You’d never know it today, but the present Trinity Nightclub on Occidental Avenue South (near Yesler) once housed the 90-seat Pioneer Square Theater. Operating at two venues during its 1980–89 existence (including a former porno theater at the base of the Smith Tower), PST was a mainstay of fringe theater during the Reagan years. The company had its biggest hit with Angry Housewives, originally planned as a short-run spring musical, which opened in April ’83 and ran for over six years until the theater’s collapse.
That’s another, sadder story than this one: how a plucky, locally authored musical about bored housewives-turned-punk rockers became a cult phenomenon, later exported to New York, London, and beyond, with stagings continuing to this day. There have been Northwest productions in Tacoma, Everett, and Bellevue since ’89, but ArtsWest’s revival (see review) is the first time Angry Housewives will be seen in Seattle since the era when Starbucks and Microsoft were small, Amazon didn’t exist, and you could still buy a house in this city on a single paycheck. The whole notion of “housewife” is dated (what married woman today doesn’t work outside the home?), so Angry Housewives is now a period piece from a very different era.
Why’d it strike such a spark? We asked writer A.M. Collins (now living in Southern California) composer Chad Henry (now with the Denver Center for the Performing Arts), and director Linda Hartzell (of Seattle Children’s Theatre). What follows is an edited, condensed version of their recollections.
A.M. Collins Every year we did a new musical. And that particular year we didn’t have a musical. I’d never written a play or a musical. Even my partners were surprised when I said I wanted to write one. I used to walk from Capitol Hill to Pioneer Square to work. I’d been trying to work out an idea . . . One day I came up with the title on this particular walk: Angry Housewives. I thought, “Oh, that’s funny.” And then on the same walk came “Eat your fucking cornflakes.”
It was a cool punk scene [at the time]. It was right before the grunge scene. A lot of our friends were in bands. Musicians hung out with actors who hung out with painters. We would do parties at the theater. A lot of times a punk band would play. All that wildness. Pioneer Square at the time was kind a cultural mecca for talent. We were in our 20s.
I think we started [leasing the theater] at $500 a month. It was a ridiculously low amount that seemed huge to us at the time. They’d just evicted a gay disco. They just locked the doors. We were paying [performers], like, a ridiculous $25 a week. Union actors couldn’t work for us. We were bringing home, like, $50 a week. At some point, we slept in the theater under the bleachers. That’s how we got away with rent. Those were the days when people were willing to work for us for $25 a week and beer.
I wasn’t married at the time. Angry Housewives might’ve been based partly on my mom. I didn’t have any political thought behind that particular play. I was all about the humor. It was funny to me to think of people my mom’s age playing punk rock. I laughed at the inappropriateness. Truly, in that part of the ’80s, there were very few older rock-’n’-rollers.
We expected [Angry Housewives] to fail. It must have hit some kind of nerve. Quite honestly, I was baffled [by the show’s success]. I didn’t know what to think. I felt like, “I got away with something.” That was sort of a magical moment. Nobody saw it coming. I didn’t.
Chad Henry Anna [A.M. Collins] just had this great idea. We put it together on a shoestring. It was just one of those timely things. It was kind of a women’s show. This was about the first time that there was an original piece [in Seattle musical theater] that focused on women’s issues. Anna drew on a lot of her own experience. It was an underdog story.
It was a real collaboration, and we had a terrific cast. We had a great opening night . . . and both the dailies came out with rave reviews. And it was almost sold out for the next seven years. It had a few great numbers back to back that really killed it. Everybody remembers the song “Eat Your Fucking Cornflakes”—that was Anna Marie’s title, and I fleshed out the song and the lyrics. That just nailed it for the rest of the show. The way it was staged was so much fun.
It was kind of an unbelievable moment. I always wished we’d known that it would be such a big hit, so we would’ve worked on it harder! They planned a six-week run. The funkiness and simplicity of the original Pioneer Square production was one of its virtues. It would’ve kept going [beyond September ’89] if the theater hadn’t had so many problems. They just kept selling and selling tickets. I think there was a lot of return audience. We were just so grateful.
It didn’t do well in New York [in 1986]. It got really crappy reviews. But it’s had hundreds and hundreds of productions in Europe and Asia and Australia and Canada and all the major American cities. It became—dare I say it?—an international phenomenon. I was proud of it. It ran for years in other places. It was kind of a little miracle. It was so unexpected, so left-field.
Linda Hartzell It struck a chord. It’s sort of dated now. [The times] were so different then. I think it was the tail-end of the women’s-lib movement. The atmosphere was that if you’re a woman, you’re gonna make coffee.
[The show was about] four diverse women who want to make some money [in a punk-rock contest] instead of selling Mary Kay. The show kept every aspect of who they were at home, and morphed that into what they thought would be symbolic of being a punk rocker.
It was a new musical with a lot of good music and a lot of good lines. It wasn’t your traditional rock-’n’-roll musical. Women loved it—“That’s us! That’s me!” It spoke to Middle America and made theater fun. Opening night, the audience just went crazy. It was like in a movie where the audience jumps to its feet. The reviews were raves. We didn’t think we had a show that would last longer than one or two weeks.
ARTSWEST 4711 California Ave. S.W., 938-0339, artswest.org. $17–$36.50. Opens Thurs., April 23. 7:30 p.m. Wed.–Sat., 3 p.m. Sun. Ends May 31.