GIVING IT UP

12.14.11

Lysistrata Jones: Broadway's Naughty New Musical

The musical Lysistrata Jones is a delightful cross between Mean Girls and High School Musical featuring contemporary barbs aimed at everything from the iPhone’s Siri to Newt Gingrich. The director and stars dish to Marlow Stern about the best show not named Book of Mormon.

The way to a man’s heart may not be through his stomach—if it’s his attention you’re after, best to hit him where it hurts.

To prove that point back in June, more than 250 women in the remote town of Barbacoas in southwest Colombia took part in what they called the “Crossed Legs Strike,” refusing to sleep with their partners until the government agreed to pave the town’s only access road. Three months later, a group of women in rural Mindinao Island in the Philippines banded together, withholding sex from their husbands in an effort to quash decades of bloodshed between the local villages.

At the Walter Kerr Theatre in Midtown Manhattan, a group of coquettish coeds have chosen to wage their own “sex jihad” on a squad of apathetic athletes. Based on a book by Tony-nominated playwright Douglas Carter Beane (The Little Dog Laughed) and helmed by Tony-nominated director/choreographer Dan Knechtges (Xanadu), the Broadway musical Lysistrata Jones, which began previews on Nov. 12 and opens on Dec. 14, puts a naughty, 21st century twist on one of Aristophanes’ only surviving plays, Lysistrata—a comedy about an Athenian woman who persuaded her fellow Greek ladies to withhold sex from their warrior-men in order to achieve peace during The Peloponnesian War. “Like Glee and the wonderful Broadway hit The Book of Mormon, Lysistrata Jones suggests that sneering at the pop corniness of old-fashioned musicals is so over,” wrote The New York Times’ theater critic Ben Brantley, adding,  “Lysistrata Jones is having too much fun to be merely cool.” It also happens to be the best new musical on Broadway.

The show centers on Lysistrata (Patti Murin)—or “Lyssie J.”—a transfer student at the fictional Athens University, whose men’s basketball team hasn’t won a game in 33 years. Wanting to put an end to their culture of defeatism, Lyssie joins forces with Robin (Lindsay Nicole Chambers), a library assistant/poetry slammer/pariah with an Annie-like mop of red curly hair, to convince the rest of the school cheerleading squad to shoot down the sexual advances of their basketball playing boyfriends until the team wins a game, pledging: “I promise to be strong… no matter how hard, no matter how long.” Naturally, this doesn’t go over well with the fellas, led by team Capt. Mick (Josh Segarra). A delightfully immature battle of the sexes ensues.

Despite its ancient roots, the play is as contemporary as they come. At one point the girls, desperate to gain the upper hand against the guys, consult the iPhone app Siri to help them find a local whorehouse; the new school mascot, who has a bit of a thing for Lyssie, is a liberal blogger for the website leftnut.org; there’s a gay tryst; the queen bee’s cheerleading co-conspirators are a multiracial group made up of black, Asian, and Latino gals; there’s sexting, and even a risqué pole dancing number. Plus, there’s a particular joke that’s constantly changing depending on which sex scandal is in the news.

Video screenshot

“Right now we’re using Newt Gingrich, but a few weeks ago it was Herman Cain,” said Murin, herself an ex-Syracuse University cheerleader, in an interview with The Daily Beast. “What is pretty great about it is we have a lot of really current jokes and also, for instance, this joke about Kitty Dukakis that never fails to get a huge laugh. So there are jokes that people of all ages can enjoy.”

The musical’s road to Broadway began two years ago at the Dallas Theater Center. Back then, the show was called Giving It Up, but the name was soon changed to Lysistrata Jones to avoid confusion with another cheerleading play.

“The interesting thing about Dallas is we had grandmothers bringing their grandkids to the show—and this was in the Bible belt, so we thought we’d get strung up outside the courthouse!” director/choreographer Knechtges told The Daily Beast. “But they were really enjoying it. If you’re not pushing buttons, it’s generally not funny.”

Then, the play went on hiatus to iron out all the kinks, returning in April for a series of intimate, 99-seat performances at the Judson Memorial Church in downtown New York City. Sell-outs and critical raves ensued, and before long, the show made it to the bright lights of Broadway.

“I think we were trying for American Pie meets High School Musical,” said Knechtges. “Something a little bit naughty to send up the apathy in American culture.”

And it’s precisely the play’s naughty streak that makes Lysistrata Jones stand out from the current crop of Broadway musicals.

“I spoke with Doug and he told me he wrote it as a screenplay in the ‘90s during the American Pie/teen comedies era, and you can definitely see the tendencies towards that,” said Segarra, who also starred in the pilot of the Showtime hit Homeland. “There are lines I love saying every night because I do feel like I’m in American Pie, and I get to go out there and find my inner douche a little bit, which is exciting!”

Adding to its contempo stylings is a live, seven-piece band positioned in the rafters above the basketball court-stage, playing songs that range from sexy funk to go-for-broke ballads like “You Go Your Way”—seemingly a power-pop reimagining of Bob Dylan’s “Most Likely You Go Your Way (And I’ll Go Mine),” accompanied by many ornately choreographed, high-octane dance numbers. And lest we forget Heterai (Liz Mikel), the show’s goddess-narrator who sporadically injects some Motown flavor into the proceedings. With so much zest and sweat emanating from the stage, the show’s two hour and twenty minutes running time go by in a flash.

Plus, who hasn’t ever penalized their partner by withholding sex? 

“Hasn’t everybody?” asks Knechtges, with a laugh. “The comforting thing about the show is that society hasn’t changed all that much in two thousand years, and there’s something annoying in that, and there’s also something comforting in that. To know that people still use sex as a weapon today is a testament to the source material.”