'The Bikinis' Return to the Long Wharf - An Interview with Ray Roderick

Tara Kennedy

  • OnStage Connecticut Columnist

After two years, the Long Wharf Theater welcomes back “The Bikinis” on July 13-31, a fun, coming-of-age musical story of four young women growing up on the Jersey shore. Overnight, they become a singing girl group sensation of the 1960s and then a one-hit-wonder looking to fit in a country with growing pains of its own. One of the show’s creators, Ray Roderick, was nice enough to take time out to talk with OnStage about their show, “The Bikinis,” his upcoming shows, jukebox musicals, and his many hats.

OnStage:  So I know that the show’s plot is based on a real life story.  Can you tell our readers a little bit about that story?

Roderick:  Yes. It’s based on this story during the building boom.  There was a trailer park that was on a beach front in Florida.  All of a sudden, people were wanting to buy beach front property.  So this developer -- there was no other land developed of that size -- that was -- you could develop on the beach.  Everything [in the surrounding area] had been developed already.  So this one little trailer park was left called “Briny Breezes.”  They offered everybody in this trailer park, $1 million per trailer, if they would sell [to the developer]. It created this complete uproar in the community because people had been here for generations.  People were like, “I’m in paradise!  Where am I going, a condo?  I don’t think so.  I can walk out my door and be on the beach -- I’m staying!” So, we took this backdrop, set it at the [New] Jersey Shore, and created our story. 

OnStage: So, what is your story?

It’s about four women who were best friends: two sisters, a cousin, and a friend who won first place in a [talent] contest in 1964 at the Jersey shore singing, “Itsy Bitsy Teeny Weeny Yellow Polka Dot Bikini.” People asked, “What do you call yourselves?” and they said, “We’re the Bikinis.”

Then they said, “You know what? We should be a girl group!”  So the story is their story coming of age – from age 14 to heading close to 50. And their story follows [along with the story of America] coming of age.

OnStage: Through the songs that everyone remembers from the 1960s. 

Roderick: We see rock and roll and pop music change with the times via the lens of these four best friends coming of age.  [The United States] as a country that is coming of age at a time when things were changing so much! There was turmoil that we were dealing with for the first time in this new kind of way, and the music reflects that. These women’s lives reflect that. But the songs play a large role in the show: they are the emotional part of the show; they're the fun of the show; they're the nostalgic part of the show.  It’s really about this journey of music and these women coming of the age at a time when the country is coming of age.  

OnStage:  So that explains the range of the songs that are part of the show.

Roderick:  Yeah, it’s literally 20 years’ worth of music.  Most of the ride is those songs you heard on your transistor radio growing up. It’s sort of a soundtrack of the lives at that time when there was three or four [radio] stations to choose from. Nowadays, we have our iPhones and Bluetooth hook ups: everyone is listening to whatever they want to listen to at any time.  But that wasn’t the case in the ‘60s and ‘70s.  For the most part, everybody had their radios tuned to the same station.  If you would go to the beach, you would see people dancing to the same music at different spots on the beach because they're all listening to the same station on their transistor radio.  So, we do have a soundtrack of our lives at that time that we don’t have any more in the same way: we literally are experiencing the same thing at the same time.

OnStage:  There’s an amazing amount of music that this story requires: all these different songs to tell all these different points of view in terms of what was going on during this time.  The story is really from the perspective of the Baby Boomers and their growing up and how the country was changing from the ‘50s that’s post- World War II and going into the ‘70s, early ‘80s.

Roderick:  We use all this music to reflect nostalgic moments in the ‘60s. And their lives, they grow up and we watch the four girls grow up as the music and the country grows up.  This is a really big musical journey and that’s what I’m so excited about.  It’s how these girls grew at that time and the music reflected all of that.  And they chose to sing songs for particular reasons.

For instance, there’s a whole Woodstock story through the eyes of one of the girls who fell in love with Melanie [Safka, best known for her song “Brand New Key”] and her music.  And then we transition into the women’s voice with the Equal Rights Amendment, so they do some of that material through their eyes and then ultimately land in the disco era. 

OnStage: And there are original songs in the show as well?

Roderick: Yes, so there's original songs along with this grouping of pop songs we know and love. For example, “In My Bikini” and “Sandy Shores” and some parody songs that we do in the “beach movie style” [a la Frankie and Annette] that’s like Elvis and the Rockabilly of the ’50s - ‘60s.  So we have songs like that that are ours for a reason.  For example, there’s one song that deals with divorce. It’s a country tune written by the gal who never liked country music until she went through a divorce.  But since she was a lawyer, so wrote the country tune in “legal-ese.” 

OnStage:  That’s great!

Roderick:  Yeah.  And also the bikini as the title of the show is a little loaded intentionally. Because the bikini – for women – is empowering and, at the same time, [voyeuristic]. Those beach movies at the time reflected that, and it seems so innocent now.  But at the time, that generation liked pushing the envelope, and the bikini represented that.  Also, for many, the bikini was like, “What? A woman can wear that on the beach?”  For a woman, it was empowering. They’re like, “Yeah, I can!  Why can't I?  What's there to be ashamed of here, folks?  And guess what, you're looking at me now, aren’t you?” [And then there’s the other side:] “Should I be wearing it?  Maybe I should be in a one piece.” There was that whole dynamic for women, as we know.  

It’s also a wonderful metaphor for us growing up and the conflict that we all deal with in life -- it’s not always black and white.  And I think the bikini, in a fun way, reminds us of that women couldn’t show up on the beach that way, and now it’s a whole new kind of freedom.  And that’s part of the coming of age with our country [at the time] is there was a whole another kind of freedom that we were coming out of World War II and entered this fun era.  But there was a lot that was coming to the surface of the same time and those issues would come through in these songs. These songs were not about nothing; they were saying something here.  They reflect a moment in time and that’s what we’re interested in conveying with this show.

OnStage:  One thing that is different about this show is that there is an interactive part: the audience gets to vote. What is the audience voting on and how do the votes determine how the ending changes? I mean you don’t want to necessarily give away what endings *could* happen…

Roderick:  Well, there’s some stuff that floats up about the sisters, so little hidden secrets, some hidden baggage that they never revealed to each other -- that they had hidden from each other that bubbles to the surface through this concert that the audience is a part of.  I’m not going to tell you how it ends, but the stakes are not just with our four gals on stage. There are stakes with the audience as well. How do you want to live your life?  What matters in life?  We get to ponder that ourselves.  These secrets bubble to the surface as these gals have to make a decision that we’ve been talking about through this musical journey.  And as that comes to a head, [the audience] ends up realizing that we’re on one side of this or the other.  So, the show is breaking the fourth wall as the story unfolds with the audience as a part of it.  So it’s a little immersive.  

OnStage:  So a lot of the works that you have created like “The Bikinis” and “I Love a Piano” are mostly made up of songs that have already been written by someone else.  Have you thought about doing work where you're creating completely original songs?

Roderick:  Well, I’m excited you mentioned that because I’ve just finished in a show with new music where I wrote both lyrics and the book with my collaborator, Joseph Baker, who has written all the music for the show.  And we just finished. We’re very proud of it.  Hopefully that will be unveiled soon. 

OnStage:  No hints?

Roderick:  It’s about a powerful woman.  It’s based on a true story.  A very powerful woman that everybody should know about. But it’s the most challenging thing I’ve ever worked on: it’s a completely original story, including its music and lyrics, but it’s not based on a movie and it’s not jukebox.  It has its own vocabulary.

OnStage:  Something to look forward to! So, that’s cool to know that that’s coming.

Roderick:  And then Jim Hindman and I [and two others] have written a new play with music called “Love Land.”  It’s a whacky, fun, series of love stories that all take place in a place called the Love Land Ski Lodge. There’s a real place in Colorado called Love Land, north of Denver, and that's a ski area, so we decided to have our story take place there. It’s a series of love stories that take place in this ski lodge that’s only open on February 14 every year.  Anyway, we’re really proud of it and it’s going to be unveiled very soon.  So that was written by Jim and I and it’s been a really fun collaboration. 

Also, Jim and I have a company [Miracle or 2] that focuses on new authors and licensing properties by new authors. That’s sort of what our group is all about, but in a way in that we hope acts as a pipeline to the commercial world.  

OnStage:  Yeah.  I mean if you don’t have a commercial element to [your show], who’s going to see it, right?  So you need to.

Roderick:  Yeah, it’s not going to collect dust on a shelf if it’s a play that’s worth doing.  And [theaters] are always looking for new things, but it’s like, “Well, where are those new things?”  So, we’re trying to create a company that is always delivering new things that can be successful in -- generally speaking -- smaller theaters.

OnStage: Like Long Wharf. 

Roderick:  Yes, like Long Wharf. Actually, this is our second time back at Long Wharf [with “The Bikinis”]. We were there two years ago.  So we’re thrilled to be back.  It was a very successful run two summers ago.  And we had a great time in New Haven. Last time, by the end of the run, people were coming with their coolers and were having little beach parties, little tailgating parties in the parking lot.  They were ready to go, ready to have a good time! The little show -- they seemed to love it in Connecticut and we’re thrilled about it.

OnStage:  I noticed when I was reading your bio that you wear a lot of hats.  You’ve been a performer; you’ve been in directing, you’ve been a writer, and a choreographer.  So, what's your favorite hat and why? 

Roderick:  That’s a tough one.  As my career kind of evolved from the early days, I started as a singer/dancer.  It’s what I wanted to do on Broadway and I was fortunate enough to do it.  For about 18 years straight, I was very lucky, very fortunate.  

After that, I started a theater in upstate New York.  I had been running that, directing and choreographing up there and people were starting to ask me to do that in New York so I started [directing and choreographing in New York City] at that point.  Like I’m thinking I’ll probably go back and perform again. But I didn’t. I exclusively directed and choreographed. 

And I was always writing a little bit.  And then I started to segue more to the writing side of things and started this company [Miracle or 2 Productions] with my business partner, Jim Hindman, which has been a wonderful thing. So it’s been an evolution.  I think that’s what's great about being an artist is that there’s always a -- there’s always something that’s challenging me that you haven’t done that you're -- that you want to do.

OnStage:  That’s exactly it. It was a progression, an evolution from actor to director to writer. You just continued to challenge yourself.  

Roderick:  Right.  I want to do something that I haven’t done because that’s the exciting part.  And we could keep writing jukebox musicals, which is awfully fun and I’m sure I will continue to because I do love them.  

OnStage:  It’s funny that you mentioned jukebox musicals. When I think of a jukebox musical, I think it’s where they take an artist’s catalog and create a story around the songs. Like “Mama Mia.” Yours doesn’t really fit that model where you had the songs and needed to form a story around them. Because that to me seems very artificial. You don’t have that. You have a story that’s completely separate from the music and the two have kind of formed the story together. It’s a different process.

Roderick:  It is a different process and you're very right.  They're literally different.  I mean that’s the thing with labels.  When you call something a jukebox musical, really all that means is -- the songs that existed somewhere, you can hear that song on a jukebox.  Like you could say that about “I Love a Piano.” This is the first show I ever wrote with Michael Berkley and toured for 3 years around the country.

That’s the first show I ever wrote, but it’s something the people responded to, and it could be called a jukebox musical.  I don’t really think of it that way – it tells the life story of a piano.  The piano weaves its way through its life and lands at these different times and places in America showing how the world was changing around this piano told through song and dance. And for me, the piano represented early [Irving] Berlin; a creative guy who touched and inspired our lives at times when we needed it most. 

So, you're absolutely right.  You could call it a jukebox musical and these works all could be -- because you could hear these songs on a jukebox.  But it isn’t what you’d call a typical jukebox musical.

OnStage:  I guess that’s kind of the thing where writers are creating a story – trying to fit the square peg in the round hole where the songs don’t create a smooth story line. That is what makes me have a derogatory view of the jukebox musical as a genre where the pieces just don’t fit.   

Roderick:  No, that’s not our process.  We are interested in the story first and the music can help us tell that story.  What's interesting to me about “The Bikinis” is it starts off being about the music.  And little by little, the balance shifts to being about the women and you don’t even realize it [because] you’re falling in love with these women and what matters to them matters to you.

I think the jukebox musical -- it’s the easiest way to say it, but I don’t think it tells us much when we do say it.  But then would you call a Jersey Boys a jukebox musical? Initially, I hadn’t bothered seeing Jersey Boys because I was like -- the jukebox musical -- and I’m a guy who loves the genre.  I like it if it’s done well, I like the genre, but not just anything.  And when I went to see Jersey Boys and I’m like. “I love this show!” because it doesn’t pretend to be anything it’s not and it gets the job done using some of the best stage craft, best staging, and the best use of that vernacular. That story rolls along and I’m engaged.  I loved it.

So it’s telling the story of someone we know, but we learn a little bit more about them -- the things that we don’t know that we learn along the way about the Jersey Boys.  But with “The Bikinis,” one of the reasons I wanted to write this show is because it’s about someone who we don’t know: a fictitious girl group that wanted to make it big.

And they did have one moment when they were a hit. They thought that they were on their way and then life changed. Instead, you have a different sort of life that becomes more important.  And yet you always will have that moment in that sun – and that reflects most people’s lives. Everybody can relate to that.  And that’s the Bikinis to me as a group.  

OnStage:  They got their 15 minutes of fame.

Roderick:  You’ve got it.  They had their 15 minutes -- it happen to be one summer.  But it’s fleeting. It doesn’t last.  That’s most people’s story. But that’s the story I wanted to actually write -- what happens to real people that still love to sing, love the songs, and love being together, [lack of fame] doesn’t change that.  But what happened after that moment in the sun, that’s an interesting thing.  And how do they deal with it and -- how does that inform them what life is about.

OnStage:  If you could borrow a musical theater icon’s persona – you could be them - for 24 hours, who would you choose and why?

Roderick:  Oscar Hammerstein, period.

OnStage:  Yeah! Most bang for your buck! 

Roderick:  Oh yeah!  Are you kidding me? I mean, really?  I don’t think there’s a question.  I mean to me he – he’s just got on every one.  And that’s why those musicals actually still work really well.  So it’s all about the work.

OnStage:  All of the things you’ve been and all the things you’ve done, I was curious to see where you would pick from. Which part of the musical theater genre you would choose. 

Roderick:  [Hammerstein] wrote book of lyrics and changed the way the theater works completely and continued to for his entire career.  I think sometimes we forget whose shoulders we’re standing on.  I think Sondheim certainly stood on Oscar Hammerstein’s shoulders.  But I think in essence anybody who does what we do now, I’m sure Lin-Manuel Miranda would say the same thing.

No matter what it is we’re doing -- you know, it is all about the words in the story and the ability to marry that and create the opportunity at the same time for this beautiful music to move in emotional ways that we could ever imagine.

OnStage:  It’s an amazing genre.  I think musical theater is one of those amazing genres that can -- using all these different elements -- they all come together to create something amazing.

Roderick:  Yeah, I agree.  And I think it’s the hardest art form, but it is the most powerful.  And thank goodness for “Hamilton” that lets people focus in a new place in what we do.  I think every musical should be – [the audiences] should be looking for what they’re finding in “Hamilton” on a stage -- something fresh and new which gives them something they didn’t know that they were going to get and something that they can believe in along the way.

That’s what we -- as much as it -- people wanted me to -- it’s a business and we need to fill a title and maybe things that people know and there’s a movie, it’s been done, so we’ll -- I think at the end of the day what we’re looking for is -- are those new experiences.  Like that’s why the Bikinis is not about something people know in some respects.  And that’s comparing us like, any stretch, we’re a stroppy fun -- not very dangerous show.  It’s not like anybody is going to leave shocked by any stretch.

But it’s going to -- our little itty bitty -- getting our little messages out there in ways that people might not expect.  But I do thank God for this pendulum. I feel like I swung into a new world.  And I think it’s very exciting for all of us.

OnStage:  It really is. Listen, thank you so much for chatting with me taking time out of your day. I’m sure a very busy schedule.

Roderick:  My pleasure.  Thanks, this was a wonderful conversation.

'The Bikinis' runs thru July 31st at the Long Wharf Theatre. For tickets and info visit, www.longwharf.org/bikinis