Joe Iconis is no fan of jukebox musicals.
"They’re ruining my life," he says. "People only want to see shows if they know the songs. I never thought I’d write one."
And yet that is exactly what the Garden City-born playwright and composer is doing. "It’s strange," acknowledges Iconis, whose "Be More Chill" famously made it to Broadway in 2019 on a wave of viral social media. Not one to beat around the bush, Iconis gets right to the point. "I really needed the money."
He pitched the idea for "Punk Rock Girl!" which has its world premiere Jan. 20 at the Argyle Theatre in Babylon, nearly five years ago, well before "Chill." For numerous reasons, the new musical featuring songs made popular by women singers including Pink, Avril Lavigne, Gwen Stefani, Katy Perry and a pair of Long Islanders — Long Beach native Joan Jett and Lindenhurst-bred Pat Benatar — has kicked around for years.
"I don’t know if I would have done it had it been two years later," Iconis said during a recent Zoom interview, "but I needed to pay my rent." Not that he made that much money from the job, he notes, but it kept him going.
He was hired by a licensing group to come up with a show using preexisting music to fit a title they already owned, "Punk Rock Girl" — taken from The Dead Milkmen hit. It could literally be about anything, he recalls. "It felt sort of old school, like a 1950s road movie," though he adds he thought his pitch "was way too crazy."
Of course, Iconis is all about crazy. In "Be More Chill," a misfit kid hopes to find popularity by taking a pill with a copious amount of Mountain Dew. His follow-up, "Broadway Bounty Hunter," which ran Off-Broadway in 2019, is about an actress of a certain age who goes full-blown ninja in a wacky midcareer switch. "Punk Rock Girl!" is the story of a straight-laced high schooler from Forest Hills ("I’ve always wanted to set something in Queens," says Iconis) who befriends a rocker and helps her build an illegal punk club in the basement of a jukebox repair shop.
"I thought this was a great opportunity to write for people, especially young women, who don’t normally get cast in the leading roles," says Iconis. Like all my stuff, he adds, "it’s a celebration of people who feel like they don’t belong … it’s about finding your tribe."
THE BOYS OF 'PUNK ROCK GIRL!
But the show is also a celebration of songs that will bring back memories for many in the audience, says arranger and orchestrator Rob Rokicki. "I’m really interested in the intersection where rock and musical theater meet," says Rokicki, whose "The Lightning Thief: The Percy Jackson Musical" played on Broadway in late 2019. The songs mix familiar anthems like "I Love Rock and Roll," by Joan Jett and the Blackhearts, with lesser-known titles like "All Fired Up" by the defunct girl group Tralala, which Iconis was obsessed with having in the show. As for Rokicki, he says they hit the jackpot when they got the rights to "Rebel Girl," because "we had to have Bikini Kill." (For the record, and to quiet the snarky internet comments, the writers do not suggest that every song has punk-rock roots.)
Together, the music does have great dimension, says Rokicki, a Colorado native whose mom lives in Astoria ("Queens cred," he jests). Some of the orchestrations are close to the original, he says, while others "we subverted in really fun, theatrical ways or stripped down and made them more simple and honest."
Iconis says his goal was to sneak in songs that people don’t know — basically the opposite of the Temptations musical "Ain’t Too Proud" or the Jimmy Buffett songfest "Escape to Margaritaville." "We have these bands we love that I hope are going to be introduced to people for the first time," he says.
Director Jennifer Werner, who’s worked on a couple of other Iconis shows including "Bounty Hunter," believes that crafting a story around existing songs may be harder than writing new music. She notes, for example, how Iconis has been ingenious in finding the perfect song to appear just where needed to develop the story. The show, she says, is "quintessential Iconis" and has a lot of heart, capturing the unique, off-kilter world we live in but grounded in truth." And there’s one blow-your-mind twist — no spoilers here — that people will not see coming.
Having worked on the show for a few years, Werner is eager to get it on stage. "We are just so ready to get it up on its feet with actual human beings in front of an audience," she says.
Dylan Perlman, who owns the Argyle with his father, Mark, couldn’t agree more. "It’s been a long and winding road," he says of the production, first scheduled to debut in September 2020. It’s not what we usually do, he notes, but it's a tremendous opportunity to work with talented creators like Iconis and Rokicki, especially with their enthusiastic young fan base that will surely attract a new audience. "To be hosting and developing a world premiere from scratch is thrilling and incredibly exciting," he says.
A LONG ISLAND FEELING
It’s not lost on the Perlmans that these Broadway vets could have taken their show just about anywhere. But though it’s set in Queens, "something feels Long Island about this show," says Iconis. Plus he believes the Argyle audiences have the right frame of reference, "people who are up with theater." And he loves the people who run it. "They have a real sort of 'let’s put on a show', can-do spirit that I really respond to … the vibe I get is that they’re making theater for the right reasons."
Plus he gets to hang out on Long Island for a few weeks, especially appealing since his holiday was ruined by a case of COVID, forcing him to spend Christmas Day quarantined in the Garden City Hotel.
Like every show anywhere, COVID is messing with the production schedule. Early rehearsals were a mix of virtual and in person, with no one in the room unless necessary. "It’s hard but not impossible," says Werner, thankful that the tools exist to move forward safely. "We have so many things going for us," she says, notably that "it’s not a kissing show." Patrons over 12 need to show proof of vaccination or a negative COVID test and wear masks.
So what happens once "Punk Rock Girl!" ends it’s Argyle run on Feb. 27? Interestingly, Iconis says he never thought of the show as Broadway material. "I never even anticipated it being on a stage in a production as fancy as this one is," he says. "I wrote it thinking about it being performed in high schools and community theater."
To Rokicki, that’s a good thing. "Its really freeing to not focus on the expectation of Broadway," he says.
Still, with such big names attached, who knows? The show is a "weird beast," says Iconis, so maybe it will land on Broadway. "I’m very much a believer that the thing will do what it’s going to do," he says. "All I want to worry about is making the best show I can possibly make, one that we all feel good about."
WHAT “Punk Rock Girl!”
WHEN | WHERE Through Feb. 27, 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Friday, 2:30 and 7:30 p.m. Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday, The Argyle Theatre, 34 W. Main St., Babylon
INFO $45-$79; 844-631-5483, argyletheatre.com
GIVING IT THE OLD COLLAGE TRY TO GET A SET FOR 'PUNK ROCK GIRL'
Set designer Nate Bertone is taking fan art in a new direction for “Punk Rock Girl!”
Inspired by the show’s message of building community and connection, Bertone hit social media with a request to “all teachers, students and theater nerds,” for handwritten schoolwork, notes and drawings to be used on the set.
Timing was tight. The call went out Dec. 13 with a Dec. 17 deadline. In that time, he received around 300 submissions from all over the world, which have been printed at an upstate New York scenic workshop to create a collage that covers the set — everything from a massive algebra equation to class notes to charming doodles. It’s an important message at a time when people haven’t been able to gather together very much, says Bertone. “So many people in the world right now have been feeling lost and separated,” he says.
“The whole set is going to be plastered with actual scribblings from real live human beings,” says the show’s creator Joe Iconis, who’s clearly delighted with the idea. “It feels like a really great way for people to take mundane bits of their everyday life and actually collaborate with us … I love the idea that people’s actual handwriting is going to end up on the Argyle stage.”
— BARBARA SCHULER