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An Interview With The Creators of THE MUSICAL OF MUSICALS- THE MUSICAL!

Eric Rockwell and Joanne Bogart have clearly worked closely together for many years. They speak almost in one voice, often finishing each other's sentences, both eager to talk about the creation and development of their new hit revue at the York Theatre, The Musical of Musicals- The Musical!, which imagines a single story told in the styles of five great musical theatre composers and lyricists. After rave reviews in The New York Times, The Village Voice, and the Associated Press, the show has extended its run to January 25th.

"The original idea," Bogart starts to say, "was to do a full-length Rodgers and Hammerstein—" when Rockwell chimes in, "--in the manner of what The Boyfriend does to 20's musicals and what Dames at Sea did to old movie musicals, we thought, let's do that treatment to Rodgers and Hammerstein." When it became clear that their homage/spoof would not make an entire evening, Rockwell continues, they decided to expand it. "The concept came about in answer to the question, 'What can this be? What can you follow that with?' And so that's when we thought, with that same story, what if all these other people did it?" The two worked together in the BMI Musical Theater Workshop, and brought their unfinished material in for criticism. Bogart continues, "We got into the idea of doing little snippets of songs, little parts here and there, and we were very much encouraged that that's enough to do, you don't have to do this full-length thing." Once the material was written, the creators faced a challenge in finding an order for them. The answer was hidden in plain sight. "So much of the order came from which ones were distinctive and which ones contrast with the one before it," Bogart says. The logical contrast to Rodgers and Hammerstein (Stephen Sondheim), would then contrast with Jerry Herman, and onward with Andrew Lloyd Webber and Kander and Ebb. The final order of the songs turned out to be the order in which they were written. Rockwell adds that "even though we wrote them in that order, we have done them in every other order. There was a lot of juggling."

The Musical of Musicals- The Musical! took more than five years to write, as Rockwell and Bogart created their scenario, researched each composer and lyricist's styles, and developed songs and books for five mini-musicals. Not surprisingly, the contract did not come first when this duo wrote their songs. Bogart's lyrics served as a springboard for Rockwell's music. "We would discuss what the song moment is, and have an idea," Bogart says. "It's this type of song (it's an uptempo, it's a ballad), and do the lyrics first. Because it's comedy, it's all set up, set up, joke, set up, set up, joke, and they have to be very specific." Rockwell emphatically agrees. "As a composer, even if it's not comedy, I prefer to have the lyrics first. It gives me more restrictions, but in a positive way. If I just have to write a song, a melody, there are 88 keys on the piano to choose from, but if I know that the words have a certain meter and a certain place in the meter where the important word comes, I know what the phrase should do." Bogart muses on that theme: "For theatre writing, I think [writing the] lyrics first is pretty common, because you have to be telling a story, and you have to make sure there is a mini-score within it for each person."

But before the lyrics could inspire the music, Rockwell and Bogart needed a story and book that could serve for five very different styles of theatre. Bogart remembers: "When we came up with the idea of the rent story being so basic, [we were] trying to find a plot knowing we would set it in all different places with all different types… A very versatile kind of plot. So you have the hero, the villain, the heroine in distress, and the character woman giving advice. Part of the idea was, who is the protagonist in each [sketch]? Obviously, in ["Corn," largely a spoof of Oklahoma!], it's Big Willy's [played by Craig Fols] story. He's got the soliloquy, and it's about [his choices]. In the Sondheim piece, the villain [played by Rockwell] is the protagonist, it's through his eyes, it's all about him." The Jerry Herman-inspired "Dear Abby" gives Bogart herself a chance to be the star, and Lovette George has "her chance to be the star" in the Webber spoof.

The theatrical constellations seem particularly aligned for The Musical of Musicals: each composer and lyricist spoofed has had work on Broadway in the last season, or will in the next few. Rodgers and Hammerstein were represented by Oklahoma!, and there is talk of bringing South Pacific back soon. New York missed Sondheim's latest musical Bounce, but will see his penultimate masterpiece Assassins in March. Jerry Herman's La Cage Aux Folles is slated for a return, and Andrew Lloyd Webber has been a constant presence on Broadway since Evita opened in 1979. And John Kander and Fred Ebb have never been hotter, enjoying smash revivals of both Chicago and the recently shuttered Cabaret playing simultaneously for several years, and the critical and financial success of the movie adaptation of Chicago. Rockwell and Bogart, however, did not exactly expect their show to reflect a specific moment in the great theatrical timeline. Rockwell says, "We started this however many years ago, it was the same situation then. I know it seems so apropos to the current time, but…" Bogart finishes for him: "It was written well before then." Rockwell continues, "Five years ago, we went, 'You know what'd be good?' Because it's been that way for a while now, that revivals constitute a big part of the scene. Or, if it's new things, it's new things by Kander and Ebb, Andrew Lloyd Webber , Stephen Sondheim."

Their goal, then, is not to spoof what is topical about musical theatre, but what is timeless. "That's one of the distinctions between this and Forbidden Broadway," Rockwell says. "This is not a parody of what's happening this season, or specific actors that are stars this season. We don't do Rent or Wicked. We're trying to look back and really send up the greatest of the great, and you can't do that of the last three years, it becomes a different kind of topical thing." Bogart adds, "We're careful to choose icons, absolute masters. And also a body of work… That was part of the criteria, to make sure they are the Mt. Rushmore, the 'Who's Who' of writers."

They could not, however, include every composer or lyricist who deserved a loving jab in the ribs. Rockwell admits, "There are a lot of people we left out who are as great… There's Frank Loesser, who is probably my favorite... But in Frank Loesser's case, he's so versatile that, to me, he doesn't have distinctive a quality as the people we're doing. It would be part Happy Fella, part Guys and Dolls, part Where's Charley? Different sounds and different contexts. Same with Bock and Harnick. They're brilliant, love them…" Again, Bogart finishes Rockwell's thought: "And they write what's appropriate for their story." Rockwell continues: "We thought about doing it, as we thought about all these people. We even wrote a Cole Porter one that didn't make it into the show… It came down to these five because of the idiosyncratic quality of them. You can hear Sondheim music and no one has to tell you 'This is Sondheim,' you know it."

And what will happen to this new musical when it departs the York on January 25th? Rockwell and Bogart are delighted with the current production, but eager to see what it will become in future incarnations. Rockwell says that the great versatility of the show will make each production very different. "The fact that it's done by the four of us with nothing but a piano on stage, that's not a given. It could be produced fully. There are five little individual shows there with settings, and you could do it with a full chorus, you could do it with just two people playing all four parts. It could be in a cabaret, but it could also be in a very large theatre… We like how we presented it here. It honors the subject matter, which is the writing. We're not going to start putting big wigs on and mocking designers, but in the future, I could see a summer stock company doing it with their full cast of characters." Bogart smiles as she looks at the simple, elegant, but perfect set on which she performs nightly. "We were so pleased with this production at the York Theatre. Jim Morgan, who's the artistic director, got this from the beginning. He never tried to make us do anything that didn't support the show exactly as it is. He was so supportive that way. He introduced us to Pam Hunt, the director, and Mary Jo [Dondlinger], the lighting designer… They all came into it and got it immediately. As writers, you just feel so good, that they're doing the right thing." She smiles again, and looks at the stage. "Very grateful."

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Jena Tesse Fox is a lifelong theatre addict who has worked as an actress, a singer, a playwright, a director, a lyricist, a librettist, and (read more...)