Friday, March 25, 2011

Never Heard Nothing: An Interview with Joe Iconis

I am thrilled to be able to share with you guys a Q&A that I had with one of my favorite songwriters out there, Joe Iconis. Even with a final performance of Things to Ruin at (Le) Poisson Rouge on Monday at 10 p.m., Joe found time to talk about his work, his Family, and his visions for new musical theatre (Uhh, guerrilla musical readings on Broadway stages? Yes, please!):

"Never Heard Nothing" from Things to Ruin at (Le) Poisson Rouge,
featuring Ben Arons, Starr Busby, Katrina Rose Dideriksen, Ian Kagey,Carrie Manolakos, Eric William Morris, Mike Pettry, Lance Rubin, Jared Weiss, Jason "Sweet Tooth" Wiliams, and Joe Iconis

Me: A friend and I were talking about how cool it is that Things to Ruin doesn’t have a traditional narrative, but it definitely tells a sort of story. How did you choose the kind of set list that would become Things to Ruin?

Joe: It began as just an evening of my songs, and then a story started to take shape. Connections between different songs started to form and we began to fill in the blanks. John Simpkins and I have been working on it from the beginning and we really found the vibe and the structure of the show together. I think the idea is to feel like you get to know a group of characters and all those characters take a journey together. Hopefully, by the end, the audience is moved in the same way they’d be at a play or a book musical, but without entirely knowing what it is they’ve just seen. I think there’s a way to connect the dots a bit more literally, I think there’s a way to really set a story in motion with a good deal of these songs… but it’s more about creating a feeling, creating a mosaic of real human beings at turning points in their lives. A good example is what we refer to as “The Sad Boy Trilogy.” It’s these three songs that are grouped together in the show -- “Son Of A Gun,” which we think of as a high school aged guy who feels a disconnect with anyone who tries to get close to him; “Dodge Ball,” which is a middle school aged guy who gets picked last in gym; and “Albuquerque Anyway,” which is a nine year old whose best friend is moving away. I think this could be the same man, which is what it would come off as if the songs played in chronological order -- but we made the choice to move backward in time. By doing this I think it makes it a lot less about: “Oh, I get why this person can’t connect with other humans -- he wasn’t picked in dodge ball and his friend moved away,” and more about the feeling, the idea. We’ve frequently referred to the show as a theatrical rock concert of an album that doesn’t exist. That’s what I think it is. Except the album exists now. So, fuck, I guess.

Me: I’ve seen you perform in a lot of different venues, from The Beechman to the Ars Nova loft. What have been some of your favorite shows/spaces, and what about them make them ideal for your work?

Joe: I like spots that feel like home and The Beechman and Ars both very much feel like home to me. The first time we ever played The Beechman, there wasn’t a whole lot of the new musical theater concerts being done there. It was more of a cabaret room and it had a bit of a Classy, New York, Showtune Palace feel. One of the reasons I was excited about playing that room was because of it didn’t feel like the sort of place you’d go to hear something new or rockin’. I loved the idea of doing a down and dirty show in a venue that felt very much at odds with that. All the people there are so wonderful and smart and talented. It’s a place I feel like I can go in and try anything and they’ll welcome me and my crew with open arms. Also the food is great and the drinks are stiff and they’ve got an incredible history of amazing artists who have played there.

Ars Nova is another place that feels like home. We did the first version of T2R there in 2006 and I haven’t left yet. I did my big Christmas show this year up in the Penthouse, and I can’t imagine any other venue in the city letting me do something like that. They gave the gang and I the freedom to completely take over the space (which is basically a very beautiful luxury apartment) and turn it into a theater. I’m always a sucker for environmental theater and this was a great swipe at that. We baked during the show and the audience got to eat some samples. How great is that? Being able to literally digest a theatrical experience? All my shows will involve food consumption from now on.

"Christmas (Baby Please Come Home)" performed as part of
The Joe Iconis Christmas Spectacular 2010 in the Ars Nova Penthouse

Me: Another thing I’ve loved about your work is that it’s usually combined with the talents of The Family, from the cast to the creative team. What makes your family so kick ass, and what do you look for most in the people you work with?

Joe: I am very proud of the group of artists I’ve surrounded myself with. I would lay down on train tracks for them, as they would for me. I only want to work with people who care. I have no interest in working with actors or directors or designers or producers who are “over it.” I care passionately about musical theater and about the art that I create, and its important to me that the people I create it with care just as much. It doesn’t matter if you’re incredibly well credentialed or you’ve never been in a show before. If the passion is there, it’s there. If it’s not, go to hell. Without getting too self-important about it, I really do believe that theater has the power to change people’s lives. I know it has changed mine. To be able to be a part of something like that is an absolute gift. And if you can’t see that, go get a job working in a coal mine like a real person.

Beyond that, I like actors who look, sound, and act like humans. I don’t like musical theater affectations and I don’t care how high you can belt. Just be real.

"The Guide to Success" performed by Joe Iconis at Things to Ruin
at (Le) Poisson Rouge

Me: What do you think is one of the biggest challenges facing new musical theatre writers trying to write original musicals today?

Joe: I think it’s very hard to get shows produced that aren’t based on existing material. I think it’s very hard to get shows produced that aren’t easy to describe in one sentence. That whole thing about “you should be able to say what your show is about in one sentence” is bullshit. I think that was originally said in reference to storytelling in theater and making sure there is a reason your show exists, a driving force. But it certainly shouldn’t be a selling tool, and it feels like that’s what people want now. It’s hard to begin work on something knowing that it’s gonna be an excruciating battle getting it out into the world. That’s why places like Ars Nova are so important -- they encourage and support artists and create a safe place for them to develop new work. Without worrying about whether or not it will be commercial or if the subscription will rebel against it.

What’s exciting for new musical theater writers is that there are no rules and there never have been. For as much as we (we = I) belly ache about the current state of musical theater and how producers only wanna produce jukebox musicals or white washed movie adaptations, there are still plenty of paths we haven’t discovered yet. The internet has been an amazing tool in getting new musical theater to people. What else? I want to start doing guerrilla readings on the stages of long running shows. Imagine seeing a music stand reading of a new “unproduceable” musical about pedophiles on the stage of The Lion King? The actors would have to speed through the songs before the cops came with tear gas and billy clubs. Lindsay Mendez would be running through the fake savannah, clutching her black binder screaming: “Viva La Musical Theater!” A real musical theater revolution.

Me: Any up-and-coming musical theatre songwriter recommendations? I remember reading your Michael R. Jackson recommendation in the SPF newsletter and can’t get enough of his stuff now.

Joe: Michael R. Jackson is just getting better and better -- I can’t recommend him enough. Anyone reading this must go right now to youtube and listen to his song called “Secretly Hoping.” It’s spectacular. I really love Daniel Maté and Will Aronson whose show The Trouble With Doug was at NAMT this past year -- it’s probably my favorite new musical kicking around these days. I saw another show at NAMT that was a rock musical version of the Lizzie Borden story -- I really liked that as well.

"Find the Bastard" from Bloodsong of Love performed by Joe Iconis,
Jason "Sweet Tooth" Williams, Lance Rubin, Katrina Rose Dideriksen,
Jeremy Morse, Ian Kagey, and Brent Stranathan

Me: Any new projects on the horizon? Or any news on any of the old favorites? (I would love to see “Bloodsong” any and everywhere)

Joe: I would love to see Bloodsong of Love any and everywhere as well! On the hunt for a producer with some guts and some vision who is willing to take a chance on a show that doesn’t fit into a pre-existing mold. We learned so much from the Ars Nova run and I desperately want to make some changes to the show and unleash it on the world in a huge way. It’s amazing how hard it is to do that, though. It bums me out a little but I’m a motivated bastard. You’ll see the beast again sometime soon.

As far as new stuff goes, oh lord, I don’t know. I’ve got some projects kicking around but I’m thinking that maybe I’ll just give up writing and walk the earth. I think I’d be a good earth walker.

Before Joe earth-walks into the sunset, grab a ticket and catch him and his awesome band of performers/musicians for the last performance of Things to Ruin at (Le) Poisson Rouge (hot deal -- if you want to make an evening of it, get a ticket to Things to Ruin and If It Only Even Runs a Minute 6 for $30). Not in New York? Enjoy the music from home by downloading the album from iTunes or ordering the CD from Sh-K-Boom.

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