Sometimes you write a musical just because you’re sure it’ll be fun to do so. Then the whole process becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy. Today’s the anniversary of the opening of my wackiest musical comedy, Area 51. I recall the giddy good time we all had – the audience, certainly, but also Tom Carrozza and me, alone in a room, for 21 months of creation.
One thing we were able to do – and more I cannot wish you – is to keep it all surpassing silly every step of the way. Tom and I would meet in a small rented practice room. Some amount of time, each session, was given over to gossip. But, eventually, goofy ideas would emerge. And though this isn’t the exact wording, each inspiration could have begun with “I think it might be funny if…” And then, given our backgrounds in improvisational comedy, we’d proceed to coming up with a justification for every wacky thing we wanted to happen.
That Make-‘Em-Laugh motivation steered every move we made. I soon realized that my challenge was to come up with a score in which each and every song got laughs. Usually, a musical will be a mix of serious songs, songs-dealing-with-plot, scene-setters and comedy songs. Thinking about the history of musicals, it’s hard to think of many scores which contain nothing but funny songs. But the first that comes to mind is my favorite musical, How To Succeed In Business Without Really Trying. And maybe that’s why it’s my favorite musical. Creating Area 51, I was treading in its footsteps.
Seems to me it’s less common, today, for writers to set out to write all-funny musicals. Yes, there are plenty of spoofs – one thinks of Spamalot and The Drowsy Chaperone, shows that spend most of their time mocking the genre – but rare is the show that embraces the musical comedy tradition rather than mocking it. As Spamalot was packing ‘em in a decade ago, people commented that it was drawing a new kind of audience to musicals, one that didn’t particularly like musicals, but loved Monty Python. I realize this is a subtle distinction, but a traditional musical comedy is one in which the audience laughs a lot, but still feels things about the characters and story. What to call this new-fangled variant? A yoksical is one that provides plenty of laughs, and the audience only cares about the next joke – not a sincere emotion nor a pretty melody.
Tom and I could have created a yoksical. But, loving the great musical comedies of the past, we challenged ourselves to go further. In fact, my description of what the musical comedy audience gets that the yoksical audience misses – You Feel Things – became the title of a sexy duet.
Have we tired of my neologism, yet? Another word that’s gotten bandied about over the past decade us spoofsical, with its implication that the musical theatre genre itself is being mocked. A lot of my fellow musical aficionados get offended by them. Area 51 spoofs a different genre – science fiction – and, I must confess, I’m no fan of sci-fi and fantasy. It wouldn’t bother me how savagely we ribbed inter-planetary travel and secret government scientists. Eventually, an on-line magazine devoted to science fiction interviewed us, and I felt like apologizing, knowing I was, there, addressing an audience that usually takes this mumbo jumbo in earnest.
As you may know, consideration of the audience is a big deal with me. I surmised we weren’t writing for sci-fi fans. Our ticket-buyers, for the most part, would be coming because of our following in New York’s improvisational comedy community. They’d be up for laughs, up for genre spoofs. And, since we knew we’d be casting two of the glorious ladies from the wonderful distaff improv troupe, Heartless Floozies, they’d be up for the character-based lunacy of Mary Denmead and Gail Dennison (think young Lily Tomlin). One of the great pleasures of the project, something that made it easier for me, was catering material to the specific talents of Mary and Gail. It was particularly heavenly to come up with a duet in which Gail, a career military officer, oozing machismo, gave Mary, an eager student, but incompetent, a lesson in seducing men. More on that later.
Mary’s character, a bumbling journalist who models herself on His Girl Friday and Meet John Doe, provided the emotional heart of the piece. (And who provides the emotional heart of Spamalot? Nobody. There isn’t one.) The klutzy ambition, in Mary’s rendition, was inherently lovable. We care what happens to her, and, in Tom’s plot, all sorts of odd things happen to her. We’re willing to go on the strangest of journeys because we’re emotionally invested in her every move. Unlike what happens in yoksicals. To use a television analogy, it’s the difference between The Mary Tyler Moore Show, in which we always care about Mary and Seinfeld, in which we never care about anyone. (As I write this, I realize not everyone agrees with me that the former was the best sitcom ever – but you get the point.)
After more than a year and a half alone in a room with Tom, it was time to let our cat out of the bag and bring in other collaborators. The search for the right director was tough going: Whom could we work with? Who could be the right match for our comic sensibility? Selecting Gary Slavin catapulted the show forward. Here was someone with a wealth of hysterical staging ideas, adding even more humor to every scene and song. He possesses the same respect for the musical comedy tradition, ensuring that heartstrings be tugged as well as funny bone tickled. And I have to tell you about the bullet belt.
In the aforementioned duet in which Gail as a high-ranking general gave Mary lessons in sexiness, Gail, of course, was dressed like Norman Schwarzkopf on the battlefield. Wrapped around her, like a sash, was a long chain of bullets, side-by-side. The prop was made of rubber, which proved valuable. Gary choreographed Gail to take off the bullet belt and whip the ground like an erotic fantasy from the 1960s. The juxtaposition of a brawny soldier with S & M whipping brought down the house. It was beyond what Tom and I had thought of, but totally in line with our thinking. And that’s the value of a great director.