The state of political satire is in jeopardy.
While Saturday Night Live struggles to address an unfunny war, and the best unintentional parody around involves photo-shopped weasels on the cover of the New York Post , one team of composers has chosen to take another route to controversy by setting their new musical in the blowjob-heavy, war-light days of the Clinton administration.
Monica! The Musical will get its first reading at the Manhattan Theatre Club on May 7. Its creators, Daniel Blau, Adam Blau and Tracie Potochnik, hope that the reading will lead to a stage berth here in New York, where it would join unlikely post-post-ironic musicals such as Debbie Does Dallas , Urinetown and the new Zanna, Don’t!
Mr. Blau, who scored the show that his brother Daniel and Ms. Potochnik wrote, most recently wrote music for Call Us Crazy: The Anne Heche Monologues , in which 14 actresses read verbatim from the actress’ memoir about aliens and her alternate personality, Celestia.
The Heche piece created a hefty ripple in Los Angeles when Ms. Heche and her husband paid a visit to the production halfway through a performance.
“It was a bad moment for her to walk in,” explained Adam guiltily-bad because it was a scene in which all 14 monologists were running around the stage “blathering incoherently.” As reported in gossip columns, Ms. Heche promptly walked out muttering, “This is sick.”
If Ms. Lewinsky is curious about her show, she should arrive late at the Manhattan Theatre Club reading: Only the first act of the three-hour musical will be read there, and the titular White House intern doesn’t appear until 36 pages in.
Instead, Monica! first focuses on Bill Clinton. Growing up in Hope, Ark., the future Commander in Chief is visited for the first time by his personal demon, a woman named Desire.
“I feel I’ve lost my head,” sings young Bill.
“Don’t look too hard for you will find it / Beneath my dress of red,” responds the siren.
Mr. Clinton goes on to college, where he first encounters his wife, future New York State Senator Hillary Rodham Clinton:
“My God, what’s taking hold of me? / I don’t even know her name / Where once it was just my draft card / Now it’s all of me that’s aflame,” rhymes Bill during his first musical encounter with Hillary, entitled “Who Was That Freaky-Deaky Thing?”
At the Brooklyn bar the Gate on April 13, the Blau brothers-Adam, 28, is skinny, bespectacled and hyper; Daniel, 27, is cherubic and on the short side-told The Transom that Monica! began as a musical with a different focus. In 1999, Ms. Potochnik-who lives in Providence, R.I.-and Daniel began trading scenes for a musical based on Ken Starr’s growing investigation into Mr. Clinton’s relationship with Ms. Lewinsky. Later, Adam set some of their lyrics to music, fueling the trio’s belief that they could put a real show together.
The Blaus grew up in Massapequa Park, Long Island, where their mother is a piano teacher and their stepfather a music professor and composer who, they said, helped to invent the first synthesizer.
Adam attended Yale, sang a cappella -think Whiffenpoofs-and spent some time working as a day trader. After realizing that finance wasn’t his bag, he began performing as a solo singer-songwriter and in bands, including VH1’s Bands on the Run group, the Josh Dodes Band. He wrote scores for film and stage and made money by recording demos in the sound studio in his Park Slope apartment.
Daniel went to Vassar, where he met Ms. Potochnik, his “best friend in the universe.” When he graduated, he became an assistant editor at a newsletter for the home-furnishings industry-“literally the most boring writing in the history of printing since papyrus,” he said. Somehow, this led to a job as a contributor to TelevisionWithoutPity.com, a Web site that recaps television episodes in 6,000 words or less. He’s just back from a year in Los Angeles and has rented an apartment at 16th Avenue and 72nd Street in Brooklyn, a neighborhood he refers to as “Delaware.”
The Blaus are the kind of self-aware, well-educated brainiacs who have spent their sporadically employed post-Internet-boom years accumulating pent-up critical energy. Both brothers make self-conscious references to their Long Island upbringing, their love for such lugubrious musicals as Chess and Aspects of Love , and their devotion to Billy Joel.
Mr. Joel does not appear in Monica! , but Tom Jones does. The well-packaged crooner turns up during Bill’s Rhodes scholarship, which the play sets in London.
“The two main reasons I love this town / Are me going up and the girls going down,” Mr. Jones sings.
That Mr. Clinton was actually at Oxford for his Rhodes years is beside the point.
“These events have only the most random relationship to history,” said Daniel.
Which also explains a scene in which a betrothed Hillary finds Janet Reno in the Wellesley College library-it may be unnecessary to point out that the two women didn’t attend Wellesley at the same time-and confronts her about the rumors that she is “a l-l-law student.” Ms. Reno responds by encouraging Ms. Rodham’s curiosity about “p-p-practicing law” and sings to her:
Hillary, you are so young
Your ways are so endearing
Pay attention and my tongue
Will make you feel what you are hearing …
The things you can’t imagine
Soon you’ll want to try them
They’ll come so hard
Catch you off guard
You know you can’t deny them.
The show treats the physical relationship between Ms. Lewinsky and the President with comparative kid gloves. And despite the fact that one of Monica’s lyrics is “My poor dreams do need some dusting …. / Dreams of Presidential thrusting,” the Blaus maintained that they think the newly minted reality-television star is “groovy” and “not a hussy” and that they would “totally love it if she showed up” at the M.T.C. reading.
“Ken Starr is our über- villain , ” said Adam. The Independent Counsel’s big Act I number is “Loser,” in which he croons “I don’t even think I have to mention / That I attend every Star Trek convention.”
The whole Clinton gang is crammed into Monica! The Musical , including Vernon Jordan, Fleetwood Mac, George Stephanopoulos, all three network news anchors and Al Gore, who plays the White House janitor who bucks up the flagging President with the solemn “Never Let Them Wipe Away Your Smile.” The show’s big roof-raiser is Betty Currie’s “Access Denied.”
The reading, which is being presented by New York theater production company Page Seventy-Three, will star a number of the Blaus’ friends and acquaintances, including Jay Douglas, who was recently in the Broadway production of The Full Monty , as Bill Clinton.
Representatives for Mr. Clinton, Senator Clinton and Ms. Lewinsky did not return calls for comment by press time.
The Blau brothers claimed that they aren’t worried about lawsuits.
“After the Anne Heche thing, I have no fear. That was actual plagiarism, with people reading verbatim from a book without having the rights,” said Adam.
“Yeah, this just borrows from the canon of shit everyone finds funny,” said Daniel, who contended that “finding a place to rent cheap music stands is much higher on our list of anxieties than Hillary’s angry lawyers.”
Funny, Shaking Ay-rab
In a low-cut orange dress and dark red lipstick, 26-year-old Maysoon Zayid looked out at the predominantly white, out-of-town crowd at Chelsea’s Gotham Comedy Club on April 10. “Hi,” she said. “I’m a Palestinian Muslim virgin with cerebral palsy from New Jersey. And if you don’t feel better about your life, you should.”
Ms. Zayid, who grew up in Cliffside Park, N.J., doesn’t exactly match the media profile of the oppressed, veil-wearing, Arab Muslim woman. Nor is she the typical image of a comic. She used to be an actress, but after Sept. 11, she said, she turned to stand-up “to dispel some of the myths about Islam … and to remind people that Arabs are still human.”
During a series of 15-minute sets at comedy clubs around the city last week, Ms. Zayid offered up her love life as proof. She told the crowd that she’d recently broken up with “a 39-year-old divorced tambourine player. He’s Palestinian Christian, because I have to find a way to complicate my life even further.” She also explained that her aforementioned virginity was not for lack of offers, but indeed a religious and familial duty.
“My father, whose name is Mousa-Moses in English-has just one commandment: “Thou Shalt Not Fuck My Daughter.”
Badoom-boom! The crowd was visibly startled for a second, followed by some loud guffaws at the back of the room.
Ms. Zayid told The Transom that her interest in comedy began five years ago, after she realized that the profession was more open than acting was to non-conventional performers. (An appearance on the daytime soap As the World Turns was the highlight of her thespian career.) “I looked at Rosie Perez, Rosie O’Donnell, Gilda Radner, and they all began through stand-up,” she said, adding that the late Radner’s style was the closest to her own edgy, profanity-laced repertoire.
But it was after Sept. 11, when being Muslim became, in her word, “scary” that she decided she could help defuse the tension with comedy.
When Tim Halpern, executive producer of the Happy Hour, a weekly stand-up night currently hosted by Porter’s in Chelsea, learned about Ms. Zayid, he said it was “a double whammy …. Not only was she Arab-American, but a female stand-up,” Mr. Halpern explained, adding that he was always ready to sign up comics who didn’t fit into the balding white male category.
“Now’s the time that people need to be able to laugh at the things that are very uncomfortable for them,” he continued. “Maysoon is a very funny lady.”
Not everyone thinks so. After taping an upcoming segment for 20/20 on Arab-American comics, correspondent John Stossel recommended that Ms. Zayid consider therapy to tame her anger. The comic, who said she was careful with everything she said on tape to avoid being cast as a “scary Ay-rab,” said she told Mr. Stossel: “I’m a comic, John … shove it up your ass.” Mr. Stossel told The Observer that his comment was made in jest.
Judging by Ms. Zayid’s recent work schedule, her Arab-American heritage -and shtick-hasn’t been bad for business. “I’ve been busy since Sept. 11, but after the war started, people got skittish. I’ve been asked not to say stuff by certain club owners.”
Meanwhile, Janeane Garofalo is being quoted all over town as having said that in terms of minority status, “Arab” had become “the new black” in America.”
As for Ms. Zayid’s material, she noted that there was something new every day. She recently added a riff to her routine about the Department of Homeland Security’s special registration policy-“Thanks, Mr. Ashcroft, for getting together all the Arab men under 35 in one place for my viewing pleasure”-and a recent visit she made to Palestine (“or Israel, according to political inclination”): “People kept asking me, ‘Are you scared?’ And I said, ‘No, I’m not scared of going to Palestine. I’m scared of going to Newark airport. Not only am I an Ay-rab-you can tell that from my facial hair-I’m a fucking shaking Ay-rab.” Ms. Zayid waved her hands in the air, making light of her cerebral-palsy-related tremors. “Security guys are like”-Ms. Zayid’s voice morphed into a growl-“‘That chick looks real nervous …. ‘”
St. Mark’s Cinderella
Screenwriter Diana Amsterdam, 55, petite and a mother of four, has a helmet of flaxen hair and looks like she could be the librarian at a progressive school. But she’s actually kind of a wild thing.
Her screenplay The Other Woman is a Cinderella story about Buddha Jones, a stripper turned call girl turned well-heeled wife. “Stripping has a kind of power,” said Ms. Amsterdam. “At one point, I would’ve liked to have stripped. But I’m too old now. And I’m married.”
Her script was chosen from some 200 screenplays to be read on the night of April 14 at Theatre 80 on St. Mark’s Place, as part of the 25th anniversary celebration of the New York Women in Film & Television, or NYWIFT.
“Nye-wifffft!” said Cady Huffman, better known as the long-time, long-legged Ulla in The Producers . She read the part of Lara, a Georgia peach who hires Buddha Jones to sleep with her husband so she can sue him for divorce. Wearing a black miniskirt and a sheer blue top with its zipper dangling at her bosom, Ms. Huffman discussed the part. “I liked playing the bad girl tonight-Ulla is such a good girl,” she said. Ms. Huffman said that she was honored to be asked to participate by NYWIFT, and doubtless welcomed the opportunity to spend a Monday night seated.
“My body is very tired of being Ulla. The massages and physical therapy and everything that I have to go through-it’s a full-time job,” she said. She added that she’d love to try on the role of Roxie in Chicago , “even though it’s such a tired old play by now,” and that she’s still very close with The Producers ‘ original cast. The Broderick-Parker spawn is very cute, she divulged: “He has his mother’s body.”
Meanwhile, in the next room, Ms. Amsterdam was raving over Ms. Huffman’s performance and discussing the various muses for the script, in which the slipper comes from Target, the royal balls are male “tenders,” and Buddha Jones’ wicked parents are hippies who live on Long Island. (At the story’s end, they are reformed and swear they’ll start eating fast food.)
“I could see Maggie Gyllenhaal as Buddha Jones,” said Ms. Amsterdam. “I like her self-effacing quality.” And, of course, Jake Gyllenhaal would then be a shoe-in to play Buddha’s brother, Krishna. At the end of the screenplay, Buddha marries her prince-an investment banker-and “is fabulously wealthy and can get all her dreams to come true,” explained Ms. Amsterdam, who said she enjoys G-String Divas . “In an earlier draft of the script, I had Buddha start a striptease school at the end, but I then thought that was a little harsh. It took me a few drafts to figure out what she really wanted.”
NYWIFT’s next screenplay reading, in May, will be about a woman who starts a bed-and-breakfast.
-Anna Jane Grossman
The Transom Also Hears ….
… Luther Vandross ended his weekend with a manicure at Liza Healthy Nail Center on Sunday, April 13. Dressed in a tan bomber jacket and jeans, Mr. Vandross stopped in the Madison Avenue salon around 5 p.m. with two heavy-set pals for some shaping and painting. “He has been a customer for many years,” said the salon’s owner, Liza. “He used to live next to Bloomberg, on 79th between Madison and Fifth, but now he just stops in whenever he’s in town,” she added. After a long conversation about their love of “swashbuckling movies” and how tired they were after the weekend-“You know how coconut cream pie makes you tired!” one of them laughed-the three dried their polish under the salon’s mini nail fans.