Of Gods and Basketball

With movie musicals ruling Broadway, Douglas Carter Beane—of Xanadu and Sister Act fame—is hearkening back to a slightly more antique source for his new show, Lysistrata Jones.
December 07, 2011

Next spring, yet another blockbuster film classic will be hurled onto the Broadway stage to dance, sing, and (the producers sure hope) make scads of money. Ghost the Musical, the prospect of this newest Hollywood-Broadway baby, has caused the same eyebrows to rise and eyeballs to roll as many of its older, awkward siblings did. (Anyone remember Big: The Musical?)

But then there was the true surprise of Xanadu, which made the aforementioned brows and balls stop dead in their cynical tracks: a gem of a show, Xanadu won accolades and praise from just about every corner of Gotham, from the gays to the most staid of critics. The man behind it? Douglas Carter Beane, the sly and gifted writer who also co-penned Sister Act, the second Whoopi Goldberg movie to get the B-way treatment after The Color Purple.

But Beane doesn’t want people to think he’s only about the Hollywood Monstercal. True, two of his three Tony nominations were for these musical-based-on-film projects—and he is open to the form in the future, as long as the concept proves worthy in a theatrical setting: “It needs to be a really great take…[to go] beyond what the movie is in many ways.”

Clearly, he made sure this was the case for both Xanadu and Sister Act. But outside of these hits, Beane is also an established playwright (the other Tony nom was for his little play that could, 2006’s hilarious Julie White vehicle The Little Dog Laughed), and this month will see his labor of love two years in the making, Lysistrata Jones, open at the Walter Kerr.

This whimsical and cheeky musical is a bubblegum-popping, teenybopper take on the Aristophanes sex comedy from ancient Greece with an American Pie-style sensibility: an unenthusiastic college basketball team hasn’t won a game in years, and newcomer Lysistrata Jones (or “Lyssie J”) begins a campaign amongst her fellow cheerleaders to withhold sex from the players until they step up their game. “I liked the idea of choral speaking and cheerleading—kind of mixing that up,” says Beane. The decision to update the piece with spunky, sexy young folk and sharp-tongued satire (à la Xanadu) came naturally. The heart of the show, he says, is “about finding out who you are.”

After their Dallas debut in 2010, Beane and his team moved off-Broadway to the Gym at Judson Church this past summer, which was a more-than-perfect venue to fine-tune the show’s awesome spectacle of basketball-formations-meets-choreography conceived by director/choreographer Dan Knechtges. That thread of experimentation continued throughout, keeping things fresh, as Beane admits he was “constantly changing [things]…The last rehearsal before we went into tech [at the Judson], I came up with the ending for the show. That’s pretty major!”

Perhaps the most surprising element in Jones is its relatively small cast—there is no booming Greek chorus here (that would have been too predictable for this inventive writer’s tastes)—populated with not even one big name. “There are eight people in this cast making their Broadway debuts—that’s insane,” notes the playwright. But Beane is more than up for the challenge: “This show is about the energy of a young group…on stage and off.”

And of course, “college boys with boners!” Beane reminds us. This is, after all, the same Lysistrata that saw Greek women depriving their men of sex until they’d agree to end the Peloponnesian War.

Behind the scenes (or Greek columns, as the case may be), there is the love story between Beane and Lysistrata’s lyricist/composer, Lewis Flinn. Beane was smitten with Flinn from “the very first time I met him,” which was over 10 years ago when they worked together on a production of Beane’s Music from a Sparkling Planet. With two kids at home, Beane and Flinn enjoy the private shorthand they share when working together: “We joke-argue with each other, and I love doing that because it really freaks people out…it’s like George and Martha.”

Even with two of his projects currently on Broadway, Beane isn’t slowing down when it comes to upcoming work. The Nance is a play set in the Burlesque scene of 1937, which has piqued the interest of Nathan Lane, and there’s also a musical-revival-meets-revision in the works, which Beane isn’t allowed to talk about just yet: “It’s a revisical!” he quips.

Lysistrata Jones opens December 14 at the Walter Kerr Theater (219 W 48th St). Visit LysistrataJones.com for more info.