Interview: Scott Wittman on “Jukebox Jackie”, 54 Below and “Smash”

Scott Wittman is a busy man. In addition to writing lyrics every week for Smash‘s show-within-a-show Bombshell (and serving as an executive producer for the NBC hit), and working as Creative Consultant for the much-anticipated new cabaret space 54 Below, he has conceived and directed Jukebox Jackie, currently playing at LaMaMa ETC. Jukebox Jackie: Snatches of Jackie Curtis is a collage of scenes, poetry, music and dance culled from the works of Jackie Curtis, who performed as both a man and a woman throughout his career in the 60’s, 70’s and 80’s, stating, “I’m not a boy, not a girl. I’m just me, Jackie.”

The man who said, “I’m just me, Jackie” was, in fact, a fixture during those radical years in New York’s clubs and theatres, including La MaMa, where Curtis was much-loved by La MaMa’s late founder and artistic director Ellen Stewart. Curtis pioneered the glam rock style of the 1970s, performing in drag in lipstick, glitter, bright red hair, trashed dresses and torn stockings. David Bowie was an early fan. Curtis went on to become one of the stars of Andy Warhol’s inner circle. Curtis began writing his own plays with casts starring fellow Warhol “superstars” Candy Darling and Holly Woodlawn, also at La MaMa. He wrote and often starred in such plays as Glamour, Glory and Gold (Robert DeNiro’s first stage appearance in 1967), Amerika Cleopatra with a cast featuring Harvey Fierstein and Femme Fatale with Patti Smith, Jayne County and Penny Arcade.

I sat down with Scott in a sunlit La MaMa rehearsal space to catch up on all of his fabulous pursuits.

Did you have a personal connection to Jackie Curtis?

I think that when I first came to New York and I saw Jackie – I didn’t know Jackie – but I saw some plays that Jackie was in, which made me want to be part of that. Jackie really influenced my aesthetic when I first came to New York, and was always in my head. What I’ve hoped to do with this is show Jackie as a writer. Jackie was part and parcel as a cast member in the plays he wrote – but when you take a step away and take a look at the vast amount of paper, of writing that he did, it’s really fascinating.

What’s really fascinating about Jackie is the variety of styles: from absurdist comedies where he would pull character names out of racing forms, to very structured pieces like one called Glamour, Glory and Gold – we do some scenes from that one – with a beginning middle and end and a clearly defined story, to the large number of poems he wrote, which I wasn’t aware of. We do one of those poems intact, called “B-Girls”, a really beautiful, evocative poem all about the denizens of Slugger Ann’s, which was at 12th Street and Second Avenue [Later gay bar Dick’s and currently the 13th Street Ale House]. Jackie’s grandmother was the bartender, and Jackie lived upstairs.

So what’s the format of Jukebox Jackie?

We’re trying to do for Jackie what Mamma Mia did for Abba. [Laughs.] All the people in the show are “fractions” of Jackie, because Jackie was many people, male, female and in between. There are four characters who speak from Jackie’s mind. All of the written material is by Jackie, every word, every journal entry. There’s a book called Superstar in a Housedress by Craig Highberger and that’s really been a touchstone. I gathered from other sources. I started to stumble on these songs that Jackie did in a cabaret act, which Jackie wrote lyrics for and someone else wrote the music, in one case Peter Allen. In our show there’s a song that Jackie only wrote the lyrics to, that I had Lance Horne write the music to. I also wanted to have songs that were in the soundtrack of my life at the time.

Jackie described New York as being like Brigadoon with steam coming out of a manhole cover, and that to me describes the creative period when I first moved here. It was kind of a magical time in New York. The scene we dive into in Jukebox Jackie has a lot of foul language and blow jobs and drugs, but there’s also a certain innocence to it which is so different from now. [To give you a taste of that era, here’s a YouTube video of 1970 SoHo loft party that Curtis attended]

Our cast, Justin Vivian Bond, Bridget Everett, Cole Escola, and Steel Burkhardt – to me, if Jackie were alive now these are the people he would be using in his shows. Justin is a singular interpreter of material, just like Jackie. It’s not a literal imitation, instead we’re really trying to evoke a time musically and creatively. This whole cast is fabulous storytellers. Bridget reminds me of Bridget Polk, Cole Escola is very much like Taylor Mead, Steel is very much like Joe Dellasandro, they all somehow preserve an element of those times.

What kind of shadow does Warhol cast on Jukbox Jackie?

There’s an element of that – The Factory was like MGM and Warhol was like Louis B. Mayer to Jackie and his other “superstars”, and we do pay some tribute to that, Cole embodies that a little bit. I also try to make it clear that it wasn’t a scary place like it has sometimes been portrayed. I’m sure I’ve gone the other direction and romanticized it a bit, you know the way Joan Crawford would say “I love Louis B. Mayer now.” Some of the music is the Velvet Underground, which also came out of the Factory, which adds another current to it.

Tell me about 54 Below, the new cabaret below Studio 54, how did that come about?

The guys who are doing that were producers on Hairspray, which was such a blessed experience. A few years ago Richard Frankel came to me and said we want to open this club, and we want you to be a sort of curator or “fairy godfather.” So I said I’d love to do that; when I came to New York it was the renaissance of cabaret – you couldn’t swing a cat without hitting one. For me, I would spend most of my nights in Reno Sweeney’s on 13th Street, where you see Edie Beale, Peter Allen, Barbara Cook – a really broad, eclectic booking policy. So with 54 Below’s director of programming Phil Bond, we’re trying to make that same thing happen with 54 Below. Justin Bond will be performing there, Jackie Hoffman – where else in three nights could you see Jackie, Justin and Patti LuPone. That to me feels right, it seems fun. It’s not like Feinstein’s it’s not like the Carlyle or Joe’s Pub. I think there’s a place for it. I remember being able to go to many cabarets, there was Freddy’s and the Grand Finale and Brothers and Sisters.

And this little television side project, Smash. What’s that whole experience been like for you?

Marc Shaiman and I love songwriting so that’s been great, being able to write and have a wide audience appreciate it. Writing new material every week, and then there’s six million people listening to your songs, which would never happen on Broadway. My proudest achievement, though Marc and I didn’t have much to do with the cover songs, was getting Anjelica Houston to sing “The September Song” in episode 14, that was my absolute favorite moment.

You even had a brief cameo in that scene, didn’t you, and Marc was the piano player…

I wanted to be there for her, it was a big moment, for her to sing, she had never sung in her life – and she did so beautifully, there’s nothing she can’t do.

So, with doing that for a year, and Catch Me if You Can in all of its incarnations around the world, there’s a lot of people telling me to “do this, do that, cut this, move that, stop here, no that part doesn’t work” and working on Jukebox Jackie has been a real tonic for me. I’ve wanted to come home and Ellen Stewart had asked me a few years ago, and it’s nice to be in an atmosphere with just a few people – some I’ve known a short time, some I’ve known a long time – that’s more relaxed. I also think Jackie needs to be recognized as the wonderful writer he was – I really hope by the end of the evening you’ll have a really good sense of the person and the work, the music and the time. It’s been fun – Jackie collaged life and I’ve re-collaged Jackie.

For tickets, click here.

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CD Review: “The Gershwins’ Porgy and Bess” (New Broadway Cast Recording)

Even if this version is musically diminished, as some purists say, the stunning ambition of composer George Gershwin’s musical vision still takes my breath away. In this innovative 1935 opera, the beautiful Bess struggles to live in a community that shuns her, and the only one who truly, selflessly loves her is the crippled but courageous Porgy. The songs are sung beautifully – when Norm Lewis, as Porgy, sings “I Got Plenty o’ Nuttin’” it’s like the sun coming out after a grimly cloudy day. Audra McDonald is a vocally thrilling Bess, and David Alan Grier brings out all the colors, light and dark, in the seductively slick Sportin’ Life. This Porgy & Bess doesn’t succeed on every point, but it’s a strong representation of a fascinating, flawed, ambitious work of art.

To purchase, click here.

To learn about Jonathan Warman’s directing work, see jonathanwarman.com.

CD Review: “Crazy 1961” by Mark Nadler

Based on his latest cabaret act, Mark Nadler’s new CD Crazy 1961 finds him playing and singing with his usual virtuosic abandon and passionate intelligence. The result is stunning: Nadler packs over 61 songs onto this CD, a celebration of the year of his birth. There are always many layers in anything that Nadler does, ranging from the obvious to unspoken subtext, which gives his work an “oomph” far, far beyond the typical. On the CD, as in the show, Mark paints a complex portrait of the exact place and time that he was born, in exciting and ultimately moving ways. Every single song on the CD is from 1961, and he finishes with a truly insane medley of fifty songs from the year. This is as giddily entertaining – and breathtakingly smart – as a cabaret CD gets.

To purchase, click here.

Review: Nice Work If You Can Get It

Every few years somebody grabs the songbook of some great American songwriter, and puts together a musical pastiche of old-fashioned musical comedy. There’s Crazy for You, and even the version of Anything Goes currently playing on Broadway falls partially in this category. So now we have Nice Work if You Can Get It, which takes the Gershwin’s tunes and puts them together with a thin plot loosely based on the 1926 Gershwin show Oh, Kay! Essentially, playboy boy Jimmy (Matthew Broderick) meets bootlegger girl Billie (Kelli O’Hara) and mayhem ensues. These shows are usually feather-light confections, and the diverting Nice Work is no different.

Bookwriter Joe DiPietro has been working on this property for a very long time, and he has got the balance of silliness and bite exactly right (lots of silly, just a bit of bite). There’s a moment of Billie singing sentimentally while cocking a rifle, which sums up the sensibility that DiPietro brings to the show. Derek McLane’s sets are jewel-boxes full of secret compartments, and Martin Pakledinaz’s costumes are witty delights.

The supporting cast is terrific – Michael McGrath gets the lion’s share of the evening’s laughs as tough guy Cookie McGee, and Judy Kaye is terrific as temperance crusader Duchess Duckworth (who has a few kooky personality traits behind a crusty exterior). O’Hara is the best thing that happens to the Gershwin’s songs in the show; her “Treat Me Rough” is a hoot and a half, and her “But Not for Me” at the top of Act II is truly affecting.

And as for Matthew Broderick, as you might expect he just “does” Matthew Broderick, all smirky deadpan – which happens to work pretty well for the role of Jimmy. And he dances better that I’ve ever seen him do. No, he’s never going to be the principal in a Twyla Tharp show, but he’s working hard at doing justice to director/choreographer Kathleen Marshall’s footwork – and mostly making it seem effortless. A personal best for this non-dancer.

If you are looking for frothy, traditional musical comedy fun, Marshall’s got you covered. Between this and her Anything Goes, Broadway’s got plenty of the fizzy stuff right now.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Columnist

This bio-play focuses on Joseph Alsop (John Lithgow), a journalist who in the 1950s had reached an astonishing level of influence in Washington, D.C. He was a staunch anti-Communist who nonetheless had no use for Commie-hunter Joseph McCarthy, a registered Republican who championed JFK, and a war hawk on the issue of Vietnam. He was also a closeted gay man. The results of a particular encounter with a young Russian man in 1957 reverberate throughout the later years of his life, and that is the story of The Columnist.

Playwright David Auburn is best known for the long-running Proof. The Columnist is as smart as that play, but is painted on a much wider canvas. As a result, it’s compelling mostly on an intellectual level, rather than a truly dramatic one like Proof. It moves at a measured pace; ideas contend with each other, but sometimes there are long stretches between actual incidents.

How Alsop responded to the immediate aftermath of his 1957 trick – the young Russian played here by the equally strapping and tender Brian J. Smith – is an amazing piece of history, one that Auburn withholds until the very last scene of the play, in the name of maintaining suspense and clarifying a whole set of things, good and bad, about Alsop’s character.

Director Daniel Sullivan (reuniting with Auburn 12 years after Proof) manages the whole thing with great finesse. These verbose, articulate people speed through paragraphs without becoming unclear for even a second.

Lithgow is marvelous as Alsop, showing the joys of an able man obsessed with victory for himself, his country and his causes. He also shows us the pain and ugliness of such a character when victory eludes him, as it increasingly did Alsop (he was decidedly on the wrong side of history where Vietnam was concerned). Lithgow is the primary reason to see this often thorny and occasionally rewarding new drama.

For tickets, click here.

Review: The Lyons

Linda Lavin made everybody take note of Nicky Silver’s The Lyons by leaving not one but two other terrific Broadway-bound shows to portray the indomitable family matriarch Rita in this icy new comedy. And indeed, she made the right choice – this is one hell of a role, and she sinks her teeth into it with abandon.

The titular family faces a major change: her irascible husband Ben is dying, forcing people that have largely chosen to avoid each other to confront some hard issues. Silver deals with the well worn dramatic terrain of familial dysfunction, but rings some interesting changes on it.

For one thing, Rita may have been a terrible mother, but Silver successfully leads the audience to see the family through her eyes. Sure, she and Ben may have mangled her children’s psyches in the past, but does that make it in any way her responsibility to fix them now? An intriguing perspective, and one that Silver pursues intelligently and humorously.

Dick Latessa is hilarious as the even nastier Ben, spewing venomous barbs at everyone from his hospital bed. Michael Esper has the most scenes in the play as their socially inept gay son Curtis, and he navigates the twisted, darkly comic turns of his erratic behavior with great skill. Director Mark Brokaw shines a bright light on their work, keeping the pace brisk and the tone tart.

In a season bursting at the seams with slapstick, sex farce, and social satire, Silver and company have taken a different, more neurotic road. It may not be the show to make you roll in the aisles with laughter, but it may be the best mix of wit and psychological insight this Broadway season.

For tickets, click here.

Review: A Streetcar Named Desire

This is one of the most satisfying, on-target, productions of A Streetcar Named Desire that I have seen. I am more than a little obsessed with both Tennessee Williams and New Orleans, and Emily Mann’s finely calibrated production has gotten both the locale and the author’s style exactly right. Streetcar follows former school teacher Blanche DuBois (Nicole Ari Parker), as she’s forced to move in with her sister Stella (Daphne Rubin-Vega) and her brutish husband Stanley (Blair Underwood).

The multiracial casting of this revival is handled so deftly that it’s almost a non-issue. Underwood is simply as sexy and scary – and sometimes deceptively rational – as Stanley should be. Parker underplays Blanche, letting her neuroses and hidden strengths speak for themselves. Parker’s approach is a bit too low key for my taste, but I still respect it as an intriguing, intelligent way to approach the role. And Wood Harris brings an interesting bravado to the role of Stanley’s friend Mitch, giving the role colors I’ve never seen before.

As for the New Orleans side of the issue, designer Eugene Lee’s set is the first one for a production of Streetcar that I have seen get it so painstakingly right. The part of the Marigny neighborhood that Stanley and Stella live in was run-down and unglamorous in the 1950s, there were no elegant wrought iron balconies or galleries – this isn’t the French Quarter. Everything was made of wood, and wood not in the best of condition – and that’s exactly what Lee shows us.

Jazz trumpeter Terence Blanchard’s moody score does a good job of evoking a sweaty New Orleans summer. That said, his compositions have a post-bop sound that is seriously anachronistic in a production that is otherwise so scrupulous about getting time and place right.

This may not be a definitive Streetcar, but it is an intelligently directed, designed and acted one. I sincerely think Tennessee would have approved – I certainly do, and recommend it highly.

For tickets, click here.