The life of the party

Are you Team Lippa or Team LaChiusa?

So asked a critic covering the recent Encores concert presentation of Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party at City Center. He brings up a 15 year-old rivalry from an odd moment in musical theatre history: In 2000, two esteemed composer-lyricists, of similar age and experience, separately created musicals based on a Jazz Age narrative poem. The Wild Party, by Michael John LaChiusa, was produced on Broadway. The same spring, The Wild Party, by Andrew Lippa, was produced in a tiny space in the basement under City Center. Though both had short runs, I guess it’s natural to have a certain amount of fascination with the differences between the two musicals, and, for years before and after, these have been two writers to watch.

As for me, I might as well declare right now: I’m Team Neither.

I saw LaChiusa’s Wild Party on Broadway; ten years later I got to musical direct Lippa’s Wild Party (on a Broadway stage), which meant getting to know it intimately. (I didn’t catch last week’s concert, which involved authorial revisions.) In each Wild Party, there is no action, per se, and nobody to care about. To me it seems like some strange fad, this interest in musicals in which all the characters are horrible people. But let’s say that’s not a disastrous choice, for argument’s sake. In any show, the audience has to care what’s going to happen to people; we need a rooting interest in what happens next. In The Wild Party, nothing much happens, so our interest in what happens next is nearly non-existent.

Lippa acted alone. LaChiusa had a co-librettist, Goerge C. Wolfe. Both musicals presented not a story, but a situation. A bickering couple, vaudeville performers, throws a party in an attempt to shoo away the blues. Guests arrive, one flirts with the hostess, a gun is drawn and fired. Unhappiness reigns triumphant. The end.

There are moments that get expressed in song. And I’m happy to tell you that some of these songs are truly fabulous.

Lippa writes many a crowd-pleaser, built on traditional structures, cresting in a climax and a button that wins applause. You can hear What Is It About Her? for instance, and dig its savagery. You can have a good time watching An Old-Fashioned Love Story. Belters like to wail the hell out of Life of the Party. (In that tiny basement, it was Idina Menzel. Can you imagine that?) My personal preference is for the quieter moments, like Poor Child and How Did We Come To This? and there’s no denying I had a lot of fun on A Wild Wild Party’s rendering of Genesis for the age of bathtub gin.

But what it adds up to might be called Six Show-Stoppers In Search Of a Show. One pictures the author circling passages in the Joseph Moncure March poem and vowing to make the best song possible out of the moment. He may have succeeded, even, but what we should glean from this is that the act of amplifying stuff in song is very different from telling a story. A story relies on a certain amount of forward motion, and we in the audience usually need the songs to take us from Point A to Point B. Take a Look At Me Now – the title of one of Lippa’s songs, but it could have been the title of any – starts and ends at Point A. Very entertainingly, sure. Gets a nice hand. And then just sits there.

The LaChiusa version does a better job of tossing dramatic balls in the air. The leading man, memorably played by the master of unsubtlety, Mandy Patinkin, is a blackface clown. That’s bound to provoke a huge visceral reaction in any modern audience. We cringe and recoil. And a lot of minds begin to race: Why have LaChiusa and Wolfe (who is black) chosen to give us a taste of a racist entertainment we all know once existed but wish didn’t? My mind wandered a lot, seeing the Broadway Wild Party, and yet I never figured out what, specifically, was being said with this troubling image.

One of the things that bothers me about badly-crafted musicals is the stating of the obvious. That blackface clown is EVIL! – but I’d already figured that out. Drinking and taking drugs bring out the worst in people – thank you, Temperance Society. Did we really need to spend all this time saying these things?

In LaChiusa’s intermissionless oeuvre, a huge amount of time is spent introducing party-goers. In what’s listed as the “Promenade of Guests” it seems a big song is given to an endless procession of uninteresting people. You can have a great cast, and fashion great numbers for them. But anybody’s bound to tire after three or four introductions. No show can survive twice as many or more.

Another doorbell, another entering guest: these are not events, in the sense that any dramatic narrative is made up of events that unfold over time. If there’s too much time between events, or too few events to make up an evening, no quantity of show-stoppers is going to plug the hole in the story. We’re all eyeing the door, planning to escape the fetid fête, without saying goodbye.

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