NEW YORK — It’s the future and Wal-Mart rules the world.
Some may say that day is almost here, given the retail giant’s global expansion. After all, the company already employs more people than the U.S. government.
But this future, totally fictional version of Wal-Mart is something to sing about — at least in the musical “Walmartopia,” which opens at the Minetta Lane Theater in Greenwich Village here on Monday. In the play, the chain is viewed through the eyes of Vicki Latrell, a single mom who clings to the bottom rung of the company’s chauvinistic management structure. Her boss treats her to beers and humiliation at Hooters, when she realizes she’s not likely to get the promotion she’s been hoping for.
When Vicki speaks out against working conditions, she finds herself and her daughter, also an employee, unceremoniously shipped off to the year 2036, where Vermont has seceded and the retail giant is at war with the now sovereign state.
“Wal-Mart is such a good metaphor” for big business and corporate America, said Catherine Capellaro, who wrote the book for “Walmartopia.” “They create sprawl, push Chinese producers to create more goods more and more cheaply. Workers are being shortchanged. I wanted to work through these issues through Vicki.”
Capellaro, a journalist who had never set foot in a Wal-Mart but had a Sam’s Club membership, became interested in the retailer when its name began appearing in national newspaper headlines alleging the company wasn’t providing affordable health insurance for employees.
“It turned into a research project,” she said.
“I read ‘Nickel and Dimed,’ by Barbara Ehrenreich and was particularly moved by the Wal-Mart chapter,” said Capellaro, whose husband, Andrew Rohn, composed the music and lyrics. Another inspiration for Capellaro was Liza Featherstone’s “Selling Women Short,” about Dukes v. Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the ongoing class-action suit representing 1.6 million past and present female Wal-Mart employees.
“Walmartopia” began in 2004 as a one-act play. The following year it had a successful full-length run in Madison, Wis., where the playwright and composer live. At the 2006 New York International Fringe Festival, “Walmartopia,” was a hit, which convinced its investors to do an off-Broadway production.
This story first appeared in the August 31, 2007 issue of WWD. Subscribe Today.
The cast includes Broadway veterans and director Daniel Goldstein has credits on the Great White Way.
In the show, Scott Lee, a takeoff on Wal-Mart chief executive H. Lee Scott Jr., asks his people, “What do we stand for?” The answer: big. “Big and cheap is what they stand for,” Rohn said. “What I resent is big and cheap being equated with American and patriotic. They love to conflate these things.”
Rohn said he and Capellaro invited Wal-Mart to see the play. The company didn’t respond, but the couple recognized elements of “Walmartopia” in a musical the retailer mounted at its 2006 annual shareholder’s meeting.
The husband-and-wife team said the production was not funded or assisted by anti-Wal-Mart unions such as Wal-Mart Watch, but Capellaro added, “The unions love the show.”
They admitted it might be harder to lampoon Target Corp. because it’s hip. Also, “Target is not as big,” Rohn said. “I really feel that this is not about how bad a particular store is, but about the cost of unfettered capitalism.”