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Making the Most of the Worst Musicals

F. Kathleen Foley is a regular theater reviewer for Calendar

Dante missed a bet in his “Purgatorio.” He failed to include a special circle of the afterlife for bad actors, a punishing precinct where the untalented must atone for their earthly flops.

But Joe Patrick Ward picks up where Dante left off. His affectionate spoof of Broadway musicals, “The Grave White Way,” is set in musical theater purgatory. Imagine “That’s Entertainment!” as divine retribution, and you’ll get the idea.

Mind you, the Almighty loves a snappy tune, and he has given the suffering thespians of “Grave White Way” a chance for salvation. To get out of the frying pan and into Musical Theater Heaven, these overdone hams must first put on a show--a good one. But considering the succession of stinkers they appeared in when on Earth, that’s a longshot.

It’s a broad conceit, a bang-up excuse for a decade-by-decade overview of the worst disasters in theatrical history, ranging from the Depression to present day. For example, there’s the rousing “Bury the Hatchet,” from “40 Whacks 40!” based on the Lizzie Borden story. Then there’s that lost gem about the ill-fated Donner Party, the poignant ballad “Eat Me.”

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In between numbers, the performers offer up unctuous patter about the various composers, maligned geniuses who could empty a theater faster than a Molotov cocktail. This “historical retrospective” is strictly ersatz, of course. Ward, who also appears in the show as an accompanist and performer, composed all of the songs, as well as writing the lyrics and the book.

The only thing Ward didn’t come up with is the show’s central gimmick--a rotating roster of established musical stars who augment the regular cast. That idea originated with Jayson Raitt, who co-produces “Way” with Michael Weiner and Alan Zachary.

Thanks to Raitt’s inspiration, each performance will feature the celebrity du nuit in one specialty number. Scheduled “name value” performers include Jason Graae (“Forbidden Broadway”), Yeardley Smith (“The Simpsons”), actor Rene Auberjonois and composer Stephen Schwartz.

If that sounds like a blatant publicity ploy, that’s because it is. “It was interesting, trying to work the celebrities into the show. I wrote a three-page addition to the script, all this exposition explaining why the star was there. Then I realized, ‘I know why they’re there. It’s a cheap marketing ploy. Let’s not call it anything else,’ ” Ward says.

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“You go to the theater these days and think, ‘How many helicopters or giraffe puppets or sinking ships can you put on a stage?’ We’re more straightforward about it. That’s part of the fun.”

John Raitt (no relation to Jayson) performed on the opening weekend. Although not as large as a giraffe puppet, Raitt is certainly a towering figure in musical theater history. “I’ve had my own so-called flops in my lifetime,” Raitt says. “But this is my 61st year in show business. I’m not doing eight shows a week anymore, and I don’t have to, fortunately. But I like to help theater out whenever I can, because that’s my whole life, the musical theater.”

Although he may tweak the musical theater at every opportunity, Ward feels a similar reverence for his subject.

“First and foremost, I wanted to create a genuinely funny play,” he says. “Nothing mind-bending or cerebral, just two hours of sheer fun. But I also wanted to pay tribute to musicals, to the artists, composers, writers, directors, to anybody who has ever tried to create out of thin air, which is never easy. Of course, the hope for any theater piece is to recoup your investment, and if the celebrity guests put people in the seats, so be it. But I really think ‘The Grave White Way’ stands on its own merit.”

Ward’s faith in the project goes beyond lip service: He used his life’s savings to finance the production. Vehicles like “Forbidden Broadway” and “The Producers” have proven that there’s gold in them thar parodies. Still, sinking one’s own cash into such an enterprise requires a leap of faith.

“Of course, it’s a huge risk, putting money into your own work,” Ward says. “But you weigh your options, and I wanted this work to be seen. When you’re the creator, you’re obviously a little biased about its merit or appeal. But if you believe in a project with all your heart, you don’t have a choice.”

Ward’s decision to put his money where his satire is was no snap impulse. He has been working on “Way” for the last seven years, interrupted by composing gigs for Warner Bros. and various small theater productions, including Leslie Jordan’s “Hysterical Blindness,” which originated locally and played off-Broadway, and Del Shores’ long-running “Southern Baptist Sissies.”

The success of a seminal production of “Way” at the Cinegrill in 1995 made Ward even more determined to mount a full-scale theatrical version. “The Cinegrill show was a cabaret piece, which afforded me the opportunity to try new material, the ultimate goal being that I wanted to make it a fully staged theatrical presentation,” Ward says. “We played to sell-out houses, and we did a return engagement a couple of months later. People just kept coming back. The show achieved a sort of cult status. I felt that we were doing something right.”

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Actor Craig A. Curtis, a holdover from the Cinegrill production, was happy to re-up for this outing. Operatically trained, Curtis is accustomed to classy vehicles, and “Way,” he says, is firmly in that category.

“Joe writes in the style of the composer he’s lampooning,” Curtis says. “His lyrics are so funny and twisted. The most clever thing about this show is that it’s very rude and politically incorrect without being at all immoral. There’s an innocence to all of it. You could almost bring your children. Joe is offensive without being offending, and that’s a real trick. It’s easy to go over the top and gross someone out. But there’s a childlike approach to Joe’s writing that doesn’t alienate.”

Musical veteran Kay Cole also performed in the Cinegrill production. This time out, she is working with “Way” not as a performer, but as its choreographer, which puts her in a somewhat unusual position. Having originated the role of Maggie in “A Chorus Line,” she now helps parody the very show that brought her to prominence. The high-strutting, top-hatted “Wow” from the show obviously lampoons “One,” the signature number from “A Chorus Line.”

“The spoof is heartfelt because it’s so personal,” Cole says. “It’s healthy to be able to laugh at yourself. But I wanted to keep the humor in its proper place, so that we are enjoying the number and able to laugh with, not at, the material. Whenever you do a spoof, you have to be careful not to cross that line.”

That’s a point well taken by Ward and the show’s director, Sarah Gurfield, who are both keenly aware that parody is a serious business.

“This show is a very distinct vision, and you can’t go too far with it,” Ward says. “You have to stay on the edge of believability.”

“You need to keep everything very organic, and near and dear to your heart,” agrees Gurfield, just back in town from serving as assistant director on the off-Broadway production of the musical “Bat Boy.” “That’s why the show works without being offensive. But we’ve been lucky enough to get a cast that knows how to play with absolute sincerity in the face of utmost absurdity. The instant you start to wink at the audience, you’re dead in the water.”

The show gives ample opportunity for chewing the scenery, and the cast--which includes Joshua Finkel, Lesli Margherita, Amy Rutberg, and Shannon Stoeke--chows down with gusto.

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Still, to keep that air of believability, it helps to know your way around a flop. The bombastic Margherita, whose business in the show includes squirming seductively atop a piano for a “Show Boat” send-up, cut her professional teeth on the much-reviled TV series “Fame L.A.” “I went to UCLA, but I got cast in the series right out of school,” she recalls. “It was my first big TV thing. I had cars picking me up, my trailer was great, they promised me the world. We all thought it was going to make us TV stars. And it was a huge bomb.”

Agonizing at the time, flops can be hilarious . . . in retrospect. The most God-awful debacles have a peculiar way of lingering in the memory long after the hits have faded.

“I’ve always had this bizarre fascination with real-life musical flops,” Ward says. “The one I always go to for inspiration is ‘Carrie.’ It’s so utterly inconceivable that anyone would musicalize a Stephen King horror tale for the stage. What is even more unbelievable is how miserably they failed in that mission. Everything they could have done wrong they did wrong.

“The real trick to ‘The Grave White Way’ is to find the most absurd, wrong, inconceivable notions for musicals and then make them conceivable. The notion that somebody would have the audacity to do something so wrong--that’s what I find so funny.” *

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“THE GRAVE WHITE WAY,” Hudson Backstage Theatre, 6537 Santa Monica Blvd., Hollywood. Dates: Thursdays-Saturdays, 8 p.m.; Sundays, 7 p.m. Prices: $27.50-$30. Phone: (310) 289-2999.


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