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.

Review: Christine Ebersole

People who are only familiar with the fabulous Christine Ebersole from her Tony-winning turn in Grey Gardens may not be aware that she’s also an astonishingly good cabaret performer, who can sing jazz with the same elegant power she brings to musical theater. I’m delighted to report that, in her latest jazzy cabaret act at Cafe Carlyle, featuring a five piece band led by the ever-tasteful John Oddo, Christine is her usual, spectacular self.

Oddo was musical director for the late, great Rosemary Clooney and he worked with jazz legends like Woody Herman, and it shows in the tight, elegant and powerful arrangements and piano playing he brings to the table. Christine refers to the band as “John Oddo’s Society Orchestra” aptly describing this small combo that often sounds like a big band.

This also finds her reuniting with top class cabaret director Scott Wittman, who has his own Tony for co-writing the score of Hairspray, and who has directed several acts for Christine. In a new twist, Christine has conceived and written the show herself, and like everything else she has turned her hand to, she’s done an amazing job, creating patter that is witty and cuttingly satirical. She structures the evening with a loose conceit that she’s performing a “cabaret at the end of the world”, and delivers the whole thing with an utterly natural, sparkling élan.

The big showstopper here is her genuinely breathtaking version of “Brother Can You Spare a Dime?” She intensifies all of this Depression-era ballad’s power, evoking whole worlds of drama and dreams deferred, displaying more interpretive power than just about any other singer I can bring to mind. Wow.

For tickets, click here.