An Interview with tony Winner Joe DiPietro

San Jose Stage Company’s Media & Communications Director (Clinton Williams) had the pleasure of speaking with Joe DiPietro, one of the Tony Award winning creators of The Toxic Avenger, about the process of sculpting the show, collaborating with David Bryan, & his early career.

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CW:  What was the inspiration for Toxic Avenger?

JD:  David Bryan and I had written Memphis, and we were waiting for it to come to Broadway.  While we were waiting for it to come to Broadway I thought, “It would be great to write something small and funny with David.”  Something we knew we could get produced since Memphis was such a big show.  So we just wanted to write… it was almost like a lark.  Then we get a call from a producer I know and she said she had the rights to The Toxic Avenger, I immediately said yes and, “How would you like the keyboardist from Bon Jovi to write the score for it?”  She said, “Oh, you know him?” I said, “Yeah, I’m working with him on something else.” So as soon as she said the idea -- I was always a big fan of theatre of the ridiculous -- I thought I wonder if we can write a really funny, out there, Rock-n-Roll musical. 

CW:  So Memphis came before Toxic??

JD:  Memphis. Yeah we had written Memphis and I think it had two out of town productions.  As with any show, especially a big Broadway show, it can just take years to get in…. and yeah that was our first show together.  So we had written Memphis and David and I became friends in the process.  And David is funny… and musicians especially rock musicians aren’t necessarily funny.  

CW:  Right. Very serious.

JD:  Yeah, exactly right! He’s not that at all -- he really makes me laugh a lot.  So I said I wonder if we could just write a goofy funny show. Umm… yeah.

CW:  So was this your first project with David Bryan?  Or this was your second since you’d already written Memphis?

JD:  This was the second. Memphis was really the first.  Because [Toxic] was a smaller show it was easier to produce in New York. I think it debuted a year before Memphis in New York. But it was really the second that we wrote.

CW:  How many collaborations do you [and David Bryan] have now?

JD:  Well we are up to our fourth…we’re just starting… we’re in the midst of our fourth.  So [Toxic], Memphis, a show which we workshopped at La Jolla Playhouse about three years ago called Chasing the Song which is just getting going again, and then we’ve got what we’re working on now.  

CW:  So the new project that you guys have going on… you wanna tell me a little about that? Or…

JD:  It’s gonna be announced soon so I can’t quite do that but it’s definitely gonna be cool.

The musical is based on Lloyd Kaufman’s 1984 film The Toxic Avenger. Released by Troma Entertainment, a studio known for producing low budget B-movies with campy concepts and gruesome violence, the film caught on with filmgoers and quickly became a cult classic.

CW:  Were you a fan of the film before writing the musical?

JD:  I think I had seen it in High School… and you know.  As Lloyd Kaufman who wrote the movie will admit to you it's… ah, you know, a D movie.  Not even a B movie. Sorta made for teenagers who are high basically to watch. So I had seen it a long time ago and then when I saw it again I was like I love the concept of this movie;  ya know, a blind girl falls in love with a mutant freak to save New Jersey. That's fantastic!

CW:  That’s theatre at its best right there.

JD:  Yeah, exactly right? Exactly what theatre needs [laughs]... I felt like there's not really much of a plot in the movie so I really need to have creative control over this and be able to write my own script.  When I approached Lloyd about that he amazingly said yes! He [later] said, “You’ve finally made my work commercial!” He’s a big fan -- he goes to see it everywhere.

CW:  How does the musical differ from the film?

JD:  Oh, it’s very different… [the film] is VERY low budget.  At one point I asked Lloyd if I could have a copy of the script, you know so I could just read it.  He said “There’s no copy. No one ever wrote it down, we just made it up.” So it sort of has that feel to it.  Yeah so it’s a really low budget really gross-out movie. Ya know and I think in the musical we’ve given it a stronger plot and characters anyone can relate to.  

The show centers around Melvin Ferd III who after attempting to clean up Tromaville, the most polluted town in New Jersey, is dumped into a vat of radioactive toxic waste, only to reemerge as The Toxic Avenger.

CW:  In terms of the themes of Toxic do you think they relate to our current climate in society?

JD:  OH MY GOD YEAH!  I mean especially when we wrote it in 2009.  The idea of Global Warming, which is now really called climate change, sort of was just… had been around for a bit but really becoming prominent.  And as the years gone by climate change is becoming more real. So I do think it’s really a silly fun musical but you know there really is that theme of the environment and of saving the environment and going to all of those extremes to save the environment.  Which really resonates with the show and gives it even a little more heft than we really intended.

Before joining with David Bryan to collaborate on Toxic Avenger and Memphis Joe had much success in the industry.  Many of his early shows are still produced today across the country.

CW:  How did you get started in this industry?

JD:  Well, I just love to write and in my twenties, in my youth, I was working in advertising and I would write plays at night, actually. And I wrote for a long time and sent in my plays and no one cared, they got rejected, and I think when you're in theatre or any art no one really gives you permission to do it. You just have to want to do it and you have to keep doing it and keep getting better at it.  I always somehow kept getting better at it and better at it. But I love the process of writing and I had blind faith in myself and I just kept doing it in my spare time. And then just from like knocking at the door enough I started getting plays accepted in smaller places. And then I'd written a series of sketches that were done sort of in basement theatres about dating and a producer saw it and said "Oh this is a musical review put music in it.”  I didn’t know what that was or what he meant. Then I started doing a little research and those sketches two years later became “I Love You You’re Perfect Now Change”, which was my first show really. And that got me involved in the world of musicals.

CW: So my last question: what inspires your work?

JD: I have to be obsessed with the topic to write about it because it takes so much of my life. You know, a show, even if it goes quickly like Toxic Avenger was one of those shows where we wrote it, we did a reading, we got an offer to produce it like so it moved so quickly but it still stole my life. So if you have a show you have to love it and you have to love working on it and exploring that issue of the show for years. So I have to be sort of obsessed with something about it and I think with Toxic I was obsessed with the love story and the comic whimsy of it all, you know, how outrageously comic can you be?  That sort of kept me going.

CW:  Like how far can we push this?

JD: Right! Exactly right.  The first time we did Toxic Avenger, literally the very first public performance… the first preview, a blind woman brings in her seeing eye and sits [in the front row]. I thought “oh fuck we’re done!”  But she laughed as loud as anyone!  SO you just have to be obsessed with it and really want to tell the story.  I have an appetite...a natural curiosity about people.

CW:  I think you have to be to be in this industry.

JD: Exactly. You have to have empathy for your characters, even the bad ones.  We all make bad choices in our lives, even the more evil ones, you have to find something human about them.

Clinton Williams