Fynsworth Alley: 10 Questions with Bill Russell

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

10 Questions with Bill RussellMost people know you from Side Show, but before that, you had an Off-Broadway hit with PAGEANT…..how did that show develop and where did the idea come from?

Pageant has a long, involved history… In the mid-eighties a bunch of guys I knew were on tour with 42nd Street and had been for a while. They were in Boston and decided to do a drag pageant for the rest of the company. They were staying at the Bradford Hotel, so they called it the “Miss Bradford Pageant” and threw it together. Since they were all gypsies, they did some production numbers, one being “I Enjoy Being a Girl.” Bobby Longbottom was one of that group, and he called me to say he thought the idea had the makings of an off-Broadway show. I was dubious — I’d never been a big drag aficionado and thought beauty pageants had been satirized to death, but then I received a video of the “Miss Bradford Pageant” and couldn’t stop laughing. Also, because the cast was Broadway gypsies, the talent on display was considerably better than in real pageants. At the time I was collaborating on a revue called The Texas Chainsaw Musical with Frank Kelly and Albert Evans and got them interested in Pageant. We did a showcase production in 1986, which was very successful and extended, but it took until 1991 for a producer to take it to off-Broadway. Last year I directed the European premiere at the King’s Head Theatre in London (a fringe theatre), and that production transferred to the West End. I’m happy to report we just received two Olivier Award Nominations. I’m about to direct the show in Chicago. Luckily, pageants are so retro anyway that the show hasn’t dated… 

Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens was one of the first musicals to deal with the AIDS epidemic, and yet it still gets performed today. How did the show come about, and why do you think it has remained relevant even as society understanding of and reaction to AIDS has evolved so much?

Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens was developed over several productions and has been produced all over the world. For years I’ve written free-verse poetry and am very comfortable in the form. I was interested in trying to use the free-verse poetry in a larger project, and I was very familiar with Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. Toward the end of 1988, I saw the Names Project Quilt at its initial unveiling in D.C. Everything just clicked together, and I thought of doing a Spoon River of AIDS with the Quilt serving as the substitue for Masters’ small-town cemetary (the characters in both are dead). I started writing poems in the voices of friends who had AIDS or stories I heard about. Quite early on, I thought there might be theatrical possibilities, so I called my long-time collaborator Janet Hood and asked if she’d be interested in writing songs. Within six months we did an initial reading with four actors (playing multiple roles) and a singer. One of the actors was Justin Ross, and he took it to t.w.e.e.d., a down-town theater group. Every spring they did a festival of new works and decided to include Elegies… in 1989, but they wanted me to cast one actor in each role, which meant a cast of over 30. I thought it was a terrible idea, but they eventually convinced me, and now I can’t see it being done any other way… I last directed the show in Montreal a couple of years ago in both French and English. I hadn’t directed it for about 5 years at that point, and AIDS treatment had advanced dramatically, so I wondered if it would still have any pertinence. But working on it again, I realized that even if AIDS should be completely cured tomorrow (Please, God!), there would still be a place for Elegies… because it’s primarily about the loss so many experienced and that will always be with us.

We’re going to do a benefit performance of the show in New York on April 2. We’re casting now (over 40 performers!), and so far have commitments from Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner (she recorded “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” which is from the show on her new CD), Norm Lewis, Chris Durang, David Drake, Justin Ross among many other exciting actors and singers.

Was Side Show your first collaboration with Henry Krieger? How did you two meet, and how did the idea of Side Show come about?

Side Show was my first collaboration with Henry Krieger. We had met in 1983 at a cable t.v. station in Los Angeles and had a nice talk. After Pageant opened off-broadway in 1991, the director, Robert Longbottom, and I were looking for another project. Years before, a mutual friend of ours had seen this terrible b-movie called Chained for Life which featured real-life conjoined twins Daisy and Violet Hilton, and he got Bobby to see it. Bobby told me about it and said, “We’ve got to do a show about these women.” I was immediately fascinated by the idea… So when it came time to move on to a new project, Bobby said, “What about those twins?” And the next question was who should we ask to do the music. I immediately said, “Henry Krieger — I’ve always wanted to work with him.” I faxed him through the Dramatists Guild and he called me immediately and said, “you wrote one of my favorite songs!” Two weeks prior to that, a friend of his in Boston had sent him a tape of “Learning to Let Go” — the closing song from Elegies and he’d been playing it every day ,and then he got a fax from me … synchronicity! We’ve just finished the first draft of our third musical together, so it’s been a very fertile collaboration.

How do you feel about the label of “cult musical” that has been attached to Side Show? Do you think the advent of the internet has affected the life (and afterlife) of such shows?

I’m thrilled that Side Show has become a “cult” musical … often, things that have enthusiastic cult followings break through to a wider audience and that’s already been the case, even though the initial production only had a short life on Broadway. The internet has given fans a place to focus their enthusiasm and interest and connect with other like-minded people, so I think it’s very helpful.

You write both lyrics and books for musicals. Which do you enjoy more and what are the good and bad things about both?

No contest on this question — I definitely enjoy writing lyrics more. I think books for musicals are really, really hard — not just for me (hopefully) but everyone (well, maybe not Terrence McNally who is so good at it) … for one thing a lyric is short and can be finished in a relatively short time and if it doesn’t work, writing another one isn’t that big a deal (at least for me). But a book seems like it will never be done, draft after draft. There is great satisfaction, however, when it is and the show seems to flow. Also, because I write both, I’m very aware of the input factor in both areas. It is very rare that someone will say “I think that lyric should be different,” (and I never hear people tell composers they should change a chord!), but everyone and their mother thinks they know how a plot or character should change! All the bitching about book-writing aside (and I hope I’m not being ungracious, because I’m thrilled to be able to do it at all), I think the lyricist/book-writer combo can make a lot of sense — they both incorporate story-telling, structure, character and hopefully poetry.

Do you have a favorite musical, score or composer that you refer back to for inspiration when your working on a show?

There are many musicals I love, but I don’t tend to analyze them or use them as models. Each show demands its own logic and structure. Sometimes when writing a song, I’ll think “Oh, that’s got some parallels to another song or moment from a show,” but, if anything, I tend to think more about pop songs as models than songs from musicals. I’ve got lots of influences — many from pop music like Joni Mitchell, Randy Newman, John Lennon… on the theater side, Sondheim is of course inescapable, but Frank Loesser is my hero — witty, intelligent and always entertaining (an essential component of a musical in my mind, which doesn’t mean they can’t be serious).

What musicals of the past decade (other than Side Show, of course) do you think will have a lasting impact on the art form?

Rent and Lion King are going to have an impact on the form because they are huge hits and young people will see them and some will be inspired to write for the theater (I hope). I have huge problems with both shows as pieces of dramatic literature, but I also do with hair and that, more than any other show, inspired me to try my handing at writing a musical. (Could a show with a “rock” score have a plot?) I do think the most apparent trend from the last decade (and one that most commentors have missed in my book) is the triumph of rock or pop (the definition of those categories gets murky) in the theater. Aida and Full Monty, the biggest current hits, only confirm that. Successful scores have always been grounded in popular music and will continue to be. Intellectual conceits with atonal scores are not going to be popular (worthy as they might be).

Your newest musical with Henry Krieger, Everything’s Ducky, has had several regional productions, whereas Side Show developed through a workshop process. Can you compare the development of these shows?

Both Everything’s Ducky and Side Show were developed through a series of readings, which I find invaluable. Just hearing the material sung and spoken by decent actors with script in hand can tell you so much. In both cases, we did four full-cast readings over a long period. Side Show then had a workshop. Ducky has had four productions this past year, premiering with Theatreworks of Palo Alto. I prefer the actual productions. Workshops are presented for an inside New York audience, and I don’t learn as much as I do from actual paying customers seeing a full production.

What does the future hold for Ducky?

Ducky is being optioned for off-Broadway, which means it has to be reduced in size somewhat. We’re working on that now. I can’t say when it will actually open here, but i’m pretty certain it will.

A lot of people say that musical theatre is a dying art form. What do you say in response and what advice to you have for people interested in writing musical theatre?

A dying art form? Have the people who say that looked at the Broadway grosses lately? …or West End? Phantom has grossed more world-wide than the film of Titanic …and a hit musical becomes part of the culture in far-reaching and long-lasting ways. I think people will want to go to musicals and be a part of them in amateur productions for a good long time to come. As society becomes more and more on-line, on tape, on t.v., on film, on video, the jolt of live energy a great musical gives will become more necessary and sought out. My advice to people interested in writing musical theater is to just do it. And once you have, get it done in any way you can — readings, cabaret productions, local theater, a group of friends in your living room, whatever. Musicals are meant to be performed. Part of the job of writing them is getting them heard.

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