Casting a spell: an interview with Rick Karlin of 'Witches Among Us'
Mon. September 29, 2014 by Gregg Shapiro
I like taking that fear and turning it on its ear, making people think about how they feel about people who are different from themselves.
GS: (Gregg Shapiro) What can you tell me and the readers about your history of involvement in theater, specifically musical theater?
RK: (Rick Karlin) I was not one of those kids who were part of drama club in high school. I was very self-conscious about my looks in high school, so I couldn't picture anyone wanting to look at me on stage, but mostly because my school always did musicals and I can't carry a tune in a bag with two handles. I did do one play when I was 12, and managed to walk off the end of the stage, so theater was not in my blood. After I came out in my early 20s I had a renaissance of sorts and discovered all sorts of talents I didn't know I had. Some friends of mine were singer/songwriters and one of their songs inspired me to write a musical based on their work. That never went anywhere, but the script ended up becoming the basis for my first play, a musical that played at the old Theater Building (on Belmont) in 1981, Spin Cycle. It was well received, by both the gay and mainstream press and was extended a couple of times. I wrote a few other plays that were also produced. I had a falling out with my former collaborator and left theater for 20 years. I was also working as the entertainment editor of Gay Chicago Magazine at the time and felt it would be a conflict of interest.
The last 15 years of my teaching career, I ran the drama club at my school. I wrote an original musical each year for the kids to perform, tailoring it to the talents I had and the kids' interests at the time. I wrote 12 musicals, including a version of Taming of the Shrew set in mod London and a mash-up of Wicked and The Parent Trap. I loved seeing how kids could bloom while performing. It also got me wanting to write for professional theater again.
GS: What is your all-time favorite stage musical and why?
RK: I don't know if I can pick just one. A Chorus Line, because it was so groundbreaking. Dreamgirls, for the way it incorporated pop music and pop culture. Anything by Sondheim (he is my God.) If I had to pick one show, though, it would be City of Angels; I just love the book of that show.
GS: What is your all-time least favorite stage musical and why?
RK: This is easier; Spring Awakening. Hated the story, hated the music, hated the lyrics. A close second would be Rent. It's almost sacrilegious to say it, but Jonathan Larson ripped off the script from Sarah Schulman's (novel) People in Trouble, and La Boheme and set it in New York of the 1980s.
GS: What is the genesis of Witches Among Us?
RK: I've always been fascinated by the concept of witches as an allegory for the gay community. In Bell, Book and Candle, the female lead is basically exhibiting internalized homophobia, yearning to be "normal." In Bewitched Samantha has to hide who she is to be accepted by society. There was so much that I identified with, as a boy, even if I didn't know why. Plus, there were so many gay and lesbian people involved in Bewitched. Agnes Moorehead (Endora)-lesbian, Dick Sargent (Darren II)-gay, Maurice Evans (Samantha's father)-gay and Paul Lynde (Uncle Arthur)-queer as a $3 bill. Elizabeth Montgomery, a great GLBT ally, had a gay father and Alice Pearce (Gladys Kravitz) played tons of gay clubs in Greenwich Village before she went to Hollywood.
GS: What is Witches Among Us about?
RK: A witch who owns a nightclub that is a gathering place for witches, and a detective who has been assigned to investigate her business fall in love. Her best friend, a rather flamboyant warlock makes the detective's closeted gay partner uncomfortable. In the end, the witches fight back against the discrimination. Along the way, the New York City black-out of 1965 figures prominently.
GS: Please say something about how you explored the common mistreatment of queer people and witches in pre-Stonewall NYC in Witches Among Us.
RK: In 1964, New York's Mayor Wagner began raiding gay bars on a regular basis in an effort to "clean up" the city for visitors to the World's Fair. Those raids continued until the Stonewall Riots (and to a lesser extent afterwards, as well). In Witches Among Us the raids include all sorts of "undesirables," witches being one of the groups.
GS: Witches are having a resurgence of popularity in entertainment. Why do you think that is?
RK: I think that there's been a general fear of "outsiders" again as a reaction to terrorists ever since 9/11. Witches, vampires, zombies; it's all part of the knee-jerk reaction.
GS: What does it mean to you to be part of that zeitgeist?
RK: I like taking that fear and turning it on its ear, making people think about how they feel about people who are different from themselves.
GS: How did you come to collaborate with Scott Free?
RK: I've known Scott for a long time, but never thought he would be interested in something like this, his work that he performs is so different. Then I found out that we had both taken the musical theater workshop taught by John Sparks. I presented my idea to him and he was so excited about it, especially about working within the lounge music genre.
GS: What do you enjoy most about collaboration?
RK: Having an idea you have spark an idea in somebody else, which in turn sparks another idea in you. It's almost as good as really hot sex.
GS: How did you come to be involved with New American Folk Theater (NAFT)?
RK: Anthony Whitaker, the artistic director of NAFT is a friend of Scott's and an incredible musician. Scott asked him to do back-up vocals when we did a staged reading of an early version of the show at the Center on Halsted about four years ago. He liked the show and when he started NAFT, he asked us if he could produce and direct the show. The folks at NAFT have been instrumental in helping shape and nurture Witches Among Us.
GS: Witches Among Us is being performed at The Call, a non-traditional venue for musical theater.
RK: The majority of the scenes are set in the nightclub and when Anthony suggested staging it in a club, at first I was hesitant. But, after he explained the environmental concept (similar to how Cabaret is being done in New York), I was all for it. It required some revisions, but I think it's made it a tighter and better play. I'm very excited. It's opening almost 33 years to the day of my first musical, Spin Cycle.
Interviewed by Gregg Shapiro. Gregg Shapiro is both a literary figure and a music and literary critic. As an entertainment journalist, his work appears on ChicagoPride.com and is syndicated nationally.