This week, the Xavier E-News checks in with playwright, screenwriter, and director Charles Messina ’89, whose new web series The Honeyzoomers works to capture the zeitgeist of 2020 New York.
Messina recently spoke to a fellow Son of Xavier, Michael Gargiulo ’77, during an NBC New York interview. Below, he shares his reflections on the pandemic, the importance of creativity, and how Xavier helped to get him where he is today.
Xavier E-News: Tell us about your work experiences so far. What led you to this point in your career?
Charles Messina ’89: The creative journey of my career has always been about doing the work that has meant the most to me personally. It’s been a personal journey. The work almost always reflects my experiences growing up in NYC, usually about Italian-Americans, usually set in Greenwich Village, where I was born and raised. Especially my stage work. My play A Room of My Own was autobiographical. It was well received and really set the table for my next major stage work, which is a big musical production called The Wanderer. It’s about the life of singer Dion. It includes all his great songs like “Runaround Sue,” “Abraham, Martin & John.” It’s the story of a New York Italian-American Catholic and his struggle to overcome addiction and find salvation. Heavy themes, but wrapped in a very entertaining show. It was due to open last May at the Tony Award-winning Paper Mill Playhouse. Unfortunately it was postponed due to the pandemic. But it will be back next season and it’ll be the perfect time for a story of recovery and renewal.
E-News: How did you develop The Honeyzoomers idea? Can you explain the process?
Messina: When The Wanderer was postponed it was as if the creative world just completely stopped. This big budget musical production that we had spent a few years developing and preparing for Regional and then for Broadway was suddenly on hold. Just like that. We were just about to have the set built! Stuck in lockdown, and growing restless and anxious, I knew I needed to get creative. I was talking to our co-producer Jeremy Long and he said, “Did you ever think about doing a TV show?” And of course I had. A Room of My Own is being developed for TV. But this moment called for something else. Something immediate. Something that could reflect all we were experiencing here in NYC and around the world, really. I had always been a huge Honeymooners fan. I grew up watching the show every night on Channel 11. So I wanted to create something that would include all of the tropes of my favorite classic TV shows (black and white, catchy theme song, laugh track, one location) but that would be very “of the moment” and reflect what we are all going through these days. I wanted it set in NYC, of course, and I thought a brother and sister made a lot of sense for the main characters. That dynamic interested me as it gave us a familial relationship that we could explore without being confined by romantic considerations. I wanted it to be much more than that. I contacted my two favorite New York actors, Joli Tribuzio and Johnny Tammaro. I had worked with Joli and Johnny on A Room of My Own and also The Wanderer. They were game. I also asked my producing partner on The Wanderer, Jill Menza, if she would be involved. So it was a team of people who knew each other well and who had a great chemistry.
I wanted The Honeyzoomers to be the first show about the pandemic shot during the pandemic. We achieved that. We also use a technique that is unique. The actors shoot their footage on their cell phones, remotely and separately, and we edit it all together quite seamlessly to give the illusion as if they are in the same room. They are not! Joli and Johnny do not live together and have never been in the same room while filming this show. It’s a creative slight of hand and we’re really proud of it. Joli is also our editor and she does a fantastic job. We are scripting, shooting and editing constantly. We release an episode every week. It’s a frenetic and challenging schedule but very rewarding.
E-News: What was your own spring/quarantine experience like? How did life inspire art?
Messina: Well, aside from the fears, increased anxieties and early creative frustrations from the lockdown, once we started creating The Honeyzoomers, it really gave me a sense of focus and purpose. Creative people always have to find a way to remain creative. The show has been a reflection of everything we’ve all lived through and it is completely inspired by my own experiences during quarantine, as well as those of our entire production team. We’ve all basically had the same experiences! And I think that’s what makes the show resonate so strongly with our viewers. They get it. They lived it. And as we navigate through and begin to hopefully come out of this time period, the series is still reflecting where we are. It has been said that we have our finger on the pulse of the pandemic but really we’re just all in it together, and when we create something real and honest, our viewers recognize that. In that way, it’s a shared experience in life that’s translating into a shared experience between the creator and the audience. That’s what art should be, right?
E-News: How did your recent NBC New York interview with Michael Gargiulo ’77 come about?
Messina: The NBC interview came about through my press agent, Jules Feiler. Jules is the best, and he pitched it to the network and it fell in place. But I was very pleased to hear that Michael Gargiulo would be doing the interview because I knew he was also a Xavier graduate. Michael is a Honeymooners fan, much like myself, and he grew up watching the show in reruns on Channel 11 every night as well! So again there goes that personal element. It never fails. Prior to our interview, Michael and I spoke about Xavier and Fr. Anthony Aracich, S.J. who taught us both language, years apart. We connected very well over The Honeymooners and Xavier. Michael was wonderful. Very supportive. He seems to genuinely like The Honeyzoomers also. He liked our line about “watching Cuomo” because he would announce the daily press conferences each day.
E-News: Were you very involved in the arts at Xavier? What are your memories of 16th Street?
Messina: My first few years at Xavier, I was convinced that I was going to be a psychologist. I was intrigued by human behavior. It wasn’t until my junior year that my interest in writing really took off. I realized that writing is also very much about studying human behavior. I can recall talking about filmmaking with Mr. Vincent Vargas, and I became fascinated with the works of Martin Scorsese and Woody Allen. I began to see a creative career as a possible path forward. I was fascinated with the idea of holding a mirror up to society and asking: I see the world like this, do you? I can recall discussions with Fr. Alan Briceland, S.J. about the film The Last Temptation of Christ, which was very controversial at the time. That was a game changer for me. Seeing spirituality and art come together that way to create this humanizing portrait of Jesus was really impactful. In my senior year I wrote my final paper for Mr. John Foley P’77 ’79 ’81 ’84 ’86’s religion class and I titled it “The Scorsesean Image of God and Man.” Mr. Foley was the best. I can still hear him talking about Imago Dei! By that point, I knew I was headed down a creative path.
E-News: Is there anything else you’d like to share with the Xavier community?
Messina: The impact Xavier had on me cannot be overstated. Academically it was rigorous and that was important. It taught me two skills which are sometimes overlooked in the arts: discipline and organization. They are learned and extremely practical whether you’re studying for a biology exam or writing a new play. The time and dedication it takes to be good at something requires a patience and perseverance that comes with self-discipline and a healthy amount of faith. My memories of Xavier are fond. Great teachers. Good friends, some of whom I still have today. It was a springboard for the rest of my life—it’s where I learned to believe and to doubt, to trust and to verify, to think and to feel. Who knows, maybe one day Xavier will end up in one of my shows!