The Masters of Disaster
If you have seen such classic 1970s films as "The Poseidon Adventure," or "The Towering Inferno," you’re sure to get an extra chuckle or two out of "DISASTER!," the hilarious musical comedy now playing Off-Broadway at Theatre at St. Luke’s. Similarly, if you are an aficionado of that decade’s most memorable music, you’ll probably be mouthing the lyrics in between your guffaws. But the beauty of the show, say its co-creators Seth Rudetsky and Jack Plotnick, is that no prior knowledge of anything is needed to enjoy the show. Just a great a sense of humor.
"We didn’t want to do just a parody of those great disaster movies," says Plotnick, who serves as the show’s director. "Instead, we wanted to create a new story with new, real characters you could care about, although they were based on the archetypes from those movies. These people all have rich lives." Adds Rudetsky, who plays the straight-laced (and shockingly straight) disaster expert Ted in the show: "Everyone on the stage has a journey, and by the end, every character changes and learns something about love because of the disaster they’re involved in. And it was important to us that audiences question how everyone will survive - or if everyone will survive. Like in those movies, some people the audience cares about really do die."
The disaster in question involves a group of people who are trapped on a floating casino that eventually goes upside down after an earthquake. However, killer bees, nasty rats, and carnivorous piranhas also play their parts in terrorizing the ship’s inhabitants, who include a gambling-addicted nun, a down-on-her-luck R&B diva, a sultry lounge singer with plucky twin kids, a hunky waiter and his estranged ex-fiancee (who happens to be a plucky journalist), and an older woman with a secret terminal illness.
"I’ve always been obsessed with disaster movies. So my friend Drew Geraci and I were going to do a musical based on the 1977 blackout. But then we thought, ’what a boring disaster,’" says Rudetsky. "So we decided why not use elements from every disaster movie ever. However, we never got around to writing it. Then a few years ago, this big charity, Only Make Believe, asked me write something for this big event and I thought it was a perfect opportunity to finally do this show. At the same time, I was doing another event with Jack and told him my idea, and he made me start writing it. Eventually, he and I wrote the whole show in just two month. After that event, we did two readings with a Broadway producer, and then my husband, James Wesley, suggested we do a run at the Triad, where we did it a few times last year. And now we’re doing it again at St. Luke’s."
In addition to the brilliantly byzantine plot, the true genius of "Disaster" is how it cleverly weaves in so many of the 1970s greatest hits, from Gilbert O’ Sullivan’s maudlin ballad "Alone Again Naturally" to the disco classic "Knock on Wood" to Barry Manilow’s irresistible "Daybreak."
"When I first started working on it, Drew gave me a compilation of songs of like 900 songs from the 1970," says Rudetsky. "So I would listen at the gym and become obsessed with some of these songs. For example, I fell in love with James Taylor and Carly Simon’s ’Mockingbird," so I decided maybe I’ll find a way where I am forced to echo someone in the show. Or there was one time when I was listening to this music while I was walking my dog, and I heard France Joli’s ’Come to Me." And I immediately thought, ’What if one character had to sing "baby, come to me.’"
"The most important thing to us was that we never wanted a song to just feel shoehorned in, just because we love it," adds Plotnick. "So every lyric had to make sense, without changing them. The funny thing is some people who don’t know these songs actually think they were written just for the show."
Plotnick and Rudetsky are quick to give the show’s cast ample credit for making the most out of the script and the songs. "I subscribe to the Charles Busch way of casting a show. Originally, I called all my friends and gathered them in my apartment," says Rudetsky. "Then as we worked on the show the first time, some of the roles were tailored to the talents. However, a lot of the original people couldn’t do it for this run, so we had to rethink things."
In doing so, Rudetsky and Plotnick were able to assemble a top-notch ensemble, which includes Tony Award nominee Mary Testa, Broadway veterans Michele Ragusa, Tom Riis Farrell, Haven Burton, and a host of other scene-stealers. "John Tracey Egan and Jennifer Simard who was just in my husband’s show, ’Unbroken Circle,’" says Rudetsky. "The kid, Jonah Verdon, sent us a YouTube video from Atlanta and then flew up here to audition. We got so lucky with Matt Farcher, who plays our hero Chad. He just came in on an open call. And what’s so great is that so many of these people have come up with stuff we never would have thought of. They are really comic geniuses."