Pow! Jules Feiffer’s Ceiling Man Hits the Stage

“The Man in the Ceiling,” the musical, is near enough to completion to be publicly aired in a reading on May 1 at 3 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor
“I hope to see it in a New York theater before my 90th birthday,” Jules Feiffer said of the musical version of “The Man in the Ceiling,” his 1993 novel. “I’m 87.” Morgan McGivern

“Every ‘failure’ is a piece of future luck. Because it brings you closer to being ready.” This bit of wisdom from Uncle Lester, an eccentric and flop-prone composer of musical theater, to his nephew, Jimmy, a budding cartoonist, in Jules Feiffer’s 1993 illustrated novel, “The Man in the Ceiling,” is the heart of the matter.

Jimmy considers himself a failure as a boy. He’s inept on the baseball diamond, is never picked for teams, and couldn’t care less about the Mets, a deficiency that denies him any chance of bonding with his workaday dad, who has blind spots in his sensitivity and engineering equations from the aircraft plant on his mind.

At school, Jimmy daydreams. His friends are fair-weather at best, ready to abandon him for a chance to climb popularity’s ladder or use him to see their half-baked ideas given artistic life. Charley Beemer, for instance, a golden child of the schoolyard, foists upon him his idea for a Bullethead comic strip, which involves gratuitous Sam Peckinpah-style violence and little else, in contrast to Jimmy’s own charming, shrinking Mini-Man or his all-seeing Ceiling Man.

Considering his prospects, “As Jimmy saw it, he had no choice but to grow up to be a great cartoonist.” But he can’t draw hands.

“The Man in the Ceiling” is being turned into a musical, with book by Mr. Feiffer, and it’s near enough to completion to be publicly aired in a reading on May 1 at 3 p.m. at Bay Street Theater in Sag Harbor, part of the yearly New Works Festival, which opens on Friday, April 29, with Jen Silverman’s “The Roommate.”

Appropriately enough, the source involves a play within a play, or in this case a musical within the novel, and it is a turning point: Uncle Lester’s “Robotica,” about a scientist whose life is an emotional dead zone until he builds himself a perfect companion — who subsequently turns on him in revulsion at the very feelings she inspires.

“Andrew Lippa wanted to write a musical about it a few years after the book came out,” Mr. Feiffer said the other day from his house in East Hampton. “This was back when his ‘Wild Party’ show was on Broadway. I saw it, it blew my mind, and we were off and running. We’ve been working on it, on and off, ever since.”

“Disney took a look at it too, by the way. But what movie people do is they give notes and they just kill it. So Jeffrey Seller took over as director — he’s the ‘Hamilton’ producer — and it was important to him to be honest to the work. What gives the book integrity is there in the play in spades.”

In reference to the protagonist’s habitual drawing and storytelling, “in both the novel and the play,” Mr. Feiffer said, “the only thing that’s autobiographical is Jimmy’s sensibility.”

Mr. Feiffer, of course, just might be the king of cartoonists, given his more than four decades on the job with The Village Voice, starting in the 1950s. Less famously but equally consequentially, as a young man he worked for Will Eisner, of the stylishly groundbreaking strip “The Spirit,” who would later more or less create the graphic novel with his 1978 “A Contract With God.”

“He was a hero of mine, one of my two favorites, with Milton Caniff, who did ‘Terry and the Pirates.’ When I got that job I walked home in the Bronx and thought a brick would fall on my head and kill me. I was so lucky. . . . He appreciated that I enjoyed sitting around after work and talking about comics. The others there weren’t students of the form.” Mr. Feiffer was such a student that he would go on to produce an early critique and appreciation, “The Great Comic Book Heroes,” from 1965. 

“There was a meeting of the minds there, and what I got from him — without it I would not have been able to do the graphic novels in my 80s,” he said, referring primarily to “Kill My Mother,” a hardboiled tale of Depression-era and wartime noir published in 2014. A prequel comes out in July, and Mr. Feiffer has just completed the text for a third installment that will focus on the Hollywood Blacklist. 

Getting back to the new production, “I’ve never done anything like this before,” he said. Though his first play, “Little Murders,” dates to 1967, “I haven’t worked on a musical, and it’s been just a dream. Andrew has built so much around how the music would express emotions. . . . He would rewrite and revise and reinvent. I’ve been staggered by his ability to take six lines of dialogue and turn it into melody.” 

“It’s trial and error,” Mr. Feiffer said of failure’s relationship to creativity. As Jimmy thinks to himself in the novel, “Failure was only good if you treated it as if it weren’t failure but normal.”

“I used to say to my Stony Brook Southampton classes,” Mr. Feiffer said, “ ‘Leave room for accident, failure, and falling on your face. Don’t plan too much; let your gut work it out, not just your head.’ ”

Jimmy, keep sketching those hands.