Outgoing Berkeley Repertory Theatre artistic director Tony Taccone is not shy to share his aversion to the genre of musical theatre.
He remembers going with his mother when he was 10-years-old to see the movie “West Side Story,” which was a special experience for both of them. He loved seeing the validation his mother received when she watched, and it moved him profoundly. But once he was old enough to make his own mature opinions about the genre, he had a different take.
“The content was usually a fairly candy-assed story shoehorned into a very sophomoric and simplistic love story I didn’t find interesting,” Taccone said to a collection of patrons at a page to stage event.
So, it’s completely fitting that Taccone is directing a musical, the final project he will undertake while serving as artistic director. Right?
Taccone can only offer a wry smile and an enlightened life lesson.
“Life is full of ironies, and that is one of them,” said Taccone. “No question it is hysterical and appropriate.”
This is no ordinary musical Taccone is directing. He is working again with actor, writer, director and now musical theatre creator John Leguizamo, he of the nearly five-decade entertainment career, a man who has forged a deep affinity with the Bay Area in general and Berkeley Rep in particular. Taccone and Leguizamo have concocted quite a partnership, and together wrote the book for their new farcical musical “Kiss My Aztec!,” world premiering through July 14th. The story’s heroes are female warrior Colombina and the clown Pepe, who mount a resistance against their oppressors in 16th century, Spanish occupied Mesoamerica.
The musical not only features an irreverent and hip spin on the Conquest but is loaded with a wide-ranging soundtrack of the Latin music genre including salsa, Latin boogaloo, hip-hop, gospel, funk and merengue. For Leguizamo, who incorporates Latin dancing and music in all his shows, taking on this kind of task and working to create a farcical musical has its firm challenges.
“It’s a really demanding genre and the crazy amount of man hours to develop a musical is so huge, there’s this small army of people involved,” said Leguizamo, who will not be performing on the Roda Theatre stage in this show. “The genre of farce is very unforgiving but it’s exciting when you crack the code. It can’t be sentimental, but it has to be funny.
“In farce, the goal post doesn’t move and it’s staring right at you. You just have to hit it.”
Those goal posts that snuck up on a musical theatre stage was not the place Taccone thought he would be, but musicals eventually began to grow on him.
“I was positioned politically not to like them, and I held onto that, but after a while, a number of my colleagues straightened me out,” said Taccone. “They got me on board and started showing me work that’s good, and I’ve seen some phenomenal musicals. My colleagues were good to call me out on that.”
Before Leguizamo’s one-man show “Freak” was an HBO recorded, Spike Lee directed and Tony Award-nominated production, it ran at Theatre on the Square in 1997, which is now known as the San Francisco Playhouse. Since then, Leguizamo has not only performed in theatres and comedy clubs extensively in the Bay Area, but developed multiple shows in Berkeley. The most recent show, “Latin History for Morons,” which was also directed by Taccone in 2016, had an extended run on Broadway, is about to launch a national tour and now streams on Netflix.
Leguizamo, who grew up in Queens and now resides in Manhattan, has built an amazing entertainment career. And while movies and television have proven to be great mediums for his vast talents, his deeply personal returns to the theatre have explored family challenges, the frustrations of being caught in the Hollywood cog and his viciously misinformed sexual curiosities. In “Morons,” Leguizamo took on a new slant of the experience of his people, delving into 3,000 years of Latinx history.
With his latest works, does Leguizamo see himself as an artistic gatekeeper to such a rich history?
“Hopefully I’m a pioneer or at least a catalyst for people to turn all that information into movies, songs or theatre,” said Leguizamo. “There is so much material to be had.”
That material has manifested itself into fresh acting jobs in Berkeley for many young Latinx performers. That is something Taccone is thrilled about.
“When we were auditioning for our cast, we saw many, many folks and it was depressing to me how many people we saw who did the same roles and the same shows,” said Taccone. “It’s exciting to give these performers voice and agency, and that makes me very happy.”
As a Latinx artist himself of Colombian descent, Leguizamo shares that excitement.
“I feel like a father to all these Latinx kids who have these comedy chops, they are so phenomenal.”
WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO
Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents the world premiere of “Kiss My Aztec!”
Book by John Leguizamo and Tony Taccone
Music by Benjamin Velez
Lyrics by David Kamp, Benjamin Velez, and John Leguizamo
Based on an original screenplay written by John Leguizamo and Stephen Chbosky
Choreographed by Maija García
Directed by Tony Taccone
Running time: Approximately 2 hours and 15 minutes with a 15-minute intermission
The Roda Theatre at Berkeley Rep
2015 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Through July 14th
Tickets range from $40 – $115
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org