Part Two in a Two-Part Series
By Cooper Lawrence
Joe Iconis is sitting at a piano on stage at 54 Below describing a scene from The 40-Year-Old Virgin. He tells us that Steve Carell’s character, Andy, is riding through town pissing everyone off. He’s setting us up to hear his song called, “Andy’s Song” that will be performed by his longtime friend, and star of Be More Chill, George Salazar.
Iconis paints the picture: “Everyone’s honking and there’s crossing guards who are giving him, uh, sh*t… and I didn’t want to say the word sh*t and I don’t know if anyone noticed before I stopped myself before I said, “sh*t” but then I said, “sh*t” and now I’ve said it four times. But it’s a twisted version of Belle from Beauty and The Beast.”
The audience breaks out in the kind of laughter you’d give to a friend who has shared something uniquely private. These nights, aptly named, “Joe Iconis and Family” are a public, yet behind-the-scenes type performance, where Iconis, and some of the biggest names on Broadway, share intimate moments and songs with their eager audience. Iconis’ “Family” is vast but includes boldface names like: Anthony Rapp, Andrew Rannells, Lauren Marcus, and Eric William Morris.
CL: “Joe Iconis and Family” is one of the most fun nights we at TP have ever had at 54 Below. How did it come about?
JI: It initially came out of a desire to have my work on a stage and not want to wait for a producer or a theater to give me “permission.” I’ve always loved seeing live music and I knew I wanted to start doing live gigs that combined elements that I dug from both the cabaret and theater world and the rock’n’roll world.
CL: These nights at 54 Below feel so exclusive and special. How did you create them to be unlike other types of cabaret shows?
JI: When we first started doing the Iconis and Family shows (our first show, called “The Joe Iconis Rock and Roll Jamboree,” was on November 25th 2007 at The Beechman) there just wasn’t any kind of real musical theater concert scene in the way there is now. The stuff that was out there always felt very “recital”-like to me. Like, writers showcasing an evening of their work as an audition to get gigs writing musical versions of popular films.
I wanted to do something that felt specific and unique and could exist as its own beast. And that’s still the guiding principle behind the Iconis and Family shows. Whether we are doing songs from musicals, songs I’ve written or stand-a-lones, the idea is that the audience should be able to have a fully satisfying concert experience and not feel like they are watching a commercial for my work. Iconis and Family is about giving the audience a great concert experience.
CL: We are SUPER excited for the Hunter S. Thompson musical you’ve been working on, how did you choose Thompson as a subject to write about?
JI: I was commissioned to write the show by La Jolla Playhouse over ten years ago (wow, Musical Theater takes a long time, huh?) and I thought Hunter would make a great subject of a musical back then and still do now. I was never an obsessive but I always enjoyed his writing and was fascinated by him as a person. The more I’ve worked on the show, the more I’ve been able to use him as a sort of vessel to look at America in the late 60s/early 70s and how it relates to America today.
CL: You do a great job bringing us the BIG musical while hiding a low-key underlying message. I imagine it’ll be harder to be inconspicuous with Hunter S. Thompson.
JI: There’s always so much happening below the surface in everything I write and I have a natural aversion to bringing that stuff too far to the top or placing neon arrows around it to let everyone know “this Musical is political! This Musical is IMPORTANT!” but I’ve found that since Be More Chill, it’s hard for a certain type of person to see the underlying messages and ideas behind my work. There’s been a political undercurrent in a few things I’ve written (I think Love in Hate Nation is insanely political, its mere existence is political) but The Untitled Unauthorized Hunter S. Thompson Musical is the most overtly political thing I’ve written by far. I mean, Richard Nixon himself sings. That doesn’t mean it’s any good, but it certainly wears its subject matter on its sleeve more than any of my previous stuff has. And it allows me to write about now in a really explicit way.
So much has changed in the world since I first started dreaming about the piece over ten years ago and I think that’s been helpful for me. It has shown me the things that feel universal and unchanging.
CL: Is there a piece of advice that you were given early on in your career that has proven to be accurate?
JI: This wasn’t advice that was given to me personally, but John Waters says of reviews: “Read the bad ones once, read the good ones twice, and put them all away and never look at them again.” That’s been my grail, not just about reviews but every rejection or praise I’ve experienced in this business.
It’s so easy to tie your own worth up in someone else’s opinion of you- whether that’s an outside critic or a collaborator or an agent or a parent. I’ve found that in order to sustain a life in the arts, I simply have to trust my instinct and my sensibility and let that be what guides me. Listen to the praise and criticism and then forget about it because none of it matters.
Watch this space for upcoming Joe Iconis and Family shows at 54 Below once theaters have reopened and when they do, support the heck out of it!