In terms of theater development time, "These Paper Bullets," went from notion to motion at warp speed, which suits the kinetic nature of this musical, "modish rip-off" of Shakespeare's 'Much Ado About Nothing."
"It wasn't a normal process like when you work on a script for five years —- or even two," says director Jackson Gay of Yale Repertory Theatre's big musical production. "(Previews begin March 14 at University Theater in New Haven. The show opens March 20 and runs through April 5.)
"And it's gi-normous," says playwright Rolin Jones, who is "hijacking and smacking" the Bard's romantic comedy.
Gay —- who staged Jones' Pulitzer Prize-finalist play "The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow" at the Rep in 2006 —- was approached early last year to work on a Shakespeare project for the Yale Rep.
Gay started talking about possible plays by the Bard with her old pal Jones, who remembered Kenneth Branagh's 1993 film version of "Much Ado About Nothing." When the triumphant returning soldiers arrive at the Italian villa in the film, the reaction reminded Jones of "The Beatles coming to town." Jones and Gay started riffing about adapting the work to Beatles-era Liverpool in 1964.
"Then things just clicked into place," he says. "You'd be surprised how well Liverpool accents fit into Shakespeare's words."
Instead of four lads coming back from the war, it's four lads who've just 'conquered' America. Instead of an Italian estate, this version is set in a hotel where the band [here called the Quartos] is surrounded by screaming, libidinous fans —- and the lads can't escape to cut their next album.
"There is a lot of music in it but it's not a 'musical,' " says Gay. "It's all done in the context of a real band on stage performing the music."
Ah yes, the music.
Jones, 41, was already writing the screenplay for the film adaptation of Broadway's "American Idiot," based in the Green Day's album of the same name.
He emailed Billie Joe Armstrong, the band's front man, to see if he could write a few songs for the show.
"It was a moonshot," says Jones. "I wrote saying, 'I'm doing a regional theater production of a play and you'll never get paid anything and the show will probably die right after it opens and blah blah blah.' And I pressed 'send.' I immediately got an email back saying, 'Let me get this straight, man. I'm going to re-write the Beatles and you're gong to rewrite Shakespeare?' And I said, 'Yeah, that's sort of the gig.' And he said he was totally down for it."
Armstrong started sending some songs he had archived in his home studio, "songs that weren't appropriate for Green Day," says Jones "but songs that sounded like they were literally from [The Beatles' album] 'Rubber Soul' —- and they were great. Three days later I had the first song Billie wrote especially for the show. He had two new songs done before I wrote a word for the show, though we did have an outline."
Armstrong also liked the title, which comes from a Shakespearean speech by the character of Benedick in "Much Ado." ("Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humor?")
"Billie said it sounded like the title of a punk rock album," says Jones.
Armstrong eventually contributed eight songs to the show, five are performed live by the actors in the quartet who play their own instruments: David Wilson Barnes, Bryan Fenkart, Lucas Papaelias and James Barry. Orchestrations and arrangements are by Tony Award-winner Tom Kitt, who did similar duties for Broadway's "American Idiot." The music director is Julie McBride.
There are also three songs that are presented in the show on juke boxes, on record or on film, that Armstrong pre-recorded in his own studio, playing all the parts. Two of the songs were tunes Armstrong had written but that had not been used for any other project.
Jones says he wouldn't be surprised if a song or two found their way onto a Green Day album in the future.