"No one would undertake the intricate, painful, gargantuan, hysterical task of putting on a musical play unless he had more enthusiasm than most people have about anything." --Brooks Atkinson, The New York Times Drama Critic, 1924-1960
I felt like I had paid my dues. I wrote a Holocaust musical. I also had written Hee-Haw: It’s a Wonderful Li_e, where Sam Wainwright challenges the heroism of George Bailey. At the show’s end (spoiler alert), when Sam’s guardian angel has shown him his life if he had never been born, Sam finally follows through on one thing better than George Bailey: he kills himself.
This is why, when Annie came to me and showed me the youtube clip of the 1987 Crystal Light National Aerobic Competition, hosted by Alan Thicke, I said, “Yes, Annie, that would be a great musical!” No suicides, genocide, or other “ides.” No battle to the death at the end of the show. Lots of headbands, leg warmers, waxed bodies, gelled hair and white teeth, plus the star of TV’s growing pains, Alan Thicke. Annie and I watched the clip over and over. The Miami Vice décor, the dazzling aerobics moves, culminating in the great circle wheel of push-ups--all of the elements just seemed to be in place.
And so Spandex the Musical was born. Annie is an archivist whose last show, according to her bio, was “All My Laundry…co-written and produced with the Sullivan and Francis children and performed in the Francis’ basement on New Years’ Eve 1991.” I’m a musical theater writer whose work, as noted, has trended more towards Les Miz-style shows, only with more people dying, and who has never done aerobics. We dove in.
Like the 1980’s conference call technology we were exploring, we used the power of the Google Docs to share the script. We laughed over terrible jokes. We called the show “a Palimpsest in Two Acts.” We wrote an original opening number on the train featuring the line, “Spandex Spandex, you can wash it on medium warm/ Spandex Spandex, it can fit any physical form,” and highlighting the fact that Spandex is an anagram for “Expands.” Research! Before we had written three scenes, we started imagining an all African-American sequel to the show called Black Spandex. This is how exuberant you get at the beginning of a new show.
We pushed through a sophomore slump, continuing our regular meetings at the Muff (Connecticut Muffin), the Sauce (now-defunct Boerum-Hill coffee shop Flying Saucer) and the Bucks. We reassured each other that our Montague-street Starbucks would one day have a plaque for us. That Starbucks later shuttered and moved down the street.
By the Spring of 2011, it was time for our first reading. We invited loyal friends to our apartment. Annie brought cheap wine and my girlfriend, Casey, and I ordered pizza. I cast my friend Mike E. as Shmitty, the closeted, tough-as-nails aerobicizer who spent time in the clink. Annie and I thought the character was hilarious and couldn’t wait to hear him brought to life. It turns out that despite being very prominent in the stage directions, Shmitty only had four lines. Mike E. felt slighted. But other parts worked. My friend Dan G. used a horrendous accent to play Israeli fitness guru, Dov Yisrael, but despite this he made the character come to life--funny and full of heart. By the second reading, that Fall, the character of Trip Allen, evil pusher of Instathin diet pills, elicited the proper boos and hisses.
In addition to a central love story between Lorraine, (an aerobics instructor) and Dov, we had a secondary love story between Bob and Linda. All the great shows have a secondary love story! Linda is a plump housewife who, now that the kids are a little older, starts aerobicizing. Her husband is a Reagan administration employee who can’t handle her newfound independence. It all seemed so harmless. But something went wrong. Our reading critiquers couldn’t tell who they were supposed to focus on: Lorraine and Dov or Bob and Linda. Our subplot had metathesized and was now eating up the main plot! Annie and I went back to the Muff and recalibrated. I fought for some scenes--I can get precious; Annie wanted to use a chainsaw--she’s ruthless!.
Then we caught a break. The producers from Rock of Ages wanted to see the script. It’s amazing how something like that will get you to finish. We had some other producer interest, and soon we had the idea that occurs to many musical writers at this point: let’s mount an expensive Staged Reading, where the actors learn the show in three days and then present it cold at music stands!
Through the beauty of Facebook, we assembled a killer cast. We found a music director from my program at NYU (Tisch Graduate Musical Theatre Writing) who even came with a David Bowie-style British accent. Julian is a master at replacing the problematic “Repeat and Fade” ending of pop songs with a “Manufactured-but-Final-sounding-Button-Ending.” Think how awkward it would be for actors to fade themselves out after “Here I Go Again.”
We’ve now had not one, but two Public Readings at 440 Studios (440 Lafayette Street at Astor Place). These are fantastic, incidentally: functional, light-filled, with tuned pianos and priced at about 70% of what you’ll pay at Shetler or Ripley. They even had two hot-pink music stands for us to use along with the black ones.
Getting producers to come is of course never easy. Here’s a typical email exchange between me and one such fellow:
Me: Would love to have you come to our May 18th reading, at 5:00. You’ll want to burn it!
Producer of several Independent Spirit Award-nominated shows: I’d love to but I have theater tix that night. You should really have reading at 2:00pm. Industry standard.
(two weeks later)
Me: Would love to have you come to our June 14th Industry Reading of Spandex at 2:00pm, if it’s not too much of a “stretch!”
Producer: I’d love to, man. But I can’t just run out in the middle of the day!
I called Kraft Foods and found my way to the brand manager for “Crystal Light.”
“Sounds like fun,” he said, “but I just don’t see the value.” I mean, is Crystal Light so gangbusters these days they can’t use a little publicity? And wasn’t he the ad guy—why do I have to figure everything out?!
The day of the reading arrived. We had two big fish all lined up—big fish that were I to print their names here, you would be mildly shocked. Three hours before the show, each sent his regrets. It’s my new rule that for every 10 industry types you invite, one might come. Of these 10, one might be able to help the show. So if my math is correct, that’s one hit out of every 100 invites. Our theater held 40.
Still, we built it, and people came. Casey, my marketer extraordinaire, helped bring in producers, directors, agents, and PR representatives from a Gym franchise, who ended up loving the positive message of the show. The agents talked the show up to some of their friends, who have put me in touch with directors, choreographers, and more of the ever-sought-after theater industry types. The gym and I are brainstorming ways to collaborate in the future: sorry Crystal Light, you missed your Tony.
These days I spend a lot of time following up on follow ups, taking advice and cold-calling. One partner at a big-poobah production company told me frankly that it probably wasn’t worth sending a script. Turning away from the jackhammers blasting through the pavement on Montague, as I paced outside the new Starbucks, I threw down the only card I had: “It’s sort of like Rock of Ages, but with leg warmers…ah?” When he didn’t hang up, I told him about the youtube clip of the fateful 1987 Crystal Light competition. After fifteen minutes, and what seemed like a never ending barrage of construction, he gave me his email and told me to send him the clip. (Do you ever notice that it’s always during important phone calls that New York City construction goes ballistic?) I haven’t heard back yet, but I’ll follow up next week.
When you think about it, actually, there’s no need to wait for Spandex the original to go up before sequels. If there are any directors or producers out there who would like to explore Black Spandex, please get in touch, won’t you?