Andy Warhol was a Broadway producer – the lead producer of a musical that opened at Broadway’s Little Theater (now called the Hayes) in 1975. It’s a mind-boggling story that, like many Andy Warhol stories, involves a lot of name-dropping: Neil Armstrong, the Mamas and the Papas, Hair, A Chorus Line, Star Wars, and Clive Barnes – and we might as well throw in Elvis and Bowie. You won’t find any mention of the musical, entitled “Man on the Moon,” at the Whitney museum’s “Andy Warhol: From A to B and Back Again,” billed as his first retrospective in the United States in 30 years. It’s not even in the exhibition’s catalogue, a bulky book billed as “the first to examine Warhol’s work in its entirety.”
In the introductory panel at the exhibition, which closes Sunday, we read:
“During a career spanning nearly four decades, he produced thousands of commercial illustrations, paintings, drawings, collages, prints, photographs, sculptures, books, magazines, films, videos, television shows, and multimedia installations…” – and, left unmentioned, one Broadway musical.
The idea for the musical began on July 20, 1969. That is when astronaut Neil Armstrong walked on the moon. Like millions of people around the world, John Phillips, a member of 60’s folk rock vocal group the Mamas and the Papas, was enthralled. According to an account by Phillips biographer Chris Campion, Phillips became set on creating a space opera. It began as a song cycle, but expanded and changed form over the next five years. At one point, Phillips had convinced Michael Butler, the producer of Hair, to back what was then called “Space,” with both a book and score by Phillips. Butler hired a young Broadway director and choreographer named Michael Bennett.
Bennett and Phillips had a falling out. Phillips claimed it was over creative differences. Butler said it was because Phillips was coked up and impossible to work with. Bennett dropped out, focusing on other projects, such as a show that debuted on Broadway the same year as “Man on the Moon,” one that Bennett conceived, choreographed and directed: A Chorus Line.
Phillips’ behavior reportedly drove Butler out as well.
Phillips and his third wife Genevieve Waite decided to turn their science fiction musical comedy into a film instead. Through Phillips daughter Mackenzie, who had a role in the George Lucas-directed film American Graffiti, they passed along the script to Lucas. That is why Phillips, according to Campion’s account, claimed Lucas stole the idea from him for Star Wars.
Phillips and his wife decided they would try the stage again, but it was tough going. Waite complained about their troubles to her friend, Andy Warhol. He volunteered to help out. He became the lead producer. He brought in as director Paul Morrissey, who had directed such Warhol underground films as Flesh and Trash and Heat. He also enlisted a young Wall Street lawyer named Richard Turley, whom Warhol had befriended after meeting him through an art dealer a few years earlier. (The credits would ultimately read: “Produced by Andy Warhol. Produced in association with Richard Turley.”) Monique van Vooren, who had starred in Warhol’s Flesh for Frankenstein, was cast as Venus. Rehearsals moved to Andy Warhol’s loft, The Factory.
Phillips’ script, as it evolved, became a tale so convoluted that it is difficult to summarize. It involved Dr. Bomb, an evil scientist who is head of the U.S. space program, planning to blow up the moon, with the help of Leroy, half human, half bomb. To stop him, an American astronaut leads a mission of interplanetary dignitaries.
Phillips had hoped to cast Elvis Presley or Ricky Nelson. Neither agreed to do so. So Phillips cast himself in two roles.
Here is a video of a rehearsal at Warhol’s Factory (via, as you can see, by the Andy Warhol Museum of Pittsburgh), featuring John Phillips as Dr. Bomb’s brother King Can, Mark Lawhead as Leroy the human bomb, Geneviève Waïte as Dr. Bomb’s niece Angel, and Monique Van Vooren as Venus, Dr. Bomb’s sister-in-law. Phillips starts singing the song “My Name Is Can” at 1:25.
A few weeks before the opening night, Phillips was replaced by his Mamas and Papas bandmate, Denis Dougherty, who had been originally cast as Dr. Bomb.
Reportedly, Richard Turley fired Morrissey two weeks before the opening and brought in a different director, uncredited, who changed everything around. Whether or not this improved or destroyed the show (opinions vary), “Man on the Moon” opened on January 29, 1975 to unkind reviews. Under the headline “‘Man in the Moon’, Warhol musical,” Clive Barnes, writing in the New York Times, began: “The Andy Warhol Factory of International Art Artifacts has at long last turned its attention to the theater…a musical, appropriate enough about bombs…Mr. Warhol’s artistic practice – if I have caught his drift alright – is to produce works of art so inept that their ineptitude becomes their value.” The critic focused much of his snark on Warhol, although it’s unclear how much Warhol actually had to do with the content of the show. “For connoisseurs of the truly bad,” Barnes concluded, “‘Man on the Moon’ may be a small milestone.”
Writing in New York Magazine, John Simon quickly dismissed the musical (“a crashing, campy, lobotomized bore from beginning to end, with not even a decent song in it”) and spent most of his review describing the “Beautiful People” who “showed up during the half hour or more we waited for the curtain to rise (though less fervidly than we later waited for it to fall) and a good many of them kept coming in splashily even long after the show began.” After devoting several paragraphs to name-dropping those in attendance (Warren Beatty, Diane von Furstenberg, “copious Warhol-Morrissey non-actors a.k.a. Superstars…” etc.), Simon complained: “Isn’t it pathetic that the chic crowd of New York pours in by the limousine-load for a piece of junk offered by Andy Warhol, but would let a legitimate opening (other than something British or involving big names) go by unnoticed and unsupported?”
The show closed four days after it opened, after 42 previews and ten regular performances.
Nine of the 11 members of the cast had been making their Broadway debuts, including Genevieve Waite, Phillips’ wife and Warhol’s friend. Ten of the 11 have not appeared on Broadway since. But the designers were pros, including lighting designer Jules Fisher, who had already won the first two of his nine Tony Awards.
Monique Van Vooren put some of the songs from “Man in the Moon” in her cabaret act, such as this rendition of “I Call Your Name” in 1996 (The title is not one of the 22 listed in the program.)
It wasn’t until 2009, when both Warhol and Phillips were dead, that the score for “Man on the Moon” was issued on a CD, as Andy Warhol Presents Man On The Moon (The John Phillips Space Musical)
The 35 songs of the album were mostly studio recordings by Phillips, and many had not even been in the Broadway show. It was not, in other words, a traditional Broadway cast album, although a few were sung by cast members. In what has to count as an irony, a couple of these songs, Boys from the South, and Love is Coming Back, were worked into Phillips’ next gig – the soundtrack for David Bowie’s film, “The Man Who Fell To Earth.”
I listened to the album on Spotify, and I have to tell you, I found many of the songs quite tuneful.
I would love to attend a concert version of this show, and consider it a missed opportunity that the Whitney did not include a performance at the very least of the folksy ditty from the score entitled “Oh Andy My Assistant”:
Oh Andy, my assistant
your mind is so consistently blank
that I’m banking on you now
so please so don’t try to comprehend
the reason why I have to send
you up or else, I’m sure that we, shall have a terrible row
It’s either you or I must save the race
So bye-bye Andy and off you’re goin’ to Space.