BWW Interview: Journalist Michael Ventre Discusses Politically Fascinating New Musical
Michael Ventre studied at the University of Southern California both in Journalism and at the graduate school of Cinema. He also studied acting at the Stella Adler Conservatory in Los Angeles.
As s journalist, he has contributied to such publications as MSNBC.com, Variety, American Way (American Airlines) magazine, Los Angeles Confidential magazine, Los Angeles Times magazine, Produced by (Producers Guild) magazine and many others. Ventre has been working for a few years on a new musical with arresting political references called Letters to Benito. In our conversation he discusses it and how he would like to produce it locally at a prestigious theatre.
Tell our readers about the association between Benito Mussolini and J Edgar Hoover that sparks your new musical. Old timers are familiar with both men, but they may like to know why you created this fantasy to link them as pen pals. Explain the story.
MV: Authoritarian rule is a much-discussed topic these days, in the U.S., in Europe and beyond. There was a time when Hoover had an authoritarian grip on power in America, although it was relatively silent and behind the scenes. He ran the FBI for almost half a century with an iron hand, he intimidated powerful figures into submission, and he went after his enemies. In short, he used Fascist tactics and abused his power. Of course, Mussolini was more of an overt, card-carrying Fascist and a supporter of Hitler, but I think you can conclude that the two were simpatico in terms of how to maintain their respective grips on power through ruthlessness and fear. Plus each was about 5-7 and bald, so I thought they'd make a cute couple.
If the musical is irreverent and political, then it certainly is a fit for our current scene. What motivated you to write it?
MV: It's something I have been working on for several years, but it certainly seems especially appropriate for our current times and the current political conditions. Back in the early 1990s a biography of Hoover came out and made a number of assertions about him, one of which was that he was a crossdresser. His private life and his relationship with close friend and FBI deputy Clyde Tolson have always been the topics of speculation and discussion. I don't think it matters who he was with or what he wore; I support anyone living their life the way they want and loving who they want. But for the purposes of this fantasy in which seducing Mussolini was an objective, I put Hoover in a dress, wig and high heels, and I think an impartial observer would probably agree that he looks quite fetching and irresistible.
Did you write the music as well as the book? If not, who collaborated with you?
MV: I did write the music as well as the book.
What style of music did you envision? Opera? Operetta? Of is it more contemporary with rap and hip hop?
MV: It's more contemporary, and although there's a dash of hip-hop in one number, it's mostly what you might categorize as whimsical show tunes within a nutty context. Yet I'm a big fan of soul, R&B and Motown, and some of that is layered in as well, especially after Madame Gottlieb, the beautiful African-American transvestite brothel operator in Italy, is introduced. It's an intentionally wacky musical, but with a serious side. There's a delicate balance, and I tried to maintain that balance in the songs as well as the book.
Without creating a spoiler alert, tell us some of the humor that is present. You say it is Mel Brooksian. Explain that in detail.
MV: A friend and colleague, Flody Suarez, who was one of the producers in the Tony-nominated The Cher Show on Broadway, recently read Letters to Benito and remarked: "That is one trippy read! It's very reminiscent of Mel Brooks' comedies." That's where the Mel reference came from that you're citing, and it was very nice of Flody to say that. I would never make that comparison. Mel is one of my all-time comedy idols, and I am eternally grateful to him for existing. It is my sincere hope that, if Mel ever sees "Letters to Benito," he laughs. As for a spoiler ... I'd rather not get too specific. I will say that there is one song performed by the Clyde Tolson character that is both dirty and patriotic - one could argue that the two often go hand in hand - and I think most will find it funny and some will find it offensive. I remember thinking, "I don't think this has ever been the topic of a song in a musical before. Maybe the time is right!" There are also references to a certain current-day individual without mentioning said current-day individual that I hope will elicit at least a guffaw or two.
Many theatres like the Road, Actors Co-op in Hollywood and Antaeus have great acting companies. It obviously will take some pretty terrific acting to carry off the powerhouse ambitions of these two characters. What kind of effect do you want it to have on audiences?
MV: I want audiences to laugh. It's an irreverent musical comedy, after all, and we could all use a good laugh, especially these days. I feel confident audiences will have fun at this show. But there is always an undercurrent of darkness to it, especially toward the end. No matter how fun the ride is, the subject matter has natural darkness to it that can't and shouldn't be avoided. So I think as people walk out they will have a lot to talk about regarding our current leadership, Hoover, Mussolini, freedom, democracy, power, secrecy, propaganda, and how to select just the right handbag.
Have you read it in small groups? If so, what was the reaction?
MV: Yes, and everybody laughed in all the right places, and sometimes in the wrong places, but I'm hoping that was residual laughter from laughing in the right places.
How do you feel about musicals in general? Is this your very first?
MV: I love musicals, now. I'm not going to say I saw Oklahoma! when I was 10 and it changed my life. Nor have I ever appeared in a high school musical. I have attended musicals as a casual fan over the years. But in recent years I've been going more and more, catching up more and more, and now I have the bug in a sort of incurable way. Letters to Benito started out as a screenplay, but as I progressed, it just felt like a musical. So I transformed it. And yes, it's my first.
Do you have a favorite composer? If so, why this choice? What about favorite musical of all time? Why?
MV: Probably the Gershwins and Stephen Sondheim. I know that's a little like saying "The Godfather" is my favorite movie, but what can I say? That's it. And although it's film, can I please throw in Ennio Morricone for "Once Upon A Time In America"? Thank you. My favorite musical of all time is probably a tie between Bye Bye Birdie, The Producers and Hamilton. And I know this isn't exactly what you asked, but I've never been a big fan of rap and hip-hop. But after seeing Hamilton and wearing out the soundtrack, I've gained an appreciation for that genre and I am exploring with glee. Thank you Lin-Manuel Miranda. I think you can say that's the power of a great artist, when he or she has that kind of impact that alters your life a bit.
Do you wish to add anything I did not mention?
MV: One item I'd love for audiences to think about afterward is the idea that you should consider how you want to be remembered, especially if you're in any position of power and influence. I don't know that Hoover thought much about it, maybe until the end, if at all. In retrospect, he probably should have. I think there are a lot of folks today who should really keep that same thought in mind.
I have read the play and find it terribly amusing and worthy of attention. Since he is between websites at the present time, you may contact Ventre on his FB page: https://www.facebook.com/michael.ventre.18. Theatre producers, take note!