It’s a brand new day for New Jersey, thanks to Broadway director John Rando’s latest hit The Toxic Avenger. John Rando will always be remembered for his Tony winning staging of one of my favorite musicals – Urinetown. Other Broadway directing credits include The Wedding Singer, four productions for Encores!, the musical classics series at City Center, along with numerous stagings Off-Broadway and around the country.
On April 27th, I saw his magic touch and steady hand at work directing the NYC workshop for The Tapioca Miracle, the new Larry Kaye/Eric Cobie/Dan Kazemi musical we have been following in this column. (The next installment is coming soon.)
At that performance, John Rando agreed to talk with us about his latest hit, The Toxic Avenger, an uproarious musical based on Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 American cult classic horror film of the same title. With a multi-talented cast led by Nick Cordero (Melvin Ferd The Third/Toxie), Urinetown‘s Nancy Opel (Mayor), Sara Chase (Sarah), Demond Green (Black Dude),and Matthew Saldivar (White Dude), green slime and one disgusting, disfigured anti-superhero from New Jersey is hysterical.
John: Joe DiPietro called me about 2 years ago and said he had a musical that he thought I’d like. Joe and I had worked together about 10 years before and were friends. He sent me the script. I loved it from the first page. We started work on it.
Joel: What made you want to direct this production?
John: I was completely taken with the notion of a Toxic Superhero. I believed the strange mixture of superhuman strength and grotesqueness could be the stuff of a musical. I recognized in Joe’s and David Bryan’s book and lyrics a terrific vehicle for my theatrical style. I saw the potential for a hilariously funny and also weird, unexpected and dark show, with a message of saving planet earth.
Joel: What is so funny about New Jersey and green slime and toxic waste?
John: I like to think there is very little funny about toxic waste, especially when it is being poured willy nilly into rivers, marshes and dumps that are close to suburban homes. Now that said, it still makes for a very entertaining evening. How? Well, New Jersey is an underdog state and what red-blooded American theatergoer doesn’t like to root for the underdog? And green slime looks cool under the right kind of lighting.
Both Joe DiPietro and David Bryan are born and bred New Jersey boys. I was born on Long Island but grew up in Houston. But I am taking my family this summer as I have for the past 12 summers to the Jersey Shore.
Joel: What was the most difficult challenge in adapting Lloyd Kaufman’s 1985 film into a musical?
John: I never saw the movie. I only watched it once 7 months after I started working on the musical. Joe had done a brilliant adaptation in that he took the movie’s few principle characters and then essentially wrote a completely new version. In fact the only thing left from the movie is the Drano instead of sugar joke.
The movie’s creator, Lloyd Kaufmann, is the musical’s biggest fan. He was very supportive of our work from the beginning and also left us alone to do what we do best.
Joel: How did New Jersey audiences react to the show during its run at the George Street Playhouse in New Brunswick in October 2008?
John: No offense was taken. In fact they didn’t have enough seats in New Jersey for all the folks that wanted to see it. From the very first performance, which was populated at George Street Theatre in New Brunswick, by mostly senior citizens, the audiences were cheering and laughing.
Joel: What changes were made between the George Street production and the New World Stages production?
John: I asked Joe and David to expand the Mayor’s role and give her a real song in her first seen, hence “Jersey Girl.” We tried to build up the back story of her greed and wanting to be governor. We revamped a couple of other numbers; made some cuts; rewrote some of the comedy; revised choreography; and improved some of the special effects
Joel: What was it about Nick Cordero that made him the perfect choice for Melvin/Toxie?
John: We saw maybe 30 or more. I really was looking for someone who was tall and strong looking and an actor we then could “nerd” down as Melvin. We found Nick Cordero (with the help of the wonderful Pat McCorkle Casting) in the auditions we had for our initial reading some 7 months before our first rehearsals in New Jersey. We loved Nick from the first time we saw him. I was particularly impressed with his take on the two different personalities of Melvin and Toxie.
John: I love working with Opel because she is a performer who can set a tone for the entire show. She has lungs of steel and sounds amazing, especially delivering this rock and roll score. She is fearless and will try almost anything that I ask. She has the uncanny ability to be completely over the top and at the exact same time so perfectly real. She will always find challenging, unexpected, wonderful, and outrageous choices. And simply put – she is a treasure to the American musical theater.
Joel: Sara Chase is “outta sight” as Sarah. She created the role of Sarah in the first reading, but did not star in the George Street Playhouse production. Tell us about her.
John: We first asked Sara Chase to play Sarah in New Jersey, but at the time she had already agreed to star in Godspell on Broadway. So we hired Audra [Blaser], who was wonderful. After New Jersey, Audra had some television work that she was doing and couldn’t do Off Broadway. In the meantime, Godspell did not come to Broadway. Sara Chase was available. We asked her to do the Off Broadway version. She agreed and the rest is history.
Joel: How would you describe David Byan’s score and Joe DiPietro’ s lyrics?
John: David Bryan’s score is a pure rock and roll sound with its roots in the 80’s. It’s fun and driving and cranking. David and Joe’s lyrics are truly funny and neatly unfold our story.
Joel: What is your favorite scene and song?
John: Two really. “Bitch Slut Liar Whore” and “Kick Your Ass”. Both were exceptionally challenging. Bitch/Slut was very tricky to figure out. Joe and David had written this hilarious idea of Nancy singing a duet with herself. But the every aspect of the scene from stage design to wigs and costumes had to be truly thought out. I often will story board the most difficult scenes in a show. I then will take my really lame stick figure drawings to the designer, in this case Beowulf Borrit, and show him how I would love to see the scene staged. And of course, sending a 6′ 4″ actor down a barrel and having it appear he is displacing gallons of green slime and then return from that same barrel fully transformed into a grotesque shadow of his former self and to have it happen in under 45 seconds, well, that is what I call difficult….but fun.
Joel: John Dods’ prosthetics and special effects design, Beowulf Borrit’s amazing set, and Kurt Eric Fischer’s sound design give the show its slimy look and add so much to the humor of the show. Talk about working with them.
John: … and David Wollard’s quirky costumes all contributed to the wonderful tone of truth and craziness I needed in the production. John Dods was completely dedicated to his craft and loves inventing strange body fluids, parts and innards. Beowulf’s set helps to really locate the brutal, unrelenting physical nature of a toxic waste dump and at the same time is delightfully silly. And Kurt captures the raw rock and roll sound and at the same time his sound effects are terrifying. Even after having worked on the show and having seen it many times, I still jump at the very first sound and light cues.
Joel: Why should DC theatre goers come to NYC and see The Toxic Avenger?
John: The show is unexpected and off beat and funny. At the same time there is a nifty love story and incredible performances from a cast of five who play more than 30 parts combined. Plus they get to see Nancy Opel sing a duet with herself; that alone is worth the price of admission.
The Toxic Avenger plays at New World Stages, 340 W 50th St, NYC.