The Human Spirit

Arizona Onstage combines a song cycle and theater in 'Elegies--Looking Up'

Give Kevin Johnson a few more years, and he'll likely produce the complete works of William Finn. In the recent past, his Arizona Onstage Productions has presented Finn's musicals Falsettoland and A New Brain. There's plenty more Finn out there, including further Falsettos material and the recent hit The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee. But for now, Johnson has something more modest in mind: a mere song cycle, taking as its subjects loss and life thereafter.

Elegies--Looking Up is the almost oxymoronic title of the set, requiring five singers and a piano but, Johnson promises, no stools and nobody dressed in black, the clichés of similar plotless musical-theater revues.

"It's a fully staged show," Johnson insists, "a combination of a song cycle and a theater piece. There's not a direct story line, but you get to know the characters in the show, and they end up interacting in the songs."

A New Brain and the Falsettos series are Finn's efforts at thinly disguised autobiography. Elegies drops all the disguises; these songs are explicitly about Finn, his family and friends. Names are named. We are assured, for example, that producer-director Joe Papp never took crap (surely one of musical theater's more unusual rhymes), and we are introduced to such members of Finn's ever-shrinking circle as filmmaker Bill Sherwood (Parting Glances, where Steve Buscemi got his start) and composer-performer Jack Eric Williams.

Johnson assures us that you don't have to be a gay New York theater insider to understand what these songs are about. "In each song," he says, "the audience can find somebody in their life that they can relate the musical picture to. There are a lot of universal themes in the show.

"It's not necessarily about the people they're singing about; it's about their persona and the energy and love they gave someone. We may not have known Joe Papp, but we've known somebody like him who was determined, no matter what, to get something done."

Some of the songs reminisce about, say, a wonderful family Passover meal held decades ago, or the long-boarded-up Korean market across the street. Then there's a catalog of the dogs in Finn's life. But there are also more harrowing subjects, including one of Finn's last car rides with his dying mother, and people losing loved ones to AIDS and Sept. 11.

"But this goes beyond grief," says Johnson, "to look at people's ability to find joy and light in situations that are so dark, seeing stars where most people would see a cloudy sky when you're faced with these obstacles. It's about what the human spirit can do. People call for tickets and ask if this is just a bunch of songs about dead people. Absolutely not. It's about people we've lost, but also how we've found them in another person, or gone on with our lives to find another place to live, physically or emotionally."

Imagine Dame Janet Baker singing Mahler's Kindertotenlieder in counterpoint with Eric Idle, nailed to a cross, chirping "Always Look on the Bright Side of Life" at the end of The Life of Brian.

Johnson almost didn't get to have a go at Elegies. "William Finn is very protective of his work," he says. "When I first applied for this, I was turned down, because I didn't have a full Equity cast." In other words, the rights holders wanted to restrict Elegies to fully professional, union productions. "So I wrote a letter back and said, 'I'm an Equity director,' and I quoted some reviews from our past shows. Finally, I got an e-mail back saying, 'Send in your check.' It never hurts to ask twice, or six times.

"Even then, I wasn't going to do this show unless I could find the right cast. I did."

That cast includes veteran Betty Craig, the Betty Buckley of Tucson; she worked with Johnson last year in Finn's A New Brain, as did Joseph Topmiller (he played the priest) and Diane Thomas (she was the bag lady). Johnson discovered Marcus Terrell Smith last year in the UA's production of Sideshow. "He's a strikingly handsome man with a beautiful voice, very expressive and very fun to watch on stage," says Johnson. A complete newcomer is Kit Runge, who recently moved here from New Jersey. "He has an amazingly beautiful, very John Raitt voice," says Johnson.

And, as Johnson continues to stress, this is not going to be 90 minutes of leaning against the piano and crooning under a follow-spot. "It's not a cruise ship show," he insists. "I worked at Six Flags for too many years; I've gone way past that."

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