From rural nightmare to rock opera
by Seth Rogovoy

(NORTH ADAMS, Mass., June 19, 2003) – A few years ago, the bohemian New York City couple John Flansburgh and Robin Goldwasser – he of They Might Be Giants fame, she a singer/actress, playwright and mainstay of the downtown “Loser’s Lounge” performance collective – took the grown-up step of buying a country house in the Catskills.

The ensuing clash of city-bred values and country living inspired the plot line of “People Are Wrong,” a new rock musical co-written by Goldwasser and Julia Greenberg and starring Flansburgh as an unwitting yuppie preyed upon by a charismatic cult leader disguised as a landscape artist, played by David Driver of “Rent” fame.

The musical, which will be staged on Saturday night at 8 in the Hunter Center at Mass MoCA, grew out of a parlor game at the Flansburgh/Goldwasser country retreat.

“There was a dinner party at our house and there was a something called the Poetry Game being played, like Exquisite Corpse, in which you pass a paper around and generate couplets about the previous dinner conversation,” said Flansburgh in a recent phone interview from his Catskills house.

“It involved all types of country living things, and Robin and Julia started writing songs based on these couplets. As unlikely as that sounds, that really is how the show got started. The show now is everything exaggerated to mythic proportions and stakes, artificially raised to maximize the tension-making devices. But it really started in that classic way, sitting around and saying, ‘Let’s write a show.’”

Between them, there was plenty of show-making talent to go around. Goldwasser and Greenberg – who appear in the show as the manager of the local Agway and the yuppie wife, respectively -- have dual careers in the rock and theater world. In addition to his work with They Might Be Giants, the long-running, alternative rock band that performed a memorable concert at Mass MoCA a little over a year ago, the Grammy Award-winning Flansburgh is a multi-media artist who worked with the performance art group Watchface in the late-1980s.

Flansburgh described his creative input into the show as “kibitzing” some of the songs and co-writing others. He also produced the original demonstration recordings.

“It was strange doing this,” he said. “We did one show and were immediately bombarded with unknown parties interested in taking it to the next level. It’s a whole new world on Broadway and off-Broadway now. The shows that succeed are unusual and have an edge to them, like ‘Hairspray’ and ‘Movin’ Out,’ reflecting that the audiences have really changed. They’re significantly younger than they used to be. People don’t necessarily want everything to be a revival. They want to see a new show that reflects their point of view. It’s a long way from Irving Berlin.”

Although he could not provide details, Flansburgh said that plans are in place for the show to be produced next year in New York for an extended run in “a legitimate theater.”

The current production is directed by Obie Award-winner David Herskovits, whose credits include “Momba’s Daughters” at the Spoleto Festival, David Soldier’s “The Naked Revolution,” based on the work of visual artists Komar and Melamid, and “The Sandman,” an opera Herskovits co-wrote.

Fleshing out the cast are Maggie Moore of “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” and Driver, both of whom also work with the Loser’s Lounge, a loose-knit collaborative that periodically stages cabarets paying tribute to classic rock songwriters like Elvis Costello and XTC.

“It’s the ultimate talent night,” said Flansburgh, “where everyone gets up and sings some classic rock song. It’s a really great group of singers and an opportunity to share the stage with others you might never have the opportunity to meet. This is a way the entire downtown New York music scene has been cross-pollinated.”

The eclectic esthetic of Loser’s Lounge informs the music in the totally sung-through “People Are Wrong.” Flansburgh said it also recalls the early days of attempts at rock opera, most notably “Jesus Christ Superstar,” which like “People Are Wrong,” began life as an album of songs that told a story, and then became a stage show.

“A lot of the musical impulses and the way the music works with the story reminds me of ‘Jesus Christ Superstar’ and ‘Hair.’ It’s very different from a classic musical. In some ways it’s more like an opera than a musical with dialogue. The form fits the story somehow. There’s something very fable-like about the story.”

In “People Are Wrong,” the city transplants make the mistake of cutting down a maple tree that has deep spiritual significance for landscape designer Xanthus, played by Driver, at which point he extracts from them a demented revenge.

Flansburgh, who is as much a rock historian and curator as a creator himself, was initially suspicious about tackling the rock-opera genre, given the aesthetic failures of even its greatest successes.

“There’s something profoundly un-rock about most attempts at rock on Broadway,” said Flansburgh. “Listening to ‘Superstar’ now, it seems a little more pastiche-y than it did at the time. There’s an applied rock thing to it. The people making it are not natural rockers.

“That’s what’s different here. This is by people who really get rock, but who are really invested in both sides of the musical mission. The writers and the cast love musical theater in a sincere way. Robin went to theater camp. Julia went to the High School of Performing Arts in New York. These are people who grew up with the musical theater in their life in a very primary way, but they also are rock and roll people with their own rock bands. It’s a natural thing. It’s not a stretch for them. They’re not rock people trying to pretend to make a musical and not musical people trying to rock out. That’s where so many shows fall short.

“It’s an experiment. On paper, I don’t think anything I’ve ever been involved in works. They Might Be Giants totally shouldn’t work. It’s a balancing act. But when you get into it, the payoff can be tremendous. The risks are much higher. But if it works, it’s really awesome.”

[This article originally appeared in the Berkshire Eagle on June 20, 2003. Copyright Seth Rogovoy 2003. All rights reserved.]

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