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Bringing the Funny

By: Isaac Butler
Date: Aug 03, 2009


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By Isaac Butler

John Rando has eked out a niche directing madcap, high octane entertainments by writers such as David Ives and Greg Kotis.  Having directed such shows as Dance of the Vampires, Urinetown, Pig Farm and more, he most recently lent his considerable talents to Toxic Avenger: The Musical, currently playing Off-Broadway at New Worlds Stages. The musical, based on the cult classic from Troma Films, is about a nebbishy New Jersite who- after being dumped in a barrel of toxic waste- starts cleaning up New Jersey by violently murdering polluters and corrupt politicians.  Oh, and there's a love story in there between him and a hot blind girl too.

John took a few moments out of his family vacation to speak with us via cell phone about Off-Broadway, New Jersey's new favorite son, and being a director.

Q: It seems to me both with Pig Farm and Toxic Avenger we're seeing this post-Urinetown rise of the Basement Show. Plays and musicals that would've been done in someone's basement with about $1,000 in the budget are getting these big commercial shows. Why do you think that is?

A: I think people are looking for a unique, off the wall story.  I don't know why it's mainstream, but finding the right audience for that is important. It's good to see that the marginal story-telling ideas can come to the forefront as well as some of the classics. The mainstream just changes over time, I suppose.

Q: Are you a Troma or Toxic Avenger fan?

A: No, I knew what the company was but I really was not a person who… in fact, I can rarely sit through any gore or violence.

Q: Really? Pig Farm is quite violent! And Toxic Avenger has people getting their limbs ripped off left and right!

I know!  It's really quite strange. I have a weak stomach, so I can't really sit through that kind of stuff. It's ridiculous.  The reason this show happened is that [Book Writer and Lyricist] Joe DiPietro called me and we hadn't done a project together in a long time and he called me and told me about the show and sent it to me to read. From the first moment I thought "This could work wonderfully well".

Joe has grown into a wonderful book writer. Smart, focused, a good musical-theatre story teller. I also just really enjoyed the lyrics and the songs. I thought it was a strange wonderful combination between Joe and [composer and Bon Jovi keyboardist] David Brian…  The one scene that really appealed to me was the idea of one guy's transformation into this gory creature. I thought "Directorially, this'd be a lot of fun."  And on a quite limited budget. 

Q: Did you end up watching the movies?

A: After I worked with Joe on the script for a few months, [set designer] Beowulf Boritt and I sat down and watched the movie.  And it was really an eye-opener because it was a genre that he and I knew little of. We could barely stomach it in a way because it's very gross. 

Q: Part of what really makes those Troma films work is that the budgets are low and the acting is terrible. Commerical musical theater doesn't work like that.  How did you translate that sensibility to the stage?

A: The challenge of the show was to try to find a tone both visually and in terms of the performances that could capture the spirit and the craziness of the original while being unique and explosive and fun and muscular for musical theatre performance. We worked very hard, first visually, the designers and myself in terms of trying to capture an environment where it was really focused. The first idea, which we stuck with, was to set the entire show in a unit set that was a toxic waste dump.  Wouldn't it be hilarious to do an entire musical in a toxic waste dump? 

With the acting, part of what was really smart with Joe was to limit the number of actors instead of the number of characters. So the biggest challenge was how to allow essentially three actors to play thirty different roles… it helped us in terms of finding the tone, because the characters have to be different and achieve comedy as quickly as possible.

I'm a firm believer in realism… but I knew it had to be a heightened sense of realism because the stakes are so absurdly large in this play. Combine that with the casting and especially Nancy Opel, who is in many ways the centerpiece of the show.  Nancy is really great at capturing this sense of humor and....   She's surrounded by wonderful actors, [like] Nick Cordero as Toxie.  You know, it seems like when he's Melvin he's this tiny nerdy guy. And then through nothing except him giving the feeling that he's standing taller, he appears to grow like ten inches. 

 Q: You've become something of a go-to director for madcap projects. What's it like being somewhat of a specialist in that kind of work?  Are you going to bust out some Arthur Miller?

Ha! Well, I am trying to develop less madcap work. I'm working on a production of a play by Sydney Kingsley called Men in White from 1933.  But I do very much enjoy this work. The truth is, this kind of comedy is very special to me. I try to do comedy like this, that has a point of view that has something to share and a comment as well as its craziness.  I tend to find it's easier to rally the company around a play that has a point of view embedded in the story. It's easier to get them to reach for this crazy style and at the same time know that there's an important kind of work that they're doing at the same time.

Q: One way in which Toxic Avenger is differentiating itself from its peers is that it seems to be financially successful. What do you think is the secret of its success?

Off-Broadway is very difficult right now.  It wasn't like that when I first came around in the early 90s.  Since 9/11 especially it's had a really rough go of it. And this was an exceptionally good Broadway year. Everything on Broadway was really exciting. So we were worried at first. But now it seems to be going well.

I think the show is funny. Word of mouth is positive. People don't know what to expect, and by the time it's done it's a raucous, fun event. One thing we've seen is that we're appealing to various age groups.  I like the fact that we're appealing to young crowds, tweeners and teens and their parents.  And older folks…

We have a new cast member coming in, Diana Degarmo from American Idol. She's great. A good singer, very talented, great presence… [and] we're opening the show in Toronto as well in a bigger theater. We're really excited about that to see what it's like in a big venue with a large house.

More about Toxic Avenger:The Musical
Isaac Butler