Theater Preview: Short North Stage Presents Virtual Premiere of Off-Broadway Hit ‘When Pigs Fly’
Current times have forced all of us to be flexible in the face of new regulations, new requirements, and new data. As recently as a couple of months ago when I previewed their moving online adaptation of Andrew Lippa’s John & Jen, Short North Stage still hoped to open their 2020-21 season with the roaring farce Noises Off.
With cases still rising and capacities limited, the company used its network of contacts in the community and in the wider theatrical world, to pivot to a special version of the acclaimed Off-Broadway cabaret review Howard Crabtree’s When Pigs Fly featuring local legend Nina West.
I spoke with artistic director Edward Carignan by zoom about these changes and this production.
“We made this decision really last minute but I’m actually really happy with the pivot we took,” Carignan said. “This project fell into our laps and it all came together very quickly; and I think when that happens, it’s meant to be.”
While looking through his shelves for what plays would make sense as they pivoted to another virtual production, Carignan said, “There’s a real cool magic about this show, because it literally fell off of my bookcase. the cast album in a Tower Records as a kid and I loved it, and then I got the script from Sam French, and it’s just been in my collection for years. I’ve not looked at this script since I was probably 13 years old.”
Revisiting the material, Carignan thought, ”What can we do virtually, what can we do on a green screen and make it effective and make it really good? And this fell down and I was like, “Why not?” So I called Mark Waldrop, who wrote the show. And I said, ‘How do you feel about us doing your show as a virtual production?’”
Waldrop’s response was immediate and enthusiastic.
“He said, ‘I’d actually love to rewrite some of the material to make sense in that world.’ And he’s letting us try out one of the new songs that hasn’t been seen in the production yet,” Carignan sayid. “So it’s kind of neat that we’re getting all this exposure over something that was just a fluke and it happened to work out really well. And then Nina West came on board and we were very excited about that.”
When Pigs Fly came together out of the AIDS crisis.
“It was sort of the culmination of the work of Mark Waldrop and Howard Crabtree,” Carignan said. “[Crabtree] was a costume designer and the show was built around Howard’s vision for costumes. So they had worked on La Cage together on Broadway, and [Waldrop] developed this love for costumes, so they did this off-Broadway show, Whoop-Dee-Doo, [with] a similar idea.
“They refined their collaboration along with the composer Dick Gallagher. They were able to really meld their visions together into this wonderful revue that is so fun, and it is an extremely gay-positive show. All the subtext in the show is about things that affected men in the mid-90s, which was still hugely in the middle of the AIDS crisis. There was no gay marriage. There were a lot of things that were still really being fought for. And this is their way of protesting, by creating fun and funny, hilarious sketches and songs that are based around crazy costumes, but that all have a subtext.”
“There’s a number about a centaur,” Carignan lit up, expounding on an example of the way this absurdist comedy speaks to topical issues, “Who sings this song, ‘Not All Man. Why do the guys look at me weird?; Well, it’s because he’s a centaur, but it’s also, the subtext there is that he’s a gay man and why is he getting teased by his straight friends? So I think, yes, that it really does live in the time period it was created, but it’s so much fun and the numbers are so funny and just really outrageous. Mark’s lyrics are genius and the music is as good as any other off-Broadway musical that you can imagine. It’s fantastic writing.”
Thom Warren – known to Columbus audiences for his performances in Short North Stage hits like La Cage Aux Folles and Pippin, as well as directing an astounding Big Fish at Otterbein – had previous experience with the show and was one Carignan’s first calls.
“We’ve talked about it in years past, but we’re like, ‘Well, the one obstacle is costumes,'” Carignan said. “The show is like built around giant avant-garde crazy costumes: centaurs and animals and superheroes and crazy stuff. Pigs. Expensive, but also extremely difficult to get together in a month. So I [had] this crazy idea that we have all these wonderful avant-garde designers in Columbus and graduates of CCAD – who knows what will happen with High Ball this year? They’re not going to have the same kind of opportunities that they may usually [have.]”
Carignan found strong reception from those corners.
“I reached out to a ton of them and we have a core of six of us, including myself, who are building pieces of the show,” he said. “And the great thing about that is they’re all individual numbers and sketches, so it works like a variety show almost; the fact that everything doesn’t look cohesive actually kind of benefits the show a little bit.”
Carignan talked to me about the challenges of mounting this larger production virtually.
“Jonathan Parks is music directing; he and I were on tour together in Frankenstein in 2012,” he said. “He’s been on the Chicago tour for a long time, but like many musicians he’s out of work, so he’s joining us for this project.”
All rehearsals are happening through the internet, which is a new experience for Carignan.
“We’re filming separately on green screens and melding them together into what will look like a group on stage; it’s kind of neat technology,” Carignan said. “A lot of it’s over my head, I’m trusting those that we’ve hired to work on it. But they have some really cool ideas for how to make a musical work in a void, where we all meet together in this cyber world.”
Along with that process, Carignan said, “Mark [Waldrop]’s rewritten a lot of the scenes and sketches to kind of poke fun and be aware of where we are and what we’re doing. So I think it’s a huge step beyond a Zoom reading because you’re actually seeing choreography and costumes and all the… Full body shots of all the actors and they’re standing next to each other. It’s just they’re in separate places and coming together. I have to say, I never imagined working on something like this in my career and this pandemic threw us a curveball, so we’re trying to reinvent how to make theater during this time. And I think it’s really cool because everyone will be 100% safe.”
Until people are back in the previous numbers, the survival of any cultural arts group is tenuous and Carignan and I talked a little about the benefit aspects of these virtual performances.
“As all of our virtual productions will need to be fundraisers for this theater, not only to keep Short North Stage alive, but to keep the Garden Theater and arts venue that we rent to many dance companies and comedy troupes and things like that, that it’s really important that this stay alive,” Carignan said.
He continued, “Donating right now is very, very important to us. So we’ve created the Zoom launch party, and the cast and myself, the writer, Mark Waldrop, and Nina West herself will be on this Zoom party, and we will be taking questions from the audience about their careers or about the process of creating this musical. And then the following day you’ll be able to stream it from the 21st to the 30th through our website. So donations of $25 or more automatically get an invite to this party, and we’re so excited to host this and have all these people in the conversation about how we’re creating new and innovative theater even in this terrible time.”
When Pigs Fly opens with a Zoom Launch Party on September 20 and is available for on-demand streaming September 21 through 31. For tickets and more info, visit https://www.shortnorthstage.org/when-pigs-fly.