Entertainment » Theatre

Director Jen Wineman mocks roller disco craze with love

by Robert Nesti
EDGE National Arts & Entertainment Editor
Tuesday Jun 26, 2012

When roller skating met disco, a craze was born. That was in the late 1970s, when skating rinks equipped themselves with sound systems and DJs - and spandex tops, Daisy Dukes, headbands and knee socks followed. It wasn't long before Hollywood picked up on the cultural trend. The opening moments of the 1980 Village People musical "Can't Stop the Music" featured a very young Steve Guttenberg skating down a Manhattan avenue; while an even bigger musical, "Xanadu," featured Olivia Newton-John playing a demi-God (don't ask) that comes down to Earth to help a hunky skater realize his dream of opening a roller disco.

Both films were dismissed by critics and opened to middling box office results; though both ultimately charmed many and in the ensuing years became cult classics. In 2008, "Xanadu" was turned into a camp sensation on Broadway, running for more than a year and subsequently touring the country.

But if you think that "Xanadu" marked the beginning and end of the roller-disco stage musical, think again. "Roller Boogie," a lesser-known title, released in 1979, became the basis of Roller Disco The Musical!, a new show currently at Oberon on Wednesday and Thursday nights through August with plans of heading to New York. And you've got to see it.

Oddly, the plots of both "Xanadu" and "Roller Boogie" centered around the fate of roller skating rinks in Venice, California. But whereas "Xanadu" was a major release with a budget of $20 million (it would barely break even at the box office), "Roller Boogie" was a B-movie all the way, released by the little-known Compass International Features and featuring Linda Blair, who was in a career tail-spin after achieving acclaim (and an Oscar nomination) some six years earlier in "The Exorcist." As she said in an interview, her career "went down faster than the Titanic."

After it opened in December 1979, Janet Maslin in the New York Times opened her review of "Roller Boogie" this way: "A warm hearty welcome to ’Roller Boogie,’ the dopiest movie of the year. This is a film about blithe young Californians who skate, just skate, that’s all they do..." About Ms. Blair, she wrote: "Miss Blair plays a disgustingly carefree rich girl who spends the movie’s saddest moments running away from home and sleeping in her lonely sports car. She’s supposedly a brilliant flutist, but a musical career means nothing to her (’So what, I’m a musical genius. What a drag!’)."

But "Roller Boogie" nonetheless found a home on cable television as the years passed, which is how Jen Wineman saw the film in 2005. "I first saw ’Roller Boogie’ on the WB one afternoon at my old apartment in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. I was supposed to be cleaning my apartment and packing to leave for a summer at the Williamstown Theatre Festival in the Berkshires, but instead I abandoned my housework and just sat on the edge of my bed, watching this movie in disbelief. How had I never seen this?"

Disbelief led to curiosity and ultimately creation, resulting in a stage adaptation co-written with Sam Forman and Eli Bolin named, to use its full title: "Roller Disco The Musical! (The Unauthorized Parody of Roller Boogie, the Classic Film that Inspired a Generation...for Like Five Minutes)."

Since it opened last month at the Oberon in Cambridge, it is has received considerable buzz, as well as some startling good reviews. Our critic wrote: "’Roller Disco’ is anything but subtle. Over-the-top performances, campy staging, plus a disregard for the fourth wall make up this production, and it works surprisingly well. By not aiming for a higher goal, it reaches one. The good-natured vibe of it all makes for what most would find a superior experience to watching the film." While the Boston Globe put it this way: "Director and choreographer Jen Wineman clearly adores all this nonsense, since she’s replicated it in loving detail at Oberon... ’Roller Disco’ is gloriously silly, and gloriously funny. You don’t even have to have seen ’Roller Boogie’ to love it."

The show may seem a stretch for Wineman, who graduated from Yale School of Drama in 2010 and is co-founder and board member of Studio 42, a New York based theater company that focuses on producing "unproducible" new works by emerging artists. According to Wineman’s website, some of her previous credits include two plays by Sarah Ruhl, a stage adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s novel "Orlando" and "Late: a cowboy song," as well as Shakespeare’s "The Tempest," Annie Weisman’s "Be Aggressive," and Kim Rosenstock’s new play "Every Other Hamlet in the Universe." She is also developing "Devil in the Hole," a new musical written by Stephanie Dodd and Justin Badger, which received a workshop at Skybox last March, and "The Hunchback of Seville," a new play by Charise Castro Smith, which was presented by New Georges this past April.

Currently, though, Wineman’s first love is "Roller Boogie," which she discussed with EDGE at a recent interview.

Why adapt the film?

EDGE: What is it about the film that made you want to adapt it to the stage?

Jen Wineman: The thing that struck me most was how serious everyone was about roller skating. In the world of this movie, roller skating is an Olympic sport, and the hero, Bobby James - renamed Johnny Max for our purposes - is dreaming of making the team. I found that hilarious. The stakes in the movie are so high, high enough that I could easily see all of the places where characters could burst into song. ’Roller Boogie’ just seemed like it was begging to made into a musical parody.

EDGE: But how do you parody something that is already essentially self-parody?

Jen Wineman: I actually maintain that the movie ’Roller Boogie’ takes itself quite seriously. It’s one of the most earnest pieces of filmmaking I’ve ever seen! It’s a lot of people really meaning it, and there’s no irony to be found anywhere.

With our parody, we wanted to send up the style of the original and also poke fun at the moment in history from which it comes. We basically jammed as many 1979-themed jokes into the script and lyrics as we could. You’ll find everything from jokes about Jimmy Carter to Liberace, and from Imelda Marcos to ’Apocalypse Now.’ I’d call it a fond parody-we are mocking ’Roller Boogie’ with love.

Directing on skates

EDGE: ’Xanadu’ is also about a roller disco at Venice Beach - how is this show different?

Jen Wineman: The biggest difference between ’Roller Disco The Musical!’ and the stage version of ’Xanadu’ is that our show has 14 original songs (18 if you include all the reprises). ’Xanadu’ is a jukebox musical. ’Roller Disco’ composer Eli Bolin has created a score that is reminiscent of the late 1970s style, but it all feels distinctly original. Eli is so good at writing music that feels like a hit you just haven’t heard before, and Sam Forman’s lyrics are very funny and smart. The other difference is that every single actor (there are 11) is on roller skates for the entire show. Even the "grown-up" characters who hate roller skating are on skates. The comic potential is exponentially increased when everyone is on wheels.

EDGE: Do you roller skate?

Jen Wineman: I do roller skate, but definitely not as well as the actors do. Raised outside of Philadelphia, I grew up skating at CN Skate Palace in Aston, PA, and at Radnor Rolls in Radnor, PA. It was pretty much the thing to do on the weekends in the 80’s. There is also a reservoir behind my parents’ house, and since there was still winter in those days, we would spend the cold months ice skating in the backyard.

So I’m pretty comfortable on skates, but it had been awhile, and early on, I decided to direct the show wearing skates in rehearsal. Whenever I choreograph a play or musical, it is important to me that I understand the mechanics of what I’m asking the actors to do. Being on skates the whole time has been essential... it’s also a ton of fun, and I might have to direct on skates from now on.

Skates vs. blades

EDGE: Are skates better than blades?

Jen Wineman: Skates are far superior to blades in all ways. Sorry, Roller Blading Industry!

EDGE: Is it true you’ve spent 15 hours a day for the past few months on roller skates?

Jen Wineman: I have spent the last 5 weeks on skates for 6 hours a day. So, close! The actors, however, have been on skates every day since the beginning of March. When I cast them in early March, I sent them a list of skills they would need to be able to do by day one of rehearsal. They trained on their own for two months before we even started rehearsing.

Here is the list I sent them:

  • skate smoothly and comfortably at a variety of speeds
  • skate down a ramp easily
  • stop (without slamming into the wall)
  • skate backwards
  • spin around 360 degrees
  • squat down while skating forward
  • skate forward while doing an arabesque

    Tricky moves?

    EDGE: You are directing, choreographing and co-writing the book. How do your various roles impact each other?

    Jen Wineman: It’s been great. Being involved in so many aspects of the production has meant that the flavor of the comedy is consistent between the acting, the writing, and the movement. Our goal has always been to make this show as funny as possible. Sam Forman and I went through several drafts of the book before we ever started rehearsal, but we always knew things would change once we were working with actors.

    For most of our process, Sam has been down in Baltimore, where he is a staff writer on ’House of Cards,’ Beau Willimon’s new Netflix TV show starring Kevin Spacey. He gave me the go ahead to make edits to the book as I saw fit. Quite frequently in rehearsal, an idea for a new line will pop into my head or into an actor’s head, and it’s really fun that I’m able to simply add it on the fly. Some of the funniest stuff has come from rehearsal, so I’ve loved having the freedom to tailor the lines and the choreography to the actors and what they bring to the table.

    EDGE: Is it difficult incorporating the skating moves (jumps, spins, etc.) in the choreography?

    Jen Wineman: It’s actually been a lot easier than I thought. The actors all came into rehearsal pretty comfortable on skates, but with 6 hours a day of rehearsal, they have gotten better and better. We staged the show in order, so the choreography started out pretty simple. Then we would go back and add more complicated moves as their skills developed.

    Everyone skates

    EDGE: Is it difficult teaching the moves to the cast?

    Jen Wineman: Whenever I choreograph anything, I am most interested in capitalizing on the skills of the people I am working with. Each actor brings specific things they’re good at.

    For example: some can do cartwheels on skates, some are really flexible, some are great at lifts, some can spin forever, some can do jumps, etc. In many cases, I would set the movement on the actors. Occasionally I would put it to them to create a piece of the dance. I like working that way because this cast has such good ideas, and when actors get to generate their own movement, they feel more ownership over their performances.

    EDGE: How did you meet your collaborators Sam Forman and Eli Bolin?

    Jen Wineman: I met Sam Forman in 2006 when our mutual friend, director Alex Timbers (’Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson,’ ’Peter and the Starcatcher’) introduced us because he knew I was looking for a book writer/lyricist to collaborate with on ’Roller Disco The Musical!.’ Sam and I connected right away, and he introduced me to Eli Bolin at an event at Ensemble Studio Theatre shortly thereafter. At that event, I got to hear Eli play some of his music, and I knew right away that he would be perfect for this show.

    Singing on wheels

    EDGE: What’s been the biggest challenge so far?

    Jen Wineman: I think the biggest challenge for the actors has been learning how to sing while on skates. Everything you learn about proper vocal technique goes out the window when you are on wheels. Also, we are all used to keeping the rhythm with our feet, but when your feet have wheels attached to them, the whole game changes. Our music director, James O’Leary, keenly observed this issue early on and has been working ever since to help the actors find ways to sing healthily and to keep the tempo of the music while on skates. It helped that he wore skates too while he taught the actors the music!

    Oberon’s the place

    EDGE: Why try out in Cambridge at Oberon?

    Jen Wineman: When I was in my first year of the MFA directing program at Yale School of Drama, Diane Paulus and Randy Weiner (creators of ’The Donkey Show’) taught a month-long course in self-producing and pitching to the directors. Because he and Diane had done ’The Donkey Show’ all over the country to such great success for so many years, I thought Randy would have some insight as to whether or not my idea for a musical parody of ’Roller Boogie’ held any water.

    Not only did he think it was a great idea, but about 18 months later when Diane got hired as the new artistic director at the A.R.T., he got in touch with me about bringing the show to Oberon - the second stage at the A.R.T. that was to become the new home for ’The Donkey Show’ in Cambridge. Additionally, it turned out that Ariane Barbanell - a dear friend of mine from my undergraduate days at Vassar College - was about to become the associate producer of Oberon. Diane, Randy, and Ari have done an amazing job of turning Oberon into THE place for immersive, groundbreaking theater in Boston, and it just felt like the right place to grow this show.

    EDGE: Why did you cast Jacqui Grilli and Ahmad Maksoud, who play the musical’s leads, Debbie Sinclair and Johnny Max?

    Jen Wineman: Not only are Jacqui and Ahmad both wonderful singers and dancers, but they both seemed to "get" exactly what the tone of the show was from the moment we met them. They both understood intrinsically the sensibility we were aiming for: over-the-top, completely earnest, a little bit weird, and just plain funny. They are natural comedians, and I knew that with the two of them leading the cast, we were in for a hilarious production!

    Roller Disco: the Musical! continues through August 30, 2012 on Wednesday and Thursday nights at Oberon, 2 Arrow Street, Cambridge, MA. For more information, visit the Oberon website or the Roller Disco the Musical! Website.

    Robert Nesti can be reached at rnesti@edgemedianetwork.com.


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