Reluctant music man

John Jiler seems the least likely candidate to write a musical. A 48-year-old free spirit who doesn't remember the '60s--and therefore must have been there--Jiler says his only ambition through much of adulthood "was to have as many strange experiences as possible."

The playwright, who is half Irish-American and half Jewish, has lived the life of a renaissance hippie, a man who revels in experience for the sake of it. His credits include playing all the men in Marilyn Monroe's life in the premiere of Norman Mailer's Strawhead, and stints as a bartender in the west of Ireland, a Manhattan messenger, a cab driver, a teacher in Brooklyn, and a free-lance journalist for the Village Voice.

At the Voice, he covered the trial of a group of Italian-American teens from Bensonhurst who killed a black teen who wandered onto the wrong street on the wrong day.

Oh, and he hates musicals, all of which uniquely qualify him to be the creator of his anti-musical, Avenue X.

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The piece, performed a cappella, opens at the Dallas Theater Center January 10 after some substantial reworking on the part of Jiler and his partner in crime, composer Ray Leslee. A combination of doo-wop, jazz and gospel music, it originally appeared at Playwrights Horizons in New York last winter after a long, strange trip through Jiler's head.

Avenue X is about two guys from Brooklyn, one black, the other Italian, who try to make music together with tragic consequences. The musical drama will continue to be tinkered with until it opens here, and will suffer inevitable comparisons to West Side Story. But instead of a lush Bernstein score, Avenue X uses only the human voice as an instrument. And instead of Jerome Robbins' choreography, Jiler has configured the fight scenes as real and scrappy. "The whole effect is raw and stripped away," he says.

But why did a writer of Irish and Jewish heritage feel compelled to write a play about blacks and Italians? Isn't he setting himself up for criticism that a white man can't write about the black experience? (Not to mention that an Irishman knows nothing about Italians.) "Ethnic conflict is in my veins," Jiler said in a recent interview with the Observer. "My parents had to marry at city hall because the family wouldn't attend the wedding."

Jiler grew up in the Yorkville section of Manhattan. As a kid, he says he was one of few white boys who crossed the artificial boundary on 96th Street to play stickball with the black kids in Harlem. They let him play because "I'm a great ball player," Jiler says.

During rehearsal for the New York production, Jiler had to pass through a trial by fire with his black cast. "But I don't think you have to be black to know how bad racism is or to be able to write about it," he says.

DTC artistic director Richard Hamburger agrees. "I believe people can enter other cultures imaginatively," he says. "Of course one reason we're doing this is in hopes of diversifying our audience. The proof is in the pudding. Whether it's patronizing or real is part of the experiment."

Hamburger himself loves a cappella music, which drew him to the script. He also loved the work's simplicity--it seemed an answer to the wild excesses of Broadway.

Jiler was surprised when he was told that DTC was interested in producing the musical with him as writer-in-residence. "We didn't think of this as the first theater that would pick up Avenue X. We asked Hamburger, are you sure you want us to have total freedom when you have a wealthy subscriber base to worry about? But he said go ahead, and has more or less left us alone since. I have some trepidation about the audience response here, but we feel the freedom to do what's not crowd-pleasing."

The handicap of a drama like Avenue X is the tendency toward heavy-handedness--telling us how bad racism is. (Show don't tell is the first rule of playwriting as well as journalism.) Jiler and his partner Leslee are trying to simplify the work in Dallas and eliminate any preachiness, tidiness, or sentimentality that might have been present in the New York production.

Avenue X was a twinkle in Jiler's eye four years ago when he covered the Bensonhurst trial. He had already thought about doing a musical that involved doo-wop music, the reverberating background of his youth.

One of his biggest obstacles was finding a composer. "I needed a real heavyweight," Jiler said, "someone who was versed in Verdi and gospel. But what I kept finding were Sondheim imitators--clever without a lot of heart.

Leslee is uniquely qualified: Jiler describes him as a classically trained musician with rock 'n' roll in his blood. The two collaborated and won the Richard Rodgers Award for Most Promising Musical.

In Dallas, Avenue X features two solid local actors, Billy Eugene Jones and Liz Mikel. Jones is just catching his breath from DTC's A Christmas Carol, and Mikel was recently seen in Manchild in the Promised Land at Theatre Three.

Meanwhile, Jiler and Leslee are still manipulating the text, trying to strip it bare to what is raw and true. Jiler compares their compulsion to fix the work to that of Degas. The impressionist painter was supposedly found palette in hand softening the colors of one of his paintings already hanging in a museum. Jiler may not be Degas, but he is striving in Dallas for a perfect Avenue X.

Previews of Avenue X begin January 5; opening night is January 10. For ticket information, call 522-

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