The Daily Heller: One Helluva Wild Party

Posted inThe Daily Heller

The Wild Party by Joseph Moncure March was published as a narrative poem in 1928. The poem tells the story of Queenie and her actor lover Burrs, who decide to have a party, complete with illegal bathtub gin and the couple’s colorful, eccentric and egocentric friends. But the party unfolds with more tumultuous goings-on than planned.

Art Spiegelman revived interest in the poem when he published a newly illustrated version in 1999. Around the same time, two musical productions were in the works. Andrew Lippa wrote the book, music and lyrics for a 2000 off-Broadway version while Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe launched another musical starring Toni Collette in her Broadway debut.

Producer Jeffrey Seller planned on bringing the award-winning off-Broadway production uptown to the Great White Way. He contacted Drew Hodges and Mark Burdett of SpotCo, creator of posters for RENT, Avenue Q, In The Heights and more, to do the graphic design. The ambitious result, art directed by Kevin Brainard and photographed in luscious black and white by Ellen von Unwerth, involved showing the entire cast acting out the debauchery of the poem.

“It was the best photoshoot Spot has ever done,” said Hodges.

It was “the sexist Broadway cast shoot that never saw the light of day,” added Brainard, who has made an online archive of the full set of 29 images.

The Lippa production won the 2000 Drama Desk Award for Outstanding Music, the Outer Critics Circle Award for Outstanding Off-Broadway Musical; Lucille Lortel Awards for Scenic, Costume and Lighting Design; and the 1999–2000 Obie Award for Best Choreography.

And now, for the first time since the original shoot, here is a selection of images from the all-day photo-orgy, with commentary by Hodges and Brainard—who also break down why the photos were never released.

How was the shoot accomplished?
Kevin Brainard: We did the shoot with the full cast at Nell’s, turning it into a 1920s speakeasy. It was amazing. Like a time machine. Every detail was considered, down to the matches on the table. We did not have a shot list—but there was the full cast in costume, there was booze, and photographer Ellen von Unwerth. Ellen was a whirlwind, running around with two assistants holding lights and shooting from the hip. A couple hours in, I switched the music and started with Prince’s “Sexy Mother Fucker.” All hell broke loose. Clothes started flying off, the cast was full on making out, pulling each other’s clothes off, candle wax was poured onto bodies. Ellen was constantly yelling, “Get naked!” It truly turned into a wild party.

Drew Hodges: We wanted to shoot a real party—kind of “method.” Everyone was, of course, in character and costume—but we took it further. As I recall there was real champagne, and Ellen Von Unwerth was literally being pulled around by the back of her belt through the “party,” room to room, situation to situation. I think her assistant did the pulling, although it might have been me or Kevin? I think it was the most “method” shoot I ever did—we were not looking at images on a monitor—there was no fourth wall. Ellen was just like a guest at a party, shooting constantly.

What were the pluses and hazards of doing it?
Hodges: I guess the hazard was we did not have a comp to match or a storyboard image we were creating. We were waiting to see what came out of the shoot. The actors were cast so well, the characters were so clear in the story, to both the actors and the production team. The obvious plus was Ellen. We had had a lot of success using the very best photographers in the world for Broadway (ultimately Max Vadukal, Amy Guip, David La Chapelle, Andrew Eccles, Len prince, Uli weber, John Dugdale, Brigitte LaCombe, Richard Avedon [stock]). No one had done this before us in the history of Broadway. That meant that budgets were bigger and so were risks. But it was completely fresh for the photographers and they responded with excitement. 

Brainard: This was my first large-scale shoot. I had developed a poster for client approval using a pre-existing photo by Ellen von Unwerth. But we did not have a shot list—which is crazy! Thinking back, I don’t remember being even a little bit nervous. Maybe it was because Spot—and Drew—were so nurturing that I felt no fear. Maybe it was because I knew Drew had my back. Or maybe because Jeffrey Seller—literally the best client ever—was always willing to take risks, and a leap of faith.

The short answer: giant shoot, big budget, full cast, rock star photographer, everything on the line, no plan.

How closely did it follow the actual book? 
Hodges: All the stories and characters matched the book 100%, as far as I recall. 

Why didn’t it see daylight (or Broadway light)?
Hodges: There were two interpretations of the same source material, two Wild Parties in the same season trying to come to Broadway. I begged them both to change the name of one—neither would blink. It was totally unheard of. The other production made it to Broadway based on reviews (and possibly foolhardiness), and a star, Toni Collette. And our Wild Party did not go to Broadway. These images were—mostly—meant for the Broadway campaign. Andrew Lippa’s Wild Party is still considered a legendary score and production. So many people in it became bigger and bigger stars. But at the time, we built a huge, beautiful, first-class campaign, and then the show did not move from off-Broadway to Broadway—so the images never ran. Jeffrey Seller, the lead producer and arguably the most successful producer in the last 30 years, considers it his favorite work we ever made together.

Who was involved in the conception, production and execution?
Brainard: Here is an excerpt from the SpotCo book From Rent to Revolution. This is Andrew Lippa’s recollection of approving the key art we developed:

“What color should the set be? There we were, with three painted panels placed on the empty stage of Manhattan Theatre Club’s Stage 1, comparing puke green, something vaguely blue and, finally, orange-y red? The production team was discussing the monochromatic notion of the set for the original production of The Wild Party and how it would all be painted with the same color wash.

“Oh well, off to a meeting at SpotCo to see what they had cooked up for the marketing and advertising. Getting a show poster of your very own show reminds me of high school when I had posters of Evita and 42nd Street on my wall. I arrive at the meeting and what do I see?  The color of the set. No, not puke green or vague blue. Dried blood. This, my friends, was it. This was the color our set should be and SpotCo told us how to do it.”

What happened to the end result?
Brainard: Besides a musical soundtrack released on CD, it went in a flat file drawer. There were test prints from Ellen of everyone’s favorite images. The thought was all the rest would be used in the Broadway campaign that never happened.