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BWW Interview: Creators Joel Paley and Marvin Laird Discuss the Return of RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL


Joel Paley (book and lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music) have had an incredibly busy fall season. Their hilarious, award-winning 1992 musical RUTHLESS! recently played a limited engagement of nine performances at Stage 72 at the Triad to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS, and the musical in New York for another run! Back by popular demand, RUTHLESS! will continue its run at Stage 72 with a top-notch cast that includes a newly-discovered eight-year-old, double cast in the lead role with Paley himself!

Paley and Laird took the time to chat with BroadwayWorld last week, on the final day of tech rehearsal before their opening (Thursday, October 23rd). The creators gave us insight on the production's history, what it's like working with small children in big parts, and what the musical has become today. Read the full interview below!

How did you first get involved in writing RUTHLESS! THE MUSICAL?

Joel: I was obsessed with the movie "The Bad Seed" growing up. I was an actor as a child, and I was just obsessed with this film. When I was in my late teens, I was part of a group called Apartment Theatre. We used to go around for people's birthdays, because we didn't have any money for presents, someone would take you out to lunch, and the rest of us would go in your apartment, turn it into a theatre, and write a show just for know, like "The Happy Birthday Jeffrey Show" or "The Happy Birthday Barbara Show." It was pre-Saturday Night Live, but that's kind of what it was. It was like a variety show. And because I was obsessed with "The Bad Seed," I wrote a review of the musical version of "The Bad Seed" called "Seedy." It was a skit of all singing, all dancing.

About a year after that, I was in a group that was just starting called Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo. We were just downtown guys, and it was a travesti ballet...classic Russian ballet. And we got a couple of gigs at colleges, and Shirley McClaine happened to come see us at UCLA. This was the turning point because she was really into ballet, and she was doing this big TV special. So she invited us to be on her TV special and suddenly we were going to be on television with Shirley McClaine! And that's how I met Marvin. He was the musical director, and he came from Hollywood. So we were hanging out for a week, putting our segment together. I was reading him some of my material, and I read him my review of "The Bad Seed," and he said, "This is a really good should be a musical!"

So while I was on tour with Trockadero during the next year I wrote the actual musical version, and I would send lyrics to Marvin, and he would write the songs. And we had a show called "Seedy," which of course is nothing like RUTHLESS, but that's how it began.

Have you done any other projects together besides RUTHLESS?

Joel: No, we used to write night club acts together, and I used to work for Bob Newhart and Marvin, of course, has been working with Bernadette Peters, and she used to open for Bob Newhart in Vegas. We wrote acts together for Abbey Lane and Donna Pescow when she had just been doing that TV show "Angie" and "Saturday Night Fever." But we could never get the rights to "The Bad Seed." We tried desperately. They were owned by Maxwell Anderson's widow when he bought it to make a stage play from William March. He sold him the entire rights to it, and Maxwell Anderson died, and his wife didn't think the idea of "The Bad Seed" as a musical was good. She thought we were making fun of it, and it was funny, but it came from love. You know, with the Ballets Trockadero, we loved ballet, and we parodied ballet. And we were having fun with "The Bad Seed" because we loved it, but this was before "South Park" and "The Simpsons" and all of that. So they just would not let us have the rights, so we thought that was it.

Marvin: But then we spoke with the then-manager of Bernadette Peters. As a matter of fact, he was her longtime friend and mentor until just a few years ago. And he said when we told him our sad tale of woe about not being able to get the rights, since we had been writing it, the advent of Saturday Night Live had occurred, and people were getting more used to the idea of parodying bad ideas. So he said, if you include another entity or two and parody more than one, in our case, wonderful piece, take stock in what you love most. So we thought about pieces like "Gypsy" and "The Women" and "Inside Daisy Clover." And so Joel made parodies in the telling of the tale of "Seedy." And he was also able to parody aspects of these other pieces, which gave us the go-ahead to put this piece on as we wanted to.

Joel: He said, "What's the theme?" And I said that it was inherited criminality, and he said, "Well, you can use the theme but that's about a little girl who kills for a penmanship medal." So I had to ask myself what I would kill for, and it was the lead in the school play, when I was eight. And so it became not about inherited criminality but inherited talented. And so, Tina Denmark was born.

What's it like directing a show with such a young actress as the star?

Joel: It's changed over the years from the very first time we did it with Laura Bundy. It was Laura Bell Bundy, Britney Spears, and Natalie Portman. Those were the first three. You know, there's some adult language but it's really classic comedy. I would sort of take these kids and have to train them because they had to be really intense and over the top. But it's very different now, twenty-three years later, because kids are so much more sophisticated now. And we did a lot of re-writing, and kids today, especially the kids we've been working with in the last go-around and this new girl who's going on tomorrow night for the first time...this is her first show! She came to us three weeks ago, and it was her very first audition. She's ten years old. Anyway, kids today have been exposed to so much more. They're so intelligent, and I learn a lot more from them than they used to learn from me.

The musical was originally written for an all-female cast, though I understand traditions have changed a bit since then. Originally, though, what inspired you to write it this way?

Joel: Well, I originally wrote it for all women because I loved the George Cukor movie "The Women." I loved all the over-the-top dramatic personalities of all these great women. I cast it with all females, but I couldn't find a woman who was strong enough to play the lead character, who's sort of a cross between Mama Rose and Auntie Mame. I had been a personal assistant of Bea Arthur, so I sort of had her voice in my mind for a long time, so it was a very dynamic character. And we just couldn't find anyone who was right for it.

At the time, Marvin and I were doing these New York Theatre Guild cruises. We would go out on these cruises with all these big stars like Helen Hayes, Patricia Neal, and Eileen Brennan...Carol Channing. And I would direct these shows and Marvin would music direct, and the costumer was a man named Joel Vig. He was a provincial sweet-natured costume guy. And then one night, it was put together like a variety show for the crew, and he came out as this Greek lounge singer named Nina Duvall. And he was outrageous. And I was like, "That's the character!" It didn't matter that it was a man, it was the character. So I asked him if he would be interested in working on this, and he was actually doing a National Tour of "A Chorus Line" as the costumer, and he left that. But when we did it, it wasn't because it was drag. It was the actor. There were people who didn't even know it was a guy, and as a matter of fact a woman played the role after him. In the last couple of years, Betty Buckley and the brilliant Jan Maxwell read for Sylvia. It was really conceived to be all woman.

But in this particular outing, because I was going to play Tina, Marvin got up and said, "All right, if you're going to play Tina, I'm going to be Sylvia!"

Marvin: It was a lot of pantyhoes and a lot of lashes. But we had been out looking for children for so long. We had been very lucky when we found Laura Bell Bundy because she was just...Laura Bundy. I had been doing Christmas and Easter shows at Radio City, and she auditioned one day for the role of the little girl in the Nutcracker festival. And I called Joel immediately, and told him we'd found our girl. She was one of the rare eight-year-olds who had a sophistication and understanding of adult concepts. She would kind of be the guiding rule of thumb as to what kind of little girl that we needed to find but, as Joel just said, there's a much greater intensity in kids and undertaking adult things that these days, there are more Tina Denmarks. Kids want to play more sophisticated roles.

Joel: About a year and a half ago, we had rewritten the show quite a bit, and we'd gotten it down to what we always wanted it to be, and we were out here in Connecticut, and we had a beautiful little girl playing Tina. But on the day of our invited dress, she got sick, and her mother called us and said, "Oh my god, she can't sing! I'll let her go on, but she won't be able to sing." So I called Marvin who was in New York rehearsing with Bernadette, and he said, "You have to play Tina if she can't sing." So I just thought about it as just for the dress rehearsal. I just wore jeans and a black t-shirt and a blonde wig, and I didn't play it campy at all. I played it like an eight-year-old child. It was really funny, and she was still sick, so I wound up playing for a week. It was so interesting for me to revisit my performing days, and people were leaving the theatre saying, "Oh, there is no little girl, it's a joke. The girl gets sick and her understudy is a middle-aged man." The lady who produced it wanted to bring it to New York as a benefit for Broadway Cares, and she told me I should do it...because it was a perfect time, for a benefit, only nine performances. So it just started, let's have some fun with this. Marvin and I had been together for years and we had never performed together.

And then Sophia Anne Caruso sort of found her way into our lives, like the real Tina Denmark. She had written me a letter where she said she was nine or ten playing the role in Spokane, Washington. She said that during a dress rehearsal she had to open a door to make her entrance, and she couldn't open the door. And it turned out that the man playing Sylvia had a heart attack and dropped dead on set. And she said that she was so devastated, and that they never did do the show, and that she didn't think she'd ever get over it, but she also said, "Anyway, I know all the songs and dialogue. And if you ever do it again, I want to play Tina." And we met her, and fell in love with her, so the producer suggested we both do the role on different nights. It's such an interesting idea because it works completely differently, and it's so funny both ways.

In the earlier days when you were writing the show, did you ever think you'd perform in the show, or was the an unexpected thing that came along the way?

Joel: Well, the interesting thing is that when it was still "Seedy," we did a reading of it before it had any music, and I read the role of Rhoda Penmark, and Mo Gaffney played the mother. So I did it, but the inspiration was how weird it is when an eight or nine year old gets up and has those pipes and sings like an adult. It's more common now, but then it was such a freaky thing. It really always was going to be a child, and I didn't know if we'd ever find a child until Marvin found Laura Bell Bundy.

You had several huge names in the off-Broadway production (Laura Bell Bundy, Natalie Portman, Britney Spears) as Tina or as her understudy. What has it been like from your perspective watching those girls grow up and continue to have huge success on stage and screen?

Joel: It's thrilling. We've stayed fairly close with Laura, and we see everything she does. She always says we taught her everything she knows about comedy. It's terrific, and it's very exciting. We get letters from kids all over, and when we were doing the nine performances, five or six Tinas from all over the country came to see it.

Marvin: We've worked with children throughout the years and a lot of my career has been spent with kids in one version or another. I've found a couple of companies with kids here and there. So we're not strangers to working with children, and frankly, there are a lot of times that I'd much rather work with kids because they're so much more malleable and so much more eager to be themselves and not hide behind things.

Joel: It's also about their parents. When we're auditioning kids, we're also auditioning parents. Because I'll tell you, it makes a big difference. We've been very lucky and very careful with the support that the kid gets at home. We've been very lucky with the last two gals, the first being Sophia Anne Caruso who is now doing "Little Dancer" and is unavailable until December.

So we had some auditions, and this amazing Torri Murray showed up. It was her very first audition, and she was discovered singing at her grandmother's funeral. Her grandmother had a friend who was an agent at the funeral, and she went over to the parents at the funeral, and said, "This might not be the right time, but your daughter's got a voice, and would you like me to represent her?" She was against four other kids who were all on Broadway. She's an amazing, amazing little girl, and her parents are absolutely fabulous.

Before you found her, were you planning on playing the role of Tina for this run?

Joel: At that time, the producers were thinking, maybe we've got this great idea. They said, you come to the show and you never know who it's going to be. So in exploring the actual material and what it's really about, because it's really become a whole play about narcissism and the child in the adult and the adult in the talented child. So we decided to explore that. When I was playing Tina last month at the Triad, there's a big dramatic number at the end that was very challenging for me to sing. I though, well, I'll stop the show right before the song and introduce "The Real Tina Denmark." And then the little girl would come out from the audience and just do this number, and then I would send her away. So, we sort of split the part in a very clever way for this outing. This time out, Tina is double-cast.

Was it hard to adapt the script for that change?

Joel: No! That's what was so amazing! I actually dropped an entire character, and we cut it down from a two-act musical to a ninety minute intermission-less musical. We stripped it down to the bare bones. We realized there was so much more happening than a parody, which was the beginning of it. It really became about narcissism, ego, and drive. I was raised by a very narcissistic mother, and it was very difficult growing up, and I worked out a lot of my issues in this script. I chipped away the parts of it that were parodies of other things and focused on what our own story was, and when we tried it, it just fell into place.

Here's something very interesting: we're opening tomorrow night. We had our tech rehearsal today. We planned out which scenes I would do and there's this really key scene that I was playing, and our director said, "You know, maybe the kid should play that scene." And I said, you know, we're opening tomorrow, but we decided to give her a shot. So just today I threw this major scene at her. We're just playing with it, and we'll probably play with it throughout the run. Every show will probably have something different and unique because this really is about creating as we go.

With shows like "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Dance Moms" now in the mainstream, how do you think the show's impact on audiences has changed?

Joel: Absolutely. That's what happened. There was a production about three years ago in Pittsburgh, and their tagline was "Before Toddlers and Tiaras, there was RUTHLESS." And it suddenly dawned on us that it's so much more in the mainstream. It really was ahead of its time twenty-three years ago. It's so much more a part of our conscience that not only everyone wants to be famous, but everyone can be famous. It just seems to capture the moment right now. And also narcissism is like a new, hot neurosis. It's like a real disease now. It's like a real illness.

Marvin: And also the thing that's explored in these new versions in child exploitation, in things like "Toddlers and Tiaras" and "Dance Moms," you really get a chance to see where a lot of that narcissism is coming. All these mommies and daddies take their children to compete in pageants and contests. Generally, the camera is capturing the narcissism in the faces of parents even more than the kids. It's informing a lot of our audience that this is a much more common aspect of children than before the last couple of decades.

Joel: And it's also just a tribute to musicals. You know, it's the only musical that has a song called "I Hate Musicals." All the music is parodies of different composers and theatrical traditions and movies. We really play on those deep theatrical roots. It's really about theatre.

RUTHLESS! just played a limited engagement of nine performances at the Triad in September. How does it feel having the show running in New York again so soon?

Joel: We were just talking about that. We did these nine performances for a good cause and we thought that would be it, but it did so well and it broke box office records and they wanted us to come back. And we wanted to come back, but we didn't want to repeat what we just did. If we're going to come back, I really want to take this to the next level.

Samuel French published it, and they're going to reissue publication in January. And I wanted to use this time to really solidify the script that I want to leave behind as RUTHLESS. I thought, what a great time to do it right now, and really work out the script that I want published. I mean, we're performing on 72nd street in the very same building where I first took acting classes! And the agent who sent us this little girl, is the same agent who sent us Britney Spears twenty-three years ago.

Marvin: There's so much of that in this production.

Joel: Laura Bell Bundy actually did a reading a few years ago playing the mother. So it's kind of like a RUTHLESS family.

RUTHLESS! seems like it's having a pretty big comeback. Do you have any plans or hopes for the show's future at this point, or are you just focused on getting through the run?

Joel: Exactly. This is for us, an experience. We're having such a great time, and it's about the process and taking chances. All my life I've been trying to get things right, and this isn't about getting things right. It's about being honest and expressive. We're not aiming at anything. We're where we are, right here, right now, exploring the material. We have the most amazing group of actors and designers and people who aren't just hired people, but been friends of ours for years. We're just in the moment with this. This is all about getting up on stage and putting our money where our mouth is! I figured, I've spent years getting these little girls to say it, so I should be man enough to do it, too. Even while wearing a tutu.

Is there anything else you'd like perspective audiences to know about RUTHLESS?

Marvin: I think they should come and discover what a musical called RUTHLESS is going to be. They will make some discoveries. Some of the big fans of our show will come back, and they will make discoveries. A lot of fans who come actually quote some lines along with the actors because they've become so iconic. But there's a lot of new twists and turns, so even they will be surprised.

Joel: And you know, with this version, I don't know how long Marvin and I will perform in it. Right now, there's something about the creators getting up and doing it that's a lot of fun. It's a unique opportunity to see it come from the minds that created it. We're very grateful that we're having this opportunity because we're having the time of our lives. It feels right to be doing this.

Ruthless! The Musical, the award-winning Off-Broadway musical comedy (Drama Desk, Outer Critics Circle) is back by popular demand after a record-breaking, sold-out nine performances to benefit Broadway Cares/Equity Fights AIDS. "RUTHLESS!" has come to be known as the Stage Mother of All Musicals, is back at Stage 72 at the Triad beginning tonight, October 23rd for an extended run.

Tickets cost from $25 to $43. There is a two-drink minimum for all shows. To purchase tickets and view show times, visit

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