Fynsworth Alley: Bill Russell

Originally published on Fynsworth Alley.

Bill Russell

Bill Russell

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.

DL: Had you already worked with Janet before Elegies?

BR: Yes. I wrote my first musical with her when we were in college. We didn’t go to school together, but we worked at a summer resort together.

DL: At the time you did Elegies, was she your only writing partner? Or was she the one who just seemed right for the project?

BR: Well, she wasn’t my only writing partner, but she was the one who came to mind.

DL: What was it about Janet’s work that said to you she’d be the right one for this show?

BR: We had done a lot of songwriting together, and her feel for contemporary style, blues, jazz and gospel – I just thought it would be perfect. We had also written a lot of ballads together, and obviously, this show was going to have its fair share.

DL: When you guys were writing the show, did the thought ever cross your mind that this is a gargantuan piece, and how would it ever get staged?

BR: No, because my original conception was that it would be performed by a small cast, with four or five actors each playing six or seven roles. About six months into writing it, we put together a reading with four actors and a female singer. I think at that time we had maybe four songs or five songs. That went really well, and one of those actors was Justin Ross. He took it to this downtown theatre group called T.W.E.E.D., which stands for The Wildest Entertainments Ever Devised. At the time, they were doing this yearly festival of new works. They owed a lot of actors favors, so they asked if we’d consider casting one actor in each role. It wasn’t a commercial issue, because they didn’t pay anybody anyway; it was just a two-week festival off-off-Broadway, so there weren’t financial considerations. At first I just said no way – organizing five actors for a reading was enough of a nightmare, so I thought organizing thirty-five was going to kill me. But eventually I said, “Okay, I’ll do it.” I felt like I had jumped off a cliff! I only said yes because I spent so much of my time writing trying to make things small and economical to produce, and I thought when am I going to ever get to work with a cast of this size? It turned out to be just absolutely wonderful.

DL: And you directed this first production? Was it always the plan for you to be both writer and director?

BR: It wasn’t so much the plan, but out of necessity I directed the first reading we did with just four actors. I found that working on the poems with the actors, together we found all this stuff that I wasn’t aware was there as a writer. It was a really interesting dynamic. It just felt really right. When it came time to put it all together in a big production, I decided I wanted to do that too.

DL: How did that experience being the director change the text of the show when you went back to revise it?

BR: Well, it worked in tandem. I discovered all this stuff directing, as I said, that I didn’t know was there as a writer. I don’t normally like to direct my own stuff the first time out, but in that case, the show feels so much a part of my rhythm because the show is written in verse, it seemed to work.

DL: And in terms of revising, you’ve gone back to this show several times since you originally wrote it to add, change, and drop pieces. Now obviously, in the twenty years that AIDS has been affecting us, we’ve learned more about the epidemic, and the scope of people it’s affecting has unfortunately grown. But I’m curious as to what specifically changed in Elegies to reflect that.

BR: Well, as it progressed from production to production, I became more interested in trying to portray the vast canvas of people AIDS had affected and infected. When I started writing it, as I said, I started writing about friends or stories I heard, so consequently, a lot of the characters were gay men. I felt that it needed to be broader than that. That’s mainly what happened with the reworking of it. For instance, I knew this guy Felipe whose lover was named Howard. Howard had a brother, and they were all friends. Howard’s brother lived in San Francisco. The three of them died within a year. I knew all of them. It was a very messy estate battle. The two brothers came from a well-off family, and the mother didn’t even know they were gay, let alone that they had AIDS. It all became very ugly. In the original version [of Elegies], I had a poem for each of the brothers, and that led in to the song “My Brother Lived in San Francisco.” As the show progressed, I didn’t want to add any more actors – the thing was big enough as it was, and totally uncommercial. I mean, talk about uncommercial – it’s about AIDS, has a cast of thirty-five, and it’s written in verse! That was also part of the excitement of it – it was an event having all those people together. In that case, I needed to lose gay male characters where I could and try to replace them. I replaced those two poems with the poem that now leads into “My Brother Lived In San Francisco,” which is also based on a true story. My boyfriend worked at this law firm where they handled this case of two lovers who were both sick, and they wanted to be buried side by side. The parents of one lover said, “Oh yeah, we’ve got room in our family plot, you’ll be there.” And then they turned around as their son was being lowered into the ground and said, “We hate you! You did this to him! Get out of here!” So they fought that case and won eventually.

Trying to find female characters was difficult. In the first part of the crisis, you didn’t hear about that many women. All of those reasons.

DL: I think one of the most interesting monologues, that surprised me by its inclusion, was Tina, who doesn’t actually have AIDS. I’m curious as to the thought process behind that poem, which happens to be one that we included on the album.

BR: That was based on a true story. It was actually a guy – that’s one I specify in the script that can be played by either a woman or a man. It’s a young character. When I first was writing the show, I felt like I had to explain how every character got it. After a while, I realized that’s not really the point. The show isn’t about how they got it, it’s the fact that they do have it. I heard that story from someone who was a volunteer in an AIDS ward. This teenaged kid had come in and saw the doctor; he was convinced he had AIDS and jumped out the window before the test came back. The test did come back and they found out he didn’t have it. I thought that was very interesting how people are killed by this disease even if they don’t have it.

DL: Where did the names for your characters come from?

BR: All sorts of places. It was just finding the name I felt was right for the character. Hopefully, they say something about the character, or they just sound right to me for one reason or another.

DL: The previous recording of the show was based on a production in England. Was there an element of translation that was necessary for a British audience?

BR: Well, there are certain words that don’t mean the same thing over there. For instance, Lamar, the black junkie who’s helped by the gay white boy – in that poem, he says he got “pissed,” which in England means he got drunk. Things like that we had to do a little translation. Where I could, I made the characters British, but many of these characters are American, like the Vietnam vet or the boy from North Dakota. But the prostitute, it was possible to do her with a British accent, and it made it more accessible for a British audience.

When we first did it in London, in 1992, it was a fringe production at the King’s Head Theatre, which is this tiny little theatre with a postage stamp stage, and I did it with a cast of thirty-three. It was such a big event to have that many bodies that stage; it’s still the largest cast ever to appear on that stage. There was no way to get backstage without going through the audience, and the dressing room, at a maximum, could hold eight, so two-thirds of the cast had to dress in the upstairs offices, so to get backstage, they had to cross the roof, climb down a ladder, and come backstage. This was in October or November, and I remember asking, “What if it rains?” The artistic director just smiled and pantomimed opening an umbrella. And I said, “Will you tell the cast this? Because if this were America, they wouldn’t report me to the union, they’d just kill me!” He said they won’t mind – and they were getting about five pounds a performance, basically cab fare – and they didn’t! And all sorts of stars were in that production, or at least people who became stars.

DL: Has the show been performed elsewhere around the world?

BR: Oh, yeah. A lot in the UK. Australia. You know Kane Alexander, who starts off the song “Heroes All Around” is from Australia, and they did the show at his college. There have been several productions in Germany. Montreal, both in English and French. In Israel, in Hebrew, they did it in Tel Aviv with an all-star cast from television, film, and theatre.

DL: Is the reaction always the same? It’s very interesting to me, because for a disease that’s definitely a global epidemic, in America we tend to see only the local face of AIDS, with maybe the occasional reminder of what’s going on in Africa.

BR: It is interesting. Like in England, the government took steps quite early to educate people about AIDS, so it didn’t become the problem there it was here. There, Elegies was a piece of theatre first and a sociological current event second, whereas here it was just the opposite. The subject matter was what got attention here, and secondarily people considered it theatre, if at all. There was so much happening with AIDS, people didn’t think of it as theatre as much as they considered it sociology or politics or whatever. In Britain, it was more about it being a theatrical piece – some of the critics there, and they can be very cruel, said, “Why don’t you write about cancer or gunshot death?” I would just say, if anybody wants to write about those, they’re welcome to, but this is what’s affecting me, so that’s why I wrote about it.

DL: What year did the show premiere?

BR: The first big production was in 1989 in New York. When we did it, we had people in the cast covered with Karposi’s Sarcoma lesions. We didn’t have dressing rooms – this was at the Ohio Theatre in SoHo – and [one of the actors with KS lesions] would take off his shirt in front of the cast, and it was like, “Oh my God… This is what we’re talking about.” It was so immediate, and so many in that cast were touched by it or were sick themselves. The white hot heat of the war was happening at that moment. It was very satisfying to be able to address the issue with our talents.

DL: What was the reception in the press? Was the show reviewed and covered?

BR: It was a bit, but not a lot, because it was off-off-Broadway. It was only for two weeks, the first time we did it, and then we did it again for two more weeks about six months later. Still, we didn’t have a press agent per se, but we got what critics there we could. Gay press was quite bitchy about it, I have to say. I remember the New York Native’s reviewer said, “It trips along in iambic tetrameter,” and I thought, “What the fuck? He wouldn’t know an iam if it bit him, if he thinks this is iambic tetrameter!”

There was some other gay paper, or maybe it was the SoHo Weekly News, and they published a review of the show on the basis of only having read it, without having seen it. I was so outraged! Their response was, “You should be happy we gave you the space. We have a deadline.” So I can’t say I was particularly thrilled with the gay press at that time.

DL: How quickly did you get it published and get it ready for productions that weren’t the professional ones?

BR: We have this sort of snowball history. We did these two productions in New York, and every time I see a production, I think, “Well, that’s the last time I’ll ever see that on a stage,” since for all these reasons it’s so uncommercial. But then Justin Ross, who was in it in New York, moved to LA, and he and Ken Page did a reading in LA. That led to a production, and somebody saw that and wanted to do it in London, and it just sort of slowly snowballed. It wasn’t published until 1996, and I don’t know why.

DL: The other way that people know the show, besides the album or having seen it, is from a couple of numbers that have become cabaret standards, particularly “My Brother Lived in San Francisco.” How do you feel about the songs being taken out of context?

BR: Do it! By all means, go for it! You know, it’s not a linear piece, it’s a modular piece, which is one of the things I love about it. It’s been easy to update it and rework it, because you’re not interrupting a plotline. I think it has a certain structure and flow to it, but it’s not linear, so you’re not damaging a plot. I think several of the songs work very well out of context. “I Don’t Know How To Help You” was written as a poem about something else – it wasn’t even about AIDS – and then I thought it could work about AIDS. That song could work in all sorts of different context and have different meanings to it.

DL: Are there specific poems or songs from the show that are particularly meaningful to you?

BR: Well, they all are in different ways. “Learning to Let Go” is very personal to me; my sister is named Jane, my nephew is named Scott. It’s no so much autobiographical, but I took those elements of my life and incorporated them into the song. “My Brother Lived in San Francisco” – I did have a really good friend who lived in San Francisco named Joe that partly inspired that song. “I Don’t Know How To Help You,” as I mentioned, was written about something else, but it means a lot to me. They all do in different ways.

“The Rain Keeps Falling Down” was one of the earlier songs. I was in Dallas with this comedy team I used to direct, and I found out right there that one of my really good friends was diagnosed with AIDS. This was in 1988, and it was just raining unrelentingly in Dallas, so that song came out of that.

DL: Twenty years into the world having AIDS as a crisis to deal with, when you went back to direct this piece, did you have a different perspective? Did that change how you worked on the show?

BR: Two years ago, I was asked to direct the show in Montreal for two back-to-back benefits, one in English and one in French, which was really something! At that point, I hadn’t actually directed the show for five years, and I really wondered if it was still going to be pertinent at all, since there had been all these breakthroughs with treatments. I went into that thinking, “Gosh, I wonder if it’s going to seem totally out of date.” I discovered that I now feel that even if AIDS (God willing) should be cured tomorrow, there will still be a place for Elegies, because it’s mainly about loss. The scars from all the loss we all have experienced due to this are never going to go away. There’s always going to be a place for that. Loss is universal, whether it’s from AIDS or whatever. In that way, I’m happy to say I think it is still pertinent. Now, with all of the latest news about AIDS and the devastating impact it’s having worldwide, I do think there’s a place for it.

People in the past have said, “Well, I think this doesn’t represent what’s going on in Africa,” but I’m sorry, I just can’t do it. I don’t know enough about it. I couldn’t write those characters. Hopefully, there is still a place for this.

DL: Is it different for you to write a piece of activist theatre like this, compared to your shows that are written with more of a commercial intent? Is there a different writing process, or is that more just the way they came out?

BR: Well, it is sort of the way they came out. This came from a real need to write this piece. I was just so overwhelmed, as we all were, by what was going on around me, and I just had to express it in some way. There really weren’t any commercial or career considerations around it – it wasn’t about that. It was a bit different in that way. But I still had to think about if I want this message to get out there, how is this going to be produced. Those are considerations, but less so than they are with so-called commercial pieces.

DL: Do you think that in your future you have more of this kind of theatre in you?

BR: I’m always trying to think of something else to do with this kind of form, because I really am so comfortable in it. It hasn’t come to me yet. I don’t know. I could easily imagine that something will inspire me, maybe not in this form, to write a show where it’s again from just the need to express myself about a particular subject rather than be concerned about is it going to get done, is it going to get produced or whatever.

DL: Let’s talk about the specific concert that Fynsworth Alley recorded. I know that Bruce Harris brought the idea to you, and you were a little skeptical…

BR: Only because I had tried to do this before in New York a couple of times. I was quite far along in one instance. Trudie Styler, who is married to Sting, was in Elegies in the West End, and she’s always been incredibly supportive of the piece – they both have. There was a point where she was going to produce a New York all-star benefit. She does the rainforest concert every year at Carnegie Hall, and we were going to do Elegies for God’s Love We Deliver. Then, a bunch of things happened all at once. Princess Diana died, and Gianni Versace was shot, and they were very close. Sting and Trudie’s kids and Versace’s children are the same age, so they vacationed together a lot. That was a very difficult time for her, so she had to say, “I cannot take this on right now.” That fell apart. That’s why I was skeptical. It had come up several times, and I figured if I couldn’t get this together with Trudie… but they did it!

DL: Was it always in the plan for you to direct this and be so intimately involved in the production?

BR: Yes. I prefer to direct it whenever I can. Partly, it’s just expedient. I’ve directed ten productions. I know how to do it, and I know how to do it fast, which is necessary for this, since you don’t have actors on the payroll. Also, I’ve found that I know how to get the most out of these poems – not that some other director couldn’t, I just haven’t seen it yet. I know how it works, and I love doing it. It’s consistently one of the most joyous experiences, and considering the sadness from whence it came – every production that I’ve personally directed has turned out to be so much fun!

DL: What was your involvement in the casting of this?

BR: I wasn’t heavily involved in the casting of this because I was in Chicago directing Pageant. I made some suggestions, but really Stephen DeAngelis did most of it.

DL: Do you think that your more recent successes helped make this concert possible? I mean, no longer being just “Bill Russell” but being “Bill Russell, that Side Show guy” – does that help?

BR: Oh, sure. Absolutely. Certainly in terms of getting performers, I definitely think so.

DL: It’s very funny to me too, because the shows are so different. Specifically, your work on those two shows are so different, without having the connection explicitly stated, I don’t think I ever put two and two together until someone said, “We’re doing Bill Russell’s other show.”

BR: That happens a lot. People have no idea I co-wrote Pageant, because that’s another one that’s so different from either of these.

DL: I suppose that’s a good thing to be so versatile.

BR: It’s wonderful. They’re all parts of my personality, you know?

DL: Now that we’re talking about your other shows, the people who read our website would kill me if I didn’t ask you about Kept. I don’t know what you can say about it yet, but I know you guys had a reading that went really well. Can you start with a little bit of background on the show?

BR: We’ve been working on it almost two years, but it’s been off and on for that period. I’ve been in England a lot, directing Pageant, and Henry [Kreiger] has been very busy as well. We just did the first reading. It’s our adaptation of Camille, and it’s set very early in the 1980s. She’s sort of the queen of Studio 54. That’s been really fun, because we’re exploring that era’s musical styles. It’s hot, sexy and romantic, and it’s been a great joy working with Henry on it.

DL: And when will people get to see it?

BR: We’re bringing it to Theatreworks in Palo Alto next April.

DL: What’s the goal for that production? Is it a workshop, or more of a world premiere?

BR: Something in between. It is a world premiere, and it’s going to be a full production, but I don’t think ultimately it will be the finished show. These things are a process, and I just find that as opposed to doing a workshop in New York, which can be very valuable, but where you play to an invited audience of industry people without sets or costumes, doing it in a full production before a paying audience can be wonderful.

DL: It’s too early for casting news, right?

BR: Yeah. We don’t even have a director yet. We’re working on that.

DL: This is the same place where Everything’s Ducky premiered?

BR: Yes.

DL: What’s the status of that show now?

BR: We’re reworking it for off-Broadway. It’s been optioned for off-Broadway, and it’s going to be done in Chicago at the end of the year. They’ll be doing this new version, and we’ll see where that goes.

DL: So you’ve got a lot going on!

BR: Yes, but it’s nice to just be writing and not directing. I love directing, but it is so consuming. I just couldn’t do it all the time.

DL: You no longer have a job other than writing. That must have been a great day for you.

BR: It was. I temped for years in a law firm in New York, which was a great gig for me, because these huge law firms operate 24-hours a day, seven days a week. They always need skilled people, so once you get a foot in the door there, you can pretty much write your own ticket. I would go away for months on end and then come back and have a job. That was very helpful. But it’s been four years now since I’ve had to do that. I certainly won’t have to for at least a year and hopefully longer.

DL: Congratulations. That was when Side Show hit Broadway?

BR: I left temping the day they announced the rehearsal dates for Side Show for Broadway.

DL: Suddenly you had a full-time day job.

BR: Exactly. I hadn’t been working full-time year round up to that point by any means, but that was when I could finally say goodbye.

DL: Are you working on anything else that the world doesn’t know about yet?

BR: No, this is plenty right now! I am going to direct Side Show at the end of the year in St. Paul.

DL: Why in St. Paul?

BR: They asked me! I’m very excited about it. It’s a really great theatre. I grew up in the Black Hills of South Dakota, so I feel right at home there. There are so many theatre people in Minneapolis/St. Paul who have a similar background to me, so I’m very comfortable there. I’ve already cast it. I’m very pleased with the talent pool there.

DL: To wrap up this interview back where we started, do you know where people might next get a chance to see Elegies live?

BR: Janet and I are putting together a production at the Boston Conservatory of Music next year. I’ve been involved with a couple productions in colleges, and it’s wonderful. These kids have grown up around AIDS their whole lives, but they really have no idea about the history of it. So it’s a wonderful experience to do it at that level. That’s in April of next year. Elegies has never been done in Boston, so I’m very excited about that.

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