The Wild Party, a poem in the classical epic style, is Joseph Moncure March's first published work. Upon its 1928 publication the poem was widely banned, first in Boston, for having content viewed as wild as the titular party. Despite and perhaps in part thanks to the controversy surrounding his work, the poem was a success, though March's subsequent projects, viewed when published as at least slightly less controversial, were more mainstream.
March's literary influence is great, even with this somewhat lesser-known work. When asked once about March's The Wild Party, the acclaimed writer William Burroughs replied, "It's the book that made me want to be a writer."
The plot might seem more simple than it actually is. Showpeople Queenie and her lover Burrs, who live in a manner considered edgy and decadent at the time, decide to have one of their parties, complete with illegal bathtub gin and the couple's colorful, eccentric and egocentric friends, but the party does not unfold without more tumultuous goings-on than planned. Each of the primary characters is vibrant and established.
A popular new version of the paperback was released in 1994 with the subtitle "The Lost Classic," featuring around fifty black-and-white illustrations by Art Spiegelman, a long-time admirer of the poem.
The Wild Party has been adapted into a poorly-received movie, in 1975, and two well-reviewed stage musicals, both produced in the same theater season, one on Broadway and the other off-Broadway.
Musical Theater Adaptations
One version of The Wild Party was written by Michael John LaChiusa (music, lyrics, and book) and George C. Wolfe (book). It opened at the Virginia Theatre on Broadway on April 13, 2000 and closed on July 11, 2000 (68 performances). It starred Toni Collette as Queenie, Mandy Patinkin as Burrs, Yancey Arias as Mr. Black, Tonya Pinkins as Kate, Michael McElroy as Oscar D'Armano, Nathan Lee Graham as Phil D'Armano, Marc Kudisch as Jackie, and Eartha Kitt as Dolores.
The show was nominated for 7 2000 Tony Awards: Best Musical; Best Book of a Musical; Best Original Musical Score; Best Actor in a Musical (Patinkin); Best Actress in a Musical (Collette); Best Featured Actress in a Musical (Kitt); Best Lighting Design.
Toni Collette received a 2000 Theatre World Award, and Collette, Patinkin and Kitt were nominated for Drama Desk Awards.
Nathan Lee Graham also appearred in this version, and went on to act in Zoolander, alongside Ben Stiller and Will Ferrell.
The second musical version, created by Andrew Lippa, premiered at slightly before the LaChiusa version, staged off-Broadway by the Manhattan Theater Club. The characters and plot are similar, but the music is drastically different. It has been noted that the songs in Lippa's score do not depend upon the context of the show, which some feel enhance and others feel detract from the production itself. This version starred Julia Murney as Queenie, Brian D'Arcy James as Burrs, Idina Menzel as Kate, Taye Diggs as Mr. Black, Charles Dillon as Oscar D'Armano and Kevin Cahoon as Phil D'Armano and was nominated for several Drama Desk Awards.
In 2004, the Lippa musical was produced for the Edinburgh Fringe Festival.
Comparison and Popular Attitudes
Both shows were thought to be highlights of the theater season.
March purists tend to insist that the LaChiusa version of the show manages to maintain the integrity of the original poem, while the Lippa version follows the spirit of Moncure's party in focusing more on its leads and upon a love triangle which is central to the poem.
The LaChiusa version is an ensemble show, with more character development in the lesser roles. In particular, the version explores more characters like Jackie, Oscar, and Phil. It also explores more difficult themes such as the racism encountered by prize-fighter Eddie. Although it does not explore the central characters as much as the Lippa version, people have found it to be sufficient and interesting in its chacter development, with true three dimensional characters.
While the music in the multi-layered LaChiusa version furthers the plot and character development, Lippa's version is often chacterized as more modern. LaChiusa's music adheres more to traditional jazz in an attempt to reflect Hollywood's version of a 1928 setting and is darker overall, while Lippa's score is more eclectic in its musical style and the show thematically lighter.