West Coast Premiere of The Fabulous Lipitones

The Fabulous Lipitones will premiere at The Colony Theatre in Burbank, CA July 25 – August 23, 2015.

The Colony Theatre has announced the plays for its 2015-2016 season. The multi-Ovation Award-winning theatre company will be bringing its subscribers and audiences five World, West Coast, or California premieres, including a World Premiere one-woman show starring Patty Duke as Mary Todd Lincoln, and a World Premiere musical based on stories by Damon Runyon, with the music of Frank Loesser.

Read the full article in American Theatre

Virginia Premiere of The Fabulous Lipitones

The Fabulous Lipitones will premiere in Virginia Rep’s Barksdale Season at Hanover Tavern September 18th to November 1st, 2015. Visit the Hanover Tavern for a season that includes lighthearted favorites, brand spanking new comedies and memorable musicals. Join us in sharing a wholesome and hearty laugh.

An Interview with John Markus from Goodspeed Musicals

What is your vision for The Fabulous Lipitones? Tell us about your inspirations.

JOHN MARKUS: Growing up in London, Ohio (pop. 6,000), I have held on to a nostalgia for the traditional leanings of the Midwest. My family is Jewish—the only in that town—but I played clarinet in small bands at Methodist church socials and Presbyterian cake walks. As an “other” who became a comedy writer, I cannot help but embrace and consider the darker lining of these traditions. The idea of enjoying while at the same time challenging everything old-fashioned appeals to me. Our vision was to celebrate, and yet shake up, the cultural comfort zone of these characters.

Talk a bit about the collaboration and how the show came about.

JM: Mark and I first worked together twenty years ago when I brought him in to write episodes of “The Cosby Show.” From the get-go, he struck me as a writer’s writer, someone capable of hatching the big idea, with the discipline and prodigious gifts to execute it. We’ve collaborated on and off over the years, but two years ago he began semi-harassing me with phone calls broadly outlining a piece set in the world of competition barbershop, centered around a quartet losing its prized member. I didn’t see it then, but the calls kept coming. To get them to stop, I drove to his home in Pound Ridge where we parked ourselves at a picnic table in his backyard and fleshed out what became The Fabulous Lipitones. Writing this play with him has been one of the most joyous creative experiences of my career. But I do miss getting those calls.

What stage of development is the show in now?

JM: Mark and I are absolutely thrilled to be developing our musical at this storied theatre company. We’ve been working the script for eighteen months now, and the story keeps producing opportunities to deepen its intent. From here, we hope to see the creative goal posts, so to speak. With director Gordon Greenberg and the top-notch cast and crew that will assemble, we hope to sharpen the play and find all the funny. My work in television has indoctrinated me to the World of Rewrite, and the atmosphere at Goodspeed will help us fully realize the play. Who knows where The Fabulous Lipitones will travel, but my hope is that, with this pedigree, our musical can eventually be enjoyed all over the country. Especially in places like the town in which I grew up.

Tell us what you hope to accomplish here at Goodspeed.

JM: My training is to never spoon feed an audience with messages. Our goal is to make an audience laugh at the characters and situations, and that they’ll find both to be truthful. I would hope that, leaving the theater, they’ll feel something they innately understand—that, even though the road to finding harmony with others can be bumpy and discouraging, it is nearly always worth it. And for me, I want to subtly suggest that deep down we are all “others,” who yearn only to belong.

An Interview with John Markus from WHAT

WHAT: Do you see the stories we tell as a catalyst for change?

John Markus: When we have prejudice or we are set in our ways,
it’s because we’ve chosen to believe a narrow set of truths. We would rather go with what we know. It’s psychically painful to go with what we don’t know. A story can lead you gently into new territory. If you find the story engaging and you like the people and you identify with their dilemma, you’ll travel places you’ve never gone. I think change happens when we see we don’t have to be afraid of something different. That our worst fears don’t come to fruition. It’s a way to gently nudge people into seeing new things, without being worried about them.

Does comedy help people get there?

JM: If you can evoke laughter from either recognition or surprise, you can coax people into the journey you want them to take. They will give you that. An audience will allow you to take them someplace if along the way you deliver satisfying side posts. Comedy gets you to that destination, of recognizing something you may not have thought about before. Acceptance can come from giving people the rewards of laughing at their journey.

How did your own community frame your views?

JM: I grew up in the only Jewish family in London, Ohio. I have a very positive memory of my childhood,
but there was always a feeling of “the other” that was subtle. Because I came from a small town, what I always wanted to recreate in my work is the idea of community. You can say that a subculture is a community, within a larger community. For me, community is essential for nourishment. I can’t get the small town out of me. After 29 years living in New York City, if I’m walking down the street and I hear a horn honk, I think it’s someone who knows me. Which can be very distracting when you live in Manhattan. In today’s multi-ethnic society, the old “birds of a feather” isn’t true anymore. All kinds of different feathers are flocking together. You can share a community and a subculture with people who have the same love that you have. Like Barbershop.

Did you know much about barber- shop before The Fabulous Lipitones?

JM: I was a musician into my thirties. I played in a polka band in Ohio and I had a Dixieland band. We called the woman who was my babysitter where I grew up Grandma Kaveney. When my mom and dad wanted to go out on a Saturday night, she’d ship us across the street to Grandma Kaveney. Grandma Kaveney made the best Johnny Marzetti – which is ground beef casserole with elbow macaroni. We weren’t allowed to have our ground beef casserole until we watched Lawrence Welk with her. I came to love the show. The whole milieu of the music and the time and the craft of the musicianship. That was it. I embarrass myself with my love of this.

As director, will you be making any changes to this production?

JM: This is my debut as a director. In television comedy, the head writer hires the director and works with the director. So I’ve never officially been called one, but I’ve done it. The idea of having my debut on your stage is exciting. We have a chance to deepen the characters and deepen their relationships and put a little curlycue on the froth of some of the comedy. It’s all the training I had in television. There’s opportunities to make it more human and more real.

Lipitones Q & A from The George Street Playhouse

You and Mark St. Germain have worked together before. How did this production come about?

JM: When Mark came on board The Cosby Show over 20 years ago to write scripts, we struck up a friendship. He’s now transitioned into a busy and successful playwriting career – I refer to him as a “writers’ writer” – and we have stayed in touch. We’re both attracted to Mid- west themes and we share a predilection toward celebrating and sending up those traditional values. Mark began by contact- ing me with a premise: tell the story of a long-time barbershop quartet, where, somehow, the lead singer dies in the first scene. Who’d replace him? How would the others accept a new member? I didn’t bite at first, but several conversations later, I relented and drove to his home in Pound Ridge, NY, where we sat at a picnic table in his backyard. I spend considerable time riding around in taxicabs in Manhattan, and without giving anything away, my “back seat” impressions became the key to unlocking the story of The Fabulous Lipitones.

Did you know much about barbershop before The Fabulous Lipitones?

JM: Across the cobblestone street where I grew up lived a 70-something Irish widow – “Grandma Kaveney.” When my mom and dad wanted to go out on a Saturday night, they’d ship my twin brother and me to “Grandma’s” brick house to be babysat. Grandma Kaveney, whose husband had been our town’s fire chief, made the most scrumptious Johnny Marzetti casserole – a delicious concoction of Midwestern ground beef, mixed with tomato, cheddar cheese, and elbow macaroni. (Also referred to as “Train Wreck.”) But Grandma Kaveney always withheld this beloved treat until we agreed to join her for The Lawrence Welk Show. Over the years, I came to love this creaky, bubbly, 99% wholesome variety show. The whole milieu of fine musician- ship, the craft of harmony and song, just grabbed me. I was only nine years old then – too young to be nostalgic. Yet, I started to learn the clarinet, devoting myself to mastering the music of the big bands of the 30’s and 40’s. Today, I embarrass myself with how much I still appreciate it.

This production incorporates several changes over previous versions of the show. What have you learned during the development process?

JM: Mark St. Germain and I have been on a two-year long journey developing The Fabulous Lipitones, both in workshops and in live performance. We’ve been listening intently to reactions from “the people.” Our compass in terms of fleshing out the play has not been to add more “jokes,” per se, but instead to deepen our characters and gel the story. Over time, we have discovered the personal music each character longs for, his individual backstory, his dreams and flaws, all which have furthered character. I can honestly say that Mark and I have become quite smitten with these dudes, and we’ve given them every chance to present as authentic and compelling characters. Our director, Michael Mastro, also a gifted actor, has contributed invaluable input to the show.

How did your own community frame your views?

JM: I grew up in London, Ohio, population 6000, and we were the only Jewish family in that small farm town. I have mostly pleasant memories of living in that Norman Rockwellian setting, but, all the while, I could never quite shake the feeling of being viewed as “The Other.” This was subtle for the most part, yet ever-present. And because I still view my youth through a nostalgic lens, I have always wanted to recreate, in my work, the message of community. One could say that a subculture, such as a barbershop quartet, is a commu- nity. And community, by nature, involves intimacy. For me, this intimacy is essential in everything I write. Even now in middle age, I can’t escape my small town roots. I’ve lived in Manhattan for 30 years and when I walk down a city street and hear the honk of a car horn, I assume it’s someone who knows me. This can be highly distracting when you live among 8 million people! Today’s America, including even the rural Midwest, is considerably more multi-ethnic. The old “birds of a feather” community no longer exists. Yes, bigotry is alive and well in the U.S., but it is less evident within the melting pot. Even in rural London, Ohio, the entire United Nations is essentially represented. You can share a community and subculture with “others” who simply share your passions. Fewer and fewer people are experiencing a real sense of cultural isolation.

Do you see the stories we tell as a catalyst for change?

JM: Prejudiced people remain cemented in their ways when they cling stubbornly to a narrow set of truths. For some, this is simply fear. Even while the world changes around them, people will perpetuate lies rather than venture into the threatening arena of acceptance. A compelling story, however, can lead us all into new territory. If the tale engages, and we identify with the characters’ dilemmas, we willingly “travel” to all sorts of destinations we’d normally avoid. That’s when change occurs: when we learn that none of our fears are realized. If a story makes us laugh and engages us, it gently nudges
us towards a fresh view of the world and dissolves all prejudice. Hmm, do I sound as if I’ve had a little psychotherapy?

Does comedy help people get there?

JM: If a story evokes consistent laughter and genuine enthusiasm from an audience, it can coax people into any journey. For
six years, Bill Cosby always coached me on how to deliver our show’s message by “sneaking in through the backdoor, and not spoon feeding the people.” He talked about how laughter would be the audience’s reward for taking that journey with you.

George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick

The Fabulous Lipitones at The George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick, presented November 18 – December 14, 2014. Starring Donald Corren, Wally Dunn, Rohan Kymal and Jim Walton. Photos by T Charles Erickson.