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BWW Interview: DC Scarpelli & Peter Budinger of DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL: DC AND PETER'S GLORIOUS ROMP THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF TV THEME SONGS at 42nd Street Moon

Their love letter to some of the catchiest music ever written is available for streaming June 5th to 27th

BWW Interview: DC Scarpelli & Peter Budinger of DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL: DC AND PETER'S GLORIOUS ROMP THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF TV THEME SONGS at 42nd Street Moon
DC Scarpelli (L) and Peter Budinger (R)
creators and stars of Don't Touch That Dial...
(photo by Ben Krantz Studio)

After the myriad stresses of the past year, we could all use some straight-up entertainment and 42nd Street Moon is providing just that with Don't Touch That Dial: DC and Peter's Glorious Romp Through the Golden Age of TV Theme Songs. Conceived and directed by DC Scarpelli and Peter Budinger, the show promises a fun-filled stroll down memory lane as Scarpelli and Budinger guide us through decades of catchy sitcom themes and the evolution of television. The large, diverse cast also includes Moon stalwarts like Meg McKay and Keith Pinto among a host of multi-talented performers who may be new to you. Don't Touch That Dial is available to stream from June 5 - 27, 2021 as part of 42nd Street Moon's paid virtual ticketed MoonBeams series. Tickets and further information are available at 42ndstmoon.org/moonbeams. And to get a brief taste of it, you can check out the trailer here.

I had the pleasure of speaking with Budinger and Scarpelli last week as they were still putting the finishing touches on the video presentation. As Scarpelli says, "We're not satisfied with any musical number until it's utterly dripping with charm and delight." If you ever run into them at a party, these are definitely the guys you want to talk to as they are both a barrel of fun and an endless font of information about classic TV and musical theater. A married couple, the two have been working together for years as well as performing individually, and their combined theater credits read like a recent history of Bay Area musical theater. Our freewheeling conversation covered how they conceived the show and put it together, which obscure songs didn't make the final cut, and shows they'd love for Moon to mount in the future. The following has been condensed and edited for clarity.

Don't Touch That Dial! sounds like a lot of fun, but I would guess that putting the show together was a little more complicated than just thinking up your favorite TV theme songs. How did you go about developing the concept into a cohesive show?

DCS: Well, to be really honest, it's just incredibly self-indulgent. [laughs] The "Golden Age of TV Theme Songs" in the title is really our golden age of TV theme songs. TV theme songs started to sort of wane in the 90's and we grew up in like the late 70's and 80's, and we really just used that as a framework, our own nostalgia for those songs. It's a little bit of a fantasia through our ridiculous brains.

PB: And the show also is sort of loosely grouped, thematically, to give it some structure. So there's theme songs that are about love or some are sort of female empowerment-themed [etc.].

You share credit as Creative Directors of the show. How did you actually work together on it? Do you tend to work on every element with the two of you together in the same room, or do you take more of a divide and conquer approach by splitting out the individual segments and assigning them according to your respective strengths?

DCS: We both studied playwrighting at Yale, undergrad, and we've been writing together since then, and really have this sort of down to of a science. I pump out a first draft cause I'm very quick, but I'm also glib and facile, and then Pete takes it and gives it some actual polish.

And then is it sort of an iterative process from that point on?

DCS: Very much so. In this particular case, we were working with a specific cast and a specific theater in mind, so the other members of the creative team were very much in on the process. Sometimes the cast was in on the process, sometimes we gave numbers straight to cast members to interpret as they would, which has led to some really fun things in the show.

BWW Interview: DC Scarpelli & Peter Budinger of DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL: DC AND PETER'S GLORIOUS ROMP THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF TV THEME SONGS at 42nd Street Moon
Of course, the Brady Bunch make an appearance in Don't Touch That Dial...
(image courtesy of 42nd Street Moon)

It looks like you've got some pretty young folks in the cast. Did you have to explain to any of them what the title of the show refers to?

[both laugh] PB: In some cases, yes. They were born long after these shows had come and gone.

DCS: And after TV's had dials! Maybe half our cast has never even heard that choonk-choonk-choonk [sound when you'd turn the dial to change the channel]. So, yeah, we had to explain things like what Jan Brady's personality was. Which is so weird, and it makes you feel ancient, but it's also really cool showing these really hungry performers something they didn't know about.

PB: Yeah, and an added bonus of that was that they had no preconceived notions cause they weren't familiar with it already. While some of them looked at things on Youtube and then went from there, others really reinterpreted the material from their own contemporary point of view, and we got some very unexpected results that were really cool.

How did creating this for a virtual format, rather than as a live in-person presentation, affect the end product?

DCS: You know it's kind of been bubbling in our heads for a long time to do a TV theme song cabaret, and during Covid it was the perfect time to do it because everyone's on screens. And by the time we got it into the main season of 42nd Street Moon, it was like we're bringing up the tail end of the big streaming era of 2020. So it was kind of perfect in that way beause we got to think about it for the screen specifically, rather than a stage production that was gonna be filmed. So there are elements of a filmed stage production in it, but there's a lot that was produced exclusively for the screen

What theater makers have been through for the last year might be analogous to the very beginnings of television, say circa 1950, when they were just taking stuff that had been onstage and throwing it up onscreen and seeing what worked and what didn't, and kind of making it up as they went along. I feel like that's what you all have had to do in the last year. And based on what I've observed as an audience member, the learning curve has been enormous.

DCS: Oh, absolutely. I'm really lucky in that what I do as a day job is teach various kinds of computer-aided design and typography. I have a bit of motion graphics in my back pocket, so when it was time for this, I just went gangbusters, ya know?

You two are a married couple, and this is not the first show you've done together. So what's the secret of working together without wanting to kill each other?

DCS: You know when we first started producing our own work, it was like ten years we spent working on a small scale in San Francisco for things like the Fringe. We got a couple of Best of Fringes and stuff like that. And for ten years we had desks facing each other, like Deathtrap, you know, and there are inevitably times you butt heads. But we worked out a long time ago the way to make it work most smoothly, and very rarely does that happen anymore. We were members of the same improv group at Yale, and the philosophy behind improv is "yes and." So we totally adhere to that in our own writing style.

PB: Yeah, and as he explained, he usually is doing the first pass and then I come in and I flesh it out and embellish it and make additions. We write at very different paces, and that was the challenge early on. He was producing much faster and I was slower to come along, but we've worked out that rhythm now so it flows pretty smoothly.

DCS: And years of writing for the Fringe have made us really adept at cutting, which is probably the most important part of any writing-to-stage process. We are completely unafraid to kill our darlings and slash and burn, just to get a better show.

PB: Yeah, and that was important in this case, too, because there were probably 50 more TV themes we could have included, but no one wants to be subjected to two and half hours of watching a show on their computer! [laughs]

BWW Interview: DC Scarpelli & Peter Budinger of DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL: DC AND PETER'S GLORIOUS ROMP THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF TV THEME SONGS at 42nd Street Moon
DC Scarpelli (L) and Peter Budinger (R) perform the theme song from "Green Acres"
(image courtesy of 42nd Street Moon)

I would love to know what really obscure songs you could have come up with if you'd had a few dozen more numbers to play with.

DCS: Oh, believe me, we had to excise entire categories of songs! We had to narrow down the timeframe, we had to get rid of things like children's TV or Westerns, just because if we stuck our toe in, you know, that undertow is really strong and we'd get pulled in.

PB: Yeah, and the thing is there are great songs from obscure TV shows, like - just off the top of my head - "It's a Living" has a great song, "Jennifer Slept Here" that song's actually really great, but we had to confine ourselves to well-known things, rather than delve into the one-season wonders, because it just gets too broad.

BWW Interview: DC Scarpelli & Peter Budinger of DON'T TOUCH THAT DIAL: DC AND PETER'S GLORIOUS ROMP THROUGH THE GOLDEN AGE OF TV THEME SONGS at 42nd Street Moon
B Noel Thomas belts out the theme from "Good Times"
in Don't Touch That Dial...
(image courtesy of 42nd Street Moon)

TV theme songs are infamous for being incredible ear worms. What gets your vote for the "ear-wormiest" TV theme song ever written, the one that you wake up in the morning and you just cannot get it out of your head?

PB: I think "The Brady Bunch" is a pretty ear-wormy one.

DCS: And "Gilligan's Island"! The ear-wormy ones that we managed to include are things like "C'mon Get Happy" and "Maude." And "The Jeffersons"!

PB: Yeah, that's one for sure!

For me, the one I can never get out of my head is "The Patty Duke Show."

DCS: Oh, my goodness! And we had kind of a coup with that. We have the Drexler Twins performing in the show, Michelle and Lily Drexler, and it was perfect serendipity. They're doing a really whacked-out version of the Patty Duke theme that is, uh ... unlike one that you've ever seen. [laughs]

Wonderful! I probably first saw that show in reruns as like a 3-year-old, and some of my earliest memories are singing about crepes suzettes and The Ballet Russe. What the hell did I think I was singing about at that age?

DCS? [both laugh] Absolutely! And frankly how cruel was it to put a bipolar actress in a show as identical cousins!

Yeah, it was a different time, you know? [laughs]

PB: Yes, very!

As a total musical theater nerd myself, one of my favorite things to do is think about shows I hope Moon will do at some point in the future. So - given that you both have long histories with Moon, what are some shows you guys really wish Daren and Daniel would program in upcoming seasons?

DCS: Well, the one we probably hoped for the most is actually coming up when Moon returns to the stage. At some point, we're gonna see Merrily We Roll Along. We've both been cast in it, and that's so near and dear to our hearts, both thematically and musically. We're both Sondheim diehards, and that's a biggie. On the kitschy side, [aside to his husband] well you know Petey -

PB: [laughs] Um, on the kitschy side, I've been pitching for years to do Charles Strouse's Applause. Which is very, very seldom produced. I floated it a couple of times with the former Artistic Directors, but they could never quite fit it in, so it's one I bring up periodically. I think it would be a great show for Moon to take on.

DCS: I mean, it really has to have this alignment of stars in order to work, right?

Yeah, obviously starting with that you need a kickass Margo Channing.

DCS: Bingo! And a kickass Eve. And a kickass Leeroy Reams role, you know when they turned the Thelma Ritter role into a gay, dancing hairdresser. I mean, who's gonna do that?! So, yeah, I would love to see that done.

At the risk of veering off topic a bit, I was in the Gay Men's Chorus of Los Angeles decades ago, and one of our first guest stars was Bonnie Franklin, who of course was in the original cast of Applause. She did the title song from Applause and we got to sing backup for her, and it was just one of the biggest thrills of my young life.

DCS: Oh, that is fabulous! And that number - we didn't see the original show, but it was broadcast on the Tony's - that number is just fantastic. And not so far from the subject. Bonnie Franklin's sitcom's theme song from "One Day at a Time" is in our show!


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