At 87 years old, iconic and celebrated artist Jules Feiffer continues to expand his body of work. Feiffer released his first graphic novel, Kill My Mother, to much acclaim and great sales, in 2014. On May 1, audiences will have a chance to see what he’s working on next. The Bay Street Theater and Sag Harbor Center for the Arts’ 3rd Annual New Works Festival will take place from April 29–May 1, and this year, audiences will see a workshop production of a new musical from Feiffer and composer/lyricist Andrew Lippa. The Man in the Ceiling, based on Feiffer’s illustrated novel of the same name, is directed by Broadway mega-producer Jeffrey Seller and seems destined for success.
“I wrote The Man in the Ceiling, my first children’s novel, in 1994 about a boy cartoonist,” says Feiffer. “Six, maybe seven years ago, [Andrew Lippa] got in touch with me, said he loved the book and wanted to turn it into a musical. I didn’t know his work, but he invited me to see [Lippa’s musical] The Wild Party, and I expected very little from it because most theater I’d seen [at the time], but I was blown away. We agreed he would write the music and lyrics.”
Lippa and Feiffer’s work was soon noticed by Disney, which could be looked at as a dream opportunity to some. But Feiffer didn’t like the direction things were going. “We did a version of the show for them,” he sighs, “and they loved it and gave notes like it was Hollywood and the more notes they gave the more horrible it got. So we dropped the option.”
After the Disney partnership fell through, another, more fruitful opportunity came calling. “I met Jeffrey Seller, [Lippa’s] longtime friend. This was pre-Hamilton,” Feiffer notes wryly. Seller is the producer of Broadway’s current sold-out sensation Hamilton, a hip-hop/rap musical about the life and career of Alexander Hamilton. Seller directed a workshop of The Man in the Ceiling in Palo Alto, California last year, which Feiffer calls “exciting.”
The Man in the Ceiling is a coming-of-age story about a young boy who dreams of being an artist. His father disapproves, his mother doesn’t understand and his uncle writes flop musicals. “It’s about a kid who doesn’t play baseball, whose only ‘justification’ is that he can draw cartoons,” Feiffer says.
While the play is about a young boy, it is not children’s theater. “It’s not a children’s play,” explains Feiffer. “And it’s less for kids than it is for the family. And the ‘thing’ of the play is what everyone deals with from the time they’re young. I am still dealing with it—how to deal with your creative needs in a world that is often indifferent to them or misunderstands them…and how to just go on going on,” says Feiffer. “But it’s not at all a story of writing and writing and suddenly a triumph.”
Despite working on such an involved project, Feiffer continues his other writing, as well. In July, W.W. Norton & Company will release Cousin Joseph, a prequel to Feiffer’s bestselling debut graphic novel Kill My Mother. Feiffer is also working on a third book. “I’ve just finishing writing the third book, which completes the trilogy,” he says. “All three began [development] out here. Kill My Mother was written in Southampton, [Cousin Joseph] was done here and the third will start this summer.”
Writing a graphic novel is no easy task, but Feiffer loves the medium and format, having been a fan of comic books. Interestingly, Kill My Mother was not originally intended as a trilogy. “I knew nothing. I knew absolutely nothing!” Feiffer admits.
The Man in the Ceiling will be performed on May 1 at Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor. Tickets are free, but this production will sell out, so reserve early.