The Lost Classic by Joseph Moncure March
The Wild Party
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
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.
Blondie & Black
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
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.
|THE WILD PARTY
A poem by Joseph Moncure March
with drawings by Art Spiegelman
Published by Pantheon
softcover 120 pages
To buy on line go
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