Tonight is opening night of These Paper Bullets! at the Yale Rep. I feel a special sort of excitement about this show. It brings together some very talented people whom I followed avidly when they were students at the Yale School of Drama:
• writer Rolin Jones (whom I bonded with back in his Yale days, over a decade ago, through our mutual admiration for the Hamden-raised popsmith Jon Brion’s shortlived band The Grays)
• director Jackson Gay (who also did some acting at the Yale Cabaret, for Trip Cullman, who was a year ahead of her in the directing program)
and some well-remembered Yale-trained actors such as:
• Jeanine Seralles, who returned to Connecticut as the devious maid in Tartuffe for Westport Country Playhouse a couple summers ago, and just played the nattering sister in the Coen Brothers opus Inside Llewyn Davis
• Stephen DeRosa , who nailed some tough Chekhov roles at Yale, appeared in a crucial New York revival of Charles Ludlam’s The Mystery of Irma Vep shortly after graduation, toured through Connecticut in 2011 as the dance-in-the-gym host in West Side Story, and is widely acclaimed for his Eddie Cantor impersonation on Boardwalk Empire
• James Lloyd Reynold, a versatile dramatic and musical-comedy actor who combined both skills in a legendary Yale Cabaret stage adaptation of Once More With Feeling, the musical episode of Buffy the Vampire Slayer
• Brad Heberlee, who was part of the class of ’02 who populated Jean Randich’s Yale Rep production of Caryl Churchill’s Serious Money
• more recent or current YSD stand-outs such as Liz Wisan and Ceci Fernandez.
Oh, and William Shakespeare, on whose Much Ado About Nothing this Beatlesque ‘60s-set show is based. The bard did not attend Yale, but the undergrad Yale Dramatic Association did present the American premiere of his Troilus and Cressida (adapted and directed by Monty Woolley) in 1916, and Shakespeare’s canon has been the main concentration of second-year Yale School of Drama studies for decades. The title These Paper Bullets! comes from Benedick’s Much Ado line “Shall quips and sentences and these paper bullets of the brain awe a man from the career of his humour? No!”
The main name you’ve probably heard in relation to this production is not any of those I’ve listed above, however. It’s Billie Joe Armstrong, frontman of the band Green Day. I remember Green Day playing in the area in their early years, including a career-rebuilding show at the El-n-Gee in New London when the band appeared to have fallen fast from the heights of their debut album Dookie. Green Day regained success in spectacular fashion with its bestselling concept album American Idiot, the stage musical version of which has now toured through Connecticut several times. When These Paper Bullets! was first announced this time last year, it received national headlines for Armstrong’s involvement.
The Green Day connection made you suspect the show was some sort of big-deal, well-thought-out, put-together-by-creative-types commercial operation. But when I phoned Rolin Jones a couple months back to discuss it, he assured me that the whole endeavor was in the best spirit of the sort of collaborations that YSD students do as classmates in the Yale Cabaret. Just a lot of talented, friendly people gathering around a good idea and making it real.
I remember Rolin Jones as an exemplary collaborative type, who would write roles specifically for actors he admired. His ability to remodel his text for the needs of certain performers was, I think, a big ingredient in the success of his play The Intelligent Design of Jenny Chow, which was directed by Jackson Gay at the Yale Rep in 2004 and went on to receive an Off Broadway run and a Pulitzer nomination.
Rolin Jones is working on the screenplay for the movie version of American Idiot, which is how he came to ask Armstrong for songs he could use in These Paper Bullets!. The initial idea for the show, however, came from Jones and Gay having cocktails shortly after she’d been asked to direct a Shakespeare play for the Rep. She’d pitched tragedies, and the Rep apparently needed a comedy. The writer and director cooked up These! Paper!Bullets! on the spot. “The script is fresh,” Jones says. “We pitched it 11 months ago.” He completed the final draft weeks before the show went into production.
For the last decade, Rolin Jones has been an acclaimed writer/producer of TV series, from Weeds to Friday Night Lights to United States of Tara to Low Winter Sun, plus the “Milkmaid’s Lot” episode from season three of Boardwalk Empire. He also served a short time on the epic Broadway-based series Smash. “Smash was a joke,” he reminisces. “It was great for me—I was gone very quickly.” He’s currently working on the pilot episode of a series he created himself, a “dark and gorey and fun” show about a surgeon in 18th century London. “Like most of what I write, it’s funny until it’s not.”
Much Ado has its down moments, surely—the Elizabethan sexism can be jarring in how the characters turn on each other when tricked by underhanded rumormongering schemers. A previous New Haven production of a New York-set Much Ado About Nothing, directed by Derek Anson Jones for the Long Wharf Theater in 1999 and rethought with an African-American U.S. Army regiment hunkered down in Harlem during that area’s 1930s “Renaissance,” had an almost apocalyptic air to it.
But These Paper Bullets! was planned from the start as a lighthearted romp. Adapting Shakespeare’s script was made easier by the fact that his colleagues on These Paper Bullets! are “all laugh whores,” Jones says, eager to find the jokes and punch them up. “I approached it as ‘What are the problems of the play, and how can we solve them?,” he says. Some of the solutions came from finding 20th century equivalents of the characters: a fab pop group instead of conquering war heroes on leave; an embittered Pete Best-like former bandmate doing the Don John revenge thing; and the sharp-tongued fashion designer Mary Quant (popularizer of the miniskirt) spouting the putdowns of Beatrice.
“…all ensconced in a Soho hotel with screaming fans, and the need to make an album,” Jones explains.
These Paper Bullets!, not to mention last year’s Jackson Gay-directed New York production of a play from his Yale days, The Jammer, marks how Jones is “making baby steps about getting back into the American theater,” as he puts it. “I hadn’t written a [stage] play in a long time.”
For These Paper Bullets!, he’s working with old friends—“we trained with all these people; twelve or thirteen of them are YSD grads”—but the experience wasn’t the same as their low-rent school days or their Off Broadway cost-mindedness. “For me and Jackson, it’s a great leap. We used to go to the moon on a 50-cent budget. This one is really large: 19 bodies up there, choreography, eight songs, a film… we’re straining the powers of the Yale Rep.”
“It’s a good time, and these songs are fucking great.” When Jones first asked Armstrong if he’d consider writing a few ‘60s-style pop tunes for the project, the ‘80s punk icon “actually started playing songs back over the phone.” Seems Armstrong had a closet Merseybeat side, and had squirreled away ditties he couldn’t conform with his Green Day persona. “Sounds great,” the composer said. “I would love to do this.” Jones literally couldn’t believe his luck, so he flew out to meet personally with Armstrong in Oakland to discuss it further. Armstrong’s famous summation of the talks: “Let me get this straight. You’re going to rewrite Shakespeare, and I’m going to rewrite The Beatles?”
As I’ve said, I can’t wait. I’ve seen the script; it opens with this stage direction: “A pithy piano ditty. It should sound nothing like the Beatles’ ‘Martha, My Dear.’” I’ve heard a couple of the songs. They are exactly right, not just in being Beatley but in not drawing too much attention to themselves and away from the rest of the show; consummate rock stage songs.
My review of These Paper Bullets! will likely appear Friday on the New Haven Independent website, with frequent updates and sidebars here at New Haven Theater Jerk.
These Paper Bullets! plays through April 5 at the Yale University Theatre, 222 York St., New Haven. (203) 432-1234, www.yalerep.org.