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.