Ray Leslee
Ray Leslee
Two years before the world heard Jerry Herman's song "Avenue A" for Mrs. Santa Claus, and nine years before it heard Robert Lopez and Jeff Marx's Avenue Q, a musical called Avenue X opened at Playwrights Horizons. The 1994 show, with book and lyrics by John Jiler and music by Ray Leslee, told the story of racial tension between Blacks and Italians in 1963 Brooklyn. What made it sui generis, though, was that it was an a cappella musical. No musician needed to apply for work here.

Those who missed Avenue X the first time have another chance -- thanks to a new troupe, the Dreamlight Theatre Company, which is presenting a limited run, March 1-18, at the 45th Street Theatre. I recently spoke to Leslee about the past, present, and future of the show.

THEATERMANIA: How did this production happen?

RAY LESLEE: We got a call out of the blue from a director named Chip Klose and a producer named Chad Hudson. And the funny thing is, I'd been thinking about Avenue X over the last few months, because I was in Vienna with my new musical, A Good Man, that I wrote with Philip S. Goodman. Talk about trying out out-of-town! It takes place after the second World War, in Mississippi, where a black farm worker wants to paint his house white, which drives the white people in town crazy, because they feel they should be the only ones with white houses.

TM: So the racial aspect made you think of Avenue X?

RL: No. It's because two years ago, we were at this same theater, the Wiener Kammeroper, with Avenue X. The Financial Times of London said, "To hell with Johann Strauss; the show to see this season is Avenue X."

TM: You must have loved that.

RL: Well, it wasn't my favorite quote. I preferred the one on Variety.com that said, "The show recouped its modest investment of $185,000 in less than a month."

M: Did you actually grow up on Avenue X in Brooklyn?

RL: Two blocks away from it. But I did actually go to school right on it, at Sheepshead Bay High. I grew up in the 1960s with rock 'n' roll on the street, just like the characters in the show. That was when the line across the street was a clear border. Italians who for a few generations had lived in Bensonhurst and Bay Ridge saw the city projects go up and watched Blacks from Harlem and the Bronx move in, because they thought it was an oasis. It wasn't.

TM: But through music, they could come together.

RL: Yes. Think of all that rich Italian music: church music, secular music, the rich folk music that every voice major has to study. On the other side of the street is gospel, jazz, and blues. Each other's music makes them have respect for each other. They might be chasing each other and fighting in the park, but when they hear each other's music, they're impressed.

TM: How did you meet John Jiler?

RL: Through a mutual friend, Jack Eric Williams (the original Beadle in Sweeney Todd). John was a reporter for The Village Voice who covered the Bensonhurst Trials. He wanted to do a musical about something like that, and it took us a few false starts before we got to what became Avenue X.

TM: Did the idea of doing it a cappella come up early?

RL: Yes, and it was an economical consideration, too. This was the Miss Saigon era, when things were getting expensive, so we wanted to be the "Anti-Musical." We used to joke that our helicopter was the scene in the park where we had the battle of the Blacks and Italians trying to out-sing each other. We figured with eight characters we wouldn't be any more expensive than an eight-character play. I did write a piano part for rehearsals, but it usually gets dropped quickly, to get the singers on their own. It isn't easy. Eight actors are vocally naked and must lean on each other, because they don't get any support from a band.

TM: Did the musicians' union chide you for writing a show that had no need for its members?

RL: Not at all, although I don't know if they'd feel so inclined if we went to Broadway. At least we're not replacing instruments with synthesizers.

TM: Have you made any changes for this production?

RL: Yes. Life is different in 2007 than it was in the mid-1990s. Think of how the immigrant population has changed. Though the same issues arise about mutual respect and self-respect, we knew we had a very idealistic story. People can mistake the idealism for sentiment and naiveté, and we wanted to make sure they didn't, so we revised the book a little, though the story is essentially the same.

TM: Now how does a boy growing up near Avenue X get interested in Broadway?

RL: I wasn't. I played piano with a lot of rock groups in the '60s and '70s, like Jay and the Americans and the Platters when I was still a teenager. My heroes were Brahms, Chick Corea, and Jimi Hendrix. The history of musical theater is still something I don't know much about. I don't come from the same lineage as Stephen Sondheim, who can credit Richard Rodgers for starting his career. Though I have to say that Sondheim's been a great help to me and was one of the biggest supporters of Avenue X. He was head of the Richard Rodgers Award committee which gave the show a push that started the ball rolling. I'm on the committee myself now, and have been for 10 years, and it's all because of him. Why he always took a great interest in me, I don't know, but I'm glad and grateful.

TM: That doesn't fully answer my question.

RL: After I went to Manhattan School of Music to study classical music, I went to the University of Buffalo to study more. They threw me out because I thought I knew more than them. So now I'm this hippie kid in 1972 just walking around, and I see a sign that the Puerto Rican Studies Club production of Jesus Christ Superstar needs a musical director. I went up and got the job, and that was it for me. There was something about the marriage of story and music that freaked me out. I'd been performing with famous people, my first gig at 17 was in Madison Square Garden, the next was in front of 100,000 people in Central Park, but I got more thrills seeing story and song come together. I can understand why Mozart was drawn to opera.

TM: By the way, if I wanted to get to Avenue X, what train would I take?

RL: That's a more interesting question than you think -- because it's the Q train.