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Literature / The Wild Party

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"Burrsie, I think we're about due for a party."note 

Queenie was a blonde, and her age stood still,
And she danced twice a day in vaudeville.
The opening lines of the poem and both musicals

An epic poem by Joseph Moncure March, written in and about The Roaring '20s. In the story, two vaudeville performers, Queenie (a dancer) and Burrs (a clown) begin a lustful romance and move into a Manhattan apartment together. After a while, however, the lust wears off and Queenie decides to throw a party to shake things up. The guest list includes many colorful characters: Madelaine True, a lesbian; Dolores, a Mexican hooker; Eddie, a dim boxer and his even dimmer wife Mae; Oscar and Phil d'Armano, two flamboyantly gay brothers; Jackie, a bisexual dancer; and Nadine, a minor. Things start to get hot when Queenie's friend Kate arrives with a charmer named Black, who catches Queenie's eye and sparks Burrs' jealousy.

Considered extremely racy for its time, it wasn't allowed to be published until two years after it was written, and even then with only a very limited run (750 copies). The Wild Party was adapted into a poorly-received film in 1975 (which tried to work in elements of the Fatty Arbuckle scandal), and two musicals in 2000, one on Broadway (by Michael John LaChiusa) and one off-Broadway (by Andrew Lippa).

Lippa's version is closer in plot to March's poem and keeps the focus on the Love Triangle, and features modern pop/rock orchestrations. LaChiusa's departs from the original by fleshing out the Back Story and Character Development of the large cast, notably bringing aspects of March's poem "The Set Up" to boxer Eddie. This version incorporates many pastiches of the music and show business of The Roaring '20s.

Not to be confused with The Wild Party 1956 crime film starring Anthony Quinn, and probably unrelated to the The Wild Party 1929 film either.

Provides examples of the following:

  • Adaptational Backstory Change: Since the source material is a poem, the musicals have quite a lot of leeway to play around with the characters' backstories. Oddly enough, both musicals completely change some of the scant backstories the characters are given.
    • Jackie in the poem is a rebellious Preacher's Kid. The Lippa musical doesn’t mention his backstory at all but adds a plot point about his tongue having been cut out, while the LaChiusa version makes his father a high-class banker. Neither musical mentions his multiple prison terms for rape either, although he’s still a rapist in LaChiusa's play.
    • Mr. Black is stated to have an air of good breeding about him in the original, and he seems fairly unfamiliar with the world of the party's other guests. Neither musical stays very close to this description- Lippa's Black retains the "clueless newcomer" characterization, but he’s a nobody recently arrived from Chicago here. The LaChiusa Black is even further removed from his poem counterpart, as he’s Kate's lonely boy toy who is implied to live off the grace of whatever woman he’s seeing at the moment, making him something of a Spear Counterpart for Queenie herself.
  • All Musicals Are Adaptations: The 1994 reissue of the long-out-of-print poem directly inspired both LaChiusa and Lippa, resulting in the Dueling Shows. In Lippa's version, the trope also occurs in-universe when the brothers d'Armano announce their newly-written musical Good Heavens, which is based on The Bible.
  • Ambiguously Brown: Dolores claims to be Spanish although the poem says she is actually "somewhat Negro and a great deal Jew." Played by the less ambiguously brown Eartha Kitt (LaChiusa) and Kena Tangi Dorsey (Lippa).
  • Anything That Moves: The "ambisextrous" Jackie.
  • Ascended Extra: Dolores commands no more focus than any other guest in the original poem, and is decidedly forgettable in the Lippa, with no featured song and only a tiny smattering of dialogue. In the LaChiusa, however, she's given much more prominence and might well be considered foremost among the guests (setting aside Kate and Black). Probably it helped that the role was debuted by Eartha Kitt.
  • Attempted Rape: On the jailbait Nadine; in the poem the rapist is never named, LaChiusa makes it Jackie. (It can't be Jackie in the poem because he passes out cold immediately before the scene in question. However, in LaChiusa's version, the act comes across as... very much in-character for Jackie.)
  • Bad Girl Song: "Queenie was a Blonde" and "Look at Me Now" (for Kate) in the Lippa version. The LaChiusa has its own "Queenie was a Blonde", as well as, much later on, "Lowdown-Down" — which obviously doesn't serve to introduce Queenie and is much gentler than most songs of this type, but establishes exactly what she thinks about her own lifestyle.
  • Big Applesauce: Only in New York would you see a party quite like this.
  • Brother-Brother Incest: The Brothers d'Armano. Depends on the production; they may be Not Blood Siblings, but rather "brothers"note  in their show business act.
  • BSoD Song: Both musicals end with a song in which a shocked Queenie attempts to deal with the fact of Burrs' death. Lippa's "How Did We Come to This?" finds her at least coherent enough to deliver a damning indictment of this shallow life she and her friends have chosen, whereas the finale reprise of LaChiusa's "This Is What It Is" is a moment of absolute stunned horror, barely even melodic.
  • But Liquor Is Quicker
  • Camp Gay: Again, the Brothers d'Armano. And Jackie certainly qualifies as Camp Bisexual in the original and LaChiusa (not so much in the Lippa, where he's portrayed as mute.)
  • Ceiling Banger: The neighbor.
  • Composite Character: Sally, Madelaine True's blissed-out lover in the LaChiusa version. Marche's poem mentions a Sally as an afterthought among the guests, of whom we know only that she's accompanying a man who goes by Butter and Eggs, and that she was in the chorus of a musical. Later on, March describes another girl who sits "White:/Aloof:/Like stone", staring into the distance without a motion or a word, whom Madelaine True unsuccessfully approaches. It seems LaChiusa modelled his Sally after this character while borrowing the name from the other guest, which also makes this a very minor case of Promoted to Love Interest.
  • Crazy Jealous Guy: Burrs.
  • Crowd Song: Lippa's has a few, such as "The Juggernaut" and "A Wild, Wild Party".
  • Dark Reprise: From LaChiusa's version:
    • "Queenie was a Blonde" is first given a sensational, falsely enthusiastic reprise immediately after Burrs' death, but then Queenie's solo reiteration — tearful, confused and alone — qualifies as a proper Dark Reprise.
    • "Marie Is Tricky" appears first as Burr's vaudeville act; then it gets nasty when it returns in "How Many Women in the World".
    • The jaunty, fun tune "Dry", which introduces most of the guests, is reprised once by the menacing Burrs in "Gin", then by the entire company to hectic, desperate effect in "Wild".
    • Queenie's number "Welcome to My Party" is explicitly recalled by Burrs' spiteful, incisive "Welcome to Her Party" near the end.
    • During the aforementioned "Wild", you can hear Jackie repeat a line from his "I Am" Song, "Breezin' Through Another Day": "S'long as I keep a free hand...!" This is after he has seduced Oscar d'Armano and caused strife between the two brothers.
    • "Uptown", the d'Armano brothers' first ditty, is also reprised during "Wild" — no lyrics are repeated, but Oscar feigns cheerily playing through the chord progression while Phil explodes at him for his infidelity.
    • And "Eddie & Mae" is also given a Dark Reprise during "Wild" as the husband and wife fly into a screaming match. Yeah... "Wild" is a pretty dense number.
    • "A Little Mmm" deserves mention for being just about the only reprised song that isn't darker the second time around. It's more somber, but when the brothers d'Armano tenderly return to this melody during an interlude in "Golden Boy", it's because they're coming around to forgiveness and reconciliation.
    • "The Lights of Broadway", though it doesn't emerge as a full-fledged song until near the end of the show, was first divulged during Nadine's introduction in "Welcome to My Party". It's a bright, shiny, saccharine Broadway showtune par excellence... and when we hear her sing it in full, the sixteen-year-old girl is (according to the original production's staging) sitting on a bed snorting coke with Depraved Bisexual Jackie at his most wolfishly charming. That visual makes the entire number way more uncomfortable and foreboding.
    • And finally, "How Many Women in the World?" comes back for a brief reprise during the climax: slow, dark, and heavy with the intent to kill.
  • Depraved Bisexual: Jackie in the poem is a convicted rapist, and in the LaChiusa musical he attempts to rape Mae's inebriated teenage sister.
  • Destructive Romance: Queenie and Burrs' relationship is telegraphed as this virtually from the start, no matter which of the three versions you're looking at.
  • Distant Duet: In the Lippa version. Burrs' "What Is It About Her?" begins as a solo number, then Queenie joins in with a continuation of her immediately preceding "Maybe I Like It This Way", and by the end, they're both passing the "...About Her?" melody back and forth. They're meant to be in separate rooms the whole time.
  • Dueling Shows: Both musicals opened in New York in 2000 within two months of each other, and neither was very successful: the Broadway version lasted 68 performances, while the off-Broadway version lasted 54.
  • Dumb Blonde: Mae, in all versions (though she proves to have a mean streak in LaChiusa's).
  • The Eleven O'Clock Number: Dolores has "When It Ends" in the LaChiusa; Queenie has "How Did We Come to This?" in the Lippa
  • Ensemble Cast: makes both musicals very popular with university theatre programs.
  • Fiery Redhead: Kate's introduction in the poem describes her as a beautiful, but dangerous and capricious redhead who loves parties, dirty jokes, and men.
  • Friendship Song: "Best Friend" in the LaChiusa version, for Queenie & Kate, is the most vitriolic instance of this trope imaginable.
  • Grievous Bottley Harm: Black smashes a bottle over Eddie's head to knock him out when the boxer goes berserk (which is predicated by the Attempted Rape on Nadine in the poem, and by Burrs attacking Mae after mistaking her for Queenie in the Lippa).
  • Hard-Drinking Party Girl: Kate is an intense partier, guzzling both liquor and cocaine depending on the version. The Lippa version lends itself to a more manic, out-of-control interpretation of this trope, while the LaChiusa suggests a darker version, the type whose claws come out after a few drinks.
  • "The Hero Sucks" Song: The scathing "Welcome to Her Party" in the LaChiusa (by Burrs, on Queenie). Also, to a lesser extent, "Black is a Moocher" (by Kate, on Black): Kate admits that she does like/want/need Black for what he is, but what he is in her eyes is nothing but an amateur gigolo.
  • Huge Guy, Tiny Girl: Eddie and Mae.
  • "I Am Great!" Song: Lippa's Kate absolutely chews it up with both of her solo numbers, "Look at Me Now" and "The Life of the Party". A few of LaChiusa's characters also take time to express in song how awesome they are, particularly Jackie ("Breezin' Through Another Day") and Dolores ("Movin' Uptown").
  • I Call Him "Mr. Happy": One of the guests in Lippa's version is quick to correct Dolores about the proper name for his penis.
    Dolores: It's called Good Heavens!
    Man: Dolores, I'm a very, very busy producer.
    Dolores: You gotta give 'em a chance!
    Man: Well, can they write a tune? Can they inspire a nation? Y'know, "c'mon kid, c'mon kid, Alexander's Ragtime Band..." Now there's a great tune for ya. Can they touch Irving?
    Dolores: [putting her hand on his crotch] I can touch Irving.
    Man: ...His name's George.
  • If I Can't Have Him: "...then nobody will." (Sung by Kate at the end of LaChiusa's "Black is a Moocher".)
  • "I Want" Song: Lippa's "Out of the Blue" lays out Queenie's problems, desires, and by the end, her plan to crush Burrs emotionally at the party.
  • List Song: LaChiusa's "Dry" is a fast-paced number that introduces most of the guests while they clamor for alcohol by singing "Don't give me no [insert poor substitute for alcohol here]". The following is a list of things the guests would prefer that you not give them any of: seltzer, water, lemon, grape juice, root beer, Jell-O, coffee.
  • Love Dodecahedron: Queenie/Burrs/Black is the Love Triangle whose violent resolution makes up the climax of all versions of the story. However, in all versions (especially Lippa's), Kate also intervenes with designs upon Burrs, forming a Love Square. Meanwhile, in both the original poem and LaChiusa's version, Jackie tries to lure Oscar d'Armano away from Phil, and LaChiusa also puts in some allusions to funny business between Kate and Eddie, to the anger of his wife Mae. But both of these Beta Couples tenderly reunite over the course of the song "Golden Boy".
  • Madness Makeover: LaChiusa has Burrs drunkenly apply his Black Face makeup during "How Many Women in the World" as he prepares to Murder the Hypotenuse.
    • Lippa's version also has Burrs applying his clown makeup as part of his Sanity Slippage, although in this case it happens at the beginning of "Let Me Drown" in an attempt to make it look like he's enjoying himself.
  • Massive Multiplayer Ensemble Number: "Wild" in LaChiusa's musical. Good god. See for yourself.
  • Minstrel Shows: LaChiusa makes Burrs a comedic minstrel performer rather than a traditional Monster Clown.
  • Monster Clown: Burrs. Amusingly, Art Spiegelman depicts Burrs with a long face and rather pointed jaw, like another comic-book monster clown.
  • Murder the Hypotenuse: Burrs tries to, but Black is the one who succeeds.
  • A Party, Also Known as an Orgy: What the party eventually turns into.
  • Preacher's Kid: In the poem, Jackie is the son of a preacher who was disowned by his father for being too much trouble. Neither musical uses this backstory, with the Lippa not talking about his past at all and the LaChiusa changing his estranged father to a wealthy banker.
  • Quarreling Song: "Make Me Happy" from the Lippa qualifies as long as you're willing to categorize a musical shouting match between a crazed gunman and his two frantically pleading would-be victims as a "quarrel".
  • Race Lift: March's poem only specifies color in the case of Dolores (see Ambiguously Brown above), and Art Spiegelman's illustrations — which directly inspired both musical composers — depicts the rest of the characters as white. However, in adapting Eddie, LaChiusa worked in elements from another narrative poem by March, "The Set-Up", with the result being that his Eddie is specifically black (premiered by Norm Lewis). Some allusions in Oscar and Phil's songs from the LaChiusa suggest black New York City culture as well, and indeed the show premiered with black actors in those roles: Nathan Lee Graham and Michael McElroy. Also, it happens that both the LaChiusa and Lippa productions cast nonwhite Blacks (Yancey Arias and Taye Diggs, respectively); while the original LaChiusa Kate, Tonya Pinkins, is also black. (Neither of these two characters was specifically written for any color in either version, though.)
  • Reprise Medley: As listed above under Dark Reprise, "Wild" brings back quite a few earlier tunes, with a thick syrup of bitterness and rage to hold them all together.
  • Sanity Slippage Song: In the Lippa musical, it's Burrs' drunkenness and jealousy-induced "Make Me Happy," which serves as the show's climax. LaChiusa's "How Many Women in the World", though not occupying the same place in the narrative structure, similarly charts Burrs' descent into incoherent rage.
  • Sidekick Song: Kate's songs in either version could qualify, but she's more of a full-fledged main character than a sidekick to Queenie. The Lippa numbers "An Old-Fashioned Love Story" and "Two of a Kind" are structurally the most similar to Sidekick Songs, being goofy, plot-irrelevant little asides for Madelaine True and Eddie & Mae, respectively. Because the LaChiusa musical is designed to distribute focus much more across the secondary characters and sustain little plot threads for them across the duration of the performance, there aren't really any qualifiers for a Sidekick Song there.
  • The Speechless: In Lippa's version, Jackie has no tongue.
  • Subverted Rhyme Every Occasion: Lippa's Burrs pulls one of these in "Make Me Happy" while threatening Black and Queenie with a gun:
    We've got a situation:
    Shit or get off the pot!
    Whaddaya say? You wanna give her away
    Or do you wanna get—
    On your knees?
  • Title Drop: In both musicals. LaChiusa's version has a song called "Wild Party", and Lippa's has one called "A Wild, Wild Party."
  • Vitriolic Best Buds: Queenie and Kate are a particularly bitter case of Type 2, especially in LaChiusa's duet "Best Friend."
  • The Voiceless: LaChiusa's Sally is practically catatonic for most of the party, only to deliver the devastating Minor Character, Major Song "After Midnight Dies" as a soliloquy.
  • White-Dwarf Starlet: Dolores, especially in LaChiusa's version. Neither the original poem nor Lippa's adaptation draws this out much, but in the LaChiusa, she's obsessed with regaining her former fame and adoration, as expressed in "Moving Uptown". She later goes so far as to seduce the producers Gold & Goldberg in order to gain influence with them.
  • Wimp Fight / Cat Fight: The Brothers d'Armano in the poem, after Jackie gives Phil a kiss.
  • Yiddish as a Second Language: Gold and Goldberg in "The Movin' Uptown Blues." It's implied they started in Yiddish theatre and want to expand to broader vaudeville audiences.