After an extremely well-received staged reading last year, Bay Street Theater opens their summer 2017 season with a full production of The Man in the Ceiling, with a book by Jules Feiffer and music and lyrics by Andrew Lippa. But while Bay Street audiences were introduced to this exciting new work in 2016, it’s been a decade-long journey for Lippa.
“I read it in 1996 and fell in love with it,” Lippa says of the source material, an illustrated book of the same name written by Feiffer. After a friend introduced Lippa to The Man in the Ceiling, he quickly developed an idea for a musical adaptation, but Feiffer had already beaten him to the punch—with another creative team. “He was making it with someone else…I kept calling him every year and asked him if he had started work on it,” Feiffer says. Finally, the stars aligned for Feiffer and Lippa, who worked together on the project.
“It’s always a collaboration. Jules, of course, created these characters and I get to teach them how to sing!” Lippa says with a hint of glee. When it came to adapting the book for the stage, Lippa notes that it was an easy transition. “A book is different than a stage play or a musical, so this musical bares a resemblance but is not a slave to it. Jules is a man of the theater. He knows that we had to economize. He’s been so open and willing to let me run free.”
One of the changes made to the adaptation is the introduction of a new character, a musical theater writer. In a fitting twist, Lippa is playing the role. Writing and appearing in the show has been creatively satisfying for Lippa. “Without sounding too grand—why not sound grand?—it’s the most thrilling experience of my creative life so far. To be able to have created this show with a legendary writer and artist is one thing; to be able to put it together with [director] Jeffrey Seller is another, and now to be able to play the role and use props and play the piano…it’s suddenly the greatest sandbox for me to play in,” he marvels.
Working with Seller has made The Man in the Ceiling an especially meaningful experience for Lippa, who has known the Broadway super-producer since they were kids. “It’s a deeply moving experience,” says Lippa. “Jeffrey is my best friend—and it’s difficult to describe what I mean by best—but he’s like the closest family member who would do anything for me and is someone I want to go to when I need to talk.”
Seller also directed last year’s staged reading, which went better than any of the creative team could have expected. “I tried very hard not to anticipate responses,” Lippa says. “It’s a good practice in life and art. We made something that’s honest and bears some resemblance to reality, but heightened, and were greeted with a wonderful response. Scott [Schwartz, Bay Street Theater Artistic Director] immediately said, ‘We have to put this show up.’ That doesn’t happen all the time!”
Lippa hopes audiences will connect to The Man in the Ceiling once again. “The show is about a family and what a family goes through in a critical moment in their lives. Kids will understand it, but it really is for adults to experience.” Lippa notes that the story is also about creativity, failure and trying again. “In many ways, it’s the failure that defines us,” Lippa says.
Something tells us we won’t be using the word failure when it comes to The Man in the Ceiling.
Bay Street Theater, 1 Bay Street, Sag Harbor, presents The Man in the Ceiling from May 30–June 25. For tickets and more information, call 631-725-9500 and visit baystreet.org.