Bear the Cross

I've been working on the background and analysis essay that I write about every show we do. Eventually my bare essay will end up in one of my books. And the more I think about and write about this show, the more impressed I am with it. This is remarkable, smart, artful writing. Here's just a taste, a look at the show's opening number, that will let you see how great this show is.

Throughout the show, Composer Damon Intrabartolo uses several musical themes (longer musical phrases that represent an idea or character) and leitmotifs (short phrases that do the same thing). The show begins with an instrumental quote of the melody of the song, “Bare,” which appears late in Act II. Since the audience hasn’t heard this music yet, the point isn’t merely to invoke the title song, as a musical overture of yesteryear would. No, this is music that means something, music that will represent raw, honest emotion – feelings that are literally bare, without artifice or protection. In Act II, it will accompany Peter and Jason’s most honest moment in the show and in their relationship. And here at the top of the story, it represents the truth that we’re about to see in Peter’s daydream. Though the audience won’t pick up that meaning this first time, the music will have a subliminal effect on them over the course of the evening, connecting these moments of honest emotion by making them sound alike.

Intrabartolo and lyricist Jon Hartmere begin their story, quite unconventionally, with the nonreality of a dream. Why not get the plot started instead? Why start by playing with notions of reality? There are several reasons. First, they are following Stephen Sondheim’s Ten Minute Rule, which says that they can employ any device, any convention, any rule-breaking, as long as it happens within the first ten minutes, to establish for the audience the rules for the evening. They use fantasy sequences three times in the show, and here they establish that device.

This scene also tells the audience that this story will be a mix of very funny and very dramatic moments. But also, it’s a very efficient way of getting us inside Peter’s head, seeing his hopes, dreams, fears, questions, confusion, and his relationships with adults, with his peers, and with his religion. The creators understand dreams, the way the unconscious mind takes elements of our waking lives and reconnects them in unexpected (though not random) ways. Things don’t make logical sense because the conscious mind isn’t involved, but the dream still reveals the concerns, worries, and insecurities that get pushed back out of the way in our waking lives. So all of the information we pick up in this very funny opening scene is important in understanding the story ahead.

After a brief Latin choral section to open this dream mass, underscoring returns, still the “Bare” theme, as the Priest talks about the arduous journey of the Three Wise Men of the Bible. Peter’s subconscious has made the connection to this sermon because Peter himself is on a journey, though it’s an interior one. The Priest says, it was “a journey resting entirely on faith that they would know where they were going once they arrived.” The Priest likens the journey to the kids’ four years at the school, but it’s also like the journey Peter will spend the show taking. And as soon as the idea of a journey establishes itself in this dreamworld, condemnation follows. Gay equals sin in this world. And so four of Peter’s friends come to life as his religious tormentors, labeled as “saints” in the script.

The rest of the dream sequence finds Peter arguing with his religion over what he feels. His friends mock him, accusing him, listing all the ways that Peter is sure everyone can tell he’s gay, the ways he knows he’ll bring shame to his family. His dream mind has brought his worst fears to big, singing life, and yet he stands up to them, arguing back, “But it doesn’t all make sense; what I feel is real.” We see Peter’s strength here and it tells us a lot about the road ahead. One “saint” sings, “He knows that his romance is doomed.” If this is a dream, than that idea must come from Peter’s own mind. He sees what’s ahead, but only subconsciously. And it’s also sobering foreshadowing for the audience.

Then Peter’s mother Claire appears to do a reading, and all his fears about his family finding out he’s gay come to life, along with more questioning of his masculinity, his maleness. Dreams don’t play fair. Then one of Peter’s friends steps up to lead a hymn, “There’s a Bender Among Us,” chock full of funny but ugly stereotypes about gay people. So Peter turns to God, asking for his help. But, as dreams often do, suddenly this is a funeral and Matt is delivering a eulogy, set to the music of the show’s finale, “No Voice.” Peter asks if he’s the one who’s died – or is that what he’s asking? He sings, “Is it I, Lord? Is it I?” quoting the Gospels, evoking Jesus’s disciples who ask if they will be the one who will betray him?

Betrayal is on Peter’s mind.

The whole church – all his friends – answers by turning on him and singing/screaming “Abomination.” The Catholic Church (and religion in general) is not about tolerance or gray area, both bare and Peter’s dream are telling both him and us. And as the number comes to a dramatic and freaky close, the congregation sings the phrase “Bear the cross,” but it’s set to music that holds out the word bear for measure after measure, unmistakably referencing the show’s title and its multiple meanings (and homonyms). This last line also delivers the “good Catholic” Peter a powerful message that can be read in two different ways, underlining the ambiguity at the heart of Peter’s dilemma.

In the Bible, in Luke chapter 14:27-33 Jesus says:
Whoever does not bear his own cross and come after me cannot be my disciple. For which of you, desiring to build a tower, does not first sit down and count the cost, whether he has enough to complete it? Otherwise, when he has laid a foundation and is not able to finish, all who see it begin to mock him, saying, “This man began to build and was not able to finish.” Or what king, going out to encounter another king in war, will not sit down first and deliberate whether he is able with ten thousand to meet him who comes against him with twenty thousand? And if not, while the other is yet a great way off, he sends a delegation and asks for terms of peace. So therefore, any one of you who does not renounce all that he has cannot be my disciple.

The message here is that a believer must know in advance the sacrifice of believing and he must accept that sacrifice in his life. The Geneva Study Bible explains the passage this way: “The true followers of Christ must at once build and fight, and therefore be ready and prepared to endure all types of miseries.”

But notice the reference to “his own cross” – each of us has a different, individual cross to bear, Jesus is saying. So for Peter, that message can also be read as a warning that being openly gay will have its costs too; Peter has to know what he’s getting into and has to be prepared to make the sacrifices it will require. That’s some pretty potent foreshadowing for those in the audience who know the reference. Surely Peter knows it or it wouldn’t show up in his dream. Peter’s friends and family are telling him he must accept the “cross” of being a Christian, but because this is Peter’s own mind challenging him, his subconscious is also telling him there will be a substantial cross to bear as an openly gay man. Will Peter be required to “renounce all that he has,” and as the story moves forward, we have to wonder if Jason is part of “all that he has”?

Peter wakes from this nightmare as the mass ends, disoriented and confused, his head swimming with all these coded, contradictory messages. It’s a brilliant way to start the show and it accomplishes so much storytelling.

See why we love this show so much?

Long Live the Musical!

Note: the full essay that came from this blog entry is on our website here.