Non-profits battle for a hotter time in Harlem

NEW YORK — The New York theater community went nuts when it learned that two productions of “The Wild Party” were due in town this season. The Joseph Papp Public Theater and Manhattan Theater Club, two of the city’s most prestigious non-profit institutions, have both scheduled musical versions of Joseph Moncure March’s scandalous 1928 satirical poem about a hot time in Harlem, and for the past several months there has been much giddy speculation about who would party harder.

The suspense is over, at least, about who will get to party first. The Manhattan Theater Club goes into rehearsal on Dec. 5 with a book and score by Andrew Lippa, and previews starting Jan. 25 for a Feb. 22 opening at its Off Broadway house.

Gabriel Barre will direct a cast featuring Taye Diggs, Idina Menseld and Julia K. Murney.

The Public plans January rehearsals and late-winter previews for its Apr. 6 Broadway opening at the Virginia Theater. George C. Wolfe will direct a cast that includes Mandy Patinkin, Eartha Kitt and Toni Collette from a script that the producer-director co-wrote with the show’s composer-lyricist, Michael John La Chiusa.

After months of fending off intense media interest about the status of his production (which escalated when Vanessa L. Williams, rumored to be gearing up to topline, got pregnant and dropped plans to partake), Wolfe professes to be sick to death of all the hype about “dueling musicals.”

It is “fundamentally insulting,” he says, that “any time one show is discussed, the other one has to be discussed in the same breath.”

By the way of one of those invidious comparisons, the producing team that runs the less well-endowed Manhattan Theater Club seems positively grateful for the unexpected publicity. “We’re enjoying the excitement,” enthuses artistic director Lynne Meadow, speaking virtually in unison with Barry Grove, the theater’s executive producer. “It will be fun.”

Both theaters are eager to point out the differences — economic as well as artistic — in their separate treatments of the original verse material, which recounts the furious debauchery that breaks down in Harlem when a hedonist showgirl named Queenie dumps her lover and takes another stud to an all-night party.

With $5 million to throw around, the Public can afford to give its Broadway production the “fabulous look” that George Wolfe envisions for this Jazz Age party, which he describes as “a world that is dancing on the edge of ecstasy, delirium and madness.”

Although Lynne Meadow claims not to feel “outclassed” by the Public’s big budget (which is five times the MTC’s), she acknowledges the built-in economic constraints on a non-profit institution. “We’re not nervous,” she explains, “but if this were solely a commercial venture for us, we would have to think twice about the commercial ramifications (of going head-to-head with a powerhouse like the Public).”

Nonetheless, it was for artistic, not financial reasons that neither theater would entertain the notion of rescheduling. However their work might diverge in style — there’s a comfortable distance, for example, between the “uptown jazz language” of Michael John La Chiusa’s score and the “raucous, contemporary quality” of Andrew Lippa’s — both of these composer-lyricists obviously view their work as millennium pieces. And the clock on millennium pieces is ticking … loudly.

Although Lippa now says that he “didn’t set out to write a piece that had anything to say about the millennium or about comparisons between 1928 and 1999,” he concedes that, “I treat it as if this were the last party in the last apartment on the last night of the world.”

Forcing another one of those unseemly comparisons, the collaborators at the Public are happy to talk millennium . Wolfe finds “incredible parallels with our own time” in the “cross-cultural, pan-sexual, pan-racial” social dynamics of the late ’20s . He also sees “certain emotional apocalyptic qualities” connecting our own free-booting times with that giddy pre-war era when “the whole world was dancing, while Fascists were off in a corner, getting organized.”

“I let George take care of all that metaphysical stuff,” La Chiusa muses. But he, too, responded to the ominous undercurrents of change in March’s poem. “I see it in my own culture. We think we’re so great, that we’re such a star, and that the party is going to last forever. But something is bound to crack. Every party has got to end.”

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