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Volume 1, Issue #6
"Stand By For Mars!"
June 2006

The Thunder Child Interviews
The Creators of Area 51: The Musical
March 2-25, 2000
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[Area 51: The Musical ] [Noel Katz: Music] [Tom Carrozza: Book ]

Interview with Tom Carrozza
by Caroline Miniscule

Tom Carrozza played a Bookworm in a play in the first grade, and hasn't stopped acting since. Indeed, he became a member of Actors Equity before he graduated from high school.

He moved to New York City, and after a few months formed The First Amendment Comedy and Improv Theatre. While performing at the Fringe Festival in Scotland he became interested in sketch material. Soon after that he formed the 4-man comedy troop Mental Furniture.

Then he began writing and producing plays, mostly in tiny venues. Among other plays he's written are Plucked From the Wreckage, Flats Fixed, and The Inevitable. He's also taught at HB Studios, Lincoln Center for The Performing Arts, The New School, The Comic Strip, and currently for Second City. [www.tomcarrozza.com]

You're a science fiction fan. I am a sci-fi fan, but not the hard-core kind. I am a devotee of Rod Serling, Isaac Asimov, H.G. Wells (did you know that near the end of his life he started to dabble in comedy?), and certainly any of those black-and-white movies made in the 1950s like The Day the Earth Stood Still and Invasion of the Body Snatchers. I wouldn't call it the Golden Era of cinema, but it was at least Zinc or Tungsten.


Mental Furniture.
Glen Heroy, Jeff Eyres, John Coyle, Tom Carrozza
As an artist I've drawn on that genre a lot. In my 4-man comedy group Mental Furniture we created a stage piece (then a short film) called "Proximity" in which a tiny, black-and-white town was being infected with Leadership Disease, and we touched on many of the components and style-points from that ilk. It's rich turf.

I think science fiction is probably closer to "reality" than other

modes of literature because it fully embraces the psychology and emotion and imagination of an individual, and when you lay down at night, those are the first layers you pass through on your way to sleep. It can catapult you into the giant "What if???" and be shaded with "It already is" at the same time. In sci-fi there is often the stunning realization that it's not "out there" at all, but instead within. Done correctly, it can be very personal.

Please describe the genesis of Area 51. I had written a short sketch called "Area 51 - The Musical!" which actually had a few short songs in it. It was, I thought, a goofy operetta. On episodes of I Love Lucy, they often did tiny musicals. "I am the Queen of the Gypsies! The Gyp Gyp Gyp Gyp Gyp Gyp Gypsies!" Remember? The Carol Burnett Show also often ended with a fake musical, and I've always been impressed by that. They were impeccably done.

I had gotten a frantic call to replace Nick DeMarco in Blair Fell's musical Hunchback Without a Bell which was an insane blend of The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Rebel Without a Cause and it was so much fun, that I had to take another look at what I had written. Noel Katz came to see me in that show, and we glanced at each other and agreed it was worth a go. Upon looking at my script, it was very easy for us to see how to build it into a 2-act show. Many of those original characters made it to the finished product. I'm not so sure about those original songs.

Noel and I met twice a week (Tuesdays and Thursdays from 2-4pm) for a little over a year, each of us doing tons of homework on the other days so we'd have something fresh to bring in each time. It was our intent, perhaps foolishly, to make the show as big as possible. The finished version had a cast of 19, with 18 original songs, and 4 very expensive puppets (that sang doo-wop from their specimen tanks).

The plot, as it turns out, is legally only 1/3 of a musical. The music and lyrics are far more important. So I had to be extremely flexible when my pages hit the floor. It was hard at times, but I was learning too. My storyline changed from week to week but didn't stray too far from what I was going for. As long as Las Vegas is so near to the real Area 51, it was my fervent push to drag that glitz into our tale as well. A guilty pleasure, for sure. A musical comedy like ours is built on 1000% WHIMSY. It's one thing to say, "I'm going to write a splashy musical" and quite another to actually do it. You have to be very lgiht-hearted about these things, or the tension will appear in the finished show. We often did things just to please ourselves.

Tell me more about these puppets. Every show should have puppets. The Glass Menagerie would have been a lot better if it had 4 blue, foamy puppets, ha-haa! Well, some of them were huge, 6 feet tall. Others were smaller but just as loved. Their voices were not prerecorded, they were operated by actors who were not on stage at the time the puppets sang. I still have all 4 of them. My fear is that I'll die suddenly and when people start going thru my stuff they'll be attacked by them. At one point Noel and Gary suggested we hold an auction for investors who could name each one, but I was too attached to them to let a stranger give them names.
You went to Noel Katz for the music.

Tom Carrozza and Noel Katz at work
Yes, Noel Katz loves Broadway! He knows it inside and out. He is a purist. He wanted no false rhymes in the lyrics and his sense of melody is up there with Cole Porter and Richard Rodgers. He and I also had the same feeling that songs, usually pop songs, get so repetitive so fast, with a chorus that gets sung over and over again, so we tried to move away from that as much as possible. If something was going to repeat, we made sure we structure something new into it so it wouldn't waste stage time.

I did have input musically. He, like any good artist, always wanted to improve what we had, and he wasn't threatened by my ideas. I remember once mentioning that I wished a certain song sounded "hipper" and the next time I saw him, he had taken that note to the max! You really have to keep everything in a fluid form until it is frozen on Opening Night, and he was as happily "open" as anyone I've ever known. Occasionally he'd pop up with a finished song that I didn't see coming, and it was too good to discard, so I guess that was another way the show ended up with so many numbers! Amazing stuff.

You played the role of Bruno. Can you describe a typical performance? How important is the audience's reaction to the overall performance? And the questions get harder. Ouch. Hmm. Yes, I played Bruno Spyngies. From the start I wanted to be in it and Noel didn't seem to mind. But as our start date was nearing we still had no director and privately I told Noel that if I had to, I'd forfeit the role and direct it myself. But miracles do happen in the theatre, and we met Gary Slavin at the very last moment and everyone agreed that his direction (and his hilarious choreography!) was brilliant. Dazzling, even.

I, with the ghost of Florenz Ziegfeld on my shoulder, was also the producer - so performing was only a sliver of my duties. I'd arrive at the theatre at 1pm, do the show at 8pm, then lock it up after the last person left. There are also union rules, like all costumes had to be laundered weekly, and who do you think hauled them off to the cleaners in 3 flimsy boxes?

Laughs are another matter. There were a few times when the company would come up with something that I didn't like but let ride anyway. In the roar and onslaught of a musical, the audience gets hit with so much that one mediocre gag gets quickly lost. We did notes after every performance, and if there was a way to make the laughs bigger, we tried it. Again, I had to remain as flexible as possible for the good of the overall show.

Meek molecular biologist Bruno Spynges (Tom Carrozza) and cub reporter Charly (Mary Denmead) wedding at the finale.
See complete photo on the
Synopsis page.

The show ran from March 2-25, 2000. Did you leave the book alone during the run, or did you let the actors do any improvisation in their roles? We would try little things, but no, the script stayed intact for most of the run. It was a huge load for all of the performers, and improvising new lines or bits would've been too much work. Everyone was concentrating so hard as it was.

Did you have to have a complete orchestra for the show? We had the stupendous Jono Mainelli as our Musical Director (I thought he was way out of our league!) and he brought sensational sounds out of our cast. He was the only musician. He sat at a piano and we wrote in a few tiny bits that threw some focus on him. Ideally, yes, an orchestra of any kind would have been great, but this was a shoestring production and luckily Mr. Mainelli is an orchestra unto himself. Again, we had some major talent in this show. He is awesome and inspiring.
Did you have a particular theater in mind, or did you have to search for one afterwards? I had no theatre in mind. I noticed that Noel and I were almost done with the writing, so secretly I went on a hunt. When I booked the theatre, I sprung it on Noel by saying, "We open in March." I literally saw him gulp, as if to say, "There's no turning back now." I hired a Lighting Specialist and we rented extra lights to give the show a visual range. I'm big on colors.
Are you working on something at the moment? I am always working on something!

All photos supplied by Tom Carrozza and reproduced with permission.
Alien illustration by Stephen Gardner.

[Area 51: The Musical ] [Noel Katz: Music] [Tom Carrozza: Book ]
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