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Cox and Box

David Macaluso as Mr. Cox in NYGASP’s new film Cox and Box
Photo:  Danny Bristoll

A Zoom Chat with New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players’ Executive Producer David Wannen and Creative Producer David Macaluso about their New Musical Film Cox and Box. 

By Deirdre Donovan recently had an opportunity to Zoom chat with Executive Producer David Wannen and Creative Producer David Macaluso about their artistic journey amidst the pandemic with their new musical film, Cox and Box. 

When the going gets tough . . .the New York Gilbert and Sullivan Players make a new musical film.  Indeed, David Wannen, the Executive Producer of NYGASP, got his company down to the South Orange Performing Arts Center amidst the pandemic, where they recently shot and fully-staged a musical film of Sir Arthur Sullivan and F.C. Burnand’s comic operetta, Cox and Box. This cinematic experience premiered over the holidays as the grand finale to their 2020 Virtual Season, streaming into the homes of their loyal fans during the holidays (December 27th through January 2nd).  

I recently had the opportunity to have a Zoom chat with David Wannen and David Macaluso (Macaluso is the Creative Producer and performs Mr. Cox in the film) about the unique challenges they encountered working on their new cinematic project, and what is ahead for NYGASP in 2021.  

Here is an excerpt from our December 27th  Zoom conversation. 

TS.  How does it feel to have your new musical film making its virtual debut this evening? 

DM. It’s strangely nerve-wracking. 
I sort of have the same anxiety that I would have if I were performing live.  But it’s out of my hands right now (laughs). So it’s that same level of excitement.  But I just have to trust in everything [and] the collaborators.  It’s sending your baby off. 

DW.  That might be what adds to the anxiety a little bit.  It’s not like having that performance at your fingertips that you have input over on the night of the performance.  You’ve created this, it’s done.  It’s going to be what it’s going to be and let the audience now see it.  So that’s a different feeling for us.  But I’m super excited.  I think everyone is going to love it.  It’s a ton of work went into this.  And it’s very polished.  It’s a lot of fun.  It’s like watching a sit-com operetta mix.  So I think everyone’s going to be really wowed by this. 

(left to right) David Macaluso and Matthew Wages, as Mr. Cox and Sergeant Bouncer, in NYGASP’s new musical film
Cox and Box.
Photo: Danny Bristoll 

TS.  How did the project take shape? 

DM. Our founder and artistic director, Albert Bergeret, approached the board with the idea of doing a little tiny film of Cox and Box because it only has three people in it and it’s manageable.  This was a Sullivan and Burnand piece—without Gilbert.  I had been creative producer on two other versions of it on stage before.  So he [Bergeret] approached me and said, ‘What do you think about this idea?’  And [he approached] David Wannen as well.  And it sort of just grew from there.  I shot these pie-in-the-sky ideas.  Here’s my broad idea, as big as possible.  And then we brought it down to something manageable.  But that’s it.  It just started with an idea that took root. 

DW.  We had a hit with David’s [Macaluso] previous productions.  First, he did it on a recital that he won the Isaac Asimov Award, our annual performance award at NYGASP.  David [Macaluso] won that in 2014.  And it sort of wowed everybody in the audience.  Then he brought it back in 2016, and where he produced it was at the Marjorie S. Deane Little Theatre on the West Side.  And it was a hit then, and everybody loved it.  So everybody was having the same thought all at once [about reviving it].  Some of the board members were coming to me—'Cox and Box would be a perfect thing for this.’  Everybody felt the vibe.  David Macaluso and Matthew Wages [the director, set designer, and actor performing Sergeant Bouncer in the film) really ran with the idea.  And I remember getting the first call from Dave, ‘Alright, this is what we are going to do.’  It was a big project and I’m glad that we swung for the fences.  Because I think it’s going to pay off in the final product tonight. 

TS.  Would either of you like to put the plot of Cox and Box in a nutshell for our readers? 

DM.  Sure.  Basically, there’s a landlord, his name is Sergeant Bouncer and he runs a board and lodging to two tenants, two working class tenants.  One works during the day-time, the other works in the evening.  Neither one knows that the other one lives there for a period of time.  But then each one is slightly suspicious.  There are real clues, here and there, that the landlord leaves behind.  One leaves, [Sergeant Bouncer] changes the room around with all of the other’s stuff.   And so one day [Cox and Box] happen to meet--and the wackiness ensues.  So it’s very much a sit-com plot in a Victorian operetta style.  We have really merged the two. 

Daniel Greenwood as Mr. Box in NYGASP’s new musical film
Cox and Box.
Photo: Danny Bristoll 

TS.  Well-summed.   I read in my press materials that Cox and Box has some unintentional social distancing in it.  Could you add to that? 

DW.      Yeah, there was a lot of space created in the actual function of bringing this play to life. So it’s interesting that [social distancing] is both in the plot, and that [Cox and Box} are unintentionally distancing themselves from each other.  Bouncer is controlling all that.  And, it’s also for us, a nod that it was an easier play to stage, if you will, in this difficult time.  It literally was part of our strategy to get this [Cox and Box] off the ground.  I went to Actors Equity Association for months, literally months, with lots of Zoom interviews, on getting together a COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan. 

TS.  You are stealing my thunder--but go right ahead.  I was just about to ask you about your COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan for Cox and Box.  

DW.  That [COVID-19 Health and Safety Plan] was a big deal. I don’t know if you have heard or not of the great difficulty that many theater companies had in this time who are with professional actors who are represented by Actors Equity Association.  The Union is very exacting in their protocols, and good for them.  We learned that the protocols that were part of our safety plan were absolutely [necessary] and made us all feel really safe.  It really helped out the production.  

DM.  During the entirety of the film, there is great pains taken to be at least six feet from each other at all times.  Besides all the [COVID-19] testing that went forward.  Every time they called ‘cut’ the masks went back on.  Our specialist went around with hand sanitizer, wiped down every prop, every door knob, everything that was touched.  We lovingly were annoyed (laughs).  We appreciated all the efforts that went into it to protect us.  There was a constant whirlwind around us to protect us. 

TS.  This is NYGASP’s first-ever film.  What was the biggest challenge during the actual staging and filming of it? 

DM.  Everything had its own moment of difficulty. It’s like any production. But what was most difficult?  I think timing. Trying to make sure that the scheduling for the theater was there, making sure that Equity and the COVID specialist were ok, making sure that all of the pieces aligned at the right time. In some ways if you are doing a longer production and you have a tech week to work out things, you have that sort of grace period.  We had three days to shoot it, in and out, you’re done. 

DW.  First of all, film is new territory for us.  And we are doing this with a pared-down crew, you know. We don’t have tons of sound grips, and tons of production assistants.  Each person is pulling a huge amount of work. So a lot of prep work had to be done so that when they did go into the theater, people knew where they were going and they were able to follow the schedule.  I was totally blown away.  I am executively producing this.  I was sitting in the audience most of the time, working the computer, making sure the files were downloading correctly off of the cameras.  And I was blown away that they were able to stick to the schedule, basically to the “T.” 

DM.  And that’s a lot of credit to our director, Matt Wages, and our director of photography, Danny Bristoll.  They really worked out the logistics of what had to be done when and made sure that we could use our time efficiently.  For our theater company to shift directions for a moment and work on a film is new territory.  And I think we were able to do that successfully.

TS.  This is your company’s third iteration of Cox and Box.  How has your director, Matthew Wages, put a fresh stamp on this one-act farce? 

DM.  Matthew Wages ramped it up to another level.  He did things that we couldn’t do as efficiently on stage.  There are a few dream sequences in the film that really highlight it.  There’s the moment I like to call the “Benny Hill” moment.  We are not singing from our mouths but you hear this encore going on--and we are chasing one another around.  It is one of my favorite moments.  It becomes a mix of Benny Hill and vaudeville.  It fits into the farcical nature of the piece.  So he was able to amp it up and put his own directorial flair, more of a sitcom 1980s feel.  It was written that way--but he gave it that modern spin, ever-so-slightly, to amp it up. 

DW.  To add a little bit to that, he (Wages] did it for the rhythm of the dialogue and added some touches in the way the editing sort of goes back and forth as the characters are speaking to one another.  But it is still traditionally set.  It is not a contemporary setting or anything.  The one thing that David [Macaluso] mentioned is that these dream sequences, which are a lot of fun, they transport you into the head of the character.  You are sort of going along with the character’s thinking and they are getting distracted and daydreaming, essentially, and you are seeing the backgrounds change, and you’re seeing whatever the character is talking about [happening] in the world around them in a very theatrical way, that is obviously theatrical.  With his concept, [Wages] really wanted to maintain that this is theater.  Whatever the audience is going to see tonight is very theater forward, if you will. 

(left to right) Daniel Greenwood, Matthew Wages, and David Macaluso performing in NYGASP’s new musical film Cox and Box.
Photo: Danny Bristoll 

TS.  Almost every NYGASP production that I have seen on stage has had a live orchestra.  Given all the COVID-19 restrictions, how did you manage to bring Sullivan’s music alive during your staging and shooting of Cox and Box

DM.  Cox and Box was originally written for a piano.  So we took that into consideration.  Sullivan wrote it on a piano for a gentlemen’s club.  And we were using that music.  He later on orchestrated it, but especially because of COVID times it’s almost impossible to get a full orchestra together to record for something like [Cox and Box].  We thought [of] the risks . . .the benefits. . .but we didn’t want to put people in danger.  So we thought it’s written for piano, let’s do it with piano.  And our pianist and our music director, Elizabeth Hastings, is fantastic.  She has worked in opera and operetta her entire life and does a fantastic job.  So it’s piano accompaniment and three voices.  And we pre-recorded it. 

DW.  It’s like Moulin Rouge, the film.  Or like Les Miz, the film, or any of these modern films of musical plays.  It’s like a music video, in the sense that the action is synched with pre-recorded audio.  

DM.  And that also protected the actors because the aspiration when you are singing becomes a danger.  So if there is more than one person on stage that really becomes an issue. 

DW.  Yes, it was absolutely a necessity for us not to have live singing. 

TS.  Over the years I have enjoyed going to several of NYGASP’s New Year’s Eve Galas at brick-and-mortar theaters.  What do you have planned for your audiences this year? 

DW.  This year we are putting on Cox and Box for Thursday eveningThe program opens up with an introduction by yours truly, and I welcome the audience [before] showing them a beautiful virtual performance.  Our colleague Amy Maude Helfer wrote original lyrics to the madrigal “Brightly Dawns our Wedding Day.”  But instead of “Wedding Day,” we do “Holiday.”  Hopefully, [there will be] a nine- or ten-voice performance of madrigal in festive-fashion with hats.   [Our program] has got this wonderful we-are-all-going-to-get-through-this pandemic-together kind of feel.  We will do a little champagne toast, and we’ll all watch Cox and Box.  And we will have a Zoom after-party after the concert is done.  But before we get to the Zoom after-party, we are going to have a rousing chorus of “Auld Lang Syne” and our veteran performer who you might have seen [before] on New Year’s Eve, Richard Holmes.  He is going to sing when “Britain Ruled the Waves” with his customary New Year’s Eve lyric changes. So there you go. 

Daniel Greenwood as Mr. Box in NYGASP’s new musical film Cox and Box
Photo: Danny Bristoll 

TS.  It sounds perfect for your fans.  What is ahead for NYGASP in 2021?  Do you have any projects in the pipeline?

DW. Yes, we have several.  Some of them are for kids, actually.  We are going to do two education videos coming right up, as some of the first up in the first quarter of 2021.  One is on Pirates of Penzance for a presenter, another one is for Iolanthe.  Actually, one of our actors Kendrick Pifer is leading that one. She has a beautiful plan for getting this up in the schools so that they can watch it for their remote programming that they are all doing.  And it’s introducing the kids to Iolanthe, which would be nice.  We also have the “Patterpalooza Project”
that is coming in January that our Artistic Director [and Founder] Albert Bergeret produced, and David [Macaluso] is taking part of that because he is one of our leading patter men of course.  Patter people, old and new, going back in all of our recent history and doing an ode to the patter song.  So every week there is a new episode, and it will be airing on our social media.  Then we have some other bigger ideas that aren’t yet fully-formed.  I think we might get our Save Our Stages Act.  We are very thankful for that.  I don’t know what the details are going to be like.  But that is a huge thing that this industry really needed and hopefully that passes very soon.  Because that might allow us to help us to keep the content going until next fall, when hopefully we will be back to a full production next fall.  We are ready, and willing, and able to do it whenever everybody else tells us it is ok to do it.  NYGASP is really blessed to be in good enough shape that we can look forward to next year.  We will be back for sure. 

Note well:  The Save Our Stages Act was passed in Congress on Monday, December 28th, 2020, as a part of the economic stimulus bill.


Cox and Box, an original film, shot and fully-staged at South Orange Performing Arts Center with an Actors Equity-approved COVID-19 safety plan.

Running time:  50 minutes

Performances streamed from December 27th through January 2nd.

For more information on NYGASP and their upcoming events, go to their website:

NYGASP’s next event:  The Patterpalooza Project

Bi-weekly videos starting January 2021