When I first found out about bare, I googled it and found some reviews of productions in L.A., NYC, and elsewhere, and many of the reviews were pretty condescending. Now, having finished music rehearsals last night, I'm puzzled by those reviews but I guess I'm not surprised...
I find that reviewers often criticize a show not based on the show itself but instead based on their own ignorance, preconceptions, or childhood traumas. You think I'm kidding, but one St. Louis reviewer found lots to hate in our Spelling Bee, and her comments really made me think some awful childhood experience was causing her to shit all over that amazing, insightful, beautifully crafted show. We've gotten other reviews that complain about a score being simplistic and bland when in reality the score is incredibly sophisticated but beyond the musical comprehension or taste of the reviewer.
In the case of bare, I have been continually blown away by the sophistication, craft, and complexity of this score. The harmonic language is so unique, living entirely in the musical vocabulary of pop music and alternative rock, and crafted with a confidence and fearlessness that is very exciting. Composer Damon Intrabartolo (in the picture) was already a successful film orchestrator and conductor, having worked on X-Men 2, Superman Returns, Fantastic Four, Dreamgirls, and other films. He knows how to write long-form, how to support a scene, how to build tension. And he really knows the conventions of pop music, and he uses them with a freedom and a quirkiness that is really refreshing.
Unlike conventional theatre scores, in Intrabartolo's bare score, phrases aren't always in multiples of four bars; many songs do not end on the tonic chord (the way almost all Western music does); he loves using ambiguous, "emo rock" open-fifth chords; and he often fucks around with the rules of harmonic progressions, surprising our ears but never so much that our ears rebel. To the untrained ear, the score sounds like great pop music. To a trained ear, Intrabartolo's music is just as unique as the music of Bill Finn (Falsettos, Spelling Bee, A New Brain). The open fifths are muscially and emotionally ambiguous, missing the note that defines major or minor, so that they convey neither happiness or sadness. His practice of rarely ending songs on the tonic chord, which is what we're all used to, makes those songs sound like they haven't finished, which adds dramatic tension to the narrative and generally keeps the audience from applauding, which also builds tension. You can tell this guy has written for film -- he really knows how to dramtize through music and write long-form musical scenes.
And structurally, Intrabartolo uses the vocabulary of opera -- arias, recitative, leitmotifs and themes, gorgeous choral work, lots of complex counterpoint, and more -- but all within the harmonic and melodic world of American pop and rock. It's a neat trick he's pulled off, giving these young characters the right musical voices while giving their drama a powerful underlying musical structure. It will be interesting to see if reviewers recognize any of this.
But none of this is why bare is so special or why it resonates so powerfully with so many young people across the country. The reason for its power and its popularity is its honesty. Since the 1960s, the true test of rock and roll (and pop, as a subgenre) is authenticity. And bare has that in spades. It is truthful about being young in America at this moment in history like very few other musicals are -- with the possible exception of the extraordinary American Idiot. Even at age 46, I see myself in almost all these characters and their powerful emotions.
When I wrote about Oklahoma! for my book Rebels with Applause, I argued that though we may think it's a trivial issue whether Curly or Jud takes Laurie to the box social, to her it's hugely consequential. The stakes are very high for her and anyone doing Oklahoma! has to respect that. The same is true of bare -- though the stakes here are already much higher than they are in Oklahoma! (at least Laurie wasn't pregnant and Curly wasn't gay!). But however we as adults may view them, we can't forget how serious this story is for these kids.
All of this to say: Don't underestimate bare or its creators, Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo. I think we're going to hear many more wonderful things from these guys...
I have a deep respect for this show that I'll admit I didn't have when we chose it for our season. I knew it was a cool show, well crafted, and that we'd get a good audience for it; but now I know (this happens to me every so often) that there's much more there than I initially could see.
We're all having such a blast working on this remarkable show. I can't wait to get it up on its feet and watch this outstanding cast dig down into these complicated kids and their complicated lives. I expect a few tears in rehearsal, and more than a few in our audiences... but what could be better than experiencing true, profound emotion in the theatre?
Long Live the Musical!