Barely "bare"

I'm just gonna say it. The new off Broadway revival of bare is an abomination, straight up. Can we all finally agree now that Stafford Arima, the hack director behind the cute but empty Altar Boyz, and the ham-handed revival of the godawful Carrie, was maybe the worst guy they could have chosen to bring bare back to New York? Why does this guy keep getting work?

The worst crime against this beautiful show is that they've cut 23 of the show's 36 songs! Yes, that's right, 23. They've literally thrown away two-thirds of the score that's been performed across the country and around the world with great success for more than a decade, and they've turned this searing pop opera into a superficial musical comedy. (As you might've guessed, composer Damon Intrabartolo has nothing to do with this production, and is deeply upset by the changes to his work.) Can you imagine someone reviving Rent or Jesus Christ Superstar and cutting two-thirds of the score to make them into conventional musicals? Arima says they turned songs into dialogue so they could get deeper into characterization, but they've done exactly the opposite -- almost all their changes have cut out complexity and nuance, and replaced it with cliche and stereotype.

The good news is I've learned that this new version will never be the licensed version everyone else produces. Other folks wanting to produce the show will be able to do only the show's original version that New Line produced in 2011. That is very good news.

Admittedly, I have not yet seen this rewritten version, and honestly, I hope I never do. But I've seen the script, I've heard from lots of friends who've seen it, and a few weeks ago, they released a preview video of the new production. And holy shit, does it look awful. New songs with really bad, generic lyrics, terrible choreography that looks like a teenage girl did it for a school assembly, bad new lyrics to existing songs, a really bad set, and a fundamental overhaul of all the characters. Instead of five leads, there are really only the two now. When we produced the show (the real version) here at New Line Theatre, we discovered that the show's considerable power comes from the fact that every single person in the audience has been one of those five kids, but I've been told the current off Broadway producers are gay and they wanted a gay story. So fuck the rest of the audience.

I know, I know, how can you criticize a show you haven't even seen? Well, I'm not talking about aspects of performance like acting or singing or staging. I'm talking about the material. I don't need to see the show onstage to know that they should not have rewritten the entire story, changed (or cut) all the characters, or cut two-thirds of the score.

Or else they shouldn't be pretending it's still bare. Because it's not. I have heard some of the new lyrics (and threw up in my mouth a little) and I have seen some of the choreography (more like an SNL parody). And then there are the reviews...

The reviews have been witheringly negative for the most part.

Backstage described the almost entirely new plot this way: "Jock Jason and artistic Peter fall in love for no particular reason and pursue a romance while on holiday at Jason’s family’s lake house. Their return to St. Cecilia’s School soon brings them back to reality, with the now-uncomfortable Jason moving on to sexy new girl Ivy in an attempt to go straight. This naturally upsets both Peter and the geeky Matt, Ivy’s current squeeze, who goes from worrying that she’s too good for him to a righteous determination to reclaim her. Hanging around observing (and facilitating the plot) is outcast Nadia, Jason’s angry sister, who is also the school drug dealer."

Yes, they've eliminated these kids' shared childhood and consequently lost a big part of the dramatic conflict among them. In this version, Jason and Peter haven't known each other since childhood. Ivy is now a transfer student and just misunderstood; so she's lost her shared past with Nadia. Matt is actually dating Ivy in this version, which undercuts their conflict. Nadia is no longer heavy and has been turned into a goth drug dealer. It's almost like they were trying to ruin the show. They've cut Claire entirely, so Peter's struggle with coming out to his parents is gone. They've turned the African American Sister Chantelle into the very white, Broadway-pretty Sister Joan -- that's her in the picture. I wish I were kidding.

The haunting ballad "Once Upon a Time" has been turned into an uptempo rock number, and the amazing "Touch My Soul" has been rewritten as "Kiss My Broken Heart." What does that even mean? The song "You and I" is gone (and turned into dialogue), the rave scene is gone and all the songs involved with that ("Best Kept Secret" survives but with a bad new lyric), Jason now sings "Role of a Lifetime" instead of Peter (which is idiotic because Jason shouldn't have that kind of self-knowledge that early in the story), and all the Shakespeare scenes are just dialogue now, so composer Damon Intrabartolo's cool "Elizabethan pop" is all gone. Also, both dream scenes are gone, and with them all the psychological depth they brought to the character of Peter. And they've added a hazing scene.

Again from Backstage, "Arima has instigated extensive revisions, the first of which are Hartmere’s book scenes, which get off a few snappy lines but also sap the extravagant sense of raging hormones once conveyed by the nonstop singing without compensating by establishing dimensional characters. Lyrics have been heavily rewritten due to plot changes and at least one song has been reassigned, from Peter to Jason. There are now no adults on view except for the possibly closeted Father Mike and rebellious drama teacher Sister Joan, whose Act 2 solo 'You’re Not Alone' sets a new standard for mawkishness. The other students are identified by single traits, much as they were in Carrie, and contribute little beyond their service as a chorus." But who cares if only pretty young gay boys can relate to the story now, right?

The New Yorker was particularly brutal -- "At the heart of this numbing pop opera, set at a Catholic boarding school, is a love triangle (our wry gay romantic hero, his closeted jock boyfriend, and the Lolita-like transfer student who steals him away) that goes horribly wrong, in every unsurprising way, during rehearsals for a production of Romeo and Juliet. There are two nice sweaters and a pair of really cute shoes onstage, but the list of remarkable things about this wrongheaded revision of the 2004 musical, written by Jon Hartmere (book and lyrics) and Damon Intrabartolo (music) and directed by Stafford Armia, ends there. If this were a show written by teenagers, you might excuse the clumsy set design, flat singing, melodramatic book, dull lyrics, and dated score, but unfortunately that isn't the case. A lot of young talent is being exploited in this show; someone might want to call their parents." Wow.

AM New York said, "It has been extensively revised and updated under the sanitizing direction of Stafford Arima. . . Much of Jon Hartmere and Damon Intrabartolo's original score has been replaced with inferior new material by Hartmere and Lynne Shankel. The few remaining original songs have been altered beyond recognition. . . With the exception of Alex Wyse, the young cast is mostly devoid of personality. In the lead role of Peter, Taylor Trensch can't even handle the show's vocal demands."

The New York Post said, "The show, clunkily staged by Stafford Arima, is fun for a while, but soon gives way to wearisome melodrama. The derivative, unmemorable pop-rock score and generic music video-style choreography don't help matters. The mostly youthful ensemble deliver energetic, committed performances. . . But the actors are unable to overcome their stereotypical roles. In the end, the show's title reflects not so much its troubled characters baring their souls as the material's essential hollowness."

In contrast, BroadwayWorld called New Line's production of the original bare “must-see theatre, providing the kind of experience that absolutely defines modern musical theatre.” St. Louis Magazine called it “a must-see.” TalkinBroadway called it “great storytelling and fun music, rich characters and very fine performances.” Ladue News called it “smart, humorous and sophisticated.” St. Louis Eats and Drinks called it “a strong, intelligent, interesting show.” In other words, the original show really does work.

So what can we learn from all this? A few things.

First, just because a show doesn't succeed on or off Broadway doesn't mean there's something wrong with it. Lord knows New Line has been proving that over and over again throughout our history. Second, success everywhere else outside of New York City ought to matter too. Third, New York commercial theatre is only one small sliver of the American musical theatre, and though the art form is moving ahead in leaps and bounds, it seems most New York directors have no idea how to direct the new American musical. The rules and aesthetics are different now, and they don't seem to know that. Just look at how badly the commercial theatre fucked up in fundamentally misunderstanding both High Fidelity and Cry-Baby.

An industry tailored to (often non-English-speaking) tourists is not well-suited for handling serious works of art intelligently. This is not the New York theatre of the 1960s and 70s. Today, some of those works will start elsewhere in an artist-friendly atmosphere and then move, largely intact, into the commercial realm. But it's rare now that really great musical theatre starts in commercial venues. The times, they are a-changin'.

But that means those of us across the country in regional theatres have an obligation to step up and make sure we're supporting musical theatre writers and the new works they're creating. Every season for the last 21 years, New Line has produced at least one local premiere, regional premiere, or world premiere, often more than one. We are the ones who must nurture the future of the art form and the artists who are shaping that future.

Because Stafford Arima and the producers of bare sure aren't gonna do it. Makes me wanna slap somebody. Maybe I could get Chantelle to do it for me.

Long Live the Musical!

Author's Note: This revival closed February 3, 2013, after only 21 previews and 65 performances. Composer Damon Intrabartolo took his own life on August 13, 2013. More info on bare, read Scott's analysis chapter about the show.