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By RAVEN SNOOK
Most musicals incubate for a long time, but 20 years? That's how long it took Seth Rudetsky to finally turn his initial inspiration into the Off-Broadway musical Disaster! an effervescent send-up of 1970s disaster movies that's overflowing with popular period songs.
Why the delay? According to Rudetsky, a performer/writer/musician/radio host/hardcore theatre fanboy, the answer is simple. "I literally have ADD," he says. "I can't do anything without a deadline!"
In 1993, Rudetsky and his friend Drew Geraci were working in the Off-Broadway musical <i>Forever Plaid</i> when they started joking about doing a musical parody of disaster movies that would be set during New York City's 1977 blackout. "We were saying things like, 'There's going to be fighting in the streets!' and that everyone would break into '(Everybody Was) Kung Fu Fighting,'" Rudetsky says. "I remember going to the Performing Arts Library and picking out lots of '70s songs."
And then… nothing. Until 2011, that is, when Rudetsky was invited to write a show for a benefit and decided to revisit the idea. Since Geraci was busy, Rudetsky turned to Jack Plotnick, his old friend and former comedy partner. "He asked me, 'How far have you gotten?' And I said, 'Well, I haven't actually written anything.' Then I told him we only had two months. Jack opened up his laptop and typed: Scene I: Chad appears onstage and the "Hot Stuff" vamp is heard. And I thought, 'Oh my god, this is actually happening.'"
Rudetsky and Plotnick had a tough creative road ahead of them, and not just because of the time crunch. Since the idea had originally been hatched, jukebox musicals had become a much-maligned genre, and thanks in large part to the Fringe Festival, which helped spawn the likes of <i>Silence!</i> and <i>Poseidon!</i>, musical movie parodies were no longer so novel. For the show to work, it needed to be much more than a collection of retro pop-culture references and familiar tunes.<!--more-->
Luckily, as much as the duo worshiped '70s entertainment (Rudetsky jokes that Plotnick was perfect for the project because "his entire apartment is decorated as if he were a 10-year-old in the '70s"), they loved musical theatre even more. "We both come from a performing background with a deep love for classic musicals," Rudetsky says. "We wanted to pay homage to them more than do a ten-minute Carol Burnett sketch. In disaster movies, there are all of these diverse people who come together. We realized early on that the disaster had to teach everybody a lesson. We wanted to make sure that every character grew and changed."
After ditching the blackout (it would be tough for the audience to see the action in the dark), they set the show at the grand opening of a floating casino shoddily built on an unstable New York City fault line. The disco diva, the pious nun, the lonely lounge singer and her twins, the long-time married couple, the feminist journalist---everyone's in peril and everyone has a secret. The benefit performance was a hit, and a year later a new iteration was playing at the Triad and garnering rave reviews and sold-out crowds. That success inspired the current Off-Broadway run at St. Luke's Theatre, directed by Plotnick and featuring Rudetsky as stone-faced "disaster expert" Ted in the starry ensemble cast, which also includes Tony nominee Mary Testa and Broadway vets Jennifer Simard and Tom Riis Farrell.
Disaster movie aficionados will undoubtedly recognize certain tropes, and anyone who's ever listened to the radio should know many of the songs. However, the bulk of Disaster!'s humor isn't predicated on preexisting knowledge. "The jokes really come from the characters and the situations," Plotnick says. "They aren't all references or puns. When the old couple offers to help Jackie [the lounge singer] search for her missing kids, and she deadpans, 'Oh no thanks, I'll be running,' it always gets a big laugh. It's humor that's coming from something real."
One of the cleverest aspects of Disaster! is the way it gives old songs completely new contexts. Without giving too much away, let's just say the chorus of "Hot Stuff" has a triple meaning, depending on who's singing it; "Hooked on a Feeling" and "He Ain't Heavy, He's My Brother" both take on clever literal connotations; and the explanation for why Ted sings "whoa-oh-oh" in "Feelings" always gets a huge laugh.
"We didn't change any of the lyrics," Rudetsky says. "There are certain jukebox musicals where you have to ignore 50 percent of the lyrics, so we didn't want to use songs that didn't serve the story. Sometimes the words are so shockingly perfect, younger people [who aren't familiar with the songs] will come to the show and think they were written for the show!"
Plotnick and Rudetsky both say their use of "Feelings" encapsulates the show's purpose. "At first when Jack suggested it, I thought, it's so cheesy," Rudetsky remembers. "But now I see it's what the whole show is about. All of the main characters ignore their feelings and are then forced to embrace them in the end. The way we use the song, it keeps going back and forth between hilarity and genuine emotion."
Raven Snook writes about theatre for Time Out New York and has contributed arts and entertainment articles to The Village Voice, the New York Post, TV Guide, and others.
Photo by Jeremy Daniel