I arranged to meet Bill Russell at a Starbucks in the theatre district. If the character of Bud Frump, the comedic evil nephew in "How to Succeed in Business..." had a good twin, it would be Russell. Warm, funny and energetic -- he doesn't need Starbucks' iced latté to wire him up. His animation is contagious. I have to remember I am the interviewer. This is not the time to share every theatre war story with him. It's time to hear about a remarkable project that has been developing since 1989, which was his personal response to the AIDS crisis.
Russell was in Washington D.C. in October of 1987 for the initial unveiling of the Names Project Quilt, the ever-growing hand-sewn memorial to people who have died from AIDS. Survivors have stitched together individual memorial "patches" which have then been sewn into larger quilts. When displayed, the quilts cover literally acres of ground.
He was so affected by seeing the quilt that he started writing a series of free verse poems as a response. He was familiar with Edgar Lee Masters' "Spoon River Anthology," first. from his studies in high school, then as an actor in college and later when he went on to direct a production of the play.
"At the end of 1987, I had this idea to attempt a "Spoon River" of AIDS using the Quilt as the metaphor the way Masters had used the cemetery in Illinois as a connective metaphor. It started as something of an exercise. I wanted to see if I could write these free verse monologues in the voices of people who had died from AIDS, based on friends and stories I'd heard The first monologue on the CD, parts of that are very autobiographical. I grew up in South Dakota. In that poem, I changed it to North Dakota to protect the guilty.
"As the piece progressed over a number of years and a number of productions, I felt more of a responsibility to show a [wider] array of [characters including survivors in the aftermath of AIDS]. About a third of them were fictionalized for the needs of the show. After I had about ten monologues, I called Janet Hood, who was longtime collaborator and friend and asked her if she'd be interested in writing songs to accompany the monologues and she said yes immediately. About six months into it, we had four songs and about twenty, twenty-five monologues. I did a reading with four actors and a singer and it was very well received. I had always conceived that the show would be done with a small cast and multiple roles because I'm so used to making things economical to produce. "
Justin Ross, from the film of "A Chorus Line" and Russell's first off-Broadway show, "Fourtune", took "Elegies for Angels, Punks and Raging Queens" to a downtown theatre group doing a festival of new works. "They owed a lot of actors favors and asked if I would consider casting one actor in each role. Five actors were a lot, but thirty, I would just lose my mind. I finally thought: how many times am I going to get to work with a large cast? So I said, okay I'll attempt it."
The show ran for two weeks at the Ohio Theatre in Soho and a revised version ran at New York's Rapp Arts Center. "After those two experiences I was married to doing it with a large cast. It's so powerful. Now people approach me and ask if I can cut it down, and I say only if you really have to. In many ways it's my most personal piece...it's my rhythms so it felt right to direct it. I don't normally like to direct my own shows the first time out, but I go back to them. I'm directing "Side Show" at the end of the year in St. Paul and I directed "Pageant" in London."
The Fynsworth Alley CD is taken from a live New York Performance with a high profile cast of Broadway veterans: Bryan Batt, Mario Cantone, Veanne Cox, Brian D'Arcy James, Christopher Durang, Danny Gurwin, Norm Lewis, Jan Maxwell, Stephanie Pope, Alice Ripley, Emily Skinner, Fisher Stevens, Lilias White and dozens of others were in a benefit at FIT's Morris Haft Theatre. The CD contains all the songs from the show, but includes only six of the thirty free verse monologues. In the show itself, monologues segue into song, but on the recording, the monologues are saved for the end.
"Justin and Ken Page did a reading in Los Angeles and a guy in the audience who was living in London arranged to do it at the Kings Head, a fringe theatre with a stage about the size of this table and I directed it with a cast of 33, the largest cast to appear on that stage. After that it transferred to London for a six week run and then it went to the West End to the Critereon, where we had everybody do two monologues and the cast was 21. Earlier productions had only Janet at the piano. For London production and the American CD we have piano, cello and harp. The orchestrations were by James Raitt, just about the last thing he did before he died."
Because of the London production and subsequent London Cast Recording, "Elegies..." was produced all over the UK, Australia, in Germany (in German) and at an all star benefit in Tel Aviv (in Hebrew). "This is the first American recording and I think it will help to raise the profile of the piece here. Sections of it have been used for different benefits. A lot of touring shows do Monday night benefits in whatever city they're in and they use portions of it -- monologues or songs -- but they don't often try to do the whole show."
I ask if the songs sung by "survivors" were consciously written in the present tense and if the past tense monologues were written for the "angels," the voices of those who died. "It wasn't a conscious decision. It's about who's infected and who's affected and who's still living with it. Most of the songs come out of specific monologues. 'My Brother Lived in San Francisco' was based on two lovers who died of AIDS and wanted to be buried together. The sister, who was a lawyer, fought in court so it could happen as they wanted it.
"College kids have grown up with AIDS but they really don't know the history of it. It's interesting how they respond. AIDS awareness has changed radically over the years. It gives AIDS a human face. I have tried to keep the show updated. I've put in changes about medication and treatment and the fact that they don't work for everyone. I didn't want it to be a preachy show.
"I've had feedback from people who hadn't had any experience with people with AIDS; it opens up a whole new world to them. There was a five year period after London when I didn't direct the show and I was asked to direct the show in Montreal. One in English, one in French. In the meantime all these breakthroughs had happened in medications and I thought: is this going to have any relevance? At the time, all this news of reinfections and barebacking was coming up. I went to Montreal and I found it did have pertinence; I found people needed to be reminded of those that have gone through this experience.
"It's so easy now that people aren't dying every week and we aren't going to funerals every week, it's so easy to push that way in the background I really think it's important to touch base with that. It's one of the shaping events of our lives. We've been through such devastating loss that's never going to be completely dealt with" -- for those wondering, this is Russell speaking before the advent of the World Trade Center tragedy -- "and I think it's healthy for us to go there once in a while. So I hope this can be a vehicle for people to do that. It's about loss, and that's universal, whether it's from AIDS or not."
When Russell first started writing, the show was heavily weighted towards gay men. As the show evolved, he felt the work needed to show a broader canvas. "Older people who have no direct experience with AIDS relate to the show because of the way it relates to loss. "I didn't want this to be a dirge. Janet and I wanted it to be celebratory. I often tell my casts that it's easy to get tears with this subject matter, but to get laughs is a real challenge. Without being cheap, I really want laughs. I've had some hilarious moments in hospital rooms with friends who were dying. It's weird how that happens."
As we are about to leave Starbucks, Russell tells me: "Considering the sadness it came from, doing it has been the most joyous experience of my career."Return to Home Page