12 February 2015

Interview: Ryan Mercy & Christopher Barnes on Unauthorized! The Musical Parody

The (extremely) creative team: Barnes & Mercy

Watching That ’80s Time Travel Movie, the premiere production in the Unauthorized! Musical Parody series at New York’s People’s Improv Theater last fall, I’d never have guessed that the show had been written, cast, rehearsed and produced in barely one month — for one night only. From the polished young cast to the infectious score to the ingenious staging, I had every reason to believe I’d wandered into an Off-Broadway hit that had been running at least three months. Subsequent shows — Steel Petunias and Ghostcatchers, likewise written and produced in just a month each — confirmed my impression. Sure, you gotta get a gimmick, but this wasn’t mere gimmickry. Something special was going on here. Cheering audiences and a sold-out box office obviously agreed with me.

As of last Friday, the Unauthorized! shows have begun playing in repertory at the PIT, with new shows slated to enter the cycle over the next several months. Each will parody a beloved Hollywood movie, each will be assembled in about five weeks, most are expected to feature what’s become an ad-hoc rep company of actors, and all are written by composer Ryan Mercy and lyricist Christopher Barnes, who also directs, and produced by Ronny Pascale.

“We’re calling it musical-theater boot camp,” Mercy says, and Barnes agrees. “We just watched the Sondheim documentary [Six by Sondheim], and he said the way you learn is to write something, then put it up,” Barnes says. With other original material, they’d been through workshops; valuable though those experiences were, they culminated in readings, not fully staged productions. Lacking high-profile connections, Mercy and Barnes had begun to despair of ever getting their big break. Now they’re refining their artistic goals and discovering what does and doesn’t work for an audience.

Because that audience votes on the source material for the next show, Barnes compares the experience to TV’s Project Runway, “because these aren’t shows we would have wanted to write, and yet we’re finding our voices and finding our passion. It’s like, ‘Okay, show writers, this week you have to write Ghostbusters, make it work.’”

All-singing! All-dancing! All-time-traveling!
The cast of That ’80s Time Travel Movie

That said, the team hedges its bets a little by proposing movies they actually like for the audience to vote on. Their affection for the material shows. After That ’80s Time Travel Movie, Barnes remembers, “one compliment we got was that there was nothing mean about what we did. I think it’s because we love the movie. We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage.”

Given the extraordinary proliferation of movie-based musicals on New York stages in recent years — when even documentaries like Grey Gardens and Hands on a Hardbody wind up (brilliantly) on Broadway — the practice Mercy and Barnes are getting at the PIT could come in handy, and it was Pascale who suggested they give movie parodies a try. “I don’t think we ever watch a movie without thinking, ‘Oh, that should be a musical,’” Barnes says, and Mercy adds, “I think a painter paints and we write musicals. We’re always thinking in the vocabulary of musical theater. It’s in our blood.”

Each show has posed its own challenges. That ’80s Time Travel Movie not only brings a DeLorean to the stage, it turns the car into a singing, dancing character. Ghostcatchers raised the thorny questions of how to spoof a spoof, and how to make a musical out of a story in which the characters don’t experience emotions “too strong to express in words,” Mercy says. “It was up to us to find moments where there was enough dramatic tension for a song to erupt.”

Steel Magnolias contains one obvious moment for a song: M’Lynn’s emotional breakdown at the funeral of her daughter, Shelby. The scene earned Sally Field an Oscar nomination, but the Unauthorized! team was “terrified that the audience wouldn’t go to that sad place after all that silliness,” Barnes says. They were prepared to cut the number if it didn’t work in performance. But on opening night, there was scarcely a dry eye in an audience that, seconds earlier, had been howling at the catty comedy and Southern-fried parody scenes.

“It’s surprising when people say, ‘Oh, I can’t wait to see how you make fun of Sally Field in her breakdown.’ For us, that’s too easy,” Mercy says. “Why would we make fun of that? Why would we be negative about a scene in classic cinema? We want to put our own stamp on it. Without plagiarizing!”

Shelby, drink your juice!
The women of Steel Petunias

Revisiting their scripts in preparation for the repertory revivals, the authors are making improvements. Steel Petunias ran long, and “for the first run, we just threw everything to the wall to see what would stick,” Mercy admits. “We flailed a little bit to figure out song moments for that one, but now I’m very confident that every song in that show is necessary and a good choice.” “I do believe that anybody who saw the first two-and-a-half-hour show, if they were a Steel Magnolias fan, they got a good show,” Barnes says. “But now we’ve got it where anybody can enjoy it.”*

They’re learning that “What makes the show is what’s necessary,” not what they think audiences will expect from a popular film. “We try to basically take what we love about a movie and put it on the stage,” Barnes says, and that approach involves less outright mockery and more “heightening,” as he and Mercy call it. For example, when their Marty McFly realizes that his mother is coming on to him, he’s not merely freaked out, he nearly throws up, ulping steadily for an entire scene. Mercy’s music steers the audience to the right response to a given scene, too, whether it’s Doc Brown’s rap number or M’Lynn’s extended scena.

It helps to have talented actors to put across their material. Barnes and Mercy were bartenders at the PIT, not bigshots, yet when they posted the audition for That ’80s Time Travel Movie, they fielded what Barnes calls “an all-star cast, right from the start,” and many have returned for more than one show. Most have a background in improv and sketch comedy, which proves a boon in several ways. Since most cast members are working on multiple shows simultaneously, rehearsal time is limited and plenary attendance is rare. Quick wits can cover a flubbed line in ways the audience will never notice (one reason I could believe they’d been performing the play for months); and sketch actors can take a line of direction like “stand there,” and “make it look like it makes sense,” Barnes says, “which is crazy.”

The actors are “also calm in a way that’s really nice,” Mercy says. “We’re the ones who freak out about our timeline, and they’re so used to putting on a show in three days that they’re like, ‘Oh, relax, we’ve got plenty of time.’” Moreover, cast member Adrian Sexton marvels, “Everybody likes each other, everybody gets along.”

Let’s hope I’m not jinxing anything by publishing that. It’s a team of champions and I hate to single out anybody — but so far I’ve been especially impressed by the versatility shown in multiple roles by Sexton, Kathleen Armenti, Julie Feltman, Dana Shulman, Jane Kehoe, Brian Hansbury, Aubrey Kyburz, Daniel Yawitz, and Kevin Sean, all of whom seem capable of fielding anything Mercy and Barnes throw their way. Though Matt Rogers, Stephanie Holmes, Pat Swearingen, Rachel Scherer, Jeff Scherer, and Kevin McLean haven’t appeared in quite as many roles, I’ve also found much to admire in their performances.

They fear no ghosts. Not even ghosts of critics.
The cast of Ghostcatchers.

Partners outside as well as inside the theater, Mercy and Barnes have had to learn to collaborate with others and to delegate. “We are control freaks,” Mercy says, “but we’re also on an insanely tight schedule, so it’s hard to outsource.” When Julia Darden offered to build several of the puppets for Ghostcatchers, Barnes “was fully prepared mentally to have to redo those puppets the night before the show,” he says. “But she did it in time, and they looked amazing.” Having proved herself with Steel Petunias, Shongedzai Matangira is “pretty much our go-to costume person now,” and she’s also played a lead role in Ghostcatchers and taken on some publicity duties, as well.

Perhaps their most valued collaborator is Christine Pynn. “Her title is production manager,” Mercy explains. “But really what she does for us is make sure the tech aspects of the show run smoothly.” Despite the limited lighting options, “She can do some amazing stuff from that booth,” Barnes observes, and the actors adore her.

Oh, and about those puppets. They’re part of Barnes’ translations of the movies’ special effects to the stage, using tricks that he calls “cheesy” or “geeky-dorky” but that bespeak his background in magic and are often breathtaking in their imagination. The DeLorean is one example, and the flaming tracks it leaves behind are another. The beloved Slimer of Ghostbusters is here a glorious glob of a slob made out of insulation foam and green paint. Steel Magnolias may not have had special effects, but Steel Petunias does, most notably a 15-foot-tall devil made out of old scripts and packing tape. (See photo below.)

There’s method in that magic. “When we saw Xanadu on Broadway, it was fun,” Barnes says, and like the Unauthorized! shows, Xanadu parodied a movie. “But I thought, ‘Why did I pay Broadway prices and there’s no spectacle, no giant disco ball?’”

“I would say Chris is a new generation P.T. Barnum,” Mercy adds. “I think he’s a showman before anything else. That’s where the magic background plays into it. If we’re going to put you in a room for an hour and a half, we want to give you a show that’s something you’re going to talk about.”

To learn more about Unauthorized! and upcoming performances, check Facebook or Instagram. You can also see the PIT’s complete roster of performances by clicking here.

Satan in the Bible Belt:
A scene from Steel Petunias.

*NOTE: I’m not at all a Steel Magnolias fan, yet I found Steel Petunias perfectly entertaining the first time around — and I’m looking forward to the revival.

1 comment:

Anne said...

Wonderful post. Barnes & Mercy give me alot of hope for the creative future . They joyfully run past all the barriers common sense would say are before them ...finding once they start to lead, others rally round. Great. I think it's interesting the audience is disoriented by there being nothing mean in the shows ...lol Well that is different...These guys might start a trend