Local boy returns to reopen "Elvis lives" debate

"Art was my main thing, graphic art, cartooning mostly. Anyway, I thought I was going to be an artist. But then I've always been, like, the class-clown type and so in my senior year, Shorewood High School did Aristophanes' 'The Birds.' I auditioned, got cast and ever since then I've been involved in theater."

That's native son Lory Lazarus speaking. A transplant to New Jersey ("To be near the New York theater"), this actor/musician/cabaret entertainer/comedy writer/composer-lyricist/still-a-cartoonist/maitre-d extraordinaire/mature playwright, is in town to assist with the world premiere of his latest musical, "Attack of the Elvis Impersonators," for which he wrote the book, the music and the lyrics. It debuts Fri., Aug. 2 at the Modjeska Theater on Mitchell Street.

While his younger -- and only sibling -- sister, Shelley, would ultimately embrace law for her career, Lazarus took to the stage. Referring to that turning point in his life, Lazarus recalled, "During the hippy era -- I'm talking 1969 or '70 -- the play's director updated that old Greek comedy, 'The Birds' and Cloud Cuckooland became a hippie paradise. I loved getting laughs from an audience. Loved it. So, forget art."

Registering at UW-Milwaukee, the young tyro held ambitions to become an inter-arts major "because I still loved art. But now I deeply loved theater. However, I couldn't dance. Just couldn't." So he compromised as a theater major, "because, after all, theater ultimately combines art with scenic design, music, everything" he held dear.

Upon graduating from UWM -- with a major in playwriting -- Lazarus moved to Manhattan, because all of his friends were out there and he thought it the best place to stage his theatrical career.

"I ended up shipping mood-stone rings for a living. Remember them? The rings that would change colors, reacting to the body's temperament?"

With his trusty guitar as companion, Lazarus turned to doing stand-up comedy at places like The Improv and Comic Strip. He regards this off-shoot of legitimate theater as "kind of fun. But I ran out of money."

Back to Milwaukee where he continued to perform solo stuff "here and there around the city. Oh, before all of this -- actually even before I went off to New York for the first time," Lazarus suddenly recalls by referring to his printed resume, "I was a singer and a songwriter for Spike Jones Jr. and his Band-Aids. See, Spike Jones had a son who carried on the tradition of doing silly music and I did that for a brief time."

During this return period to Milwaukee, the singer/comedian teamed up with a colleague from his UWM days, Louis Mattioli, "a very talented man," Lazarus recalls. "We became a folk duo called 'Buckwheat and Lazoo.' The 'Lazoo' is me. We were, like, this warped Simon & Garfunkel duo, singing crazy songs, me playing guitar, him singing. We also did serious songs. So we were like pop-crazy folkies."

Lazarus associates the duo with one of the most awesome events of his life. In Milwaukee he had started a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim. And the great man himself wrote, "If ever you're in New York sometime...." Oh, sure, sure, Lazarus thought. But now that the team began performing in New York, he sent an invitation to Sondheim ... who showed up one night.

"Freaked me out! He sat at the bar, clutching the unfinished manuscript of 'Sweeney Todd' and he gave me a critique. Stephen Sondheim critiquing my songs," Lazarus says, still a little amazed to this day. The Broadway composer of hits like "Company," "Follies," "A Little Night Music," "Into the Woods" and more, "pointed out some really amazing stuff. Me. Playing acoustic guitar. Totally different from piano stuff. Standing at a New York City bar talking to Stephen Sondheim and him talking about my songwriting."

Two years later, Mattioli would break up the team when he hired on to the Broadway revival of "Hair."

"He wanted to do legitimate theater and he was a great dancer and singer," Lazarus says. He would also go on to co-write, with Tom Briggs, the book for the Rodgers & Hammerstein stage version of their film, "State Fair."

"So Buckwheat and Lazoo bit the dust. But we would reunite over the years, now and then, just to do little shows together."

And Sondheim? "We lost touch. But that's okay. We were never best friends but it was really cool at the time."

There is a sort of postscript to Lazarus' association. "In some magazine he said, 'You can't rhyme the word "orange."' But from my musical, 'Farnum's Fabulous Freaks,' I sent him the lyric I had composed":

Give thanks when next you peel an orange,
Though an ancient relic,
It's true there's not a fruit that's more/ange-
elic or as delic-

"And he wrote me back saying, 'Not bad.' How did we get on that subject? Oh, right, Louie," Lazarus says, picking up the thread of his dropped thought. "Louie passed away in 1993 and that was a killer. I wrote a song about him and everything: 'Miss You, Boy.' Anyway, he's buried in Kenosha somewhere."

It seemed time to bring up the subject of "Attack of the Elvis Impersonators."

"Right," Lazarus says. "By this time I had a band: Lazoo. And Lazoo used to perform at a cabaret called Panache, which was upstairs of a Magic Pan restaurant where I worked as host. I went up there one night to see another cabaret act called 'Texas Chainsaw Manicure.' Just a series of unrelated vignettes. In one of them they had an Elvis impersonator. I had heard about them but now I actually saw one. So I wrote a song about a guy who's into heavy metal and he's had it with rock 'n roll, he wants to be an Elvis impersonator."

This is where Lazarus met his first associated block. "The guy I wrote it for in my band refused to sing it -- because he didn't think he could do it well. I thought, 'Who cares? Just do it.' Ultimately the band refused -- we were a democracy -- to do the song." And so it laid around for a number of years.

"I would read things about Elvis; did you ever read a book called 'Is Elvis Alive?' I suspect that it is possible -- swear to God -- that he really could have faked his death" but he never made the connection. "So I cannot say exactly where or when I decided to develop a whole show around that song, but it became the beginning point: A heavy-metal rock star who decides to be an Elvis impersonator and save the world!"

"When [producer] Stewart Johnson just heard the title alone," Lazarus says, "he jumped right in with an offer to produce it and his wife, Diane, is directing it." Just a touch of that old Broadway magic occurring right here in Milwaukee in that most time-honored tradition: "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!"

The world premiere of "Attack of the Elvis Impersonators," book, music and lyrics by Lory Lazarus, takes place in the historic Modjeska Theater located at 1128 W. Mitchell St., August 2,-4 and 9-11. Call the box office at (414) 645-0700.

Click here to win free tickets to "Attack of the Elvis Impersonators."


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