By MARK BLANKENSHIP
There aren't that many places in New York City where you can see a musical that lets you lick whipped cream off the leading lady. Or lift her up on your feet so she can "play airplane." Or hand her your glass of chardonnay after she accidentally breaks the bottle she's toting around in a brown paper sack.
But that's exactly what you get in Rock Bottom,
the new show that just began performances at Joe's Pub at the Public Theater. It stars Bridget Everett, who rose to downtown fame in 2007 with her gleefully inappropriate show At Least It's Pink
and has since amassed a serious following with her big rock voice, her big dirty mouth, and her knack for fusing bad behavior with cleverness and charm.
Everett's fans should feel at home with Rock Bottom
, whose wailing anthems and audience participation are also staples of her cabaret gigs and concerts with her band the Tender Moments. But there's a reason this show is being presented as part of the Public's official season. Like At Least It's Pink
, it molds Everett's raucous energy into a narrative shape, taking us through a story about her love life, her family, and her relationship to her semi-stardom.
<em>Rock Bottom</em> also boasts some A-list collaborators. Everett co-wrote most of the songs with Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, the team behind <em>Hairspray</em> and <em>Smash</em>, and they bring an unmistakable sense of showmanship to the script and score.
Crucially, though, Shaiman and Wittman are working on Everett's behalf, and her style is at the forefront. "Our job initially was to work as songwriters with her and turn it into a more theatrical experience instead of a pure rock and roll one," says Wittman, who also directs this production.
"We were encouraging that side of her," Shaiman adds. "She doesn't want to be too slick---"
"---or too cabaret," Wittman continues. "She's her own creature. But she wanted to talk about her father, and the Tender Moments show was maybe not the place for it. So another part of our job was to create an arc for this that would give you a more emotional connection."<!--more-->
That stylistic mingling makes sense, considering how <em>Rock Bottom </em>got started. It was commissioned through New York Voices, a series at Joe's Pub that encourages musicians and cabaret artists to develop theatre projects. As part of the commission, performers are paired with theatre pros who can support their individual voices, and together, the team creates a brand new work.
Since it was launched in 2011, New York Voices has hosted everyone from singer-songwriter Angelique Kidjo to virtuoso banjoist Abigail Washburn, and this season's participants include singer-songwriters Dawn Landes and Martha Redbone. Some New York Voices projects, like Everett's, go on to full productions, but the program's goal is less about producing new hits than giving more people a chance to be heard.
"We're surrounded by artists that we feel have the ability to change the conversation about what kind of theatre gets created, whose voices are represented, and which kinds of music and forms are being used on stage," says Shanta Thake, the director of Joe's Pub.
As an example, she points to No Place to Go
, a boundary-blurring
rock concert/book musical about the stress of being unemployed. The show, written by performer and bandleader Ethan Lipton, was part of the first New York Voices season. It's gone on to win an Obie and enjoy productions all over the world, making Lipton a striking new voice in the musical theatre conversation.
But while it's certainly a boon for the "outsider artists," New York Voices also offers something to the theatre vets who get involved. "In the last decade, we've been working on so many projects that are fraught with many producers," says Shaiman. "Bridget is giving us more than we could possibly give her by putting us back in touch with exactly who we always were and how we started. Scott and I started by doing shows on the Lower East Side in the early 80s that are kind of exactly like where Bridget's at. We haven't had a chance to exercise that point of view in a while, so this is very freeing."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Tammy Shell