Inside Andrew Lippa's
THE WILD PARTY
background and analysis by Scott Miller
It was the roaring age of bootleggers, flappers, and talkies; the hard-won vote for women; widespread social upheaval; and the birth of organized crime. As unprecedented prosperity and sweeping social change dazzled the American public, the restrictions of the Victorian nineteenth century seemed to vanish, and many of the institutions, ideas, and preoccupations of our own age emerged. America became, for the first time, thoroughly Modern. Joseph Moncure March wrote the book-length poem The Wild Party in 1926, though it took him two years to find a publisher brave enough to publish it. A more vulgar, more destructive take on Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, this notorious, streetwise, book-length poem painted a vivid picture of a decadent and deadly all-night party in late 1920s Manhattan, capturing a potent cocktail of bewildered innocence and worldly cynicism, poised at the fiery peak of the Jazz Age, just a year before the Crash of 1929, when nearly everything in America would collapse.
It's the story of a desperately damaged relationship between vaudeville dancer Queenie and vaudeville clown Burrs, two vicious, reckless people, whose lives are spiraling downward fast, filled to the brim with meaningless sex, drugs, drink, jealousies, and casual betrayals. Intent on hurting each other as publicly as possible, they decide to throw a party to end all parties, and as the guests arrive, we meet an assortment of people living on the fringes of society, New York’s artistic demimonde, and we can taste the heady blend of tabloid sizzle, hot jazz, and show biz. After a long night of sex, heroin, and bootleg gin, Burrs' jealousy erupts and a romantic double-triangle ends in tragedy.
Some said the story was based loosely on the infamous Fatty Arbuckle sex scandal. The legendary Beat writer William Burroughs said of the original poem, “It's the book that made me want to become a writer.” It’s a morality tale, a fable, about how the single-minded pursuit of pure selfish pleasure leads to destruction, and about the death of common civility. When Prohibition was passed, lawfulness took a hit along with alcohol. When millions of people routinely disobey a law that has been enshrined into our Constitution, that encourages a disrespect for the law in general. If Prohibition was a silly law, maybe other laws were silly as well, people reasoned, perhaps unconsciously. And with this new disregard for law came a companion disregard for other formerly accepted norms of behavior. As it did in the 1960s when an unjust war and prohibitions against hallucinogenic drugs produced similar results, much of urban America in the 1920s became a hotbed of unchecked sexuality and other behaviors which until recently had been strictly forbidden by Victorian morality. The Wild Party shows us a world turned upside down, where two brothers are gay lovers, and there’s nothing shocking about a predatory lesbian targeting a fourteen-year-old.
This story is a walpurgisnacht, an exorcism; the demons have been released and they must be cast out. Watching The Wild Party is like watching a play by Edward Albee or Arthur Miller or Eugene O'Neill; it's the spiritual/emotional equivalent of a horror story. Instead of a vampire representing our uncontrollable sexual drives, here the sexual drives are the monsters themselves, right there on the surface, cutting the middle man out. Instead of a wolf man representing our savage animal side, in this tale the beast within needs no metaphor; he's also right there on the surface. Storytelling like this allows us to explore the darker corners of our own souls in the safety of a darkened theatre, much the way the original (extremely violent) Grimm’s Fairy Tales function for children. It’s a roller coaster for the soul.
It was a story begging to be musicalized. Though actual music is only minimally involved in the original story, there’s no separating jazz from the 1920s or from prohibition. They called it the Jazz Age for a reason. The jagged, jumpy, off-beat, improvised anarchy of jazz music characterized this decade most accurately. Jazz was considered a social evil. Larry Stempel writes in his book Showtime, “Jazz represented ‘devil’s music’: it corrupted body and soul. ‘Hot’ or ‘sweet,’ jazz exuded an unbridled eroticism – the very meaning of the term likely rooted in sex, understood as a transitive verb. Not simply because of its popularity was this music vulgar, but also because as John Philip Sousa put it, it ‘excited the baser instincts’.” What language could be better for this story?
But the story craves music also because it’s pure melodrama (literally meaning song drama in the original Greek), trafficking in outsized emotions and passions, and climaxing with a fatal gunshot, and the inherently abstract language of music better communicates emotions than words alone can (which is why film thrillers use almost continuous underscoring). In Lippa’s stage musical, this story becomes more than just dark fable; the tension and propulsion of the almost continuous music makes it a suspense thriller, a film noir. We know from the first scene that violence, both physical and emotional, is the animating force here; and once the romantic triangle is completed, we know it can only end in tragedy. The suspense is in the details. When will the explosion be? Who will she choose? Who will get the gun? Who will end up dead?
Through its exploration into violence and emotional destruction, the show likewise indicts our current culture of rage, which sometimes mirrors this 1920s nightmare all too closely, for the same crimes. And to make sure we catch this resonance, this double perspective, Lippa sometimes uses a contemporary rock and pop musical vocabulary, intertwined throughout the mostly jazz score. This isn’t just a story set in the 1920s, his music tells us, it’s one that comes with a contemporary point of view, and since it’s a story entirely about the power of sex, it’s only fitting that rock and roll be a part of its musical language. Where Kander and Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys) would have crafted a score for this story entirely in period idioms, Lippa belongs to a new generation of theatre writers, who are as interested in what a story has to say to us today as they are in the story itself. Lippa’s score marries a 1920s sound with a contemporary pop/rock sound, using period jazz but also electric guitar throughout the show. He uses period music for surface action and more contemporary sounding music for the interior emotional moments. There is lots of dissonance here, complex key-changes, moments in the score that approach atonality, and other musical devices that definitely aren't period. The middle section of "I'll Be Here" is pure rock. Without our knowing it, the music is shaping our perception of this story.
Likewise, the show itself operates in two opposing theatre styles – on the one hand, a kind of postmodern-Broadway ironic (think Urinetown) laced with classic Vaudeville (somewhat like Chicago); and on the other hand, moments of very honest, raw, naked emotion (think Love Kills or Passion). There are very intimate, gentle scenes and moments of terrible violence. It's Fosse and Brecht, with some Shakespearean heft thrown in. And it works because that odd mix is exactly what this story is. The poem has that same dangerous split personality, both self-mocking and earnest, and that duality mirrors both Queenie herself and her relationship with Burrs. The Wild Party explores the double-edged swords of love and passion and sex. Queenie and Burrs love each deeply, recklessly, but they're poison to each other.
The Wild Party is Shakespearean in its themes and its dramatic arc, as dark as Eugene O’Neill or Edward Albee, as vulgar and carnal as David Mamet. We watch Burrs disintegrate before our eyes and we watch his tragic flaw (jealousy/rage) chew away at him, just as we watch the same thing happen to Othello or Lear. Burrs even gets his own mad scene with “Let Me Drown,” begging the party guests to let him commit emotional (or actual?) suicide. And they do. And so he does. Thanks to the homemade gin and heroin and weed, this is a room full of nothing but primal drives – lust, jealousy, revenge, hurt, ego – there is no higher thinking going on here. Lear goes literally mad; here drink, drugs, and desire do the trick for Burrs.
The Birth of the Blues
Andrew Lippa (who also wrote john & jen and the score for The Addams Family) began work on The Wild Party in the mid-1990s. The show went through nine workshops and readings altogether, including Manhattan Theatre Club (1996), the O’Neill Theater Center (1997), MTC (1997, 1998), in St. Petersburg, Russia (1999), a longer workshop back in the US in 1999, and another reading that same year, with help from composer Stephen Schwartz (Godspell, Pippin, Wicked).
The Manhattan Theatre Club opened the show off Broadway at the City Center Stage I in February 2000, with Julia Murney (Queenie), Brian D’Arcy James (Burrs), Taye Diggs (Black), and Idina Menzel (Kate), directed by Gabriel Barre. The show ran only 54 performances. Strangely enough, a few months later, another musical called The Wild Party, based on the same source, opened on Broadway, with a score by Michael John LaChiusa, directed by George C. Wolfe, and starring Toni Collette and Mandy Patinkin. That one closed after 68 performances.
Still, The New York Daily News called Lippa’s show “sizzling, vital and groundbreaking.” The New York Times said, "Its strong suit is summoning the anxious restlessness behind the hellbent hedonism of the days of Prohibition." Lippa’s Wild Party won the 2000 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical, three Lucille Lortel Awards, and an Obie Award. It was nominated for twelve additional Drama Desk Awards, including Outstanding New Musical. A cast album was recorded but because of its limited run, only a single disc was recorded, preserving only about half the brilliant score. Today the show enjoys regional productions all over the country.
Not everyone was ready for a musical this aggressive, this vulgar, this desperately dark. It’s fearless in its writing, explicit in its sexuality, and uncompromising in its ugliness. Its score is as complex and sophisticated and subtle as anything being written for the theatre today. But audiences and critics were uncomfortable with it. The Wild Party never lets the audience off the hook, never softens the blow. Lippa’s score is as challenging as the show’s content. This is real jazz, and though it uses period devices and sounds, it’s not 1920s jazz. It’s contemporary, modern jazz, dissonant and driving and sometimes veering close to atonality for brief moments. He uses devices from the world of opera, including sung conversations, arias, quartets, trios complex counterpoint, leitmotifs (musical phrases that represent a character or idea in the story), and much more. Like Stephen Sondheim’s musical thriller Sweeney Todd, the music almost never stops and often refuses the audience the release of applause after songs, building a kind of tension few musical dramas can muster. It’s music that requires an audience to actively listen, not something most New York theatergoers are used to.
Queenie was a Blonde.
The Wild Party score starts with a trumpet solo of the show’s primary leitmotif, which will soon accompany the words, “Queenie was a blonde.” A walking jazz bass line takes over, and an electric guitar wails out fragments of that same musical phrase, rising each time, building to a climax, and then abruptly pulling back to “reveal” the solo voice of Queenie herself, talking about herself in the third person, in lines directly from the source poem:
Queenie was a blonde
And her age stood still
And she danced twice a day in Vaudeville.
Queenie was a blonde,
And if looks could kill,
She would kill twice a day in Vaudeville.
Right away, within a minute of the show starting, Lippa has given us a lot of important information. First of all, from her very first word, we know that this show will include third-person narration (as Ragtime also did). We know that characters will be stepping in and out of the story, sometimes living inside the events unfolding, other times, standing outside them commenting on them (as Company also did). We know she’s in show business, and even in the Modern 1920s, theatre performers were not considered respectable. In a couple minutes, we’ll see that in reaction to that, she and her friends have created their own insular world, a mostly nighttime world with different rules, different rituals, and different morality. These first few lines also introduce the idea of violence, even if only in ironic metaphor. But people who work in show business will instantly recognize the violence of show biz lingo – winning over an audience is “killing them,” or “slaying them,” or “knocking them dead,” or “slaughtering them.” By the end of the show, perhaps we’ll think back on this lyric and realize that here, looks can kill. After all, the first thing Black notices about Queenie is her hair.
The next few lines do more for setting the period than any piece of furniture on the set:
She had grey eyes,
Lips like coals aglow,
And her face was a
Tinted mask of snow.
Women’s make-up was extremely dramatic at that time, as part of the rebellion against the respectable female plainness of the Victorian era. Women’s eye shadow was nearly black, their lips as hot red as possible, unnaturally drawn into the famous Betty Boop, kewpie doll look, and their faces were powdered to look vampire pale, perhaps with a small explosion of rouge on the cheeks.
The lyric goes on and tells us about her relationship track record:
With those shoulders,
What a back she had.
Her legs were built
To drive men mad…
And she did…
She would skid…
The men enter, and for first time we see her flirting, playing with them, using her sexuality to get what she wants. Right now, the idea that her body would drive men mad seems like a figure of speech. By the end of the show, we’ll realize it’s not. Later on the lyric, the men tell us:
She liked her lovers violent,
And she liked her lovers vicious,
But until she found the one man
Who could answer all her wishes,
Queenie was sexually ambitious…
And with that, Queenie’s vaudeville number is over and it’s time for Burr’s introduction. By using the vaudeville form to introduce the two leads, Lippa has created a clever shorthand to give us at least a sketch of their lives, friends, work life, and other details. Burrs begins with what we can assume is his usual act opener, a line that will come back in a much darker context later on:
Are you ready to laugh?
Are you ready to smile?
Are you ready to sing and dance for a while?
Like the song “Let Me Entertain You” in Gypsy, the return of these words in Act II will pack a real wallop because the context here is so innocent. Burrs goes on to tell us that he is a star, but he also shows us the dark side – he tells us he’s “a very scary clown” – and we find out he is a violent lover. Where have we heard that before? The story begins to take shape and we see that this is a thriller, a film noir, the best kind of Hollywood melodrama, but told in the language of jazz and musical theatre, both forms that were blossoming in the late 1920s.
As the number continues, Burrs (and later, also Queenie) narrates the story of how they met, all in the third person. The relationship was built on sex and passion, but nothing else. We get the first hints that these two people are emotionally retarded and perhaps are incapable of real love. As they themselves tell us, “The one thing that they had in common was the fact they were so good in bed.” And as the music explodes in fast lines of jazz, Burrs and Queenie jump in bed and start having sex. It’s rough sex, but we can tell they both like it. It’s consensual. For now. And as they fall asleep, the number ends with one last quote of “Queenie was a blonde.” This phrase will become a leitmotif representing the danger of Queenie’s sex appeal as it ensnares Mr. Black and slowly drives Burrs mad.
All that information, all that insight, all that backstory, all those themes and ideas, the visual and musical style of the piece, the use of narration, and detailed sketches of both main characters along with their tragic flaws, all introduced in this single opening number. It’s a sterling example of Sondheim’s Ten-Minute Rule, that a musical (or play or movie) can do anything at all, use any device, break any rules, as long as it does it within the first ten minutes, to set the ground rules for the audience. Lippa has given us lots of information we need, he has told us how this show will work structurally and stylistically, and has given us a musical foundation on which he’ll build the rest of the score. It’s masterfully crafted.
Now the narrative begins. In the first number, the ensemble were the vaudeville chorus for Queenie’s and Burrs’ acts. From this point forward, they’ll take on two alternating roles. The first is that of a Brechtian Greek chorus, standing outside the action (though still in character) to narrate or comment on events. The same device is used, though in a less fundamental way, in Bat Boy and Urinetown. The second function the ensemble plays is as the party guests and as participants in Queenie’s great game, the Humiliation of Burrs. In both functions, they are still Madelaine True, Eddie and Mae, the D’Armano Brothers, et al., but sometimes they’re standing outside the story, and sometimes they’re experiencing the story in real time from the inside. And often, they switch between these functions on a dime, even within a single song. If it sounds confusing, it’s not, in a good production. Lippa teaches the audience how his devices work as he uses them, and the audience accepts them all fully.
The number “The Apartment” first shows us the state of disrepair of Queenie and Burrs’ relationship. Lippa lays out for us the powder keg that just needs lighting: it’s incredibly hot, the papers are full of violent crime, and then Queenie starts complaining, which starts an argument. Before we can digest what’s happening, he’s calling her a “lazy slut,” he’s throwing her to the bed and raping her, she’s kicking him in the groin, and then pulling a knife on him. “Touch me again and I’ll kill you,” she says.
That’s who these people are.
And all of it happens to highly charged jazz music. As Burrs reads the paper, Lippa sets “murder, rape, and suicide,” to a expanding tangle of counterpoint, letting it overwhelm us as it overwhelms Burrs. This is the zeitgeist. Prohibition had made cynics of everyone and criminals of many. The Wild Party shows us that this culture of lawlessness bled dangerously into personal relationships and social customs.
“Out of the Blue” is a classic musical theatre “I Want” song, in which the character just tells us outright what her motivation is and what she wants. Queenie reaches her Obligatory Moment, the moment toward which everything before it leads and from which everything after it results. Listen to the opening lyrics of “Out of the Blue” and notice how passive Queenie is – she wants something to happen to her. But as the song progresses, she recognizes this and she makes the decision to take action for the first time, to make her own destiny. She considers the options, and picks the worst possible choice. She gets the idea that in order to bring passion back to their relationship, she’ll throw a big party for all their friends and then work to humiliate Burrs as publicly as possible. (It’s George and Martha from Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, but originally written in poem form decades earlier.) But notice that Queenie never talks about love here, just passion and excitement. Their relationship can’t work because there’s nothing real there, but neither of them know that. After “Out of the Blue,” the audience certainly knows it. At the climax of the song, Queenie, sings, “No boundaries, no limits, no compromise!” This is the first of three times we’ll hear that phrase, and each time it will get darker. It will be the signposts along Queenie’s journey. As it is in the very best theatre songs, Queenie changes during this number; she’s not in the same place at the end as she was at the beginning, and the plot has gotten underway.
The real shame in connection to this show is that the original cast album doesn’t include so much of Lippa’s fascinating, complex score. This show is as close to a jazz opera as it can be without actually crossing that line. There is a fluidity and a sense of perpetual motion to the score that only a few shows, like Sweeney Todd and Ragtime, have achieved. But its full artistry has not been preserved.
What a Party!
In the darkly ironic number, “What a Party,” Lippa introduce the second most important musical leitmotif, a jumpy, syncopated, jazz bass line that will always be associated with the party itself. Here it’s used as accompaniment to the introduction of many of these characters to the audience, who literally tell us that “the game begins.” This bass line alternates with other music that will also come back time and again throughout the show. But the lyric prepares us for the ugliness ahead:
Like birds of prey
‘Round the d’oeuvre tray
. . .
At the end of the number, Queenie appears, and Burrs and the guests treat her to a lavish Ziegfeld welcome – the secret dream of every vaudevillian, and Burrs surely knows that. It’s a little gift from him to her.
We segue directly into the Latin-flavored “Raise the Roof,” mirroring the 1920s new interest in Latin America and Latin musical forms. And Queenie tells us exactly where she is emotionally. She’s spoiling for a fight.
Let’s raise the roof.
Let’s make a scene.
Let’s hope the Gods of Love
Will shine above
And show the way.
Let’s call the shots.
Let’s roll the dice.
Take my advice,
It always pays to raise the roof.
This is a call for chaos. But be careful what you wish for. Short dialogue scenes are interspersed throughout the song, introducing characters more fully through what seems like cheap vaudeville gags, but what are actually very clever ways of sneaking in character information. Burrs asks Eddie, “When’s the next fight?” and Queenie answers “Maybe tonight.” She’s already thinking about how to get these two into combat.
The Sound of the Bell
Burrs tries to pick up the fourteen-year-old Nadine, but Queenie gets in his way. The music shifts dramatically to a dark, moody underscore, and the psycho-sexual chess game between Queenie and Burrs begins. “The sound of the bell” and Queenie’s plan to “come out swinging” are both metaphor and, later in Act II, it they will become literal. Queenie makes her way through most of the men there and settles on Eddie, as we knew she would. But her fun is interrupted by the entrance of Kate, former hooker, sometime best friend to Queenie. Kate makes a characteristically loud, boorish entrance with “Look at Me Now,” decrying Prohibition and endorsing hard drinking, in another example of the casual lawlessness of the urban culture. It’s a high energy jazz number and it’s lyric is overflowing with subtextual self-loathing, just as her later solo, “Life of the Party” will be. Kate has also brought along an outsider, the reserved Mr. Black. Interestingly, Black is the only one of the four central characters who we meet talking. All the others we met singing. In other words, Black is different; he’s not of this world.
The scene continues, somewhat cinematically, as we roam the room, catching snippets of various conversations, random party chatter, much of it set to music, and the rest underscored, all while the room takes stock of the newcomer. In a significant moment, Kate asks Burrs, “Don’t you want to be the life of the party?” He answers, “I thought I was.” Those words will come back in Act II in a much darker context. Finally, we pick up a conversation between Queenie and Black as they meet for the first time, and then between Black and Kate, as the second chess game, this one initiated by Kate, gets underway.
In the most operatic moment of the show, we get the beautifully constructed “Poor Child,” a jazz ballad quartet of both emotional and musical complexity, and all four of our leads get a chance to tell us exactly where they stand now that all the various games are underway. There are four competing agendas here and none of them are compatible. We know from this point on, that there will be some losers here tonight. This is the song that earns the show the weight of the tragedy to come. Up till now, the show has been cynical, flippant, sarcastic, but “Poor Child” is serious and deeply felt. This is where we can see for the first time how impossible this conflict really is, and how surely we are headed to a very dark place.
This is no musical comedy.
Intermission, Sort Of
We now leave the unrelenting intensity of the central story to give the audience an emotional breather. Lippa built the score so that it continually builds up tension but only rarely allows the audience to release that tension through applause. So many of the songs are interrupted or segue directly into the next number. Kate’s showstopper “Look at Me Now,” segues directly, taking the audience’s release away. Later in the act, “Maybe I Like It That Way” will do the same thing.
But now, a bit of a rest as we meet the others. First we get Madelaine’s hilariously subversive, “An Old-Fashioned Love Story,” an old-school charm song laced with postmodern irony and twenty-first century sexual frankness (although the 1920s were pretty sexually frank). It’s a funny, rowdy song, but it’s also (partly) about this woman wanting to seduce a fourteen-year-old. The whole show is full of that kind of dissonance. It reminds us that we are outsiders in this world as much as Black is and that sex is war.
Some more musical narration takes us into the first showstopping dance (which also will not allow the audience a release at its end), “The Juggernaut.” It’s a nasty, sexy, savage dance number, sort of fulfilling the role of a “new dance craze” number in a 1920s musical comedy, but also doing so much narrative and character work at the same time. Just as “Wild, Wild Party” will do in a few minutes, “The Juggernaut” comments slyly on the events of the evening – this train that Queenie and Burrs have started is now unstoppable, a literal juggernaut. As we will see over the course of the show, the darkness and anger that have fueled this evening will not subside until it’s too late. Just look at the lyric – it’s a challenge issued both to the party guests and also the audience:
Will you do the Juggernaut?
Can you do the Juggernaut?
Put your foot into the ring
And just start swinging.
Man and woman juggernaut,
And isn’t that exactly what Queenie and Burrs – and later, others – are doing? They are putting their foot into the ring, the fight, the arena for this public display of dysfunction, and they’re coming out swinging blindly, with no regard for who gets hit along the way. In Act II, “just start swinging” will become literal. Throughout the score, Lippa creates numbers that work both as period pieces and as modern dramatic pieces at the same time. During the course of “The Juggernaut,” Queenie goes after Eddie, Burrs goes after Nadine, Kate gets jealous and knocks Nadine to the floor, and Burrs goes after Queenie. The gloves are off.
Just when Burrs is about to explode, the charmingly incestuous D’Armano Brothers rescue the party with a song they’ve written, and in keeping with the dual realities of the story, their song is a fragment of “Queenie was a Blonde,” from the opening. Only after this fragment is there finally room for applause, but now it’s only the party guests who are applauding – the audience has just seen Burrs come within a hair of beating Queenie.
The D’Armano Brothers (both gay lovers and brothers) proceed to announce a number from their new musical, the Bible epic, Good Heavens. And just like all of Cecil B. DeMille’s silent film Bible epics, Good Heavens has an orgy scene. But as we listen to the song, “Wild, Wild Party,” we realize this isn’t really a Bible story – they’re singing about this party tonight. Burrs and Queenie are cast as Adam and Eve, and if you listen closely, this is a morality tale about the tug of war between pleasure and responsibility, about immediate gratification versus future consequences – in other words, about Burrs and Queenie. What makes a funny song even funnier is that none of the people singing seem to notice that the story applies to them. Just like Adam and Eve, Burrs and Queenie ignore the rules of decency and morality, and it will lead to tragedy. This song’s main melody will return in Act II representing the emptiness of this party. Most eerily, the last verse of the song has them literally partying in Hell and ends with the line, “And we’re inviting you!” This subtle involving of the audience in this moral indictment will return in the last song for the show. This will become a party in Hell, and the audience has already RSVP’d.
The deceptively innocent diversions continue with Eddie and Mae’s charm song, “Two of a Kind,” and again, it’s an old-school charm song but it’s vulgar and raw. Eddie calls Mae his “buttered bride,” mangling the title of the popular opera of the time, The Bartered Bride. Mae talks about farting. Eddie calls her a “sexy gopher.” This isn’t the Ziegfeld Follies. But as we listen, maybe we realize that even though these two are simpletons, even though we may laugh at Eddie, who seems like he’s been hit in the head too many times, at least these two have a loving, generally respectful relationship. The only other relationship in the room that could possibly be called happy (depending to some extent on how it’s played) is between the incestuous gay brothers. What does that say about this world?
This Place and All This Fuss
The last two songs of Act I give us real, sympathetic insight into Queenie and Burrs. We understand in a deeper way how damaged they are, and this prepares us for the weight of Act II. Queenie and Burrs have a profound physical connection but they are too damaged to connect in a deeper way and too lost to understand that.
The last section of Act I begins with a lovely fragment of a song called “Of All the Luck.” Black makes the mistake of trying to turn Queenie against Burrs, but she stops him, and the number segues into one of the most emotionally naked ballads in musical theatre, “Maybe I Like It This Way.” In an desperately honest confession, Queenie tells Black (and us) that as awful as it is with Burrs, she’s not sure she wants to leave. It’s this lyric that raises the show above its careless vulgarity and gives it the credentials of a truth-teller. Queenie sings:
I see his pain.
I hear his cry.
He pulls me to the edge,
But I don’t ask him why.
I understand and I obey.
Maybe I like it this way.
As underscoring continues, Queenie tells us, minus the show biz of the opening, about meeting Burrs, and in retrospect we can see the warning signs. It wasn’t as perfect as they told us it was earlier. Then she sings:
If I could change,
If I could grow,
I’d ask for nothing more
And through that door I’d go.
But if I’m through, why do I stay?
Maybe he wants me…
Maybe he needs me…
Maybe he loves me…
Maybe I like it that way.
It’s that word maybe that encapsulates Queenie’s great tragic flaw. Her commitment to Burrs is built entirely on maybe.
And her song segues directly into the Act I finale, Burrs’ companion confessional piece, a bold, almost operatic finale, “What Is It About Her?” Burrs’ first lines say it all:”What is it about her that makes me want her? What is it about her that turns me pale?” He wants her; he doesn’t love her, and their relationship makes him sick. Soon, Queenie is singing counterpoint, and we realize now that these are not just nasty people; they are addicted to each other. They both are abusers and they both are victims; they both need rescue, but neither one will get it. This is a tragedy, after all. Burrs sings:
This woman makes me cry,
This woman makes me burn!
This woman’s eye
Can cut me to the core.
The hatred that I see
Has been reserved for me,
Yet I want more and more…
And the act ends with a howl of despair from Burrs, “How loud must I scream No?”, as Black kisses Queenie and blackout. The audience goes into the lobby knowing only one thing: there is disaster ahead.
The Life of the Party
As Lippa did early in the first act, here he gives Kate a number that works on several levels at once. It’s direct address to the audience, like the other narration in the show has been, but this is also a revealing character song, full of defiance, bitterness, and some self-mocking irony. It’s a classic, though alcoholic, “I Want” song. Depending to some extent on how it’s played, it’s a one-on-one conversation with the audience, actually pulling us into the party, making us feel like we’re just another guest that Kate has cornered. Sure, she may be the life of the party, but she’s also alone. Her advances on Burrs have come to nothing and Queenie has stolen her date. She’s challenging the audience, daring them to live the kind of fearless life she leads, betting that they don’t have it in them, but both she and the audience know that none of us would want to lead her life. She pretends to cherish the role of “life of the party,” but we can see how miserable she is. This song slices through the fun of the first act to remind the audience of the danger behind the hilarity, and one of the ways this is done is by dropping more hints of violence in the lyric, for instance, “Don’t you wanna be there running the show until it’s time to go or till it’s time to kill?”
A transition piece built on the main theme of “A Wild, Wild Party” (that morality tale about the consequences of our actions) takes us back to the plot and into the next song. The guests sing, “How many years have passed her by?” and we don’t know if they mean Kate, who just finished her song, or Queenie, who’s about to start hers. In between the lines of lyric, we hear in the band a slightly altered quote of “A Wild, Wild Party.” Because it describes them both and invokes the idea of consequences, it transitions seamlessly into the next song, “Who is This Man?”, Queenie’s companion piece to Burrs’ Act I finale. Lippa has given them mirror image soliloquies, split across the intermission. And Queenie’s piece is fascinating in its construction, made up of bits and pieces of music, representing her fractured, racing mind. She finds herself in two classically dysfunctional relationships now (though she wouldn’t know what that phrase meant), one of them abusive and codependent, and the other one, a rescuer and willing victim.
Her song is an operatic aria and a solidly built Broadway soliloquy, but it’s broken somehow, just like Queenie. Much of the music is based, sometimes loosely, sometimes exactly, on the music of “Maybe I Like it This Way.” The last section is based on the melody of “Out of the Blue,” Queenie’s decision song. She ends with the line, “Who’s it gonna be?”, ironically quoting “The Life of the Party.”
“The Gal for Me” is a song that was cut from the original off Broadway production, but remains in the licensed materials. True, the song could be eliminated without damaging the show greatly, but it offers the audience and the story several valuable things. First, Queenie and Black get a moment of respite, no fighting, no hiding. Black gets a chance to be charming and attract Queenie in more than just a physical way, and he is able to plead his case to Queenie, that he was a player, that he was insincere, and that he has learned his lesson. Or is he telling Queenie’s story, hoping to cajole her into a decision? Either way, Black is charming Queenie instead of taking her, as Burrs would. Though she is falling, she questions his authenticity, and he rises to the occasion with his big power ballad, “I’ll Be Here,” wherein he offers to make a serious commitment to her. In the process he becomes the anti-Burrs, emotionally available, romantic, protective, an adult. But Lippa complicates it just a bit because in both “The Gal for Me” and “I’ll Be Here,” Black is telling a story about “a man” and what “he” should say to the woman he loves. It gives Black and Queenie a thin veneer of safety, since neither one is actually declaring love, which both know would be dangerous.
Taken together, “The Gal for Me” and “I’ll Be Here” form a beautifully crafted character scene, in which we get to know Black better, they get to take their relationship to the next level of intimacy (and thereby raise all the stakes), and they move forward Queenie’s coming decision about which man to choose. Without both pieces, Queenie and Black’s relationship doesn’t get enough time to develop sufficiently to make the end as emotionally potent as it should be.
There’s another transition piece called “Listen to Me” that is a four-way conversation, again arguably operatic, and it uses accompaniment from the opening number when Burrs and Queenie first met. Kate tries to inject a little of “Life of the Party,” but Burrs suddenly lunges out to choke Queenie, and when he’s stopped by Black, he crumbles to the floor in tears. We segue into Burrs’ great Mad Scene, “Let Me Drown,” cast in the form of a terrifying fantasy vaudeville number. He tries to quote Queenie’s pivotal moment when she decides to throw the party, the moment that led him to this: “I think we’re due for a… I think we’re due for a… I think we’re due for a…” But with the clarity of a madman, he now he sees what he couldn’t see before and his brain suddenly careens off in a different direction. He asks to be allowed to commit suicide without rescue. Burrs warns the partygoers, “By tomorrow morning we could be dead drunk, or just dead.” His lyric works on two levels. First, we can take “drown” to be slang for getting drunk (as in “drown my sorrows”); in other words, to leave him alone to drink until he passes out. But he’s also pleading for release from the surety of being rescued. Until now, Queenie has been his salvation; but he knows she’s probably gone now and he has nothing left. He declares that he will now commit suicide – symbolically, if not actually.
As he does throughout the show, Lippa uses music here as artfully as the best film thriller scores. The guests appropriate Kate’s “Life of the Party” melody as Burrs literally becomes the life of the party, in a fight with Eddie, exactly as Queenie had predicted in Act I. But it hasn’t happened the way she planned. Nothing has. Her plan is spinning out of control. At the end of the fight, Black breaks a bottle over Eddie’s head and saves Burrs. Kate nurses Burrs’ wounds by giving him heroin till he passes out.
Black’s act is so shocking to Queenie, that someone could be that decent – saving his rival – and it throws her. Might this really be a decent man? She sings to him, “I know nothing about you…” So Black opens himself up to her. “I wanted change. I wanted something to excite me,” he confesses. He wants what Queenie already has – passion, excitement – but she knows now that’s not enough. Black is still too young to know that. He’s the same person Queenie was years ago when she first got to New York, but she’s no longer that person. Queenie reprises “Out of the Blue,” revisiting those original decisions and motivations, and she sees how wrong she was. She’s growing. And Black wins her. They retire to the bed for sex, with the pulsating, aggressively carnal song “Come with Me,” ending with a full-cast musical orgasm. Afterward, their love is no longer pure.
Same rule as slasher movies.
Burrs wakes, and when he calls Queenie’s name, the electric guitar echoes him with two melodies that have shown up several times in the show,. First, there is the music from “Out of the Blue,” when Queenie is singing about “all our differences;” also in the piece “He Was Calm,” when Queenie sings, “And I can do it!”; and also when Kate first tells Black that “Her name is Queenie.” They’re all moments that moved the game forward, and Burrs is about to make the final move of the game. The second melody quotes Burrs’ confessional “What is it About Her?” That is his trap and now he must try to escape from it.
Burrs finds Queenie and Black in bed together and after a scuffle, he pulls a gun on them. He sings to Queenie, “Who’s it gonna be?”, both echoing Kate’s “Life of the Party” and paralleling Queenie’s quote of the same phrase at the end of “Who is This Man?” But now the question isn’t about who Queenie will end up with; now it’s about who will leave this party alive and who will end up dead. The music segues into Burrs’ final breakdown, “Make Me Happy,” a powerful trio in which both Queenie and Black try to talk him down. He sings, “In my hands, the future was golden. Now it’s what I hold in my palm,” – his gun. That’s his only future. Queenie sings a section quoting Burr’s vaudeville act back to him, trying to distract him, hoping this can reach him.
As the story comes to its tragic end, Queenie sings to the audience the moral of this fable, in her song, “How Did We Come to This?” as she comes to a new self-awareness. (An interesting side note: this song was originally written for Mae, who sang it after “The Fight.” Then it was moved to the end of the show and given to Queenie. For a brief time during previews, Lippa replaced it with a new song, “Just One Day,” but it was quickly reinstated.)
If there is any glimmer of hope in this story, it is that Queenie understands. Like the decade of the 1920s itself, the party here is over. The price must now be paid.
The Wild Party works as metaphor or microcosm for those moments in American history and culture when anger and fear supersede reason and decency. It happened during the Depression (just months ahead for these characters) and during the 1960s, and in the poisonous cultural atmosphere of America today. Arguably, this isn't as dark a show as Sweeney Todd or The Threepenny Opera, because at least in The Wild Party, there is some clarity, maybe even redemption of sorts, at the end. As the show closes, Queenie asks the party-goers – and the audience, quite sincerely, “How did we come to this?” If there is a message here, maybe it's that those darker impulses and emotions are inside all of us, and we're not always conscious of when they take us over. It takes real effort and vigilance to keep those dark forces at bay, to keep them from destroying the people around us and ourselves (a message this show shares with Bat Boy). It's not always easy to be civil, but when we give up trying, we get what we deserve. As Queenie sings:
We're all so sure.
We're all so wise.
Laughing at our neighbors,
Smiling through a hiss,
How did we come to this?<
We're all amused,
We're all inspired,
And so admired.
Easy to be angry,
Easy to dismiss,
How did we come to this?
Tell me I've been
living in a daydream,
Tell me I've been talking in my sleep.
If I've been awake,
Pardon my mistake,
But time is running low,
And talk is growing cheap.
We play our games,
We place our bets,
And no regrets.
Filling up with frenzy,
Killing with a kiss,
How did we all come to this...?
With any good narrative work of art, you can always find parallels to our world today – our politics, our social issues, our culture. That's what good art does. As long as we recognize that other people in other times and places will see other parallels, there’s no harm is particularizing the art. In The Wild Party, we can see both rabid, self-involved consumption, which mirrors America’s recent fiscal and political history; and we can also see a stark morality tale about the dangers of allowing the death of civility in our society, which also mirrors the crazy combative times of early twenty-first century America.
Many of the characters in The Wild Party are people who “perform” much of their daily lives. They are the kind of people who wear a conscious persona, who show the world a version of them that is not their real self. We all know people like that. People who perform being artsy and colorful, who perform being sophisticated or worldly wise, who perform being outrageous. It's an act, designed to leave a particular impression or elicit a particular response. Though in the Manhattan demi-monde of 1928, it's for different reasons than it is today. In that context, it's about being more daring than the next person, about being a social and moral adventurer, about being “thoroughly modern.” But just as it does now, that constant performing can be destructive. It treats truth and reality as lesser values. It doesn't matter to Queenie (until it's too late) that she is destroying the man she supposedly loves.
While most of America now prizes authenticity above almost anything else (thanks to the 1960s and rock & roll), a small slice of Americans are so terrified of no longer controlling our culture that they have retreated to the social performance of their beloved 1950s. And perhaps more than the disagreement over actual issues, it's this cultural divide over the basic idea of how we talk to each other that seems most dangerous. If the people with the two competing visions of reality can't talk to each other, then where do we go from here? We see in The Wild Party what happens when two people who have had an emotional commitment to each other can no longer talk to each other or even hear each other. And even though Andrew Lippa wrote The Wild Party in the late 1990s (tellingly, toward the end of the Clinton years), his work is truthful enough and universal enough to offer us a lesson for these times – a complete breakdown in communication leads to nothing but darkness.
How did we come to this?
Copyright 2010. Excerpt from Scott Miller's book Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of
Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre
Deconstructing Harold Hill
Rebels with Applause
, From Assassins to West Side Story
Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR