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INTERVIEW: Michael Wartofsky Composes a Musical Cupcake

A real-life controversy in Provincetown sparks the idea for this new tuner in Boston. logo
Michael Wartofsky
(© Joel Benjamin Photography)
The new musical, Cupcake, currently running at Club Café in Boston, revolves around an unusual subject: Tom sells cupcakes at a free-spirited seaside resort; but as the law states that street sales of food are taboo, he tries to avoid arrest with the help of locals like the hunky lifeguard and sexy-nerdy librarian who relish Tom's contraband cupcakes.

The musical's composer, Michael Wartofsky, recently spoke with TheaterMania about the project.

THEATERMANIA: This is inspired by the real-life story of a cupcake baker in Provincetown. What made you think it would make for a good musical?
MICHAEL WARTOFSKY: I think it was both how ludicrous the original situation seemed, and the innocence, joy and love of the original cupcake man, Scott Douglas Cunningham, who bakes his cupcakes just wanting to spread the joy. It was a situation in which the letter of the law rather than the spirit of the law seemed to be being enforced.

TM: How closely do you adhere to the facts?
MW: Well, it's really only the newspaper headline, and that there can be a cupcake controversy to begin with! (laughs) Bradley Seeman, the book writer -- who should really be credited with the backbone of the story -- really took it and ran with it. It's based on the type of community life and the sorts of characters you find in Provincetown, which he changed to Summertown just to allow us to use our imaginations a little bit.

TM: Can you talk about the music you're using in the show?
MW: It's a very whimsical story and a whimsical score. What connects all the songs is the sense of melody; some melodic motifs appear and reappear whereas the actual styles of music from song to song do vary quite a bit. There's Beach Boys summer fun kind of music, 1970s rock, a bit of gospel, a sort of military march, a few romantic ballads, and a big samba number that feels like an Annette Funicello beach blanket kind of moment! So, it's very eclectic. But since the spirit of the show is so fun and whimsical, it was a nice chance to showcase so many different styles. I had fun writing these songs with David Reiffel, the lyricist. We worked in the same room for the majority of our songwriting -- which I love to do, and wish I could do all the time.

TM: Tell me a little more about the musical's central character, Tom, and his journey in the show.
MW: Tom is fairly exaggerated in the sense that he's completely adorable, lovable, flirtatious -- he is a cupcake. It's funny, there are characters who really have pivotal turning points in the piece, but he might actually not be one of them. He has his journey, but is more a catalyst for change in Summertown.

TM: What was opening night like for you?
MW: None of us had met Scott [the original cupcake man] until opening night. We let him know early on that we had gotten inspired by his story, and that we really loved what he was doing. And I feel he loves what we are doing, which is really exciting.

TM: How was it to have him sitting in the audience that night?
MW: We have some built-in audience interaction, where Karen MacDonald, who is playing a real estate agent at the time, is able to improvise a little bit. She invited Scott up on stage, supposedly without knowing who he was. Guy Ben-Aharon, our producer and director, sat him in the chair she most often goes to, and she pulled him onstage, and asked him what he did for a living. And he said, "Well, actually I make cupcakes," which was so funny because she wasn't expecting it. But she didn't bat an eye; she just said, "Oh, we have someone in our town who bakes cupcakes too!" She completely stayed in character. It was this really huge meta moment where the true story came in contact with our fictional spin-off.

TM: Do you have a favorite song in the show?
MW: I have a lot of fun with our third number, "The Law Is the Law," which is kind of a 1970s rock shuffle with a blues rock style. In it, Officer Stone states his philosophy on life, which is the law is the law, the law is here to protect you, and there's a reason that the law exists. He makes a really valid point and does it in a heroic 70s rock belt kind of style. Then in the bridge, the other characters -- the life guard and the real estate agent -- distract him by flirting with him, to keep him from noticing the cupcakes that are being sold all around him. So, it's completely ludicrous but it really rocks in this bluesy way so that every time we get to that number I have a great time playing it.

TM: Oh, so you are actually playing the music during the show?
MW: I am! And I don't usually play in public -- because it's really hard! Some of the accompaniments I write are hard to play. But I have really been enjoying the challenge of being the music director for this show.

TM: How fully is it orchestrated?
MW: It's not. This is really a scrappy show. It's in the back room of a bar, and we are using a digital keyboard mostly just on the piano sound, but there are some sound effects. I was a little concerned at first. Aren't people going to expect bass and drums? But everyone else on the team assured me that it actually works just fine.

TM: How did the show end up in this rather non-traditional venue?
MW: We sort of have Abe Rybeck to thank for this. He's the founder of Theater Offensive in Boston, the GLBT queer theater here. He read the script and said, okay, you have to do this in a bar. People have to be drinking. It was such a useful comment, and it's been just great to be in Club Café, as they're cross-promoting with us in such a wonderful way. Their waiters are wearing our T-shirts, and they've come up with half a dozen drinks that are based on our song titles and characters. So, it's just this really fun event. We can set up a mix of cabaret tables and general admission seats in the room, and the actors break the fourth wall a fair amount. We sort of turn the whole room into Summertown.

TM: What's next for you?
MW: I have another show, Car Talk: the Musical!!!, starring Leigh Barrett at Central Square Theater, that is actually going to overlap Cupcake for two weeks in June. For someone who writes new musicals for years and years, and very often has them done at music stands, it's just a complete thrill to have two overlapping productions in Boston. It's a watershed moment. I'm very excited.

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