Joe DiPietro and David Bryan interview - 'The Toxic Avenger is outrageous'
Ahead of its West End premiere, we sat down with Joe DiPietro and David Bryan (the writing team behind Memphis) to talk about their show The Toxic Avenger, how the Arts Theatre compares to performing for 120,000 people with Bon Jovi, and their upcoming musical project based on the life of Princess Diana.
The show first premiered nine years ago next week, how did it first come about?
Joe DiPietro: We’d just written Memphis and we were looking for a comedy to do, something small and weird after Memphis was so big and weighty. We were approached by Lloyd Kaufman who is the crazy mad genius behind Troma films. We watched the movie and we loved the premise of it, so we said we need creative control to structure it as a musical. To our shock, Lloyd said yes. And we thought, “oh sh*t, we have to do this now”. We wound up having a blast and writing the show really quickly.
David Bryan: It was just really fun.
Did you know each other growing up?
DB: Nope, we were a couple of smells away.
JD: A New Jersey joke! No, we met after I wrote the script to Memphis and was looking for someone to write the music.
Were there many references to your hometown and have you had to change them for a London audience?
JD: Oh yeah. When Katy [Lipson, producer] and Benji said they wanted to do the show in the UK, we gave them permission to place the show in the worst polluted town in London. But they came back to us and said “oh no, everyone knows New Jersey”. But we did work with them to change some of the lines, because it needs to connect right away with the audience. So there’s one joke about the Hudson River which we changed to the Thames.
DA: I play all over the world and I have people in Hong Kong say to me “oh, you’re from Jersey”.
The Toxic Avenger has been described as “so wrong it’s right”. What did you take inspiration from for the musical?
DB: Just comedy really. We grew up on comedy. George Carlin, Monty Python, Richard Pyror.
JD: We have the same comedy background in that we both used to listen to comedians on vinyl. There are shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Urinetown, too. The Toxic Avenger is sort of in that vein, but we take it further. It’s more outrageous.
If people saw the show at Southwark Playhouse, what can they expect from this West End production? Will anything be different at all?
DB: I saw it at Southwark and the neat thing is that when it’s good writing, it’s good writing and then actors bring their own performance to it. At Southwark, Benji [Sperring, director] was a great director and he used those actors to their strengths. And he does the same with these actors. It’s different, but it’s still funny. There’s also a little more money in production, so we have more lights and things like that.
JD: The band is fabulous, the design is beautiful, the lights are like a full-on light show. Benji and his designers have done a great job.
David, last week you were playing in front of 120,000 people in Brazil with Bon Jovi, and now you’re watching your musical be performed to 350 people at the Arts Theatre. Can you compare those two experiences?
DB: Exactly the same. [laughs] They’re polar opposites in one way, and exactly the same in others. When you’re on stage, you have so much energy,, but when you’re watching a musical you’re sitting and watching the cast do it with that same energy. It’s great because I can take everything I love from my world, and bring it into this world. If I walk on stage and I suck, it’s my fault. If we come out here and they suck, it’s not my fault.
It’s oddly fitting for a musical about pollution to be in London at the moment given the Mayor has just declared a pollution alert in the city. Does the musical try and tackle any of the big issues?
DA: We totally knew about that…
JD: The thing with this show is that global warming has increased since we wrote it. Which is great for the show, even if it is terrible for the Earth. [laughs] This is a show meant to entertain people, but it does have a message about global warming.
You're both are working on a musical about Princess Diana at the moment…?
JD: Yes. I was reading a book about her and I thought ‘this is an amazing story about an amazing woman’. She has this aspirational aspect to her where she really wanted to do good. I thought it was a great idea for a musical, I asked around to see if anyone was doing it – no one was - so David and I just jumped into it. We have a producer and a Tony Award-winning director and I think we’ll be premiering in a regional theatre next year. It’s very much about marriage. The four main characters are her, Charles, Camilla and the Queen, it’s not about anything else. I think it helps that we’re two guys from New Jersey because we just see them as people in this human story.
Do you think you have to be careful and treat a character like Princess Diana with care?
DA: We don’t have royalty in the US, so for us it’s just fairytale princesses and stuff like that. For us, it’s really just about the human story. It just happens to be about royals. Everyone who saw the first reading of the show agreed that it was really a human story.
The Toxic Avenger is at the Arts Theatre until 3rd December.
The Toxic Avenger Tickets are available now.