“Man in the Ceiling” Brings Musical Comedy to Bay Street
By Annette Hinkle
When Bay Street Theater opens the world premiere musical “The Man in the Ceiling” on May 30, it will represent a major milestone for Jules Feiffer — a man who has already had an impressive string of them.
Mr. Feiffer may be best known for his work as a Pulitzer Prize winning editorial cartoonist at the Village Voice. But during the course of his long career, he has also explored other creative outlets by penning film scripts, plays and several children’s books.
And with this production, he gains another moniker — musical book writer.
That’s because this musical version of “The Man in the Ceiling” is based on Mr. Feiffer’s 1994 young adult novel of the same name. The musical comedy tells the story of Jimmy Jibbett, a young boy who doesn’t excel at sports and is a mediocre student, but is an amazing cartoonist. Though he dreams of pursuing a career in cartooning when he grows up, all the adults around him are less than encouraging — all, that is, except for his Uncle Lester who has a secret dream of his own — to be a Broadway musical composer.
In this new role as musical book writer, Mr. Feiffer is one third of a creative triumvirate which also includes composer Andrew Lippa (of “Big Fish” and “The Addams Family” fame), and director Jeffrey Seller (best known as the producer of “Hamilton,” “RENT” and “Avenue Q”).
Though all three are seasoned professionals in their respective fields, this production represents not just a first for Mr. Feiffer as book writer, but for Mr. Lippa and Mr. Seller as well, both of whom are branching out by exploring new roles with this show. In addition to penning the music and lyrics for “The Man in the Ceiling,” (which was presented as a staged reading at Bay Street Theater last spring) Mr. Lippa will star in the play as Uncle Lester, the frustrated composer hoping for his big break on Broadway. Meanwhile for Mr. Seller, who is best known for producing some of Broadway’s biggest hits, takes on his first role as a director with this production.
The idea of these new identities seems somehow fitting given that this musical is about following your passions and dreams. For Mr. Feiffer, the experience has been nothing less than exhilarating — if a long time coming — 20 years to be exact.
Mr. Feiffer explains that the idea for a musical version of “The Man in the Ceiling” first began back in the mid 1990s, not long after the book first came out.
“Someone gave Andrew Lippa the book, he flipped and wanted the rights to do the show,” recalls Mr. Feiffer, who, at the time, had the idea of turning the show into a musical himself in a collaboration with his nephew, who is a composer.
But after working on the project for two years, Mr. Feiffer gave up and he and Mr. Lippa reconnected to begin discussing how they might collaborate on turning “The Man in the Ceiling” into a musical.
“We found out we had a good time working together and started on a first draft. Disney took out an option, had a first reading with an audience then started doing revisions,” says Mr. Feiffer.
But after what he thought was a brilliant launch, the play became bogged down —mired in a series of endless revisions that veered further and further from the original material.
“It got to feel more like a movie than a play and we seemed to be getting away from the story,” says Mr. Feiffer. “Disney decided that I was the problem and they wanted another writer. They couldn’t find one, and it died.”
That was pretty much the end of the story … until Mr. Feiffer moved to Southampton where he began teaching for the MFA in Creative Writing program at Stony Brook Southampton.
“Two or three years after I moved out here, Andrew called me and said he gave the play to Jeffrey Seller, the producer of ‘Rent,’ and ‘Avenue Q,’ and now, this little thing called ‘Hamilton,’ and he wants to direct it and meet you,” says Mr. Feiffer who adds that after getting together, he and Mr. Seller hit it off.
“We agreed that we would try to do it, and what added to the pleasure and excitement was that Jeffrey was out here in Sagaponack,” says Mr. Feiffer, a Shelter Island resident. “So the three of us worked on refashioning and revisiting it and we had terrific chemistry.”
Often, authors are kept out of the process of turning their novels into theatrical productions, but in this case, Mr. Feiffer was an integral part of the work. Fortunately, writing for the stage was not unfamiliar terrain for him.
“I was eager to do it — take a book in a form I thought was perfect, and twist, turn and play with it to make something new, but with the same themes,” says Mr. Feiffer.
In some ways, the musical version of “The Man in the Ceiling “ has taken on added depth, especially in terms of Jimmy’s father, a character Mr. Feiffer describes as a somewhat one-dimensional character in the novel but one that is much more interesting on stage.
“Andrew has written some beautiful lyrics and music that brings him alive. Same thing with Jimmy’s mother. They’re different people now and I think they’re more in-depth,” says Mr. Feiffer who describes his role as being Mr. Lippa’s enabler, giving him what he needs to write songs that tell the story,
“We’ve slipped into a marvelous give and take organically,” he adds.
The same can be true of his relationship with Mr. Seller and together, these three creative powerhouses have been working their hearts out on this project — and having a marvelous time along the way.
“I love working with them. I’m 88 years old and I’m having more fun now than the last 30 or 40 years — maybe ever,” says Mr. Feiffer “As demanding and hard as it is, it’s all a gift to me.”
“That’s what moving to the East End has been and it’s renewed my life in a way,” he adds. “I was on my way to dying — now I’m having this fun, second childhood.”
“The Man in the Ceiling,” with book by Jules Feiffer, music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa, and directed by Jeffrey Seller runs May 30 to June 25 at Bay Street Theater on Long Wharf in Sag Harbor. The production will star Jonah Broscow as Jimmy Jibbett, Andrew Lippa as Uncle Lester, Erin Kommor as Lisi, Brett Gray as Charlie Beemer, Danny Binstock as Father and Nicole Parker as Mother. Bay Street is offering a “Pay What You Can” performance on Tuesday, May 30 with a limited number of tickets will be available at the box office beginning at 11 a.m. Single tickets for all other shows are available by calling (631) 725-9500 or visiting baystreet.org.