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A CurtainUp Book Review
The Wild Party

The Lost Classic by Joseph Moncure March
With Drawings by Art Spiegelman

. . .The beautiful little book that has stirred up a musical tempest in the theater world 

Addenda -- 2/2/2000
Queenie was a blonde and her age stood still
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville

Blondie & Black
Joseph Moncure March, was an editor at The New Yorker when he penned these syncopated opening lines of The Wild Party. The steamy, jazz age verse novel is a feast of stunning imagery that evokes the innocence and decadence in a single wild night of partying by a group of high living low lifes. The versified story of Queenie, her cruel lover Burrs and the mysterious Black who comes to the party was at first considered too hot to publish. A limited edition was banned in Boston which in 1928 practically insured success. When March became a Hollywood screenwriter he ended up writing dialogue for Hell's Angels which made a real life Queenie, Jean Harlow, a star.

 So what happened to that limited edition of The Wild Party?

It remained out of print until Pulitzer Prize winning illustrator Art Spiegelman discovered a copy in a used book store. He was pulled in by the twenties typography and eventually brought Queenie and Burrs and Black and the dozens of decadently colorful other characters to life with seventy-five images. 

The 1994 reissue of March's syncopated rhymes with Spiegelman's black and white graphics, besides restoring this lost treasure to its rightful place in the poetry book stacks, has led to a most unusual situation in the New York theater world. Two up and coming young composers, Andrew Lippa and Michael John LaChiusa, saw the book and both decided it had all the ingredients of a Broadway musical. 

I don't mean they were ambling through the poetry section of a book store together. While both composers are about the same age, they have distinctly different styles (Lippa last worked on the revival of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown while the more operatically inclined LaChiusa's most recent work was a musical update of the tragic Medea story, Marie Christine). What happened was that each stumbled onto the book independently and progressed from inspiration to creation on a separate track. Consequently, New York theater goers will have a chance to see two musical versions of The Wild Party in the same season. Lippa's musical will premiere at Manhattan Theater Club's Stage One (February) and, if successful, on to a Broadway house. The Wild Party composed by. LaChiusa and with a book by George Wolfe will be go directly to Broadway's Virginia Theater (April) under the auspices of the New York Shakespeare Festival/Joseph Papp Public Theater. 

This unusual double party is hardly cause for rejoicing for the principals involved in each enterprise. For theater journalists it's a gossipy feast of speculation. Which party will be the hit? What if both are hits? Will people pay to see two shows based on the same material, even though the casts are quite different (see the WILD PARTY header in our Off-Broadway and Broadway address books for details). What if audiences and critics snub both parties? 

With Broadway hungry for strong new musicals, twin hits would be the ideal scenario. Differentiating between the two successful shows with the same title is a much happier and easier to resolve problem than dealing with a lukewarm reception. In the meantime, there's the book which has been enough of a hit for the publisher to bring out a handsome paperback edition with the text and Spiegelman's drawings intact. It even has its own dust jacket! 

The Brothers d'Armano

Reading The Wild Party is in itself a rhythmic, musical experience. Reading it with these musical adaptations on the horizon, is an opportunity to play director and visualize these characters popping off the page and onto the stage. Just imagine the numbers by the Brothers d'Armano-- "Otherwise, Oscar and Phil. . .They were powdered,/Rouged,/Sleek of hair:/They must have worn/Pink silk underwear. . ."

 As you read on you wonder why rhymed verse has lost ground with modern poets. You understand why William Burroughs declared that this was the book that made him want to be a writer, quoting lines from memory long after he'd last read the book. You also see how Spiegelman's fingers must have itched to draw some of the scenes evoked by the poem, and how March's words plus Spiegelman's drawings could bring ideas for song and dance numbers popping into a composer's head. 

A poem by Joseph Moncure March
with drawings by Art Spiegelman
Published by Pantheon 
softcover 120 pages
To buy on line go here
Reviewed by Elyse Sommer

Addenda -- 2/2/2000
My hopes remain strong that in a season hungry for original new shows, especially in the musical category, both the musical under the auspices of Manhattan Theater Club and the PappPublic Theater will be resounding hits. Until both parties get under way, however, we'll all have to wait and see. The MTC version which has begun previewing has brought a rash of comments from "early bird" viewers, but I won't repeat any of them here since the purpose of previews is to make last-minute changes and the show seen during the pre-opening period, especially early on, is likely to be different from the "official" version. This said, I think it's safe to applaud the Public Theater for the web page devoted to The Wild Party. It wins our hands down vote for the most attractive and informative advance on any show, anywhere.

Associate producer Wiley Hausam's illustrated 1997-2000 diary on the show's evolution is marvelously concise and interesting. Beginning in 1997 and continuing through January 11, 2000, it recounts the show's evolution and lots of tidbits about casting. Madonna and Bebe Neuwirth were on the initial list of candidates for the part of Queenie. Mandy Patinkin, who is Burr, turned it down -- then changed his mind. One of my own favorite books (and as it turns out, Director George Wolfe's), Terrible Honesty: Mongrel Manhattan in the 1920sby Ann Douglas, served as a map for planning the show. And Art Spiegelmann whose illustrations gave new life to the Joseph Moncure March's verse novel reviewed here opted to become actively and exclusively involved with the Public Theater production.

To be fair to the MTC production, I checked out their website. As of 2/02/2000, their production may be the first on stage, but noone could argue that when it comes to websites for The Wild Party, The Public Theatre is ahead of the game. But don't take my word for it, check it out for yourself: here

©Copyright 1999, Elyse Sommer, CurtainUp.
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