“What is this about?” asks Randy Weiner in a green velvet booth several floors below 46th Street. “You’re just interviewing me as, like, this weird guy?”
Weiner, a former science teacher and the son of theater-loving Upper East Siders, is the mastermind behind “Queen of the Night”—an epic three-hour interactive performance that recreates the traditional genre, in part by destroying it. This is a show piece that feels both drunkenly improv’d and carefully calculated, right down to the bone handled carving knives and crashed chandelier at the bottom of a long stairwell, the point of impact that marks the entrance to legendary New York hotspot Diamond Horseshoe and the exit from traditional theater as we know it.
Critics and patrons have loved and not loved “Queen” since it opened in 2013, though that’s nothing new if you know Weiner’s resume. Since producing his first large-scale, way-out-of-the-ordinary performances at Harvard, critics, actors and audiences have voiced loud, strong, and widely varying opinions on Weiner and what he does. These days, however, no one contests his place at the center of the New York theater universe.
Seated in a booth just off stage left wearing a suit (“I never wear a suit”), parted hair and unironicly framed glasses, Weiner muses on his evolution as a creator.
“My daughters are so good,” he said. “We’ll go to do something and they’ll be like, ‘Daddy—we don’t wanna do this.’ And I’m like, how do they know to say that? How? Growing up, I would never think to rebel.”
This is what makes Weiner so interesting. This Upper West Side “very big rule-follower” keeps reinventing theater by breaking its rules to challenge a very-hard-to-challenge generation that’s looking for an extreme experience. It’s thus no surprise that Weiner’s productions have always attracted extreme praise and extreme criticism.
Weiner’s first of several controversial productions in New York was “The Donkey Show”, a racy roller disco interpretation of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” that he wrote with his wife, Tony-winning director Diane Paulus. It got great reviews and toured the world. “The Box” followed as a bar, club and show he describes as “a crazy fucking place.” It got great reviews, great criticism, and a good amount of legal attention. A burlesque club where shows don’t start until 1AM, performances include crowd-spraying and sado-masochism, and celebrities reportedly paying $2,000 for a stage-side table. One investor even stopped going to shows because they were too intense (it was Moby). Lines are still long and the club’s still in court. You decide.
Next came “Sleep No More”, wherein patrons donned carnival-esque masks to explore a seven-story warehouse recreated into a noir-like world with everything from cobblestone streets to a haunted forest to performers silently playing out someone’s reimagined version of Macbeth.
Fans noticed a contrast: whoever was coming up with this stuff had both a desire to create new kinds of entertainment and was thoroughly educated in the classics. (“Queen of the Night” is based on Mozart’s opera, “The Magic Flute”.) What was going on here?
Ask their creator. He’ll let out a sigh, sink back into the booth, and take a long drink of water.
“I love my father dearly,” he began. “And he loves theater. Loves it …”
Not surprisingly, it’s complicated. Growing up, Weiner was dragged to Broadway or aspiring Broadway productions almost every night. Two on most weekends. Then, one day, he was late to a show at the Manhattan Theatre Club. The doorman wouldn’t let him in. His parents, who were donors, were furious. Young Randy was not. He’d had a stark realization.
“That day freed me,” he said. “I realized—I know that world, but it doesn’t really interest me. Theatricality. That interests me.”
He still saw shows, but fostered his other interests, including science (he was always going to be a doctor, and will call himself a scientist) and the history of theater, especially opera. Somewhere along the way he realized that entertainment need not be so structured.
“I’m not under the delusion that everybody wants to watch a show. Because I have been to many shows where I wasn’t watching the story. I was watching an attractive girl, or the lights, or the people who were all dressed up,” he said.
“That’s what opera was, traditional opera. A creation by the best minds of the time, of the place. The best musician. The best costume person. The best scene person. The best playwright. The best everything. And at the show, you would look across the way, into a box. You could close the curtain and be private in the box for whatever reasons. It set a kind of a mood. People were open to experiencing theater back then in ways that weren’t so commodified as what people think about now.”
Opera was the first thing that “blinked” into Randy’s mind when he toured what’s now the Diamond Horseshoe with real estate guru Aby Rosen. Unused for 60 years, the old space—a vaudeville joint called Billy Rose’s Diamond Horseshoe Club— was 6,000 square feet, with an ornately crumbled ceiling, a sunken stage, and a kitchen. Randy had never done anything with a kitchen, and well-knew the business axiom of Show + Meal = Bad Show + Worse Meal. He was also looking to create something to contrast “Sleep No More’s” dark, solitary, ambiguous atmosphere. Aby asked what Randy wanted to do.
“I want to do an opera modern,” he said. “We’re gonna do what operas were.”
Weiner and his old business partners set to work, specifically recruiting people they were told they couldn’t get, like fashion godhead Thom Browne to design the outfits, former La Cirque chef Jason Kallert to cook, and Tony-winner Christine Jones to direct. All would collaborate. The uniforms would touch on the story, guests would venture to back rooms for sleight of hand, and the food service would be a show in itself, with pigs, lambs, and skewered birds all brought out at once, a la Fantasia.
“People said, ‘You can’t do that,’ and I said, ‘No-no-no, you can do that—you’ve just never done it before. And my job as scientist is to solve that problem. We’re going to work together and figure it out. And maybe that means everything that happens in a show, we’re going to do the opposite of.”
In the end, Rosen put up $20 million for renovations and on New Year’s Eve of 2013 the club opened its doors for the first time since 1951. Initially a six-week run, the show has sold out for two years.
“All the problems became opportunities to find solutions,” he said in a conclusive manner. “That’s how we made this a truly unusual event. It’s fun. People who’ve walked Right their whole life saying Left, Left, Left. That’s me. That’s my thing.”
For more Randy Weiner, check out his Inspire the Night episode on Red Bull TV!