So your laces need loosening, your life needs a lift
You're feeling a bit undersexed
Well, even casual browsers tend to tent their trousers
When they see what those ladies do next
You yell and you moan it's a shame and a sin
Consign us to the fire along with gambling and gin
But if you're so above it why'd you pay to get in?
Oh, what will they ever do next?
--"What Will They Ever Do Next?"
from I See London, I See France
Chris Jeffries, on first glance, may not seem like the creator of astonishing musical theater. Though not a shrinking violet, he rarely draws attention to himself, preferring to sit at the edges of a party, observing his peers and making catty comments with anyone of a similar spirit. Jeffries spent his life in Connecticut until after he graduated from Yale, when he learned some friends were starting a theater in Seattle. "Everyone was asking when I was moving to New York," Jeffries said in a recent interview. "Ever the contrarian, I moved here." This was 1988; Annex Theatre had just opened its performance space on 4th Ave. Over the next nine years, Jeffries contributed songs and music to dozens of Annex productions, including writing the book and songs to six original musicals; these shows defined, more than anything else, Annex's artistic drive.
At Annex, Jeffries met his most enduring collaborator, Allison Narver (soon to become Annex's artistic director and currently artistic director of the Empty Space Theatre). They bonded through a mix of poverty--in an interview, Narver once described dumpster diving with Jeffries behind Dick's Drive-In--and fervid creativity. After collaborating on a couple of charming but modest projects, Narver and Jeffries decided to do Charles Ludlam's Corn, a country-western musical about star-crossed lovers and feuding hillbillies, as a last-minute replacement for a lost show. Unsure if the original music was available, Jeffries wrote new songs that roughly corresponded to the old ones. The mix of camp and frenzy led to a jubilant aesthetic, which Narver described as "Community-theater-on-acid: a huge cast, every rule of 'well-made theater' was broken, and it was wild, theatrical, incredibly stupid, and tons of fun."
The subsequent success of Jeffries' first full-length musical, an adaptation of the Jack Kerouac novel Maggie Cassidy, marked Jeffries as someone to watch. Then, in 1992, the Annex aesthetic bubbled over in The Fatty Arbuckle Spook House Revue. Inspired partly by a tabloid story (hugely popular silent film comedian Fatty Arbuckle was tried for the rape and murder of aspiring starlet Virginia Rappe; though found not guilty, the scandal destroyed his career), and partly by a mixture of Alice in Wonderland, Punch and Judy, and the story "Yes, Virginia, There Is a Santa Claus," the freewheeling musical attacked human excesses with glee and wit. "Usually I assemble show concepts jolt by jolt," said Jeffries, "but this one was born fully formed, like Athena. I went to Annex and started telling people; they looked at me funny, like yeah, right." Hugely popular, The Fatty Arbuckle Spook House Revue made Jeffries the center of the fringe theater world.
In 1995 Jeffries struck gold again with I See London, I See France, which draws parallels between the degeneration of women-centered burlesque into male-dominated sex shows and the decline of ancient goddess religions as they were supplanted by male deities and priests--all whipped together with giddy songs, including "All Is Vanity," in which the people of Pompeii celebrate life's brevity, and "Every Stone Cries Rise," a gorgeous hymn to transcendence, sung by the entire underwear-clad cast.
Oh, if only we could reproduce
Through spores or seeds or pollen
'Tis a Paradise from which we all
Have permanently fallen
Then again, while on that subject
Let's not overgild the lily
For there's no substantial difference
'Tween a flower and your willy
--"Ballad of Our Secret Parts,"
from The Glory Booty Club
Two years later, Annex presented The Glory Booty Club, directed by Ed Hawkins (Narver had left for grad school at Yale). Though the cast size had shrunk to a tidy four characters, the music was as abundant and joyous as ever, transforming the tragedy of Oedipus Rex into a sexually ambiguous conspiracy theory crammed with killer tunes, all to critical acclaim and packed houses. The Glory Booty Club would be Jeffries' last show with Annex to date.
Chris Jeffries' actors love and admire him. "When he writes in a genre (torch song, Busby Berkeley showstopper, croony ballad), [Jeffries can] simultaneously make fun of the genre, pay homage to it, and probably surpass most songs in it," said Joel Summerlin, who wore a small doggy penis in one number from The Fatty Arbuckle Spook House Revue. "His work never repeats itself; it is always something new and different from what you have seen from him before," said Julia Prud'homme, who wore a snood in Radio Pirates. "Chris explores mystical, mythological, literary, and contemporary questions, juxtaposing them into worlds often opposite or unexpected," said Kathleen Clarke, who was eaten by dingoes for the sake of a bad pun in I See London, I See France.
When Judith killed a General, society was moved
She did it for her country and even God approved
It's written in the Bible, but so's "Thou Shalt Not Kill"
This proves that Judith's act accorded with a higher will
Which sometimes lays the law aside, its purpose to fulfill
Back in the beginning cried a voice: "Let there be light!"
In a flash the world was made and darkness put to flight
Someone always threatens to return us all to night
And what's the way to fight? We make a noise!
--"Make a Noise,"
from Vera Wilde
In 2002, Jeffries reunited with Narver at the Empty Space for yet another smash. Vera Wilde follows the life of Oscar Wilde backward in time while pursuing Russian revolutionary Vera Zasulich forward until they intersect, a dizzyingly complex structure that would satisfy Tom Stoppard in its intricacy. If The Glory Booty Club demonstrated that Jeffries could fly without Narver at the helm, Vera Wilde proved that Jeffries can sustain the vitality and fervor of the Annex shows without the comforts of his former artistic home.
This overview of Jeffries' career to date is far from complete, and any summation is hugely premature. When asked about the contemporary world of musical theater, Jeffries replied, "Before World War II, no one was sure what a musical was, and everyone experimented. Now everyone knows what a musical is and apparently it's TV with songs. But I'd venture that the formulaic shows are an aberration--it's the odd ones that carry on the main line of the tradition, and there are more of them than you'd think. I mean, are my ideas really any more random than a bunch of obscure T. S. Eliot poems about cats? Broadway, of course, likes its new products to carry built-in name recognition. Still, somehow, the exceptions slither their way in; deep down, the gene pool knows it needs the mutants."
Note: Though Bret Fetzer is the current artistic director of Annex Theatre, during most of the time described in this profile, he was not part of Annex. He watched Chris Jeffries' career unfold with the same mix of awe and envy shared by most in the fringe theater scene.