Nestled on a quaint tree-lined Chelsea side street within the walls of an 1871 church parish house is the Atlantic Theater Company’s 199-seat Linda Gross Theater. New Yorkers know the Atlantic as a home for solid off-Broadway theater, a place to experience creative, exciting, well-executed plays and musicals in an intimate space. While national theater audiences may not know the Atlantic by name, they have no doubt heard of or seen some of the 150 or so works that found their legs there, including Tony Award-winners “Spring Awakening,” “The Band’s Visit” and “The Beauty Queen of Leenane;” David Mamet’s “American Buffalo;” Howard Korder’s “Boy’s Life;” and many more.
This month, the Atlantic has been transformed into something evocative of Studio 54 and the Mudd Club in 1979 with “This Ain’t No Disco,” a new rock opera with music and lyrics by Stephen Trask (“Hedwig and the Angry Inch”) and Peter Yanowitz (The Wallflowers), and directed by Darko Tresnjak (“A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder,” “Anastasia”). “It’s about the glitz and the grind of the last days of Studio 54 in 1979 and 1980. It’s sexy and raunchy and filthy,” Tresnjak said in a recent interview. It’s “at times glamorous, and then you see the underbelly.”
With a creative team comprised of members whose backgrounds are as varied as they are accomplished (choreographer Camille A. Brown joined the show after recent successes with “Once On This Island” and “NBC’s Jesus Christ Superstar Live”) — and a setting and format that sets it apart on the current Broadway musical landscape, dominated by revivals and movie adaptations — it begs the question: Will “This Ain’t No Disco” be the next “Spring Awakening” or “The Band’s Visit”?
When asked about whether he considers the potential for commercial success when choosing projects for the Atlantic and cultivating new work, Neil Pepe, the theater’s artistic director, said, “We don’t think about that. Or at least it’s not the first thing on our docket to say, Is it commercial?” Instead, they ask whether it’s compelling and they aim to “create a studio where artists can do art at the highest level. It’s not that commerce isn’t involved, but the belief is that great stories will sell themselves.”
Along with New York Theatre Workshop and the Public Theater, the Atlantic occupies a small space in the ecosystem of New York theater, somewhere between experimental fringe shows that aren’t expected to appeal to the masses and high-stakes Broadway shows that must attract a broad swath of New Yorkers and tourists alike. Founded in 1985 by William H. Macy, David Mamet and 30 of their acting students, the Atlantic’s mission has always been to honor the story of the play and the intent of its playwright.
How has the Atlantic nurtured new works, some of which have gone on to achieve great commercial and artistic success? “The Band’s Visit” and “Spring Awakening” were in early stages of development when they came under the Atlantic’s wing. In the case of “Spring Awakening,” Pepe noted, “everybody sort of uniformly said, ‘Oh, yeah, the music is incredible.’ A lot of the people, as it was kind of making the rounds, said, ‘Oh, but it’s too dark… there’s teenage suicide. It’s so depressing.” When “The Band’s Visit” got to them, David Yazbek had written two songs, Pepe said, and Itamar Moses had done a rough outline of the script based on the screenplay. In both cases, Pepe and his colleagues supported the development of the works, staged them in the Linda Gross Theater and worked with producers Orin Wolf, Tom Hulce, Ira Pittelman and others to see the shows to Broadway.
Pepe had been tracking Stephen Trask for more than 23 years before seeing “This Ain’t No Disco” in development at New York Stage and Film. From there, Trask and Yanowitz were given a space and other means of support at the Atlantic to bring in some instruments and develop the work. Beginning late last year, director Darko Tresnjak and choreographer Camille A. Brown were brought on board to mount the work in Chelsea.
The process of developing the show at the Atlantic, Tresnjak said, has been one of the two best experiences he’s had as a freelance director. “A lot of it for me has to do with Neil Pepe, a truly great artistic director,” he remarked. “He is very selfless and generous. And the atmosphere that surrounds the whole company has really been wonderful.” He added, “I felt utterly comfortable with him around, because I think he sees our show. He sees this show in a way I suspect he sees every production for what it is and what it can be. And that’s not always the case.”
Does Tresnjak wonder whether “This Ain’t No Disco” will have a life beyond its current run at the Atlantic? “You try and do the best you can, and then you have to let it go,” he said. “You have to let it go at the right time so the performers really own the material.” Regardless of the success that has been achieved in his past shows, Tresnjak said that he’s always identifying areas in which they can do it better, and gaining information from every audience and each performance. The process, it seems, has served him well.
Top Image: Chilina Kennedy in the Atlantic Theater Company’s world premiere production of Stephen Trask, Peter Yanowitz and Rick Elice’s musical “This Ain’t No Disco.” Courtesy of Ben Arons