As source material for a musical, "The Wild Party" would seem like fairly obscure stuff. Yet the hard-edged, book-length poem by Joseph Moncure March spawned two musicals in New York this season.
The Manhattan Theatre Club's off-Broadway production, written by Andrew Lippa, closed April 2. The New York Shakespeare Festival's Broadway rendition, by Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe, is vying for a Tony Award tonight, although the show was in danger of closing before the nominations were announced
The poem behind all this recent interest was written in 1926 by the man who had been the first managing editor of the New Yorker. March, who went on to become a Hollywood screenwriter, was the somewhat renegade scion of a prominent New York family and knew the bohemian milieu of "The Wild Party" from firsthand experience. His racy poem didn't find a publisher until 1928, and even then it was banned in Boston.
Its opening lines -- "Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,/ And she danced twice a day in vaudeville" -- captured the imaginations of both musicals' composers.
The narrative poem tells the tabloid-lurid tale of two vaudeville performers, a dancer and her abusive lover, a clown. After nearly killing each other over breakfast, they decide, "We're about due/ For a party." The boozy all-night revels are attended by guests ranging from a courtesan passing herself off as Spanish aristocracy to a pair of homosexual piano players to a slumming society swell with whom Queenie decides to wreak revenge on her jealous lover.
March's poem was made into a movie with the same name in 1975 starring Raquel Welch and incorporating elements of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal. It attracted increased attention in 1994, when it was re-issued in a stunning volume illustrated by Art Spiegelman and excerpted in the New Yorker.
This isn't the first time the same source has inspired multiple musicals. Besides Andrew Lloyd Webber's "Phantom of the Opera," the Gaston Leroux horror novel was turned into musicals by Maury Yeston and Arthur Kopit (whose version is coming to the Lyric Opera House in October) and Ken Hill. Yeston also wrote a rendition of "La Cage aux Folles," although Jerry Herman beat him to Broadway. In 1939, there were two jazz versions of "The Mikado" on Broadway, "The Hot Mikado" and "The Swing Mikado." And, a pair of musicals based on "Twelfth Night" opened off-Broadway in the 1960s.
But why "The Wild Party" now? "Maybe," Spiegelman suggests in the introduction to his illustrated edition, "it's March's perfectly pitched tone of bewildered innocence curdled into worldly cynicism that resonates so well."