Whitty banter

Gay ‘Ave. Q’ scribe Jeff Whitty builds a pyramid of laughs in cheer-full musical ‘Bring It On’

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CHEER UP | Whitty swore off writing musicals — but changed his mind to take on two new ones.

Jeff Whitty will probably spend the rest of his life living down the legacy of creating the musical that turned Muppets … sorry, puppets — into sexed-up losers. Avenue Q became the surprise hit of the 2003-04 Broadway season, sweeping the Tony Awards (including one for Whitty’s book) and forever changing our view of Sesame Street.

One of Whitty’s collaborators on Q went on to co-write The Book of Mormon, but Whitty himself has been busy as well, opening two musicals in the past 13 months, including the cheerleading comedy Bring It On: The Musical, which opened this week at Fair Park.

The gay librettist, who is also an actor (he’s in rehearsals to appear in a play he wrote, in which he’ll star in drag — a first) chatted about his love of cheerleading, his failed promise never to do another musical and the filthiest show he’s ever seen.

Arnold Wayne Jones

Dallas Voice: Here’s something the librettist never hears: My favorite thing about Avenue Q is not actually on the cast recording, it’s the name of a character, Miss Thistletwat.  Jeff Whitty: Thank you. I was in Paris with one of the [French] producers and we had this great lunch with champagne at 1 in the afternoon and everything. I asked her, “How did you translate the name of Miss Thistletwat?” She got really embarrassed, but she told me; it would translate as, like, Miss Grassmuncher, which [is slang there] for lesbian.

I also love when Kate fingers Princeton. That’s the audience’s fault — they are putting that in, I don’t actually say it. There are actually only 13 swear words in Avenue Q, and they are carefully placed — like five “fucks”, one “pussy” and four “shits” …. By the way, I’ve seen four international productions of Avenue Q and Paris was the filthiest. Kate rimmed Princeton. Even to me, that’s a little much.

Since last year, you’ve opened two other musicals: Tales of the City and Bring It On, which is now in Dallas. I didn’t want to do another musical after Avenue Q after learning how hard they are. I said no to everything for quite a while. Then on a plane to London [while watching DVDs of the miniseries Tales of the City], suddenly a bolt of lightning struck that said there could be this really chewy, big musical made out this material. I know Jake Shears of Scissor Sisters [who co-wrote the score] and we opened last spring. The show was not finished and we didn’t have enough previews to nail it, but we’re figuring out what the next step for that show will be.

Your colleagues on Bring It On are composer-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda, who did the barrio hip-hop musical In the Heights, and Tom Kitt, who composed Next to Normal, a musical about mental illness. Who said, “Wow, those guys would make a great team to write a musical about cheerleading.” It’s a funny story, how that evolved. I have been wanting to do a cheerleading musical since 2004. Real athletic cheerleading is amazing to watch, if you see it on ESPN; plus, it has a built-in performance component that is so helpful in a musical. A cheerleading structure is perfect and it’s something you can see live that a lot of people haven’t.

My agent knew [of my interest] and told me about Bring It On; I said “Sign me up!” I’d never done a movie adaptation but I was totally onboard. Plus at the first meeting, the [producers] said they’d be interested in doing an original story instead of basing it on the first movie or one of the four [direct-to-video] sequels, so this was a huge opportunity. [Director] Andy Blankenbuehler had choreographed In the Heights [so he had worked with Lin-Manuel]. So that’s how that came together.

It’s a different style for you, too, not just Miranda and Kitt. Yes, Tales is full of angel dust, pot-smoking and child pornographers and Avenue Q is called the “potty-mouthed puppet musical.” So I really wanted to do a musical I could bring my nieces to. There are these warnings of sexual content, but really?

All three of the musicals have been excruciating. You have to get all of these disparate parts to have this one sensibility and have cohesion. I was working with great collaborators [in Bring It On], people I loved to be in the room with. When they start to click they are truly exciting. It’s been a great

Here’s a very gay question: Among you, Miranda and Kitt, who has the bigger Tony Award? You ever whipped ’em out and compared? They actually made the stand bigger since I won! But I’d say Tom [Kitt] wins, because he has a Pulitzer, too.

Where do you keep your Tony?  I have this trophy collection I pick up from flea markets — weird, old stuff, like senior body building trophies. So my Tony sits among all those.

You’re the only gay guy on the creative team for Bring It On. Do you still like to gay it up? It is a musical, after all.  Absolutely, I always try to put gay characters in my shows. I didn’t wanna go with a cliché in Bring It On, but without giving anything away, you’ll see there’s a character there that’s definitely a first-of-her-kind in a musical. I found a fresh take.

This article appeared in the Dallas Voice print edition February 17, 2012.

—  Kevin Thomas

Rangers ‘It Gets Better’ petition gains steam

A while back we mentioned that online petitions had been launched at Change.org calling for both the Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboys to record “It Gets Better” videos.

At the time, the Rangers petition had only 124 signatures, but thanks in part to Equality Texas, which shared the link on Facebook earlier today, it’s now up to more than 1,700. (For those who are keeping track, that’s about 1,000 fewer than a recently-gone-viral petition at Change.org calling for Sesame Street‘s Bert and Ernie to wed. )

The Cowboys petition isn’t faring so well, languishing at only 57 signatures. Still, that’s better than the three people who’ve signed a petition — launched since our previous report — calling for the NBA champion Dallas Mavericks to record an “It Gets Better” video. (It would help if the folks starting these petitions would at least include the team logo.) We were unable to find any petition related to the Dallas Stars.

Anyhow, we’ve put a message in to John Blake, the Rangers’ executive vice president of communications, to find out whether the Rangers are aware of the petition or plan to record an “It Gets Better” video.

Meanwhile, the St. Petersburg Times reports that the Tampa Bay Rays will become the ninth Major League Baseball team to film an “It Gets Better” video later this month. (And, by the way, those teams include the one with the very best record in the league, my Philadelphia Phillies.)

—  John Wright

Mything the mark

Puppets rule in ‘Mount Olympus,’ but the effect ends up wooden

Theatre TooJeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Puppets and theater don’t come to mind often, save for Avenue Q. That Broadway hit knew how to mix its Sesame Street-like puppets with a contemporary storyline.

Theatre Three’s world premiere of Bruce Coleman’s Tales of Mount Olympus tweaks the idea using puppetry to tell the classic stories of gods and monsters from Greek mythology. Coleman, who wrote, directed and designed Mount Olympus, exudes innovation. He mentioned that this show is a built of worldly components of theater. The Greek myths are narrated in American storytelling fashion with Hungarian black lights and Japanese Bunraku puppetry. If only as a whole, they all worked.

The show begins with more primitive puppets. Gaia, or Earth, was a large globe with her face painted on and rotated thanks to the actor in black. Her husband, Uranus, was an interestingly constructed creature made up of Christmas lights. Ultimately though, they came off as school craft projects. This remained the same for the following set of gods, Cronus and Rhea.

Two-dimensional pedestals with large heads depicted the married couple while actors from behind emoted with their hands. When Rhea gives birth, her babies are delivered by a magnificent puppet of of a bird in beautifully done Day-Glo feathers to Cronus who ate them for fear they would revolt and overthrow his power. There is some injected humor here as he burps after each devouring and the bird acts as a busybody telling everyone’s business, but there is nothing compelling here. Actors don’t voice the characters. Instead, they are pre-recorded and acted out. This is more of a disconnect than an effective too, but more on that later.

Before long, we are introduced to the glorious puppets of the gods. We see Aphrodite borne from her shell albeit not nude. Coleman initially planned for that bit of nudity, but construction became an issue. Hades, Poseidon, Hera and others are all brought out in striking puppet form. The faces are bold and can be seen clearly from each seat and two actors control most of the characters with one as the brain, and the other as the body.

Zeus however is part of the stage. His huge face is depicted on a wall with a moveable jaw like Big Tex. Understandably, it depicts his grandiose standing, but it’s also underwhelming. When he speaks, the bottom of his beard scrapes the floor and distracts from everything else.

Act 1 has been filled to the brim with more Greek stories before intermission. The tale of Aphrodite infidelity to Hephaestus by her affair with Ares and Persephone’s trip to the Underworld to become Hades’ wife all play out before the break and feel a little rushed.

The first half lacks any emotional punch and the visuals wear off quickly despite the detailed construction of the sets and puppets. Coleman did allow for humor so there are moments when a puppet is actually funny by way of a gesture or the shakes. When two gods give a high five in Act 2, it’s a priceless, hilarious moment.

Theater Three
Jeffrey Schmidt | Theatre3Dallas.com

Thankfully, this is where Olympus redeems itself somewhat. By telling the whole tale of Perseus and Andromeda (or for the cinematic-minded, Clash of the Titans), there is time to get invested into the characters as Perseus sets out to save Andromeda from the Kracken. The innovation explodes here. When Perseus meets Pegasus, the winged horse provides a gasp of wow and although Medusa isn’t as threatening as she needs to be, it is an inspired piece of work they created. I don’t want to give too much away — either in the Kracken’s appearance or Cerberus’ the three-headed dog — but there is some room for surprise in the show, even if they are small ones.

Act 2 may stick with you, but the show won’t. The play feels much more like a production intended for school-age children, which is hard to reconcile with Theatre Three’s usual professional standards. The recorded narration is also miscast, as the voices are never powerful enough. Zeus should ring through the stage, but instead sounds far from almighty-ness. Actors could have possibly voiced the characters with more depth and emotion but the choice to go with recorded narration takes away from the dramatics. I wanted so much more from this show, which I would have gotten if I was a whole lot younger.

Tales from Mount Olympus at Theatre Three (in the Theatre Too space), 2800 Routh St., Suite 168. Through Nov. 28. $20–$30.  214-871-3300. Theatre3Dallas. com.

—  Rich Lopez