“If I was sensible, I would have taken a vacation,” admits Scott Wittman. After all, he has worked for years straight: cowriting songs (with partner Marc Shaiman) for the show-within-a-show on NBC’s Smash and the actual Broadway musical Catch Me if You Can, serving as creative consultant for the new Broadway nightclub 54 Below, directing a club act for Patti LuPone to open the venue next week. But somehow Wittman has now found time to create and direct Jukebox Jackie, a salute to the writer-performer, speed freak, Warhol superstar and transgender pioneer Jackie Curtis. Modern trans icon Justin Vivian Bond headlines the show, backed by downtown stars Bridget Everett and Cole Escola, Hair alum Steel Burkhardt and composer Lance Horne.
Your show is subtitled Snatches of Jackie Curtis—which sounds a little naughty.
Well, he was a naughty girl!
Let’s start with that whole he/she question.
That was Jackie’s famous quote: “I’m not a boy, I’m not a girl—I’m just me, Jackie.” It kind of rocked the world. Jackie would go out in the world with a beard and pancake [makeup] over it. You never knew what you were going to get.
That seems to dovetail well with Justin’s persona.
Originally, Justin and I wanted to work together. And I said, Why don’t we do one of Jackie’s plays? Because they influenced my entire aesthetic when I first came to New York—Jackie was a very strong presence right into the ’80s, at the Pyramid Club and places like that, and I saw a few of the later plays at La MaMa. Jackie was one of [La MaMa founder] Ellen Stewart’s favorites; she let Jackie rehearse a play for, like, six months, and people like Lily Tomlin used to come watch the rehearsals. They became events.
But you’re not doing one of the full plays here?
I asked her cousin, who’s the executor of the estate, to send me everything that Jackie wrote—and boxes came. Handwritten, typed, some of it scrawled, books of poetry that were never published, plays, rewrites of plays, everything. Thousands of pages. So I went through the plays, and I would think, Oh, this is good! What a great monologue!—but then after ten pages, I couldn’t make hide or hair of it, because it’s sort of amphetamine-fueled. So I thought, What if I took that monologue and this scene, and maybe some songs, and collaged them? To make a patchwork of Jackie’s life and the period.
Some credit Jackie with inspiring the glam-rock aesthetic.
Glitter for Jackie was sort of a comment on America. Jackie had a character called the Rouge Frolic, who would come on stage and throw glitter in the air and yell, “Fascination!” So I have 75 pounds of glitter right there. It just came! [Laughs and points at boxes.] You’ll be wallowing in it. Do you know what 75 pounds of glitter is going to do? I was at Studio 54 the year they shot glitter cannons. I still have it in my shoes and between my toes.
Justin has recently taken an active leadership role in the fight for transgender equality.
Justin’s political, and rightly so. It’s hard out there. But there is a very different side of Justin in this; I wanted to unleash the madcap Justin that I first met. And also, Jackie as a poet was very profound—I mean, her poetry borders on Burroughs. It’s just something that needs to be exposed again. And through my travels, I was exposed to Bridget and Cole: These are people that would have been in every play that Jackie did. Jackie would have fallen in love with that talent. And Steel she would have wanted to marry.
Will Justin, then, be playing a version of Jackie?
There’ll sort of be a prism. They are all different versions of Jackie; they all speak as “I.” You never know what Jackie you’ll get. It was fun picking material for all of them to bring out what they do. Cole is a genius. He has a four-page monologue—that was originally done by Robert De Niro in his first job in New York—where he just yells at Justin for four pages without a breath. It’s been a fabulous collaboration with all of them.
The scrappy downtown performance scene is still alive and well with that crowd.
There’s an element of that here, but I think Jackie always wanted a Broadway production out of her life. So I’m kind of giving it a little more spit and polish, like a Night and Day or Rhapsody in Blue biopic of her life. I have Scott Pask, who’s a multiple-Tony winner, designing for it. Rita Ryack, an Oscar nominee, is doing costumes. They just want to play in that glitter box.
Jukebox Jackie plays at La MaMa E.T.C. through June 10.You might also like:
Q&A: Christian Borle on Smash and his Broadway return
New York's 12 most fascinating gender benders
Justin Vivian Bond: true New Yorker
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