Diversionary stages world premiere of AIDS-themed musical ‘Eighty-Sixed’

Playwright Jeremy J. King fell in love the moment he first read David B. Feinberg’s 1989 novel, “Eighty-Sixed,” a witty confessional about a character named BJ Rosenthal, who is on the hunt for a boyfriend in New York as the AIDS epidemic worsens. out of control.

As a 24-year-old gay man new to New York in 2007, King said he could relate to BJ’s funny sex stories in the first half of the book, which is set in 1980, when AIDS n didn’t even have a name yet. . But King was also deeply troubled and moved by BJ’s experience in the second half of the novel, which is set in 1986, when the cumulative number of AIDS deaths in the United States rose to 24,500.

“In the second half, everything you go through as BJ is loaded now. You’re right in the middle of the AIDS crisis,” King said. “I could go there. …It became something that needed to be said.

After nearly nine years in development, BJ’s story is finally told on stage this month at the Diversionary Theater, which presents the world premiere of “Eighty-Sixed,” a musical adaptation of Feinberg’s novel featuring a book by King. and music and lyrics by the composer. Sam Salmond. The production’s A-list production team includes New York director Kevin Newbury and choreographer Raja Feather Kelly. It opens on May 26.

The Diversionary Theatre’s ‘Eighty-Sixed’ creative team, back row from left, are composer Sam Salmond, associate choreographer Chris Bell, screenwriter Jeremy J. King and musical director Steven Cuevas. Bottom: Director Kevin Newbury.


Matt M. Morrow, executive art director at Diversionary, said the production of “Eighty-Sixed” is a milestone in the company’s history.

“‘Eighty-Sixed’ represents why Diversionary exists,” Morrow said in a statement. “Founded at the height of the HIV/AIDS crisis in 1986, our theater was founded to provide a platform for our community to be seen and heard. Thirty-six years later, and now the third oldest queer theater in the country, Diversionary honors its founding impulse by producing this profound musical world premiere.

Initially, King wrote “Eighty-Sixed” as a movie script, but when he showed the script to Tony-winning Broadway producer Aaron Glick nearly nine years ago, Glick saw its potential as a musical comedy. He commissioned the script, introduced King to Salmond over cocktails, and within two days Salmond had written the musical’s first song.

Unlike the book, which is told chronologically, the musical glides smoothly through time, which King says is true to the way the character BJ deals with memories: “BJ is always either trying to avoid a memory, either to flee a memory, or to fight to recognize a memory. That’s what we do as a community. For some people, it is too painful to look back.

Salmond, 35, said memory is also a key part of his score, which he describes as a contemporary take on 80s pop-rock-dance music with influences from Elton John, Whitney Houston, Fleetwood Macs and more. The upbeat score mirrors the novel, Salmond said, which is funny and irreverent and celebrates the joy and happiness of love and sex.

“We want that energy of being at a concert where the music is going through your body and you want to dance to it,” Salmond said. “A lot of the language of the show revolves around those memories of the dance floor and the joy of music.”

King and Salmond are both in their thirties, what King calls the “middle” generation of gay men who want to pass on the experience of the older generation’s AIDS experience to younger audiences.

“We’re talking to people who survived the crisis and people like us who are the children of the crisis and people behind us who have no connection to it,” King, 37, said.

“It’s more than a play about AIDS. It’s a human game. It’s about bonding and finding community in times of crisis. We don’t want to leave people devastated. Our final gesture is to celebrate the memories of the people in our lives with whom we have connected and pass them on.

‘Eighty six’

When: Opens May 26 and runs through June 19. Showtimes, 7 p.m. Thursdays. 8 p.m. on Fridays and Saturdays. 2 p.m. on Sunday

Where: Diversionary Theatre, 4545 Park Blvd., University Heights

Tickets: $20 to $55

Call: (619) 220-0097

On line: diversionary.org