Why rising musical-theater writer Joe Iconis hates the ‘jukebox musical’

Joe Iconis performs with 'The Family.' (Monica Simoes)
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Alex Seedman

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"The best musicals are really just the best plays.”

So said Joe Iconis, the 30-year-old Garden City-native and writer of musical-theater pieces with names like The Plant That Ate Dirty Socks and Bloodsong of Love: The Rock 'n' Roll Spaghetti Western, in an interview with Capital this weekend.

Iconis doesn't write jukebox musicals, those thinly-plotted storylines that stitch the minorest narrative with the aim of speedily moving the musical from one well-known Who or Abba pop-rock hit to the next with all the subtlety and attention of porn plots stitching together sex scenes. He doesn't write musical adaptations of movies, or musical adaptations of movies that are adaptations of musicals, or of television shows.

“People’s attention spans have shrunk,” Iconis said. “So now, for most musicals, it’s about getting to the next number. So book-writing has become all about that. Just getting to the next big song. But bad musicals are always, 100 percent of the time, a bad book issue."

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Of course, to him, the storytelling has to happen at the right pace using both text and song.

"There are some playwrights who think they want to put their play to music, but to do that, it's sort of having your stuff cannibalized by a composer-lyricist," he said. "Because that's how you're telling your story. I've done some playwrighting as well, and it's just a totally different animal."

But it means that when Iconis is working on the book and the songs, he's usually doing both.

Iconis’ works will be showcased next week at the New York Musical Theatre Festival under the name “3 Rounds with Joe Iconis and Family.”

It's a trope often used in Iconis performances; he bills his co-conspirators "The Family," a group that consists of a varied bunch of some two dozen stage friends, famous and less so, who share his interest in the less commercial side of musical theater.

And in fact the "family" is not just a group of people that sings his songs at recitals when he can get them together at Joe's Pub. Iconis said he uses this group to help him develop his pieces from the ground up.

"When I first got into musical theater, I didn't quite know how I was going to negotiate the stuff I wanted to write with music-theater performers, [who] are really good, but not always human," he said. "So when I started working, I started to meet other actors who I loved who had the same ideas of musical theatre that I did."

He then lets them help form the characters he's written.

"In new musical theater, it's rare to see things developed with the same group of actors [who perform them for the public]," he said. ""In musical theatre, it's so often the writer who is the only one tied to that thing. I think there's not usually a huge amount of connection between the writers and actors.

"I've worked with actors who are just like, 'Tell me what to do,'" he said, "which is totally valid, but it's just not how I want to work."

Iconis reaches for his inspiration to the artistic merit of musical theatre—the sort of expression that has found a place on the contemporary stage in shows like Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Title of Show. Musicals to be sure, but musicals with a real plot, with real writing in them.

“I want to make it impossible for people to check out. [My musical style] is about the energy…and it doesn’t feel smarmy. It’s just not musical theatre for people who hate musicals.”

This formula has won Iconis three Drama Desk awards and, since 2006, has won the Jonathan Larson Award, the Daryl Roth Award, the Backstage Bistro Award, and the Nightlife Award.

The kind of work he does, he said, is not sustainable without such critical praise; he's been able to make his living from it, now, full-time, and without resorting to too many tricks or giving up the inspirations of his youth, a mixture of Little Shop of Horrors and Robert Altman, especially the 1975 musical black comedy Nashville.

It's plain enough to see then how he might bring those to bear on a musical adaptation of Nancy McArthur's 1988 preteen novel, The Plant that Ate Dirty Socks to create a family rock musical about a pair of brothers who learn to get along and get along with the plants, too. (Iconis would have been seven years old when the book came out.)

“I’m most interested in telling stories and giving weight to people who wouldn’t normally have that weight given to them," Iconis said. "I think that’s different from a lot of musical theatre where the emotion is so big. I love writing about people who maybe don’t have those emotions and maybe wonder why they don’t have them."

Iconis is one of those artists who seem to forever be on the verge of a breakthrough, which is a difficult spot. One review of Bloodsong of Love attested that "he’s worthy of his buzz," while another of the same show calls him "the best musical theatre writer that the public has never heard of."

It's hard to find and sustain a large audience for his brand of story-driven theater; but Iconis goes further, to say that the propensity of Broadway to place its bets on the other stuff actually crowds musical innovation, like his, out.

“[Jukebox musicals] make it harder for other things to exist because it’s so expensive to go to theatre, and so much of theatre depends on people coming from other places," he said. "So if it costs $600 for a small family to see a show, they’ll see a show like The Addams Family, because they know it.”

If jukebox musicals and multimillion-dollar stunt-operas weren't there, Iconis argues, the audiences would still come.

Witness the critically-bashed Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark. All signs suggest that show won't go dark for quite a long time.