Mall or nothing
A husband-and-wife team satirizes a discount empire in Walmartopia.
Wed Aug 29 2007
Photo: O&M Co.
If you’re looking for subtle political satire, don’t shop at Walmartopia. The new musical wears its message about corporate greed and wage slavery on its sleeve—or, more accurately, on its blue polyester vest. And the creators aren’t making any apologies. “Great political theater can put a situation into a human context, like Angels in America did,” says director Daniel Goldstein. “It’s not about politics so much as how politics affect people. You work this many hours and you can’t afford to feed your kid? That actually happens to people.”
Besides being the nation’s largest private employer, Wal-Mart has been roundly criticized by labor advocates for its treatment of workers and its below-poverty-level pay. At first glance, the discount chain may not seem like a topic that would set voices soaring and toes a-tapping, but the husband-and-wife team of composer-lyricist Andrew Rohn and book writer Catherine Capellaro would beg to differ. Back in Wisconsin, the two have had some success writing about the predicaments of working stiffs: They took on employment agencies in a 2001 musical called Temp Slave. And if Urinetown could musicalize the hegemony of privatized toilets, what could stop label-gun–toting stock boys? Walmartopia actually began as a one-act work about the commercialization of theater. “Then we decided we needed a better villain,” Rohn says. Both he and Capellaro admit that neither has firsthand knowledge of their target: “We’ve had our share of crappy jobs, but we never worked at Wal-Mart,” he confesses.
Inspired by Nickel and Dimed, Barbara Ehrenreich’s alarming book about unskilled workers (which includes a chapter on Wal-Mart), and Liza Featherstone’s Selling Women Short: The Landmark Battle for Workers’ Rights at Wal-Mart, Rohn and Capellaro created a show around Vicki Latrell, a Wal-Mart prole and single mom who speaks out against poor working conditions. When Vicki and her daughter learn about the chain’s plan to take over the world, a mad scientist who has revivified the head of founder Sam Walton time-warps them to 2036, when the behemoth has reached its goal. “If there’s any company that takes to fictionalizing about world domination, it’s Wal-Mart,” Capellaro notes. “They fed us the material—locking their workers in and using child labor and all the various sex-discrimination suits. The policies were horrifying to me, but so rich in material.”
After a run in their hometown of Madison, Wisconsin, Walmartopia had its New York premiere at the 2006 Fringe festival. Madison philanthropist Dale Leibowitz wanted the show to be seen by the masses so badly, she became the lead producer of the current Off Broadway production.
That meant rounds of rewrites. Director Goldstein estimates that about half of the songs were added after the Fringe, and the daughter went from a featured character to a major one. Although here they’re played by African-American performers Cheryl Freeman and Nikki M. James, none of the characters were written with a specific ethnicity in mind. “Except the old white guys have to be old white guys,” Goldstein insists.
For all the class conflict in the material, the authors tried to keep the tone light, especially in rewrites, and they’re watching that the ideology doesn’t eclipse the art. “The show was successful in Madison, where you don’t have to worry about making liberal statements,” Rohn says. “But I think aesthetic considerations outweigh political ones for the New York crowd, so we’ve been working on that.”
“Because the show is campy and crazy, it helps us guard against becoming too strident,” Capellaro adds. “We can’t take ourselves too seriously if we’re not really working in the realm of reality.” For New Yorkers, there may be an added level of unreality, since the city has yet to get a Wal-Mart (don’t worry, it’s probably coming). The creative team, however, can empathize with both the Gothamite and heartland perspectives: They lived here until the mid-’90s before returning to the Midwest, where they’ve been raising their seven-year-old twin sons. Capellaro moonlights as a journalist, and Rohn is a musician and massage therapist. They moved their family here in January to work with Goldstein, but plan to head back shortly after opening night. Their next project? A tuner about the evolution-versus-creationism debate.
Critics and audiences will weigh in on Walmartopia soon, but so far the megachain’s representatives have been silent, even though Capellaro invited them to the show. “I wrote a letter in 2004 that said ‘we’re doing a show that makes fun of you, and if you’d like to see it you’re more than welcome,’ ” she says. “I think they chose not to come for a lot of reasons, but I do know a lot of Wal-Mart workers have seen it and liked it.”
Walmartopia opens Mon 3 at the Minetta Lane Theatre.