The Wizard of Squonk
Squonk honks its horn as it arrives on Broadway.
They say that the crooked path is the way of genius, and if that's true, then Bill Repicci has brains to spare. As the producer and general manager of Squonk, a trippy blend of Monty Python and Pink Floyd from the Rust Belt, Repicci has nurtured this quirky group of performers and taken them on an unlikely journey from fringe obscurity to the bright lights of the Great White Way.
And that's no small feat. For years now, the yellow brick road to Broadway has been washed out, accessible only by the gilded helicopters of high-concept, big-money productions. Squonk's new show, Bigsmorgasbordwunderwerk, which brought the house down at Off-Off Broadway's PS 122 this past summer, is now re-opening on the famed way, and poised to break the proverbial, ossified mold into itty-bitty pieces.
"The best way to break into the theater is with your friends. It all depends on whose wing you're under," Repicci muses, emphasizing his belief in the camaraderie theater creates, and recalling his own unlikely origins as a theater producer, after spending eight-and-a-half years as a clinical psychologist in the wilds of central Alaska. "I was the Director of Services for People with Disabilities. Theater was just an avocation," he remembers.
Successful and fulfilled, Repicci didn't seek out the theater--it sought him. During a trip to New York, he met a man handing out fliers in a downtown bar. That man turned out to be Stuart Ross, who was soon to produce the enormously successful musical Forever Plaid. Through Ross, Repicci discovered the Off-Broadway show Creeps, a play about cerebral palsy. "Producing that play was humbling. It was written by someone who really illuminated the needs of cerebral palsy patients," Repicci says, adding that the show combined his love for the stage and his commitment to the disabled. Repicci brought the cast up to Fairbanks, Alaska, where it was so well received that he then took the show to Denver. By that point, the producing bug had bit.
Now Repicci made a beeline back to New York, where, for the past decade, he has produced and developed shows both Off-Broadway and Off-Off Broadway. His impressive resume includes such shows as Nancy Reagan: It's Still My Turn, Carnal Knowledge, and Swingtime Canteen, in which he collaborated with downtown icon Charles Busch.
What's his formula for success? Focus groups or big names? "It's all about the hunch," Repicci concedes. Like a detective following a lead, the producer is armed with only a gut reaction to material, along with the hope and belief that he or she sees something in the work that other people don't see as yet. It's a romantic notion: The producer as dreamer-capitalist, as holy gambler, pouring both raised and often personal funds into a win-big--or a lose-bigger--venture.
When Repicci discovered the original Squonk members in Toronto, it was an instant love connection. "They were performing a fifteen minute set, and I was on them immediately," Repicci says. "I'm very linear in my thinking, but these people free-associate, they think out of the box. " Since then, Repicci has navigated the group through workshops, helped to streamline their repertoire into complete evenings of material, and introduced them to the New York theater world. One might suspect that the five-member troupe, who survived on grant and tour money before establishing commercial backing, would be spoiled by their recent success. But it seems that Squonk only spoils those who come into contact with them. When talking about the group, Repicci glows with pride. "You can't engineer this kind of synergy".
Not that it's been all smooth sailing: Stifling directors were an issue. "One valuable lesson that I learned was what not to do. Don't try and take creative control," says Repicci. But eventually they found Tom Diamond, the final cornerstone in the team's foundation, under whose leadership the show received raves from Times critic Ben Brantley. Just as important was the group's potent mixture of moxie, pluck and luck.
Originally planning an Off-Broadway run, Repicci was initially concerned because all of the major Off-Broadway houses were rented. So, on a whim, he submitted a proposal to the Helen Hayes Theater, where the ill-fated comedy Epic Proportions was soon to close. The proposal arrived the very day the owners of the Helen Hayes were deciding what show should fill the theater. The rest, as they say, is history.
In one of the most highly competitive Broadway seasons in a generation--a season in which even Main Stem mega-producers like Cameron Mackintosh can't get a stage--the arrival of Squonk on Broadway is more than an aberration, it's virtually unprecedented. Only a bare handful of shows have ever made it from Off-Off Broadway to Broadway--Torch Song Trilogy and the Willow Cabin Theatre Company's production of Wilder, Wilder, Wilder are among the few members of this tiny club--and none of them, one could argue, are as cosmically, kinetically offbeat or as wildly and vividly original as Squonk. The piece may well represent a bonafide breakthrough as one of the first of a new generation of audience-friendly, younger-skewing shows that have managed to inch their way onto the Broadway stage. From a small troupe with big dreams, to a small troupe with a bright reality, they join with some remarkable brethren--productions like The Donkey Show and De La Guarda--as the latest in a string of wondrous theatrical success stories with humble origins.