Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.
BILL RUSSELL wrote the book and lyrics of Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens, which he also directed. He’s perhaps best known as the lyricist and bookwriter of Side Show, for which he was nominated for two Tony Awards. He is currently working on Everything’s Ducky and Kept, both with his Side Show collaborator Henry Krieger. His songs appear on the albums Duets, Unsuspecting Hearts, Broadway’s Biggest ’97-’98, Emily Skinner, Haines His Way, and of course, Elegies.
DL: Let’s talk about the show from the beginning. I know you’ve told the story about how you came upon the idea of a Spoon River Anthology about AIDS – what was it about seeing the AIDS Quilt that connected the idea to Spoon River to give birth to Elegies?
BR: I was at the initial unveiling of the quilt in October of 1987, and I was looking for something to do in that free-verse style. I had written poetry in that style for years and years, and shortly after seeing the quilt, I had the idea that I could possibly do a “Spoon River of AIDS.” I was very familiar with Spoon River – I had studied it in high school; I had appeared in it in college; I had directed it also at a summer theatre. All of that came together, and it started out really as an exercise. I just thought I would go where it takes me. I wrote monologues about friends I knew who had either died or who were sick at the time. It went well, and I quickly decided there were theatrical possibilities. I called Janet and asked her if she’d like to write some songs to accompany the monologues, in the way that when Spoon River was adapted for the stage, Charles Aidman incorporated classic American folk songs along with the poems. Using that as a model, that’s what we did.