CABARET LIFE NYC: Joe Iconis and His 'Family' Are Ready to Rock 54 Below, But Will He Ultimately Conquer Musical Theater on Broadway?
Cabaret Features and Commentary by Stephen Hanks
No, the above list is not like one of those "which one does not belong" questions you had to answer on school tests. Joe Iconisdoes belong with those marquee names that have performed during the opening months of the spanking new 54 Below, which has been christened as "Broadway's Nightclub," but could also be called a cool cabaret room on steroids. The only difference between Iconis and those A-list entertainers is that they have all starred on Broadway, while Iconis wants to make it to Broadway as the composer and/or lyricist and/or book writer of a great big Broadway show. And you know what, he's gonna make it there. Trust me.
But before Joe Iconis gets his Tony nomination, he's going to be making a few stops along the way. Tonight's way station is a one-show gig at 54 Below (at 9:30), where he and his troupe of musical theater minstrels, known as "The Family," will continue their "Nature of the Beasts Tour 2012," which recently packed the Laurie Beechman a few blocks south for two shows. Iconis and The Family are planning to perform 19 "greatest hits" out of his catalog of musical theater, rock, and pop songs that is now at around 150 and climbing. The other day on his personal Facebook page, Iconis shared the story of how the organizers of a London concert cut off the power on Paul McCartney and Bruce Springsteen while they were singing "Twist and Shout" because they "went over curfew." Iconis commented: "Suddenly terrified about what will happen if we blow past our curfew at 54 Below." The audience at tonight's show should only be so lucky Joe plays overtime. (Tonight's "Family" cast list at end of story.)
If you haven't heard of Joe Iconis, as tonight's special guest Broadway actress/singer Annie Golden (who has appeared in three separate versions of Hair) says, "What're they living under a rock or somethin'? Iconis may not have won a Tony or a Grammy or even an Obie-yet-but during the last six years this son of Italian parents on Long Island has been one of the most prolific musical theater songwriters around, and captured his share of prizes in the process. After graduating from the NYU Graduate Musical Theatre Program, he received a 2006 Jonathan Larson Award, a 2006 Daryl Roth Award (for his musical Plastic, written with fellow NYU grad Robert Maddock), the 2007 Ed Kleban Award (as most promising lyricist), 2007 Backstage Bistro and Nightlife Awards (for the Lorinda Lisitza cabaret show Triumphant Baby, songs also written with Maddock), a 2010 MAC/John Wallowich Award, and his "Rock 'n Roll Spaghetti Western" Bloodsong of Love earned three Drama Desk Award nominations for book, music, and featured actor (for "Family" member Jeremy Morse). (Please click on Page 2 to continue.)
"I call him 'Joe ICONIC,' says Golden, "because I believe he will be. How's that for a sound bite, yo?" But if Iconis hasn't yet become, as Golden calls him, "my Marc Shaiman for the new millennium," it's likely because many of his songs and book musicals are considered by some critics and some in the musical theater community as being too quirky or too angry or too rock n' roll or too, well, something. (Considering what passes for a "successful" Broadway musical these days, this has to be something of a joke.) Two New York Times reviews in particular seemed to damn Joe with faint praise. In his 2008 take on Iconis' theatrical rock concert Things to Ruin, the critic Stephen Holden wrote: "The music of Mr. Iconis belongs to the mode of Rent and of Duncan Sheik's more vigorous numbers in Spring Awakening, but the tunes are sparer, the beats harder. The echoes of '60s girl-group anthems and Motown, although deliberate, lack the playful camp spirit of that other pop musical landmark, Hairspray." Reviewing Bloodsong of Love two years later, Charles Isherwood wrote that "Aside from a few movie theme-ish chords early on, Mr. Iconis's score is a mixture of skillfully composed ballads and romping-stomping hoedowns in a middle-of-the-road country-rock idiom . . . The songs are well wrought, pleasant to hear and ably performed." Not exactly raves.
As he was growing up in Long Island, Iconis fell in love with musical theater, rock and pop music through shows such as Little Shop of Horrors, rock groups like The Rolling Stones, singers like Dolly Parton, and piano-playing singer/songwriters like the great Elton John (Iconis can also prodigiously pound a keyboard like Elton did in his glory days). Those early influences are clearly reflected in many of his songs, which are an inspired hybrid of classic musical theater melodies mixed with the best of mainstream rock, pop, country, or even blues riffs.
Iconis songs are accessible whether you're 16 or 60, and his subjects range from adolescent angst to young adult rebellion and insecurity to the complex nature of relationships to getting wasted at the bar with your pals (or without). His lyrics, which are often fascinating character studies, can be ironic, intense, insightful, sensitive, emotional or downright wacky. But what makes an Iconis song so compelling-whether written for musicals or as stand-alone tunes-is that they possess an underpinning of catchy melodies and memorable hooks without being cliche, pedestrian or manipulative.
"I don't think the musicals I've written are that weird or avant-garde at all," Iconis responds when asked about critical reviews of his musicals, his eyes under dark brows exhibiting a puzzled look. (Although a show titled "The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks," might give any potential investor pause.) "My songs have a rock n' roll sound and spirit, for sure, but I think the songs are very much rooted in classic musical theater. That lukewarm review of Bloodsong was tough, because I felt we were building a lot of momentum and that kind of killed it in a very crazy way," Iconis admits. "It took a little time to bounce back from that."
But Iconis has rebounded very well, thank you. He's currently working on three musicals, two commissioned by theater companies, including one about the late gonzo journalist Hunter S. Thompson. And from August 16-September 2, he'll be at the Barrington Stage Theatre in Pittsfield, MA, overseeing the production of The Black Suits, the rock musical he wrote in 2005 (with Maddock as their NYU thesis) about a Long Island high school garage band. He also takes on gigs as a show pianist, as he did in May 2011 for Suzanne Vega's musical play about the southern novelist Carson McCullers, playing multiple characters in the process. And this May, he again musical directed and played piano for Lorinda Lisitza's superb six-night run of Triumphant Baby, which features 12 incredibly polished pop and theater songs, some of which could also be covered by big-time recording stars.
"I feel like I'm suddenly working a freakish amount," Iconis admits. "I've generated more material in the past three months than I have in the past two years, but I think I do my best work when I have a million things going on." If that truly is the case, watch out Broadway, because the stuff that's come before hasn't exactly been chopped liver.
No matter how much Iconis has on his plate, he'll always make time for his Family (photo right), the extended group of more than 30 friends and colleagues who were either with him during the NYU days or have hooked up with him since (see complete list of Family members at end of story). At New York venues such as the Laurie Beechman, Le Poisson Rouge, and the 47th Street Theater, Joe Iconis and The Family concerts feature not only Iconis' engaging songs, but a collection of some of the most talented young performers and musicians in New York. Tonight at 54 Below, the audience will find a group of 14 Family members that are not only terrific singers but also accomplished actors who turn many of Iconis' songs into one-act mini-musicals. To hear Joe tell it, the evolution of this troupe wasn't as much a fortuitous accident as it might seem. As a huge fan of Robert Altman films, especially the classic Nashville, Iconis was fascinated by the directors' use of a regular ensemble of actors and wanted to create that same experience in his musical theater and concert work.
"During and after grad school, I had a bunch of songs that needed singers and that's when I stared collecting these friends," Iconis explains. "I've always loved the notion of working with an Altman-like ensemble of performers and having people who can act as well as sing is very intentional. I really love the collaboration with actors who can sing, especially when they are doing "stand-alone songs" that aren't theatre songs. I want an actor to bring their own thing to the song and want the song to sound different depending on who is singing it. I think that's what separates what we're doing from other musical theatre, because in most musical theatre the singer is there to interpret what's on the page. But that's the opposite of the way I like to work. Every time a different Family member performs one of the songs, I want them to feel as if it was written for them. The most successful performances of my songs happen when an actor makes the song his or her own and interpret it in a way that is specific to them."
When you hear the Family members talk about their devotion to Joe and his music, you realize this group is as much a society of mutual inspiration as one of admiration. Katrina Rose Dideriksen (photo left), a striking brunette and formidable belter who has been in the Broadway cast of Hairspray, met Iconis at NYU 11 years ago and once they connected creatively he wrote the rousing "Nobody's At the Bar (Without Me)" just for her. "At first, Joe got to know me as the white girl who sang like a big ole black lady," Katrina says, "Our styles weren't embraced by the NYU program, so we conspired in rehearsal rooms with Joe banging on the keys so hard I was sure he would break the beat up piano, and me belting out high A's, which was a definite no-no in the vocal performance program. Since then, I feel we've created a real family with all the squabbles and sibling rivalries, but also unconditional love and understanding."
Lance Rubin's signature Iconis number is "The War Song," about an aimless, disaffected guy who joins the military. Another Iconis friend from the NYU days, Rubin was in the first cast of The Black Suits and was "immediately floored by Joe's immensely catchy music. I was new to New York and NYU and I thought, 'Wow, do all these students write this well?' Joe's lyrics were so smart, human and relatable. They didn't describe love and life in broad strokes; they came at life through the specific details, so that the songs felt like the songs people you actually know would be singing if real life was a musical.
"The beautiful thing about The Family," continues Rubin, "is that it formed organically over time, driven by Joe's brilliant music and writing and passion for performing and creating. When we perform with Joe, it really becomes much less about what that show can do for our careers and much more about the pure joy of performing his music and sharing it with audiences." Adds singer Jared Weiss, who also plays guitar in the shows: "There is nothing more fun and fulfilling than playing with Joe and The Family. No matter what is going on in my life, whether it's the best day or the worst day, I know that when we all get on stage, we share something special; a feeling of love and hope and joy that is tangible."
Iconis' best friend in the Family is Jason "SweetTooth" Williams (photo right), who met Joe in 2004 at the Goodspeed Opera House in Connecticut when Iconis was presenting The Black Suits. Williams has performed in all of Joe's full-length musicals and does star turns on a number of songs in the Family concerts, including the haunting "Run Away From You" (during which he takes on the character of a werewolf), and the beautifully melodic "Last on Land," which ultimately transforms into a group ballad about creativity, collaboration, and friendship.
"What makes Joe such a great writer is that he writes as he lives," Williams says. "He is generous, thoughtful, committed, driven, sensitive and honest, and he can access and understand the complex feelings we all have. He is able to tap into some essential part of us all that makes us unique and human. Where others see just a passing moment, Joe hears a story to be told everywhere as a song."
The packed house that will hear some of the Joe Iconis songbook at 54 Below will include die-hard fans who have been regulars at the Family concerts, many of them teenage girls who were seduced by Iconis songs on YouTube. Julia Castellanos, a 17-year-old recent high school grad and budding musical theater actress from Toms River, NJ, became an Iconis-phile when four years ago she was "clicking through Spring Awakening clips," and stumbled upon Family member Krysta Rodriguez (original cast of The Addams Family and who has also appeared in Spring Awakening and In the Heights) singing "Blue Hair," from The Black Suits, a funny, yet poignant song about being a teenage girl who just wants to be noticed. Between Rodriguez and other singers around the country who've discovered the song and posted a filmed rendition on YouTube, "Blue Hair" has captured nearly 400,000 page views.
"I had a hunger for discovering new musicals and immediately fell down one of those procrastination-driven internet rabbit holes into Joe's music," Julia admits. "I spent months watching the bootlegs he would post from his concerts and was in total obsessive awe at how fresh and different all of his work felt. Later, I saw Things to Ruin and it was one of the most formative experiences of my life. That's when I really decided to pursue theater as a career. To me, Joe Iconis is the blood, guts and heart of new musical theater."
If you're one of the 140 or so peeps at 54 Below tonight-or at any future Iconis and The Family concert-blood, guts and heart is what you're likely to get, with some great music and excellent performances thrown in for good measure. And who knows? Audiences might think Joe and The Family will measure up to the marquee names that came before.
"I knew Phil [Geoffrey Bond, Director of Programming for 54 Below] from performing all those shows at the Beechman, but I was still totally floored when he asked me to do a show at the new space," Iconis exclaims, as if he were going to perform his first show ever. "To be mentioned with those stars is incredible for me and the whole group. It's exciting to know there will be some people hearing my songs for the first time. I know performing 19 songs may be a bit excessive, but I always freak out about people getting bored, and I like shows that feel a little overwhelming, and the idea that the audience will be sweating by the time they leave."
After seeing about a half dozen Iconis and the Family shows before finally getting around to writing this piece (sometimes procrastination can be your friend), I can hereby attest that the audience will be sweating . . . and smiling . . . and boogying their butts off.
Note: At tonight's 54 Below show, Joe Iconis' extended Family of performers will include: MAC Award-winner Liz Lark Brown, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Seth Eliser, Annie Golden, Ian Kagey, MK Lawson, Eric William Morris, Jeremy Morse, Krysta Rodriguez, Robert Rokicki, Mike Rosengarten, Lance Rubin, Jared Weiss, and Jason "SweetTooth" Williams.
Other Joe Iconis and The Family members include: Ben Arons, Jenni Barber, Nick Blaemire, Starr Busby, Jenny Donoghue, Badia Farha, Molly Hager, Michael L. Jackson, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Rachel Lee, Lorinda Lisitza, Carrie Manolakos, Lauren Marcus, Anne L. Nathan, Mike Pettry, Josh Mark Samuels, A.J. Shively, Jordan Stanley, Brent Stranathan, and Taylor Trensch.
Photos by Monica Simoes