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New York Times
1 Apr 2023

NextImg:Michael R. Jackson on the Soap Opera Origins of ‘White Girl in Danger’

Hearing Michael R. Jackson, the Pulitzer- and Tony-winning playwright of “A Strange Loop,” speak about soap operas is like getting lost in a Wikipedia wormhole. With nary a pause, he rolls through the details of characters’ yearslong arcs, including every stolen identity, forbidden romance and vicious backstabbing — literal and figurative.

He’s amassed decades of knowledge: He became hooked at 5 years old, when he started camping out in front of a “gigantic” wooden television set with his great-aunt. “I would watch ‘The Young and the Restless’ at 12:30, ‘Days of Our Lives’ at 1, ‘Another World’ at 2, ‘Santa Barbara’ at 3. And I would do that every day — Monday through Friday,” Jackson, 42, said in a recent interview. “The more I sat and watched with her, the more engrossed I got in these characters’ lives and the story lines. I sort of grew up obsessed with them.”

So it’s not surprising that these shows, which he began recording on VHS when he was older, would eventually become a source of inspiration for Jackson: His new musical, “White Girl in Danger,” is rooted in soap opera themes and tropes. It’s now in previews in a joint production of Second Stage and Vineyard Theater, and is scheduled to open April 10 at Second Stage’s Tony Kiser Theater.

Latoya Edwards, center, as Keesha, a character who is trying to transcend racial stereotypes and get a more prominent story line.Credit...Sara Krulwich/The New York Times

The show takes place in Allwhite, a world defined by soap tropes and ruled by three white teen-girl stereotypes: Megan, Meagan and Maegan (pronounced MEG-an, Mee-gan and MAY-gan, FYI). Much of the show’s action takes place in and around Allwhite’s high school, where “the Megans” are preparing for a battle of the bands competition. Then there’s a Black girl named Keesha, who is trying to get her own story line and level up from being a forgettable Blackground character, forever stuck in slave narratives and police brutality stories. Meanwhile, the town’s residents are reeling from a mysterious spate of murders.

In separate interviews, Jackson, along with the director, Lileana Blain-Cruz; the choreographer, Raja Feather Kelly; the set designer, Adam Rigg; and the costume designer, Montana Levi Blanco, spoke about the show’s many influences (including romance novels, Lifetime movies and Black girl groups) and how those influences were reimagined for the stage.

Gothic melodrama

Jackson described “Days of Our Lives” as the soap opera that most shaped his understanding of and love for melodrama — specifically a 1993 episode in which the rich socialite Vivian Alamain (Louise Sorel) drugs her nemesis, Carly Manning (Crystal Chappell), and buries her alive. Jackson gushed about the scene, which begins with Vivian plucking the petals from a bouquet of roses, maniacally chanting “She loves me, she loves me not” atop Carly’s grave; he called Sorel’s “incredible” performance downright Shakespearean. “I was 12 years old and it was, to this day, one of the most seminal soap moments; it’s burned into me because I had never seen something so Gothic and terrifying happen,” Jackson said. “I was like ‘This is my form.’”

There are many other iconic soap moments that are alluded to in “White Girl in Danger”: Adam Rigg designed a curtain inspired by a pink beaded rhinestone gown that Joan Collins, as Alexis Carrington Colby, wears in “Dynasty,” and looked back at a famous fight scene from the show between Alexis and Diahann Carroll’s Dominique Deveraux that leaves both characters — and the room they’re in — in tatters. Rigg used some of the background details of that scene — a vase, the peach and coral color palette of the room and furnishings — in the show’s set design.

When it comes to characters and their roller-coaster arcs, Jackson’s favorites are Viki Lord (Erika Slezak), the “One Life to Live” matriarch with dissociative identity disorder whose alter egos emerge to dictate her romantic life, blackmail people, murder people and trap her enemies in secret rooms, and Kristen Blake (Eileen Davidson), the good-girl-turned-bad girl who also kidnaps and hides her enemies in secret rooms.

Jackson’s love of these soaps runs deeper than the cloak-and-dagger plots and mustache-twirling villains. He even layered in musical references: The show’s opening number includes musical allusions to Peabo Bryson’s “One Life to Live” and the opening of “Another World,” sung by Gary Morris and Crystal Gayle.

Three sides of Mark-Paul Gosselaar

Mark-Paul Gosselaar, right, as the mischievous Zack Morris, with Mario Lopez as Slater, left, and Dustin Diamond as Screech, in “Saved by the Bell.”Credit...NBC

There are footprints of the late ’80s and early ’90s high school sitcom “Saved by the Bell” all over the musical, from Rigg’s kitschy Memphis-style design of the Allwhite school to Keesha’s colorblock windbreaker.

And then there’s that show’s beloved Zack Morris, played by Mark-Paul Gosselaar. In “White Girl in Danger,” Jackson pulled from boyfriend tropes — not only Zack but also some of the other roles Gosselaar has played in his career — to mold a boyfriend character (known as Matthew Scott, Scott Matthew and Zack Paul Gosselaar, and played by one actor) opposite “the Megans.” Jackson cited as inspirations Gosselaar’s roles as a frat boy who sexually assaults a college freshman played by Candace Cameron in the TV movie “She Cried No” and as a loving, supportive brother in “For the Love of Nancy.”

“This concept of three different boyfriends in one was born out of that, and Mark-Paul Gosselaar specifically, because he played all these parts really well,” Jackson said.

Teen queen dreams

From left, Tara Reid, Rachael Leigh Cook and Rosario Dawson as small town musicians vying for a big break in the 2001 film “Josie and the Pussycats.”Credit...Universal Pictures, via Associated Press

The female clique atop the teen social hierarchy is a well-loved trope. For Kelly, the groups of alpha it-girls in movies like “Clueless,” “Jawbreaker” and “Heathers” greatly influenced how he choreographed “the Megans.”

“The opening number, for me, is kind of like ‘Josie and the Pussycats,’” he said. “Everything they do is super cute and super meticulous.” There’s duality to their gestures, Kelly added, which can “flip from being really cute to being insidious.”

Blain-Cruz mentioned “My So-Called Life,” and shows “about young women trying to navigate that in-between space of childhood and adulthood, but also claiming their own space.”

“And those spaces generally tended to be occupied by white women or white girls,” Blain-Cruz said, noting that one of her favorite scenes to develop was a band rehearsal in which each of the girls’ performance styles recalls that of ’90s pop starlets.

‘Hollywood, sex and murder’

Gina Gershon, left, and Elizabeth Berkley in the 1995 film “Showgirls.”Credit...Murray Close/United Artists

Affairs, dalliances and general sexcapades are hallmarks of soap operas, so “White Girl in Danger” follows suit with kooky seduction scenes, surprising bedfellows and sprays of bodily fluid. For the choreography of a scene featuring a sudden sexual reveal, Kelly enthusiastically references one of his favorite movies, the erotic 1995 drama “Showgirls.” He described it as “the wild and crazy cat-fight-love-festival that was between Elizabeth Berkley and Gina Gershon.”

For Jackson, it wasn’t just the sexy daytime and prime time dramas that left an impression, it was also the work of the romance writer Jackie Collins.

“I was like 10 years old and my older cousin gave me a copy of ‘Chances,’” Jackson said. “I devoured it, because it was so dirty. It was like my form of pornography, because I lived in a pretty strict religious home,” he continued. “That took me into this world of Hollywood, Vegas, gangsters, sex and murder.”

Black music in the Blackground

There’s no “White Girl in Danger” without the Black characters who try to escape the racist, stereotypical Black stories in the Blackground. Three of the show’s Blackground women — Florence, Caroline and Abilene — serve as a kind of Greek chorus. For their fashion and choreography, Blanco and Kelly channeled the Pointer Sisters, the Mary Jane Girls, the Dreams, the Ronettes, even the trio of singer-narrators in “Little Shop of Horrors.” Kelly said the Blackground women represent “the trope of the three women 30 feet from stardom on the outskirts of every story.”

For Tarik, a Blackground character whose roles are exclusively getting killed and going to jail, Black music was also prominent influence. “Tarik is every Black male stereotype from ‘Fresh Prince of Bel-Air’ to its counterpart; he’s also D’Angelo. He’s also Ginuwine. He’s also Usher,” Kelly said, specifically calling out D’Angelo’s bare-chested video for “Untitled (How Does It Feel).” Though Tarik has his own deliberately underdressed jacket-open moment, Blanco’s costume design for him includes a “Fresh Prince”-style cap and Hammer pants.