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.
Upping the production's ante, the 19-actor show, commissioned by the Rep, features eight new songs by Green Day's front man Billie Joe Armstrong.
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.
'Hard Day's Night' Feel
"This is really a new play," says Gay.
"What we didn't want to do," says Jones, "is what is often done with Shakespeare: Jam it into some time period and then watch it fall apart about two-thirds of the way through. So we just went for it in our own way. You'll still recognize the general [Shakespearean] architecture of the show but there's also [elements of '60s fashion designer] Mary Quant's autobiography, and Beatles mythology along with 'Much Ado' all smashed together. It's like what rap artists do.
"I think of the Matthew Bourne dance pieces a little bit, too. There's a visual and aural storytelling component to it as well as an overall magical feel. We're also using [the 1964 Beatles' film, directed by Richard Lester] 'A Hard Day's Night' as a sort of template for it."
"There's a lot of irreverence in it," says Gay.
"And youth energy," says Jones. "There's a lot of bodies flying about. And we have dance numbers, too [choreographed by Monica Bill Barnes].
"There's kinetic energy and, like the film, it always walks a line of being bad, too out-of-control. It's hard to pull it off so it's not just a complete mess —- but it borders on it. But that's also Rolin's style. It's always teetering on that edge which is why it's so great."
'Weird' TV Career
Between "Jenny Chow," and last year's off-Broadway production of "The Jammer" —- about the roller derby, which Gay also directed —- Jones has carved out a career writing for television.
Jones, a Yale School of Drama grad, has written and/or produced such high-profile and highly-regarded series as "Weeds," "The United States of Tara," "Friday Night Lights" and "Boardwalk Empire." He will next be producer as well as writer for a new series being developed for AMC: "Knifeman," which begins filming later this year in England for broadcast in 2015.
"It's the first show that I've gotten the keys to," says Jones. "It's about a surgeon in 18th Century London. It's basically 'Bladerunner' without the sidewalks."
"I've been mucking around a bit," jokes Jones about his television career. "It's been great fun. And now I have a few more dollars in my pocket so I'm not worried about living check to check. But it's been a weird career.
"My theater stuff seems to have a stronger aesthetic to it but it's not really any different than the TV stuff. You just have to ask yourself what is the story about and what is the most interesting way to tell it, and then write really interesting scenes for really interesting actors, except now you have 50 hours to tell it instead of two or three. But plays are more difficult to write. Two hours is a lot harder than 60 hours in a weird way.
"I found out very quickly that I had an advantage coming from the theater in writing for television that other people didn't have. [For cable series, the studios] want people who can write really great scenes, not necessarily great plays, that's the thing. But playwrights can do that, too, so they have a competitive advantage, plus they've also worked with actors and directors."
As for his film version of "American Idiot" for Universal Studios, he expects to finish it by the end of March. (Michael Mayer, who staged the 2010 Broadway production, is attached as director for the film project.)
"The idea is to get it a little dirtier and a little nastier and translate it into visual terms," he says. "There's not going to be a lot of dialogue and it probably should be a little shorter, too. After that, it just takes it's 'movie time' in getting done."
THESE PAPER BULLET, now in previews, opens March 20, and continues through April 5 at the University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. Tickets are $20 for previews, and $57 to $98 for regular performances. Information: 203-432-1234 and www.yalerep.org.
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