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Stage Behind the velvet rope

July 31, 2018

For many, New York in 1979 was a wild, out-of-control place. The city had barely survived bankruptcy, crime was at record levels and garbage was piling up on sidewalks. Nightclubs like glamorous Studio 54 and later counter-culture Mudd Club reflected that sense of anything-goes while at the same time offering themselves as a glorious refuge, a welcoming place to hide — or thrive, and even as a little piece of heaven.

That sense of fantasy, family and freedom are themes that reverberate in the world premiere of a new musical opening this week at off-Broadway’s Atlantic Theater. “This Ain’t Not Disco” features music and lyrics by Stephen Trask (composer of the cult-rock phenom “Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Peter Yanowitz and is directed by Tony Award-winner Darko Tresnjak, outgoing artistic director of Hartford Stage.

“New York City was a very dicey place which felt like it was falling apart and people were looking and longing for things that were bigger than themselves,” says New London native Trask during a recent break in previews for the show.

The Wesleyan University grad was barely a tween during the time the show is set in 1979-80. Top 40 radio was Trask’s musical world at the time and the down-and-dirty world of Manhattan was a landscape still to come. “I didn’t really appreciate, even when I was older, the extent that Studio 54 was like the gay Cotton Club,” says Trask, 51. “It was essentially a gay club, but instead of being a hidden-away, hole-in-the-wall place, it was fabulous, huge and extravagant.”

The nightclub known for its drugs, hedonism and spectacle was on 54th Street in the Broadway district of midtown Manhattan. It reflected a paradoxical combination of exclusivity and egalitarianism. Those seeking entry first had to pass through the red velvet ropes, often under the eyes of the club’s flamboyant co-owner and ringmaster Steve Rubell, who was looking for the cool, the sexy and the divine. But once inside, the hip hoi-polloi could then rub elbows with celebs you could often identify by a single name: Liza, Halston, Cher and Misha.

“Rubell working the line was like a preacher and that goes with one of our themes of religiosity,” says Trask. “People yearned to get into club the same way people yearn to get into heaven.”

But above all, he says, “it was just this incredible place. This was not like going to some dance club. This was going to a fantasy world. There was theatrical lighting, and sculptural set pieces that came down and moved among the crowd. And there were five or six ‘movements’ or ‘themes’ during the course of a single evening and they were all beautifully executed. It was a gorgeous, ever-changing environment.”

The show’s title is spot-on and for those expecting an evening of “Saturday Night Fever”-style, steady-beat music may be surprised by the eclectic score. “It’s not a disco musical,” says Trask. “In fact, it’s barely a musical. It’s more like an opera or an opera/tone poem, not unlike Duke Ellington’s tone parallel to Harlem [“Harlem Suite”].”

As for any possibility of moving the show at some point to the site of the former Studio 54, which is now a theatrical venue, Trask thinks not. “Our show is so non-literal with so much happening that sparks the imagination of the audience, I wouldn’t want them the audience to be thinking, ‘They did this over here and that up there or this person is supposed to be that person.’ Our characters are inspired by some actual people and usually multiple people. Obviously, the character of ‘The Artist’ is supposed to be more like Andy Warhol than not — but he’s not literally Andy Warhol.”

The production also features Yale School of Drama grad Will Connolly who plays The Artist. (Coincidentally, Connolly saw Andy Warhol more directly depicted in the musical “Pop!” when it premiered at the Yale Rep about 10 years ago when he was at the school there.)

Connolly, who was born about six years after the period of the play, says his parents, Bill and Melissa from New Jersey, actually went to Studio 54. “I think they got in because my mother looked cool,” he says.

The show ultimately acts as a kind of elegy for an end of a decade, if not an era, says the show’s director, echoing a comment by one of the actors.

“[Studio 54] was a dreamscape for that era and the dream, in a sense, was corrupted, but it did start as a dream,” says Tresnjak, who was a 13-year-old emigre, only a few years in the U.S. from his home in the former Yugoslavia during the period of the show.

“It’s an interesting to do this show right now,” he says. “There is a kind of genuine freedom that I associate with the late ’70s and there were some extraordinary fears that came about with the arrival of the ’80s. I feel that same anxiety of change now.”

Studio 54’s glittering time lasted only a brief time before its time passed, with a new downtown culture emerging — and then another scene to supplant that, and then another.

Tresnjak says that the lyrics to a song at the end of the show is fitting because “it reminds us that dreams move to different locations and the culture changes. But it’s a reminder that it will just resurface in another area. I love that moment at the end of the show when [a character] sings, “What will we do, where will we go and who will know us there?’ The answer is it will be different — but there will always be something else.”

Frank Rizzo has covered the arts for nearly 40 years.

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