BWW Interviews Part II: John Markus and Mark St. Germain Discuss THE FABULOUS LIPITONES, Bill Cosby, Future Plans
Before their new show, "The Fabulous Lipitones", premiered at Atlanta's Theatrical Outfit, playwrights Mark St. Germain and John Markus, along with director Justin Anderson, sat down with Broadway World Atlanta for an in-depth discussion about their meeting as writers on "The Cosby Show", the creation of "Lipitones", and much more (to read the first part of our feature, click here).
Since Tom Key became the Executive Artistic Director of Theatrical Outfit in 1995, the theatre company has grown to one of the most respected in the region, regularly premiering new works from acclaimed writers. Under Key's direction, a renowned playwright in his own right ("Cotton Patch Gospel", "Confederency of Dunces"), T.O. has striven to present "stories that stir the soul," which according to St. Germain made it an ideal home for the world premiere of "The Fabulous Lipitones." The play tells the heart-warming story of a small-town barber shop quartet that reluctantly replaces its deceased leader with a pitch-perfect Indian Sikh.
While attending a production of one of his most popular works a few years ago, St. Germain mentioned his new project to Key. "I had been down here for 'Freud's Last Session' (in T.O.'s 2011 season)," the playwright recalled. "('The Fabulous Lipitones') just seems like a perfect show for this theatre thematically."
Not only has Theatrical Outfit provided that perfect fit that St. Germain hoped for, but it has also provided a nurturing environment for Markus. Until "Lipitones" opened, Emmy and Peabody-winner Markus had never written a play that had been produced. Unlike his writing partner, who has won Off Broadway Alliance, Lucille Lortel, and Outer Critics Circle Awards working in the theatre, Markus is still new to the community. "I've always talked to Mark about (how supportive) the theatre is," Markus said, "but (St. Germain was) always telling me...," before Markus could finish his anecdote, St. Germain jumped in wearily reiterating, "Don't romanticize it."
Despite his friend's protestations, Markus' experience with Theatrical Outfit has more than met his expectations. "It's been wonderful working with Justin (Anderson) and Tom Key, because we are in such a warm, supportive environment with this piece." In fact, the experience has been so positive for Markus, that he and St. Germain are already working on a new musical. While details could not yet be discussed, Markus did share that the pair would be writing the book and lyrics for the show, and that they are currently looking for a composer to write the score.
While the Atlanta theatre community has fully embraced these New York playwrights, it was important to all of the creative team that they reached out beyond the local arts community. "I felt this deep-seeded responsibility to be as authentic to (the Barber Shop and Sikh communities) as possible," Anderson said.
Although the first draft of the script was written with just a basic "book knowledge" of barber shop music and the Sikh religion, both the writers and director reached out to develop a deeper understanding of the script's subject matter.
For the specific style of music required for the show, Markus turned to an expert in the field, Steve Delahanty, whom he calls "the Obi-Wan Kenobi of barbershop in New York." Delahanty gave the playwrights invaluable insight into both the realities of the competitive barbershop community and in the arrangements of classic songs used in the show.
Additionally, Anderson visited a number of Atlanta-based groups that are members of The Society for the Preservation and Encouragement of Barber Shop Quartet Singing in America. While the group's long name serves as small gag in the show, the organization counts over 25,000 men as members and is celebrating its 75th Anniversary this year.
Perhaps more important to the playwrights and director was the honesty and accuracy with which the play presented "Bob", the Fabulous Lipitones' new Sikh alto. St. Germain said that he hoped that the show's humor would lead audiences to a deeper appreciation of those that are different. He hoped they would take away, "the idea that there is fundamentally no difference between people. (In 'Lipitones') it's something that's said through comedy rather than a direct, preaching manner. Which is always the best way to put something."
Markus then elaborated the point by harkening back to their legendary former boss. "I got those lessons from Cosby all the time. Don't spoon feed anybody anything. They won't like it. Just sneak it in the back door," Markus recalled.
In Atlanta, Anderson and Key, a cast member in addition to T.O.'s Executive Artistic Director, visited local Sikh temples and recruited members to serve on the show's Host Committee. Parvinder Singh, of the Sikh Educational Welfare association, says in the show's program that after initially being skeptical, through discussions with the show's staff, that his group became convinced "that this team would be helpful in bringing more interfaith tolerance, harmony and peace through this funny and touching play."
The efforts of the entire creative team have given Anderson a level of confidence that all of their research has paid off on stage. "I think there's going to be a lovely level of authenticity (in the show)."
While "The Fabulous Lipitones" is the first play that Markus has ever had produced, he and St. Germain did write a script for the stage in the early 90's that played a significant role in creating their newest work. After finishing on "The Cosby Show" in 1990, Markus had a development deal with NBC, which led to a pilot for "Sons of Liberty," a show based on a men's lodge in the Midwest. Like, "Lipitones", this show recalls a simpler time in American history. "We like traditional things," Markus said. "I think we are filled with yearning and nostalgia."
Unlike most television pilots, Markus wanted to test out this script on the stage. After bringing St. Germain on board, they hired a number of Broadway and television veterans. Tony-winner Jerry Zaks directed a cast that featured Emmy and Tony winner Cynthia Nixon, Tony and Pulitzer Prize winning playwright Bruce Norris, Tony winner Henderson Forsythe, TV and film veteran Wallace Shawn, Emmy winner Philip Bosco, and "The Andy Griffith Show's" Howard Sprague, actor Jack Dodson. It was these last three actors that lent their names, in some form or another, to members of the "Lipitones" quartet; Wally, Phil, and Howard.
"We fell in love with the personalities of some of the characters and also the actors who played them," St. Germain explained.
In fact, the love of these characters have kept the pair interested in the show for nearly two decades; "It's a piece we are still actually kicking around," Markus teased.
Theatrical Outfit's "The Fabulous Lipitones" runs through April 21st at the Balzer Theater at Herren's and without betraying our review (which you can read at Broadway World Atlanta on Wednesday) has the humor of your favorite sitcom (no surprise with the playwrights' pedigree) and the heart of the theatre's best dramas (see previous note). To get tickets to the show, call (678) 528-1500 or click here.
Additionally, check back with Broadway World Atlanta on Friday to read about how United States Senator Al Franken led to Markus' current television show, "BBQ Pitmasters."
Photo: John Markus & Mark St. Germain
Photo Credit: BreeAnne Clowdus