“The Wild Party” Comes to Rio
By Roberto Muggiati
A mounting fever of musicals has taken hold of the Brazilian stage over the last couple of years. Hotspot of the new craze, Rio de Janeiro has so far seen all kinds of productions – from biographies of MPB legends to straight Broadway hits (The Sound of Music, Fiddler on the Roof); from anthologies of Carnival marches and bossa nova to The Beatles and even a free adaptation of Mozart’s The Marriage of Figaro.
Now, a young and daring group of teachers and alumni from CAL (Casa das Artes de Laranjeiras), called Mergulho no Musical (Plunge into the Musical), has made Brazil’s first version of The Wild Party – based on the off-Broadway production of Andrew Lippa and the Broadway production of Michael John LaChiusa, both coincidentally of 2000. Curiously, it took 72 years for the book of Joseph Moncure March to turn into a major production. The story of a wild Prohibition-era Manhattan party is told in syncopated verse inspired by the jazz rhythms of the day. It was first published in a limited edition of 750 copies in 1928 and promptly banned in Boston. Beat godfather William Burroughs read it in 1938 and later explained: “It’s the book that made me want to be a writer.” A New York critic wrote about Moncure’s feat: “It was reissued in a toned-down version in 1968, but it wasn’t until after Art Spiegelman (Maus) chanced upon an original edition in a used book store that the complete text of the poem would find large distribution, in 1994, greatly enhanced by Spiegelman’s signature illustrations, which capture the jump and hustle of the rhymes. The book can be read in an hour but will stick with you much longer, which is easy to believe when you consider such memorable lines which, taken out of context, often sound like limericks:
His woman at present was Mae.
She was blonde, and slender, and gay:
A passionate flirt,
So dumb that it hurt,
And better for night than for day.
The plot is simple: Queenie the burlesque showgirl and Burrs the vaudeville clown throw a “wang dang doodle which quickly degenerates into drunkenness, infidelity, rape and violence.”
Scott Fitzgerald called the Roaring Twenties “The Jazz Age” and described it as “the ten-year period that, as if reluctant to die outmoded in its bed, leaped to a spectacular death in October 1929. It was an age of miracles, it was an age of art, it was an age of excess, it was an age of satire. The word jazz in its progress toward respectability has meant first sex, then dancing, then music. It is associated with a state of nervous stimulation, not unlike that of big cities behind the lines of a war. And after two years,” – he wrote in 1931 – “the Jazz Age seems as far away as the days before the War. It was borrowed time anyhow – the whole upper tenth of a nation living with the insouciance of grand dukes and the casualness of chorus girls.”
One must bear in mind the devastating effects of Prohibition (1919-31) on American society: Alcohol, the Forbidden Fruit, became avidly sought for. Illegal production and distribution of liquor brought about the era of gangsterism. Also, the total lack of control over liquor quality would cause sickness and death to a large section of the population.
I was intrigued by the whole setup: why should a bunch of kids from Rio’s Zona Sul choose to wallow in the Roaring Twenties’ angst and promiscuity? Perhaps there is not such a wide gap between now and then as we might suppose. Chance had it that my friend Regina Lins e Silva has her granddaughter Luiza Monteiro in the cast, so we were privileged guests for the last open rehearsal on April’s last Sunday night. (Lu, 17, is the youngest of a cast mostly in their mid-twenties.)
There was a strange kind of electricity hanging on the air. I must describe CAL’s special location: it stands by the foot of Corcovado’s peak Northern slope, on the quarter of Laranjeiras. At the end of Rua Rumânia, a hundred-yard cul-de-sac, you cross a gate to a steep staircase of some 300 steps. A small rack lift with a sliding door (capacity: six lean passengers) helps you to minimize the effort of climbing half of the way. You land in the middle of a rain forest thicket that engulfs a three-story white house built in the forties. It used to be the residence of the Rumanian ambassador until the early seventies, when the foreign embassies reluctantly left Rio for Brasília, the new capital since 1960. (Ambassadors only parted from Rio for good after urban guerrillas made three spectacular kidnappings – of the American, German and Swiss envoys, between 1969 and 1971.)
In The Wild Party, instead of the boy-meets-girl formula of usual love stories, we have the meeting of a dame-with-a-past and a-hero-with-no-future. Queenie (a vaudeville showgirl) and Burrs (a clown on the same show), whose relationship is disintegrating, decide to host a party fueled by bathtub gin, cocaine, and uninhibited sexual behavior. It quickly evolves into an orgy that culminates in tragedy. One thing should be said about The Wild Party: the Moncure-Lippa-LaChiusa tale manages to compress ten years into just one night, the party serving as a metaphor for a whole decade of sex, booze, and jazz.
The characters are a cross section of the New York Twenties underside: a vaudeville starlet and her crazy clown; her best friend and rival, Kate, and her gigolo, Black; brothers and lovers D’Armano, petting each other all over the place; Lesbian stripper Madeleine and her morphine-addicted friend Sally; prizefighter Eddie and his woman, moronic Mae, sister of the nymphet Nadine, who aspires to be in vaudeville and gets her due before the night is over; Jackie, a rich “ambisextrous” playboy full of cocaine; fading star Dolores and a duo of producers, Gold and Goldberg. The stuff of which The Wild Party is made was hard to swallow even for the sophisticated New York critics and public. Both shows did not have a long run: La Chiusa’s, 68 presentations; Lippa’s, 54. But Rio’s audience reaction has been enthusiastic, which gives the city a certain mark of distinction.
Mergulho no Musical is not a fixed group, but a course/workshop in the curriculum of CAL, a free school of scenic arts founded in 1982 that has since formed nine out of ten of Rio’s new generation actors. The highly experimental mind of Menelick de Carvalho – The Wild Party’s scenic director – chose to have two alternate casts in action, achieving a greater dynamic interplay between the actors. Mergulho’s boys and girls were not alone in their endeavors. They are magnificently well prepared by a group of seasoned veterans, such as Mirna Rubim (vocal coach) and Soraya Bastos (choreography coach). The music is also well taken care of, in the hands of Aurora Dias and André Poyart.
Coming back to the open rehearsal: when the three hours and a half of show were over, Menelick gathered outside CAL’s gate the thirty some players of both casts (there had been an afternoon presentation by the other cast) for a thorough analysis of the performances, correcting details of group and individual interpretations. This intense soul-searching session lasted from midnight to 1:30 am in the fresh Carioca night. (An image came to my mind, “flourishing stars under the stars”.) Menelick – a kind of elder brother at 31 – has put his whole heart into the enterprise. He wrote on the program: “The actual protagonist of The Wild Party is the party itself, the sea of dysfunctional guests in search of some thrill, be it cheap or fleeting, that may distract them from their intimate frustrations and the lack of sense in their lives. We have here a savage space, disjointed and strayed. In this kitchenette there is no clear division between the room, the kitchen, the sleeping room and the bathroom. The objects of the little apartment where the fatal crime has happened are scattered around, waiting for someone to give them some sort of sense. It is a disagreeable space, full of obstacles, excesses and emptiness. A place where you probably would not like to be. But you were invited, you came, and now it is too late to leave.”
Menelick’s reasoning brings me to a humble conclusion: our days of neo-hedonism and neo-rebellion – which are the two sides of the same coin – resemble a lot the Roaring Twenties or “Les Années Folles,” as the French chose to label them. The descent into the maelstrom of The Wild Party is somehow helping a chosen few youths of today’s Brazil’s to emerge for a while from the “Internet aquarium” and breath and live a little of real life, no matter how much it may hurt.
Roberto Muggiati is a regular contributor to CIE. He is a musician who writes about music for numerous newspapers and magazines in Brazil.
[All photos credit: Aloysio Araripe]