musical, you have to keep the energy up ...
ER: When an audience is made up primarily of children, their interest tends to wane quickly. So as a writer you learn right away that you have to make your storytelling extremely clear and you learn the importance of keeping the action moving forward throughout.
MH: When we do a talkback, Eric and Joanne really bring the audience in. It's so important to them to educate and share. It comes through with everything that they're doing. They are thrilled about the idea of opening this show up, educationally in schools and in community theatre.
ER: In terms of education, a friend of ours who was in the BMI Workshop, David Ganon, now teaches musical theatre in Florida, and he's going to use our show as a curriculum. It's gratifying to think that this show could be a launching pad to learn about a lot of important musicals.
CB: I was watching the PBS Oklahoma! with Hugh Jackman the other night, and I kept hearing your lyrics in my head. Does that happen to you when you see these shows now?
JB: I have to say yes.
CB: You must have tremendous repeat attendance from people who know they didn't get it the first time they saw it.
JB: There are people who come a second or third time, just for that part of it.
MH: Six or seven times. We've set up a frequent flyer thing. When people see it five times, the sixth is on us.
ER: One of my favorite things is when a repeat visitor will finally ask about something they didn't know. One common question is "What is 'boy with the bagel' referring to?" Of course, your audience will probably know that, so I don't have to answer*.
CB: Have you always had this passion for musical theatre?
JB: I think that we all fell in love with it in high school. I was Maria in The Sound of Music, which was my first show, ever! There's something about when it gets you early. That's probably when I memorized all the things that are in the show now. But that's when the passion is greatest, when it's new to you.
CB: And when did it get to you, Melanie?
MH: The same time, in high school, theatre major in college. I lived it, acted a bit, but got more into directing. I started producing as a way of just putting all the pieces together to make sure the productions got done, and before I turned around, it became more and more producing, and then hoping to someday step back into directing.
There's a running gag that, every night, after the audience leaves and everyone is gone, they think I get onstage and do the show.
JB: I'm gonna catch you one night ...
CB: At what point in the production did you bring in cast members Craig Fols and Lovette George?
JB: That was how we got to the York actually. We had been doing it as a two-person show for years and years. We were encouraged; people said, "Keep it just the two of you. You're wonderful performers." It was like "An Evening With Comden & Green." But it stayed an act, more than a show. So we decided to open it up to more performers.
ER: And the idea for bringing in an ingénue and a leading man, well, part of it was we were getting older and couldn't do all four roles anymore. The idea of adding other actors was met with resistance everywhere. No one who'd seen the two of us do it thought that that it would be a good addition. They thought it would take away from the quality of the show. But in spite of the opinions, we wanted to try it. And it was the York's reading series where we decided to give that a try. Having two other performers opened up opportunities for more visual business, choreography, and even a dream ballet. So we were happy with the choice of a larger cast.
Craig Fols is actually the one who put us in touch with the York. I had done summer stock with Lovette twenty years ago, and she had stayed in my mind as a person who can be a funny ingénue and belt and dance and sing soprano - a performer who can do it all. We're happy we found both of them, and that they're part of the show.
CB: When it was a two-person act, what was the character breakdown?
JB: It was the same.
ER: She played all the women and I played all the men.
JB: It's hard to imagine now, but it was part of the show.
ER: We did a reading at MTC and it was still me at the piano, but we had a second pianist hidden behind a screen, so I would start playing, but I could get up and the hidden piano would keep playing, and then we could do some choreography between the two of us. So, really, the show could be done with two people. I guess it could be done with one person - Melanie!
CB: What's your favorite piece to parody?
JB: My favorite to write was the Sondheim, because that was such a challenge. The favorite to perform is the Kander & Ebb, because that's just delightful to do. I used to like performing the Sondheim, when I performed both of the female roles.
ER: The Kander & Ebb, both writing and performing, for me. I think John Kander's music is the closest to what my own musical voice would be. So, I enjoyed writing those songs the most. I think all four of us really love performing the Kander & Ebb.
CB: You, in particular, have an extra giddiness about you when you're playing that guy.
ER: I played the MC in college, so it's been in my blood for a long time.
JB: They both saw it ... Fred Ebb saw it about two weeks before he died. I think we were the last show that he saw. He came backstage to say he was thrilled with it and sent us flowers.
MH: He said it was so good that they should make as much money as he made.
CB: Has anyone that you've made fun of had a negative reaction?
JB: Not that we've heard.
ER: They've been great. Hal Prince loved it, Arthur Laurents ... people I knew only from my record jackets. And I held them in such high regard that to meet them in person and for them to appreciate this work was incredible.
MH: It was thrilling just to see the interaction. When Carol Channing came backstage, she was so blown away by it, and understood what it was like to do this. She said "What Barbara Cook does is difficult. What Joanne does is impossible."
JB: Carol said that?
MH: Carol said that.
JB: I love Carol Channing.
MH: Elaine Stritch thought that they were fabulous.
ER: Tom Jones of Schmidt & Jones saw the show, and we met him after, and I had a little tinge of guilt like "we didn't do Schmidt & Jones." And there were others. When Jo Sullivan came I thought, "we could have done Frank Loesser."
JB: Frank Loesser is one of your absolute all-time favorites. The problem is all of our shows are an amalgam of each writer's body of work, but Frank Loesser doesn't sound the same in any two shows. How to Succeed does not sound like Happy Fella or Guys and Dolls.
ER: One thing about our five choices is that they each have a distinctive sound. You can hear almost anything by Sondheim and conclude "That must be Sondheim." Whereas with Frank Loesser, you don't necessarily know that, because of his versatility.
CB: Is there any chance of you compiling these ideas into a sequel?
ER: No, as I said, we're getting older. So we want to write our own musical in our own voice. We're determined to move on and write a book musical in the style of Rockwell & Bogart.
MH: And years from now I'll be producing a show that somebody else wrote in the style of Rockwell & Bogart.
ER: And after their parody, we'll grace them with our presence the way we've been graced. But I don't know if I'll be as enthusiastic.
CB: Musical ... is going to open its West Coast premiere in a month or so, so this show is going onward.
MH: It's also opening in Coral Gables next season and several other places that are being finalized as we speak.
CB: With another cast?
JB: Yes, since we can't be in two places at once. I'm actually anxious to see another cast do it.
CB: Is it going to run indefinitely here?
JB: So far.
MH: We've announced ticket sales until October and in a week or two we'll be announcing until the end of the year.
CB: Is it too early to ask if you have anything on your plates in the future?
MH: For myself, there's so much to do to continue the life of this, and to stay on top of all the licensing request right now. So that we can give these different companies a fair shot.
ER: It's not too early to ask. It might be too early to answer. We do we have a lot of ideas.
CB: Is there anything else that you want people to know?
MH: I want people to know that this is brilliant.
MH: Seriously, with so many revivals, jukebox musicals and recycled musicals, this is one of the few shows that has such intelligence. We love being here at Dodger Stages. This is a show about Broadway, Off-Broadway, in the heart of Broadway. When people come here, it's a worthwhile experience, to whatever degree they get it, fully or partially, it's a very worthwhile experience.
Musical of Musicals: The Musical! continues at Dodger Stages Stage 5
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