New London native Stephen Trask’s “This Ain’t No Disco” hits off-Broadway stage
Is disco finally making a comeback? It is, at least in the world of New London native Stephen Trask’s newest rock opera, “This Ain’t No Disco.”
The musical, which Trask co-wrote with The Wallflower’s original drummer Peter Yanowitz, hit the New York City-based Atlantic Theater Company’s off-Broadway stage in July. And with it, audiences are flung back into a nightlife-centric Manhattan centered around the infamous Studio 54, circa 1979-80. With a punchy score reminiscent of the city’s boundary-breaking heyday, the show’s debut couldn’t have come at a better time.
Lately, New York City seems to be fixated on this era. Several books detailing this world have recently been published. “The Mudd Club,” by its notorious doorman, Richard Boch, was published in 2017. Another, titled “Studio 54,” also hit the shelves in 2017.
“There is definitely a fascination with the time period,” Trask says in a recent phone interview, while also explaining that he and Yanowitz started writing for the musical in 2010 before this current wave of nostalgia hit.
“We weren’t trying to write to be hip or in,” Yanowitz says during the interview. “But it is sort of fortuitous for us that it is getting a lot of attention because of that time period.”
For Trask, “Disco” is the long-awaited follow-up to “Hedwig and the Angry Inch,” a groundbreaking musical for which he wrote the score and lyrics to go with a book by John Cameron Mitchell. The production debuted off-Broadway in 1998, becoming an international stage sensation and, ultimately, a successful major film.
“So many people say to me, ‘You reinvented a form,’ or whatever it is they say about ‘Hedwig.’ Or ‘In the history of rock musicals, this is the first one to get it right.’ You know, that’s hard to live up to that,” Trask says. “Peter doesn’t bring that energy into the room. … When we write together, we just go to a very natural place of self-expression, so you stop thinking about that, and you are just making stuff.”
Showing at the Atlantic Theater Company’s Linda Gross Theater in Manhattan until Aug. 12, “Disco,” directed by Darko Trasnjak, delivers audiences all the decadence one would expect from a show inspired by the late ’70s and early ’80s: flamboyant costumes, disco balls, neon lighting, fantastic hairstyles, four-to-the-floor disco beats, rock-inspired ballads and characters who represent a cross section of a burgeoning city.
A stringent door policy at Studio 54 sets the scene, with onlookers pawing for their chance to get in chanting lines like, “Let us in. Let us sin.” A fictionalized version of Steve Rubell, the real-life owner of Studio 54 whom Trask fortuitously met when he was a college student (more on that later), picks and chooses those whom he deems fit enough for entry. He openly embraces some characters (such as Chad, a gay 17-year-old who ran away from home), while rejecting others (such as Sammy, an African-American punk singer). Both are young hopefuls in a city that will either make or break them, looking for their start as young creatives — a quintessential New York story if there ever was one.
“So many people come here and shoot to find themselves and discover their special powers, and I still feel like, even with all the change and all the corporate additions, that New York is still one of the cities where magic happens,” Yanowitz says.
“A lot of the show is about art and making art and what that means,” Yannowitz continues. “But there are also all the people who feed on artists and use artists, and there is this sort of machinery around art and making art, which is kind of disgusting. It’s unnecessary. But also a necessary evil.”
While several plotlines are propelling “This Ain’t No Disco” — we see Sammy (Samantha Marie Ware) endure the trials of stardom, for example, and we see Chad (Peter Laprade) suffer some public embarrassment — one that shapes the overall story arc of the show is that of Studio 54 itself. The musical opens while the club, though near its demise, is still popular. A drug-abusing, yet endearing, Rubell (Theo Stockman) admits to hiding money in its ceilings.
“It is certainly a fascinating place,” Yanowitz says. “It is great as one of the New York stories that we are telling. And so you do want to follow, you want to see Steve Rubell at his height and (you want to see) this heartbreaking downfall that he does to himself.”
But at the core of the story, among the ups and downs of the New York City nightlife and its then-burgeoning art scene is also a reminder that New York can be a beautiful city — that is, if you’re able to find your place in it.
“New York is still one of the cities where magic happens, where you can go out and have one of those New York nights … You stay out all night and meet people, and you wake up the next morning, and your life is changed,” Yanowitz says. “We were interested in this idea, a long poem. I think of the show as a love letter to the city and to the crazy people that can and have inhabited it.”
Trask and Yanowitz said they first got to know each other while attending a writing workshop in 2007.
“Over the course of the week, we found out that we couldn’t get enough of each other,” Trask says. “Moments after we said bye to each other at the airport, we started making plans to be writing partners.”
The two then co-wrote the score and lyrics to “Clueless the Musical,” a production that didn’t originally come to fruition, though it is opening off-Broadway this fall with different writers. Trask says the two realized that if they were to pursue another artistic venture, they would need full creative authority over it. That meant writing the book in conjunction with the score and lyrics.
Enter “This Ain’t No Disco,” an idea first presented to Trask as a story just about Studio 54.
“The Studio 54 suggestion started a conversation, but right away we knew that that wouldn’t be the subject of our show. It was a subject, but not the subject,” Trask says. “So it started first with rejecting the idea of a musical about Studio 54. But we immediately started looking for something that would be deeper, that Studio 54 could be a part of.”
Though Trask (age 51) and Yanowitz (50) didn’t experience this New York era firsthand, they were fascinated with the time period and, of course, with its eternal soundtrack. And while the score for “Disco” certainly has its roots in the disco sounds that were coming from that era (think upbeat bass lines), many of its ballads and solos were rock-centric, relying on heavy guitar riffs and New Wave inspirations.
“That was an amazing moment in music,” Trask says, referring specifically to 1979.
Indeed, Giorgio Moroder was producing hits such as Donna Summer’s “On the Radio” and Cher’s “Bad Love.” Talking Heads were gaining popularity with their release of “Fear of Music.” The Clash put out “London Calling” while Michael Jackson came out with “Off the Wall.” In the art scene, Andy Warhol founded the New York Academy of Art. It was also the pivotal moment before art dealer Mary Boone presented neo-expressionist Julian Schnabel and David Salle, and later Jean-Michel Basquiat, to the world.
“It was a big year. It was a big scrawling year,” Trask continues. “It is sort of mind-blowing just how formative that exact moment was on everything that came after that.”
A moment in time told through characters
And though the setting of “Disco” is the main draw for audiences to see the show, it’s the characters and their stories, Trask and Yanowitz argue, the audience will walk out remembering.
Of those characters, there are Landa and Meesh, the two coat check girls who are in love and remain together, even when Landa comes out as transgender. There is also Binky, the shameless publicist who has her eye out for fame and fortune. And then there is “The Artist,” a quiet, observant character directly inspired by Andy Warhol.
While Trask and Yanowitz say that they put much of themselves and their personal experiences into their fictionalized characters, there were also the real-life characters to portray — names that included Andy Warhol, Steve Rubell, and Mudd Club owner Steve Mass. Those, they say, required countless interviews with the people who knew them.
“There is also so much video footage of (Steve Rubell) working the lines and talking to people that you actually do get a sense of who this guy is,” Trask says, before adding that he, in fact, met the notorious Rubell at a Palladium party promoting the just-released “Nightmare on Elm Street” when he was in college — an experience he had forgotten about until he started to research for “Disco.”
“He handed me a brown paper lunch bag with cocaine in it and asked if I could bring this up to (an actor’s) dressing room,” Trask says, laughing. “So that was my Steve Rubell experience, and I didn’t realize that it was him until years later.”
But it’s their main characters, Sammy and Chad, that Trask and Yanowitz say have the most staying power.
“There was a lot of both of us in this ambition of coming into the city, finding your people and your way as an artist or musician or whatever you want to be,” Yanowitz says.
“Lately, what I’m remembering is that when I was 20, I was an idiot,” Trask adds. “I like to think of myself as this put-together kind of person, but when I look at the kind of fumbles that Chad was making while trying to get something together in his life, I also look at myself and say, ‘Oh my God, I was a (expletive) mess when I was 20.’
“We wanted to tell a story about a group of people that come to the city to find themselves, and they find a lot of other people along the way. That really interested us with this story,” Yanowitz says. “It wasn’t Studio 54. It wasn’t Mudd Club. It wasn’t 1979. We really wanted to tell a story about people and emotion and self-discovery and art and the city.”