In a nutshell, here’s the problem with trying to musicalize a social issue. You have to deal with archetypes. If you can’t present a common-dynamic case history, you can’t truly represent the issue at hand, because the idiosyncrasies invalidate the social lesson as a warning or expose. Then you have a drama of larger-than-life individuals who are not like other people and in fact become the iconography of exception. (I hasten to add, I’m not talking about universality; larger-than-life characters amplify universal themes all the time. I’m talking about social drama, which seeks to educate in order to cure societal ills.) To cite some specific examples: Few people savvy about post-1950 American drama, or even about post-1950 American culture, hear the conjoined names “George and Martha” and don’t immediately identify them as the sharp-tongued married couple who play devastating relationship games in Edward Albee’s Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?
Now I’m going to name another dramatic couple from a piece just as famous. Clock how long it takes you to identify them—if you can. Don’t cheat and don’t Google. Here goes:
Joe and Kirsten.
Of course you are. Because they’re the married couple at the center of JP Miller’s Days of Wine and Roses. Joe and Kirsten are an everyhusband and an everywife. You don’t remember their names as a brand the same way you remember George and Martha because they don’t have distinguishing idiosyncrasies. The whole point of Joe and Kirsten is, they’re supposed to be perceived as “normal people” who are just like you and me. Because the premise is, alcoholism can happen to anyone; and it’s an illness that requires understanding, treatment—and a willingness to be treated. If you remember Joe ansd Kirsten at all you remember them as Cliff Robertson and Piper Laurie from the Playhouse 90 teleplay, or Jack Lemmon and Lee Remick from the subsequent film. Because psychologically unparticularized archetypes need actors to fill them out.
But psychologically distinct characters don’t, which is why they often achieve iconic status. To be sure, you can look forward to how actor A or actor B may play one, and even take delight in comparing the approaches—but that’s because you also take delight in the size and uniqueness of the role itself. George and Martha may be alcoholics, but their real addiction is co-dependence, and if they teach us anything, it’s this: Where the glue that keeps a relationship bonded is concerned, there is no normal! Everybody has secrets, code, unique levels of tolerance and accommodation.
And where musicals are concerned, the passion behind psychological particulars is the stuff you sing about. It’s where larger-than-life chraracters like Tevye, Mama Rose, Sweeney Todd, John Adams and Mame come from. And it’s what makes them behave in unique ways.
But a social archetype cannot behave uniquely or s/he’s not a social archetype. And then cannot be used as a game piece on the board of life to take you through the by-the-numbers manifestation of a problem that needs attention.
All of which brings us to Bare, about which I have less to say in substance than I did in introduction, because, as a social issue musical, it is incapable of surprise. The characters behave exactly (or nearly exactly) as you expect them to, and the story follows precisely the trajectory it has to in order to be an object lesson. And the lesson for today? How awful it is when teenagers are “taught” by society to repress who they are among their families and friends; and how much worse it can be when this is compounded in what’s supposed to be an educational environment—in this case a Catholic high school. And what’s being repressed is—wait for it—homosexuality. The central relationship a love affair between Peter (Taylor Trensch), open, boyish, unashamed and a little geeky; and Jason (Jason Hite) the star high school jock who fears for his reputation among his teammates, and at home with his unseen but domineering Dad. The authority figures we see are repressive Father Mike (Jerold E. Solomon) and understanding Sister Joan (Missi Pyle); and a whole passel of kids who fit accompanying archetypes—the slut who isn’t (but once made a mistake), the misguidedly jealous snarkygirl, kids who crush on kids who won’t return the crush while kids who would return the crush are ignored…it all plays out like an Afterschool Special with racier-than-usual content…and a bunch of songs.
As to the songs: the music by Damon Intrabartolo is familiar, serviceable and instantly dissolves in your ear, and the lyrics by Jon Hartmere have close-to-zero subtext. Everything everyone sings is either a sincere inner monologue or a sincere confession to another and it’s sincerely exhausting. None of this is executed ineptly; there’s polish galore, plus showmanship and whatever pace being that schematic allows in the choreography of Travis Wall and the direction of Stafford Arima. And there’s no faulting the enthusiastic, attractive and highly competent cast.
It’s just that at the core of this musical there’s a purpose that’s ultimately anti-musical. And I wonder who it’s being aimed at, because those who would attend Bare are not those who need the lesson taught to them. (That’s another thing; social drama began as the province of television and feature films because television was free and movies were cheap; all you had to be was there and/or curious, the genre came to your neighborhood and most often right into your home. Electronic media was its natural platform. Even now, when social dramas appear, they’re on major networks or family channels.) Well, youth, perhaps. Those who might recognize themselves and their friends perhaps.
Then again, try this for an experiment. See the show if you care to. When you get home, go to your primary calendar and jump ahead one year. And make this entry: “Peter and Jason.”
that date, see if you remember who they are…
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