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February 28, 2022

Ruthless! A Q&A with Joel Paley and Marvin Laird


The outrageous and hilarious off-Broadway sensation Ruthless! (US/UK) which The New York Observer called “Malicious! Delicious! A total joy!,” The New York Times referred to as “A spiked Shirley Temple of a show,” and The Post-Chronicle called “More relevant than ever in our tawdry age of tabloid television” – premiered at the Players Theatre on March 13, 1992. Captivating audiences and critics alike, the seven-character musical has found an international audience and has continued, for 30 years, to delight theatre fans all over the globe.

We caught up with the show’s co-creators, Joel Paley (book & lyrics) and Marvin Laird (music) to celebrate the show’s 30th anniversary, explore how the script has evolved, and discuss talent, ambition, tap shoes… and murder.

For those who don’t know Ruthless!, how would you describe the show?

MARVIN. Among those who are not only talented, but ruthlessly driven to find fame and fortune, no one is more so than eight-year-old Tina Denmark, an adorable and ferociously talented little girl who will do anything… anything… to be a star. Just where does her remarkable talent and ruthless drive come from? The answer may shock you.

So much happens in this musical! Can you briefly sum up the plot for us?

JOEL. It’s a fast-paced musical fable inhabited by seven characters, all of whom are, in one way or another, tied to the theatre. Someone is talented; someone else is not. Someone dreams of starring on Broadway; another, having failed at a stage career, is writing and directing school plays. There’s a theatrical manager who guides talented tykes to stardom and a theatre critic who can destroy a career with a scathing review. Then there’s Louise Lerman, an ordinary ten-year-old who couldn’t care less about appearing on stage. But, to quote Miss Lerman, “It makes my parents happy, and when Mike and Betty are happy, I’m happy. Got it?”

When these characters interact, their lives are impacted with an intensity that brings things to a boil, revealing lifelong secrets. People are unmasked and exposed for who they truly are and, naturally, there’s homicide.

How was Ruthless! born?

JOEL. Forty-five years ago, I wrote the book and lyrics for a one-act musical parody of the film The Bad Seed, using the identical plot with the same characters. I was a member of the newly formed Les Ballets Trockadero de Monte Carlo, an all-male travesty ballet company. When the “Trocks” were invited to dance with Shirley MacLaine on her television special, Where Do We Go From Here?, I met the show’s Musical Director, Marvin Laird, who, after reading my script, wanted to compose the score. We collaborated long distance (he lived in L.A.; I was in New York or on tour). After we finished writing Seedy!, we set out to obtain the rights and have the show produced.

MARVIN. The rights to The Bad Seed were held exclusively by the Maxwell Anderson Estate. Anderson had purchased the novel Bad Seed, by William March, outright, and turned it into a hit play that shocked Broadway audiences in 1954. It was then adapted for the screen and directed by Mervyn LeRoy, who made the film with most of the original Broadway cast.

JOEL. When we approached the estate to obtain the rights to musicalize the property, the Widow Anderson responded with a resounding, “Are you out of your mind? Absolutely not!” Thanks to a new television show, Saturday Night Live, the rules for doing parody were changing. It seemed you could “send something up” as long as you didn’t claim authorship of the original material.

MARVIN. We’d been advised by our lawyer to proceed but, to be on the safe side, he suggested we throw in references to our other favorite iconic films and musicals and change some specific plot points. In The Bad Seed, Rhoda Penmark does in one of her classmates over a penmanship medal. I asked Joel what he would’ve killed for when he was a child.

JOEL. The lead in the school show!

MARVIN. Thus Ruthless! was born.

JOEL. The Bad Seed explores the roots of criminality, Ruthless! takes aim at talent, narcissism and competing with one’s own parents for fame and fortune. Yes, there are sly nods to theatrical chestnuts, but Ruthless! has evolved and now stands on its own tap-dancing feet.

This year, Samuel French and Concord Theatricals are publishing and licensing a newly revised version of Ruthless! How does the new version differ from the original?

JOEL. When Ruthless! opened, the pokes at familiar theatrical styles and actual quotes from iconic stage and screen moments you could say were the “cake,” while the characters and our original story were the “icing.” Now, after 30 years of revisions, what we arrived at is a show where our original characters and their journey are the cake and the nods and winks to other shows and films are the icing.

In your introduction to the new script, you’ve invited Bernadette Peters — who made a memorable Judy Denmark in a benefit performance in Los Angeles — to address actors on how to approach the material. She says, “[The show] is your friend… and you don’t make fun of your friends.” How did you approach the writing to keep audiences laughing with the material rather than laughing at it?

JOEL. Great question! It’s something I learned as a member of the “Trocks.” I’m sure some people thought the company didn’t like ballet, so we were making fun of it. Nothing was further from the truth. Peter Anastos, one of the geniuses who shaped the company, loved everything to do with ballet. I saw how his taking-off on ballet worked because he loved it so much. Good parody pays homage to something, it doesn’t make fun of it.

The Bad Seed was my favorite movie growing up. I loved everything about it, especially the on-screen curtain call at the end of the film. When you love something, you want to share it with others; in doing so you utilize your own particular talents. In my case, it was my love of the absurd and my perception of humor in the darkest, most unlikely places.

Tell us about the musical style of the score. How did you find the sound for this show?

MARVIN. Prior to Ruthless! I’d been dividing my time living and working in New York (Broadway) Los Angeles (television, Las Vegas) and London (The West End) writing vocal and dance arrangements, conducting for headliners, M
usical Directing television specials, scoring television shows. When I began to write music to Joel’s lyrics, I had accumulated a wide range of musical approaches in my head. I began by improvising to a lyric, letting my subconscious lead the way until a particular style revealed itself, and I’d run with it. Some songs were composed to intentionally evoke iconic theatre music. “I Want the Girl” is my “Rose’s Turn,” and with multiple rhythms and key changes, “Teaching Third Grade” feels like a slice of Sondheim. The title song is my homage to Jerry Herman.

You’ve mentioned that brisk pacing is crucial to a successful production of Ruthless!

JOEL. The dialogue has a definite rhythm created to move at a clip. Think of the screwball comedies of the ‘30s and ‘40s. No one misses a beat, and everyone knows immediately and exactly what to say without having to stop and think. Except for carefully placed beats and pauses, the action and dialogue should be continuous. As opposed to being witty, it’s how ultra-seriously these characters take themselves and the situations they’re in that makes the show work.

This show has such delicious female roles! Though all seven characters are female, you’ve often stated that the actors can be any gender. How did you come to that conclusion?

JOEL. As a kid I couldn’t throw or catch a baseball so I watched a ton of old movies. I particularly liked The Women (1939), a film where everyone in it, the stars to the walk-ons to the extras, are all women. It gives the film a giddy and glowing exclusivity, like a high-class sorority party. Having created a show biz tale about over-the-top personalities with out-of-control egos, we thought an all-female cast would make it particularly ruthless, especially with no men around to work their charms on.

MARVIN. We had trouble finding a dame who embodied all of Sylvia St. Croix’s characteristics: a commanding presence, her articulate theatricality, a range from supremely confident to profoundly desperate, and an ever-present air of mystery. Working on a Theatre Guild “Theatre at Sea” cruise, we saw Joel Vig perform an extraordinary take-off on an over-the-top female nightclub singer—

JOEL. We found our Sylvia!

MARVIN. We didn’t cast Vig to do a drag turn, but to play the character honestly, with passion and integrity. We expected the inevitable chuckling at a guy wearing high heels, but we believed audiences would ultimately see him as Sylvia St. Croix, regardless of his “plumbing.”

JOEL. Our instincts not only paid off but made it clear that all the characters in Ruthless! are just that… characters, none of whom call for gender-specific or age-specific casting. The only requirement is for an actor to play their role genuinely, without going for obvious laughs. Outrageous characters taking themselves seriously, regardless of an actor’s sex or age, works wonderfully in a demented theatrical fable.

Do you have a favorite character?

JOEL. I’d have to go with Tina because the role, in a way, is somewhat autobiographical; though I didn’t have to kill someone to get the role I wanted in the school show. I was cast as Oliver in Oliver.

MARVIN. That’s when you realized that the title role doesn’t necessarily mean the best part in the show.

JOEL. If I was going to kill anyone, it would’ve been the kid playing the Artful Dodger.

The musical features a brilliant two-piano orchestration. Why did you choose that instrumentation?

MARVIN. I originally scored the show for two acoustic pianos, the classic off-Broadway sound. Since then, adding a percussionist, a bass player and two woodwinds gives the score some nice textures. The truth is Ruthless! has such a strong book, it works with whatever number of musicians a production can afford.

The score is chock-full of showstoppers. How did you structure the numbers?

JOEL. The show is structured like a traditional musical comedy: Act I is all plot with story and character-driven songs. Then, at intermission, people have a few drinks, they smoke, they vape, maybe they’re tired from laughing, so when they come back for Act II we give them something entertaining but less demanding.

MARVIN. Act II plays like a variety show, with each character performing their own mini-nightclub showstopper – until the 11 o’clock number, “Parents and Children,” brings us back to the story.

JOEL. Then there’s a full-company number unsurprisingly titled “Ruthless!” and, you guessed! One more character reveal, which is followed by a Shakespearean-inspired, over-the-top, blood bath ending.

Speaking of Shakespeare… beneath its comedy, Ruthless! shares the deadly serious moral of Macbeth: Unchecked ambition will destroy you. Did you set out to explore this theme, or did that happen on its own?

JOEL. Honestly, I was just trying to being funny. But after Columbine, the shoot-em-up ending wasn’t so funny, and for a while it made some people uncomfortable.

MARVIN. Because, sadly, now that public shootings are more commonplace, some people think we’re intentionally making an anti-gun statement.

JOEL. Yes, some of what I wrote many years ago turned out to be prophetic in terms of gun violence, unchecked narcissism being the norm, and an ever-growing obsession with unscripted TV fueling the desire to be famous, but the truth is we created the show to be funny. Period!

MARVIN. Audiences will take away what they want: an evening of pure musical comedy or a cautionary tale. It depends on their own lives and current events.

JOEL. What’s important is when presenting the show, one should not intentionally push any political agenda. “Ruthless!” is a comedy. That doesn’t make it any less important. After all, laughter truly is the best medicine.

What makes this show ideal for theatres and audiences in 2022?

JOEL. It’s a big musical that requires a small cast, and it’s flexible. The roles can be played by women, by men, the actors can be younger, older, or any combination thereof. With a great score and a strong book, the sets and costumes can be elaborate or spare. One production was performed with nothing but a traditional sofa centerstage which was covered with gold lamé for the second act.

MARVIN. I can’t tell you how often we hear about people who say they don’t like musicals, just love

JOEL. And while audiences love the show, its biggest fans are the actors and designers who’ve done a production. They all want to do it again. This one little girl who did the show in Boston told me, “Once you’ve played Tina Denmark, you’re through playing Annie.” 

To license Ruthless! and other great plays and musicals, visit Concord Theatricals in the US or UK.

Header Image: 2018 West End production of Ruthless! (Tristram Kenton)