5 Questions: Unwrapping the Riddle in the Enigma of “Julian Po”

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In mutfi: Luba Mason, Chad Kimball and Malcolm Gets in "Julian Po."
In mutfi: Luba Mason, Chad Kimball and Malcolm Gets in "Julian Po."
In mufti: Luba Mason, Chad Kimball and Malcolm Gets in Julian Po / Photos by Steve Rosen

It seems a fair assumption that relatively few attendees at this year’s New York Musical Theatre Festival (NYMF) vividly remember the 1997 Alan Wade film Julian Po, which starred Christian Slater. It seems an even fairer assumption that still fewer people vividly remember the source material for the film: Branimir ≈†ƒáepanoviƒá short novel, La mort de monsieur Golouja. But semi- and near-total obscurity is not the point; what really matters is that the story — about an odd and slightly mordant, mysterious drifter who inserts himself into doings of a small town by announcing his intention to kill himself — has an irresistibly existential attraction. And it therefore makes sense that someone (or someones) would turn into a musical — one that’s a natural for the adventuresome NYMF.

Those someones are longtime collaborators Andrew Barrett, who penned Julian Po‘s book and lyrics, and Ira Antelis, who composed the music. Very much as in the case of Julian Po, their output dares the audience to explore unusual or even surrealistic zones — their newest work is a musical version of Between Time and Timbuktu, based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut.

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And talk about stakes: the dramatic thrust of the piece is less the fact that Julian Po materializes and announces his intentions so much as how the people of the town react to it — and what they may or may not demand of Julian Po in the end.

Julian Po is also a title you should keep on your radar because of the talent that this NYMF production has attracted. Running between July 8 and July 14, it stars Tony nominee Chad Kimball in the title role and features Malcolm Gets (away from New York musicals for too long, we say) and the luminous Luba Mason (among others). Kirsten Sanderson directs, and Mark Hartman provides musical direction.

And now, 5 questions Andrew Barrett and Ira Antelis have never been asked:

1) What’s the most perceptive question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
This very question. It acknowledges that we have been asked many of the same questions over and over. Even though we are always prepared to answer, because what else is a press junket for, we still look forward to that one question that goes where no one else has gone before. It can be so revealing. Unfortunately, now that we’ve recognized your perceptive question we fear our answer has been less than enlightening.

2) What’s the most idiotic question anyone has ever asked you about your work?
We’re not quite sure it was a question. It was said as if it was a question. We’ve discussed and seem to recall the inflection of a question mark at the end of the sentence. However, we were stupefied by it, and still to this day do not believe it was a question. Some context. Recently, we’ve been developing a new musical based on the works of Kurt Vonnegut. We had a two week workshop at The Hanger Theatre in Ithaca, New York. It was the first time their subscription audience and community were invited into the development process. So after each performance, we sat for a Q&A with the audience. We were very impressed with how engaged and insightful the audience was. However, there was this one question/comment that ranks as probably the most idiotic ever asked. In the musical, our leading man finds himself in a courtroom somewhere in the future. The Prosecutor is trying to convince the Jury that the automated world they now live in is the greatest moment in the history of mankind. The scene is based on the book, Player Piano. So when we wrote the song for the Prosecutor, we were inspired by the music that comes from a player piano: ragtime. His song is structured exactly as a traditional ragtime would be. So we’re at the Q&A after the performance and an audience raises her hand and the words come forth as if they are forming a question: “The song the Prosecutor sings — where did you steal that from?” Dead silence. Ira politely says, “It’s original. We wrote it.” And she follows up her question/comment with the following: “No. I’ve heard it before. Where is it from?” In fairness, it was composed so perfectly it does have the echo of the songs that inspired it. Still, she was so convinced she had heard it before. We are not exaggerating. She heard it. We hope she gets to hear it again when the show is produced one day soon.

The stars of "Julian Po" with director Kirsten Sanderson.
Essential existential: the three stars of Julian Po with (second from right) director Kirsten Sanderson

3) What’s the weirdest question anyone has ever asked you about your work?

Andrew: A director asked me about our leading character in the Vonnegut musical: “Can he be gay? He seems terribly obsessed with his mother. He’s gay, isn’t he?” I wrote those exact words down at the audition we were at together. He asked me this after a particularly effeminate actor auditioned for the leading role, and the director was immediately enamored. I had to politely answer that was not my intent, nor Vonnegut’s intent, nor should it be explored. He disagreed with me vehemently.

Ira: The producer wisely removed the director from the project.

Andrew: But it did cause me to reevaluate the character and make sure there was no issue about sexuality hovering within the themes. That is not what the musical is about. He could be gay. Or straight. I don’t care. But his sexuality is not a part of the story. And that director was going to make it a part of the story.

Ira: Yeah, but you added that porn line. When he sees the ballerina he says, “She’s my favorite porn star!”

Andrew: Yes. Because it is a description of sorts of the character, Montana Wildhack, from Slaughterhouse-Five. I stuck to the source material. And I couldn’t resist, in the event another director decides to turn a sociopolitical comedy into a Freudian exploration. Vonnegut world turn over in his grave.

Ira: So in the end, it was a good question.

Andrew: Sure, I admit begrudgingly.

4) What attracted you to this material and, given the enigmatic nature of the central character, what was the most difficult aspect of Julian Po to dramatize?

Andrew: Okay, these are two distinct questions that we will parse out. First, what attracted us to the material?

Ira: (laughing) It’s very Andrew Barrett! It’s funny, it’s quirky, it’s dark, all elements found in most of Andrew’s plays and musicals.

Andrew: And yet it’s very accessible. It was such a perfect fit for Ira’s pop music sensibility.

Ira: When Andrew first sent me the movie to watch I knew immediately what the show would sound like.

Andrew: I had told him it would be a modern-day American myth. That is what attracted me to the material.

Ira: So I based the score on all of the sounds that are uniquely American: blues, pop, country, bluegrass and gospel.

Andrew: Not to mention musical theatre.

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Ira: Of course.

Andrew: Second part: what was the most difficult aspect?

Ira: Cutting.

Andrew: No. Well, it’s never easy. Wait. We need to explain. See, the show was originally two full acts. But then we had a chance to bring it to the Edinburgh Fringe Festival. The only catch, we had to cut it down to 90 minutes.

Ira: Andrew is fearless with the scissors.

Andrew: Thanks. But I didn’t know if it would work.

Ira: It worked.

Andrew: It did.

Ira: Was that answer really what the question asked?

Andrew: (laughing) You answered first!

Ira: Well, what would you say was the most difficult?

Andrew: Henry Leech. We had a different song for him before.

Ira: About the gun.

Andrew: The song was called “My Lilah.” He sang a song about the gun being named after his wife.

Ira: Very Johnny-and-June-Cash-waltz kind of thing.

Andrew: But once he sang the chorus, he really didn’t have anything more to say. I tried countless lyric rewrites on the song. But the waltz tempo was killing me. And then I remembered something Sondheim did in Forum. He took the song “Lovely” that he had written in Act Two and he put it in Act One, so the Act Two version is a reprise. That was the clue. We took the song he sang later in the show and we wrote an “Act One” version of it, as his signature song. It also solidified the essence of Henry’s character, “Men don’t change.” So when he sings, he is always singing the same thing over and over. It’s very satisfying after some hard going.

Will he or won't he? "Julian Po" in rehearsal.
Will he or won’t he? Julian Po in rehearsal

5) What are the differences between this musical, the 1997 film starring Christian Slater and the original source material? Also, isn’t there something about Julian Po that recalls The Visit — the notion of a catalytic figure entering a town and transforming it and, arguably, not for the better?

Andrew: Oh, God, thank you for bringing up Friedrich D√ºrrenmatt. 100% inspired by. If you know that play then you know exactly what you’re in for here. But with our own twist.

Ira: He knows theatre better than me.

Andrew: Well, what do you think the difference is between the movie and our version?

Ira: We dig deeper into the characters’ emotional core with the music.

Andrew: When I saw the movie on TV on that late, late night, I was shouting at the screen, “Stop! That’s where the song goes!”

Ira: I think the other difference is that we really focus on what each townsperson wants from Julian, what happens to them because of him. We actually stop to explore that so maybe we have more, what, empathy for what they choose to do with their lives in the end.

Andrew: That’s very D√ºrrenmatt.

Ira: I’ll take your word for it.

Andrew: Alan Wade’s screenplay focuses more on what it means to create a celebrity and the consequences of a person accepting that role.

Ira: That’s true. There’s also that voiceover, those tape recordings that Julian made in the movie.

Andrew: We stripped it down to: Julian makes an inciting statement; people start to evolve; consequences are paid. The end.

Ira: How the hell are they going to stage the ending in that small theatre?

Andrew: Kirsten (Sanderson, the director) and Stephen (Dobay, the set designer) have some theatrical magic up their sleeves.

Ira: Excellent.

Andrew: Oh, right, the other thing. The book is an existential novella. It’s very much in the ilk of Camus’ The Stranger. That is one of my favorite books of all time. So I had an instant affinity for the source material, which we had to translate from French. The darkness that lies underneath the humor, the ability to disconnect without guilt, and those unanswered questions that linger, linger, linger.

Ira: Yes. That’s very much our show. But funnier.

Bonus question:

6) Under what circumstances is committing suicide an acceptable life option — not for yourself, necessarily, but for mankind in general? And if you don’t believe that suicide is a viable option for a person, how did that belief challenge or facilitate the writing of your show?

Andrew: You sneaky bastards! Make no mistake about it. This is not a show about suicide. Oh, God, can you see the line of ticket buyers now? “Hey honey, let’s go see that suicide musical!”

Ira: That’s not what it’s about.

Andrew: It’s about choosing life. It suggests without judgment that a life being led for someone else’s benefit other than your own is no different then just ending your life completely.

Ira: Conforming is a sort of self imposed death.

Andrew: Exactly. Julian’s statement about suicide is the inciting moment. It’s what propels the story.

Ira: So what do you think about suicide? I never asked you that.

Andrew: According to my father, suicide runs in my family. Apparently I had some insane great, great aunts and uncles who had a habit of killing themselves after synagogue. See, I can’t even say something serious like that without a little humor. Anyway, when I first discovered this story I thought of my father and his crazy Orthodox family (a term he would readily label his ancestors). I’ve always had that inside of me as I’ve mined the truth of this story. What would push a person to that edge? I don’t think it’s relevant what I personally think about suicide, especially not the choice an adult makes for him or herself. What is vital is that I understand Julian and what he is choosing to do every second of his life.

Ira: I have a teenage daughter. I have a young son. I teach them they can come to me, no matter what. I can only speak to my own family. But our American society doesn’t always make it so easy for kids. The need to conform, to fit in, bullies, all that stuff. It seems very American to me.

Andrew: It happens outside of our country. I’m sure that stuff goes on at boarding schools in Switzerland.

Ira: Yeah, but it’s not the lead item on CNN.

Andrew: God, we’ve gotten so depressing. The exact opposite of the show.

Ira: Though this stuff is definitely underneath your writing. I know that.

Andrew: Fair.

Ira: It’s in Julian’s story. You can sense it. He never spells it out. But you believe that the decision he makes is right for him.

Andrew: Regardless of whether I agree with it or not. It’s right for him. And I was never afraid to write about it. I thought, well, suicide is about as funny as the Nazis, okay? If I find the right way in, with integrity, then I think we’re okay. We don’t dwell on it.

Ira: The show is funny as hell.

Andrew: Just like the Nazis!