You Provide the Gasoline and I'll Provide the Match

"Burn That Bridge," a song about halfway through Act I of Hands on a Hardbody, has bedeviled me. I just wasn't sure what to do with it. My first instinct was that there's not much movement in this show, so here's a chance to give the audience some eye candy, some musical comedy. But I also knew we were coming at this show as naturalistically as possible. So where does "Burn That Bridge" land?

I often give our actors a sketch of their staging, and let them settle into it and discover cool things, slowly over time. I did that with Dowdy and Taylor (who play the sales manager Mike Ferris and contestant Heather) for "Burn That Bridge." But I also know that at some point if the song or scene isn't finding its natural shape, we have to work through it. So I let them play with it for a couple weeks, try things, experiment, and since Dowdy is also our assistant director, I told him to feel free to suggest solutions. But I could tell neither of them was feeling any more comfortable with it, even after running it several times.

The mistake I was making, a mistake I make often, a mistake I think a lot of musical theatre directors make, was in trying to come up with interesting and/or cool staging. That's not my job. My job is to bring the writers' work to life and make it as clear as possible to the audience. It's great if the staging is clever and original, but that's not my job. I'm not supposed to be looking for staging; I'm supposed to be looking for meaning. I was starting with what can we do here, instead of what is this about.

I had realized early on that, aside from the opening number and the finale, Hardbody is as naturalistic as musical theatre gets, calling for very subtle acting. There's even a "Note on Acting" in the script that says:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.

In other words, this is a musical that should be treated like a play. This show doesn't have the speed and wacky energy of musical comedy, the exaggerated reality of many concept musicals, or the melodrama of rock opera. This is just a drama. And so maybe this is a song that should be staged like a dialogue scene.

Like almost all the other songs in Hardbody.

I had been trying to "make up" for the physical stillness of the rest of the show by looking for lots of movement in this one number. Instead, I should be embracing the nature of this story, not trying to compensate for it. Why work against the very nature of our story? That way madness lies...

And all this led me to the place I always go when I'm lost. I stop myself and ask, "What is this about?" At its core, what is this song/scene/moment/show about? Both its thematic content but even more so its narrative content. How does this song/scene/moment connect to the rest of the show and its central theme, and also what's happening in the story? What is changing? Who is making a decision? Who's learning something?

So I sat down, as I should have in the beginning, and just spent some time with the lyric. All I needed was to trust the text, to go where it leads us.

So what does the text tell us? Mike Ferris and Heather use really extreme language and really sexually loaded metaphors (kind of reminds me of "Deeper in the Woods" from The Robber Bridegroom), and there's a lot of repetition. So what would that language be like if this were a dialogue scene instead of a song? Why would these two characters talk that way? Why would they repeat certain words and phrases? This is obviously not just a straight-forward conversation, like "Used to Be" is. No, it seems to be very playful foreplay, nakedly, comically beating around the bush. (Sorry about that.) Just look at how they talk(sing). First Heather:
Trouble seems to follow me
Like a lost and lonely dog.
I can't shake it, no matter how I run.
And you know and I know,
This heat ain't coming from the sun;
And there'll be lies to say
And hell to pay
Before this deal is done.

Just in case you're wonderin', Mike, Heather's a bad girl. And she puts out. Did you get that? This is a two-way seduction. Notably, those last few lines will prove weirdly prescient. Then Mike sings:
We'll burn that bridge
When we get to it,
Find a fire we can set to it.
Trouble's coming but the spark is lit,
And we'll burn that bridge
When we get to it.

This is the language of destruction. This is a guy who's got nothing left to lose. Why not do this? He goes on:
The sunlight in your smile
Pierces me clean through.
I been on this earth awhile;
I never met no one like you.

Lord knows I'm a sinner,
But something tells me you are too.
And I'll pay tomorrow for what I pray
We're about to do.

I don't know what he thinks they're about to do. She's gotta be back out on that truck in a few minutes. Or is he talking about his scheme? Then they sing the chorus together:
We'll burn that bridge
When we get to it,
Find a fire we can set to it.
Trouble's coming, but the spark is lit,
And we'll burn that bridge
When we get to it.

Notice the imagery is both sexual and violent. But it's also playful, funny, flirty.

Also, notice that lyricist Amanda Green has given us yet another triple rhyme (they're all over this show), this time with a slight variation in the rhyme on the third line. The first two lines rhyme the last three syllables (get to it, set to it), but the third line rhymes only the last syllable. That adjustment nicely underlines the phrase, "but the spark is lit," which holds all kinds of meaning. Then the two of them alternate lines:
Sometimes you got to break the rules
And throw away the book,
Torch the candle at both ends,
And leap before you look.
Oooh! You may be a little crazy,
And God knows I'm no great catch.
But you provide the gasoline
And I'll provide the match.

There's even more foreshadowing here, along with more violent and sexual imagery.

And then they repeat the chorus, finishing the song with a long section just repeating the phase "burn that bridge," and then just the word "burn." Dramatically speaking, what's going on during all that repetition? Maybe it's the escalating build-up of sexual tension between them, the syncopated downbeats in the music mimicking the thrusting rhythm of sex itself. As we approach the climax of the song, the music stops suddenly – and then Mike, Heather, and their three backup singers all hit a long, loud chord at the end that lands and then slides up a step, like a comic (depending on your perspective) musical orgasm. By the end of the song, all that repetition and pounding rhythm have pushed the word burn to take on its alternate meanings of sexual excitement and consumption. And we don't know it yet, but Heather will discover another meaning (or two) of the word before this is all over.

So they work themselves up to this ridiculous fever pitch...! But this is foreplay that leads to... standing around the truck another couple days. Maybe this little foray, this inopportune physical arousal, will compound Heather's trouble later on.

At first, I wasn't sure what kind of scene this was – comic, sexy, intense...? I think the answer is yes. It's also darkly ironic, because the antics in this office during this scene will lead to really serious consequences later. As they gleefully repeat the word "burn" over and over, they're constructing for themselves a really big (metaphoric) bomb that will burn them both in unexpected ways. Is this indiscretion so potentially explosive that Mike might end up (metaphorically) burning down this whole dealership?

In other words, this is a scene about serious, honest acting. Just like all the other songs. It's not about eye candy or diversion or getting 'em to tap their feet; it's about getting inside these characters, what they want, how they're fucked up, and inside their shallow, sort of creepy relationship, because that's all going to pay off later on for the audience. It wasn't long after starting work on this show that I noticed the very smart choice by the writers to give Mike Ferris and Cindy Barnes motivations and backstories as strong, stakes as high as those of the contestants. It's not just about those ten contestants – it's about all of us.

It's so fun and so satisfying working on this material. I think I know how to stage this song now – minimally, dramatically, no posing, no dancing. But I also know there's still so much to discover.

Long Live the Musical!