Theater News

Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens

Director-lyricist Bill Russell and producer Bruce Robert Harris on the upcoming, star-studded benefit performance of the legendary AIDS musical.

Bill Russell has the distinction of having co-written a few shows that hold special places in the hearts of musical theater aficionados even though–for various reasons–they didn’t run very long in their original productions. One example is Pageant, a hilarious parody of beauty contests wherein the female hopefuls are played by men in drag. Another example is Side Show, the “Siamese twin” musical that amassed an army of fiercely loyal devotees even though it only lasted a few months on Broadway.

And then there’s Elegies for Angels, Punks, and Raging Queens–a sad, funny, extraordinarily moving musical theater piece about people lost to AIDS. First seen Off-Off Broadway in 1987, the show is now to be revived as a one-night-only, all-star benefit for the Momentum AIDS Project in the Haft Theatre at the Fashion Institute of Technology on Monday evening, April 2. The list of Broadway, TV, and film stars scheduled to perform includes Deborah Yates, David Drake, Mario Cantone, Brian d’Arcy James, Norm Lewis, Orfeh, Christopher Durang, Joe Piscopo, Marian Seldes, Julia Murney, Fisher Stevens, Veanne Cox, Stephen Spinella, Alice Ripley, and Emily Skinner.

Elegies was inspired by the enormous Names Project quilt that memorializes AIDS victims, and by Edgar Lee Masters’ Spoon River Anthology. “I was interested in writing a theater piece using verse,” Russell recalls. “When I saw the quilt in Washington in 1987, the idea came together to do a Spoon River of AIDS. We started developing the material; then I did a reading with just five actors.” One of those actors was Justin Ross, who took the project to the downtown theater company TWEED. “They were doing a festival of new works at the time,” says Russell, “and they told me they’d like to do Elegies.”

Soon, the scope of the production grew beyond Russell’s imagination. “I had conceived the piece with a few actors playing multiple roles,” he explains, “but TWEED owed favors to a lot of actors. So they said, ‘How about casting one person in each role?’ I thought I would lose my mind if we did that–I was going to direct the show–but they kept insisting. Finally, I thought: ‘How many times will I get to work with a cast of that size? It could be really exciting.’ When I finally said yes, I felt like I had jumped off the end of a cliff, but it turned out to be absolutely wonderful. Now, of course, I don’t want to do the show any other way. Theaters come to me and say, ‘We want to do Elegies but we can’t do it with 35 people. Can we cut the cast down?’ And I say, ‘No!’ ”

The upcoming gala benefit is billed as the first major American revival of Elegies since the original production. Its mastermind is Bruce Robert Harris, who has been working on the project for almost two years. “When I first approached Bill Russell,” Harris relates, “he said, ‘What makes you think you can do this? Nobody’s been able to do it since it was first done in New York in 1987?’ I told him it’s a passion of mine; I think the show is brilliant and it should be seen. And using it as a benefit for the Momentum AIDS Project is a wonderful fit.

“The show has 32 monologues,” Harris continues. “Interspersed between the monologues are 10 songs with lyrics by Bill and music by Janet Hood. Most of the characters are dead from AIDS, and they come back to talk about their panels in the Names Project quilt. That quilt traveled around the globe; we’re actually going to have two panels from it flown in from San Francisco, and they’ll be displayed on stage for our production.”

Harris describes Elegies as “a tapestry of the lives of people afflicted with AIDS. It’s a real cross section. One of the characters is a secretary who doesn’t know how she got AIDS; then there’s a nurse who got it through a pinprick in a hospital. The characters are lesbians, gay men, heterosexuals, drag queens, cross-gendered–there’s one of just about everything. The songs tie together the relationships of the characters. One of the songs, ‘My Brother Used to Live in San Francisco,’ was recorded by Emily Skinner for her new album, and she’ll be singing it again for us.”

Along with everyone else involved in this remount of Elegies, Harris is acutely aware of the show’s pertinence; he notes that the orchestrations for the show are by James Raitt, “a wonderful gentlemen” who died of AIDS several years ago. “I’ve been in lots of shows that have raised money for AIDS,” Harris says. “I’ve also done Broadway Bares for Jerry Mitchell and I’ve danced for DRA [Dancers Responding to AIDS]. But I wanted to do a benefit where the content of the show had something to do with the reason for the event.” Bill Russell points out that, aside from its subject matter, “Elegies is a good vehicle for an AIDS benefit because it’s relatively easy to put together; it doesn’t demand a lot of time from any one performer, and there are no sets. I work separately with each actor, then we have a put-together rehearsal and a dress/tech. That’s it!”

The continued need for events like this was recently brought home to Bruce Harris yet again. “I was in a meeting with people from the Momentum Project when I got a phone call from my partner,” he remembers. “He was calling to tell me that a friend of ours had just died suddenly from AIDS–a very close friend who had shared a house with us on Fire Island. I couldn’t continue the meeting. That’s why I have such a passion for this project: We’re in the year 2001, and we have to have a new awareness of AIDS. A lot of people feel that the epidemic is over, but it’s not over. I’m very pleased to work with Momentum, because they try to get PWAs back on their feet. It’s a wonderful organization.”

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