Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Return of the "Message" Musical

Musicals are one of America's most beloved forms of entertainment. Audiences have been cheering tap dancing ensembles, dream ballets, rousing choruses, and witty comedic numbers since the 1866 Broadway premiere of The Black Crook. Here's Elaine Stritch performing a classic "list song" from the 1927 Rodgers & Hart adaptation of Mark Twain's popular novel, A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court.

Although the plots of many musicals have been built around love stories and comic devices, a growing number can be identified as "message" musicals. Whether commenting on religious persecution, racism, controversial  medical issues, interfaithinterracial, and same-sex relationships, the creative teams for many shows have given their audiences new opportunities to discuss the political issues of the day. Here's Rose Marie Jun (known primarily for her role as Sally Rogers on The Dick Van Dyke Show) performing Harold Rome's "Sing Me A Song With Social Significance" from 1937's Pins and Needles, a musical revue performed by members of the International Ladies' Garment Workers' Union (ILGWU).

Based on the novel by Edna Ferber, 1927's Show Boat dealt with the controversial topic of miscegenation. In 1933's As Thousands Cheer, Ethel Waters shocked audiences with Irving Berlin's poignant "Supper Time," a song about a woman whose husband has just been lynched (As Thousands Cheer was also the first Broadway show to give an African American star equal billing with the white performers headlining its cast).

In 1941, Moss Hart, Ira Gershwin, and Kurt Weill's musical, Lady in the Dark, starred Gertrude Lawrence as a fashion magazine editor who was undergoing psychoanalysis. In 1945's CarouselRodgers and Hammerstein touched on the topic of domestic violence.

While most of the kudos for Rodgers and Hammerstein's 1949 hit, South Pacific, were showered upon Mary Martin, Ezio Pinza, Myron McCormick, and Juanita Hall, it was William Tabbert (as the handsome, young Lieutenant Joseph Cable) who sang "You've Got To Be Carefully Taught." This song was considered indecent, pro-Communist, and inspired one legislator to label its justification of interracial marriage as "a threat to the American way of life." According to to Wikipedia, while South Pacific was touring Southern cities, lawmakers in the state of Georgia introduced a bill outlawing any entertainment containing "an underlying philosophy inspired by Moscow."

In 1951, when Rodgers and Hammerstein adapted Anna and the King of Siam (a best-selling novel by Margaret Landon) and transformed it into The King and I, they depicted a foreign culture in which women were treated as chattel and slaves yearned to be free. In 1954, The Pajama Game scored a hit with a story about factory workers threatening to strike for a living wage.

Harold Prince's influence as a producer and director can be linked to such politically sensitive musicals such as Flora, The Red Menace, Evita, and Fiorello!). In 1957, West Side Story presented an updated version of Romeo and Juliet in which the Montagues and Capulets were transformed into two rival street gangs (the Sharks and the Jets).

In 1964, Fiddler on the Roof tackled the antisemitic persecution of Jews during Russia's pogroms. When Fiddler vacated the Imperial Theatre, it was replaced by Cabaret, the Kander and Ebb musical which depicted the rising antisemitism in the last years of the Weimar Republic.

Sex, drugs, and rock'n'roll brought counterculturalism center stage with 1968's Hair and 1969's Oh! Calcutta! Soon Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman were tackling the Westernization of Japan in 1976's Pacific Overtures while, in 1986's RagsJoseph SteinStephen Schwartz, and Charles Strouse focused on Jewish immigrants and the women who worked in New York's sweatshops (some of whom died in 1911's Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire).

In 1983, La Cage aux Folles (written by Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein) melted the hearts of countless heterosexuals just a few short years after Anita Bryant and the religious right had begun scapegoating the LGBT community. In 1992, James Lapine and William Finn brought the AIDS epidemic to the musical stage with Falsettos. In the following clip, Michael Rupert sings the heartrending "What More Can I Say?"

In the past 25 years, musical theatre has often aimed for cultural relevancy.

Barely six weeks into 2013, Bay area audiences have witnessed the world premieres of two new "message" musicals of surprising strength. One deals with current efforts to reform immigration and create a path to citizenship for those who entered the United States illegally. The other follows a woman on a journey of introspection that follows a path surprisingly similar to the one traveled by Siddhartha (the Guatama Buddha) many centuries ago.

What makes these two musicals so interesting is not just their subject matter (or the creative path they followed to their world premieres), but also the funding which helped to make them possible.

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On August 1, 2001, the DREAM Act was introduced by Senators Dick Durban and Orrin Hatch. Since then, immigration reform has faced a rough and rocky uphill battle.

Following passage of the California DREAM Act, the Marsh Youth Theatre embarked on creating a new piece of musical theatre which focused on undocumented students living in the Bay area who lived under the constant threat of deportation. Using the methodology and and techniques of the Voice of Witness Education Program, members of MYT's Teen Troupe gathered oral histories for In and Out of Shadows from people in their own social circles as well as those referred to them through community organizations such as:
J. Adan Ruiz as Juan in the Marsh Youth Theatre's production
of  In and Out of Shadows (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Backed by additional funding from NALAC (National Association of Latino Arts and Culture) and the Creative Work Fund, the show's musical score (composed by MYT Director Emily Klion and  George Brooks) was inspired by the sounds of jazz, hip hop, and Mexican Mariachi music. As director Cliff Mayotte notes: "For many of the performers in this production, these stories are not disembodied tales, but accurate reflections of heir day-to-day experiences. There is real power in being able to tell your own story and real power in bearing witness to the person telling it."

Bianca Catalan and Angelina Orrelanos are two of the
teenagers in In and Out of Shadows (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Playwright/poet Gary Soto was tasked with transforming the oral histories collected by the students into a piece of theatre about the experiences of undocumented teens living in the East Bay communities of Richmond and Pinole. As he recalls:
"As a Mexican-American author of 40-plus books, I have a large readership among Latino youth (arguably the largest in the country) and have visited more than 400 schools during the last 20 years. Elementary through college, students know something about my writing. The focus of my visits has been schools in the San Joaquin Valley (which houses a large undocumented workforce in rural labor). I've also visited lots of schools in the Los Angeles basin and am aware of the struggles among urban youth. For several years I was a board member of the CHA House, an educational program that brings youth from their small hometowns (Coalinga, Huron, and Avenal) to study at UC Berkeley. I have never asked, but I suspect that about half of the parents of these children are undocumented.

In and Out of Shadows is not dumbed-down theatre; it's really clever theatre. There's music, there's dance, we have a squirt gun incident, and we'll be throwing candy into the audience. It was worrisome to me that some groups weren't represented because they wouldn't come forward (not one Chinese student was interviewed). There may be risk, but we don't think La Migra (the border patrol) would show up to gather up some of the kids and parents in the audience."
Playwright, poet, and author Gary Soto

In and Out of Shadows is filled with stories about kids who didn't want to change their name when they snuck across the border, teens who went on vacation in Mexico and were stopped by immigration authorities when they tried to reenter the United States, and those whose families consisted of documented and undocumented immigrants. From the hard-working Filipino-American mother who is arrested and threatened with deportation after her employer is investigated for failure to pay his taxes to the affable jock from British Columbia, the evening is peppered with Tagalog, Spanish, Spanglish and other languages commonly heard in the Bay area.

Louel Senores and Deanna Palaganas (Photo by: Katia Fuentes)

Whether one focuses on the young man with no skills except his abundant charm or the girl who wants to become a doctor; whether one looks at the pair of boys who want to become DJs or the Indonesian girl who tells her friends about her native country, as the students struggle to prepare their personal statements for an AB 540 conference at UC Berkeley, they share what it was like to have to be sedated with cough syrup or crawl through sewers in order to enter the United States.

And what do these children look like when they become adults? Here's the founder of Define American, Jose Antonio Vargas (who, in 2008, was part of the Washington Post's team of Pulitzer prize-winning journalists who covered the shootings at Virginia Tech) as he recently testified before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee.

In an op-ed piece published in The New York Times, Vargas stressed that:
"There are no words to describe just how much stress and heartbreak my immigration status, and my choice to go public with it, has caused my grandmother. Because of her I almost did not speak out about being undocumented. But it was also because of her -- and my grandfather, who died in 2007, and my mother, whom I have not seen in almost 20 years -- because of all their sacrifices, that I will be able to speak in Congress. I am here because of them."
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In 2007, the Marsh Youth Theatre created Siddhartha, The Bright Path (which was revived in December of 2010). There's a new Buddha figure in town (a female version) as the protagonist of an impressive new musical being performed at the Ashby Stage in Berkeley through March 10 (click here to order tickets).

The Fourth Messenger is much more than a pleasant surprise. This is an intelligent, skillfully crafted, and extremely ambitious piece of music theatre about spirituality and self discovery that demands the attention of any serious theatregoer or student of religion.

Poster art for The Fourth Messenger

Written by Tanya Shaffer (whose Baby Taj delighted TheatreWorks audiences at its world premiere in October of 2005), The Fourth Messenger is far from a formula musical. As Shaffer explains:
"For years I’ve been drawn to the legend of Siddhartha Gautama (it’s such a mythic, archetypal journey) but I knew I had to find my own way into the story. It wasn’t going to be some historical pageant. It had to be urgent, contemporary, and immediate. Buddha’s teachings are profound, poetic, and timeless but there were elements of his life which a modern audience might find troubling. Those elements -- the moral questions and conundrums -- became my way into this ancient story and provide the juice that drives the narrative forward.

A lengthier rehearsal period also allows the actors to find a lot more subtlety and nuance within their choices. After years of concert-style readings, it’s quite a revelation to see the transformation that takes place when a scene is fully staged. Sometimes, after a public reading, audience members would say to me that they saw it all in their heads; they didn’t miss the other theatrical elements at all. At the time, I felt that too. But now, as the scenes come to life before my eyes, I find them infinitely richer than they’ve ever been. The comic scenes are much funnier when they are fully physicalized. The poignant moments, too, are infinitely more moving when the actors are able to fully embody their characters, so that their reactions and choices are transmitted through action and gesture as well as face and voice."

Annemaria Rajala as Mama Sid (Photo by: Mike Padua)

Driven by Vienna Teng's densely-written lyrics and propulsive score, The Fourth Messenger opens in a tense newsroom where a publisher (Will Springhorn, Jr.) is facing diminished ad revenues. As his editorial staff hungers for a big news story to debunk, his lover Raina (Anna Ishida) returns from her father's funeral.

Although she's pretty torn up over the loss of her Dad, Raina also thinks she might have found the story that will save Sam's business ("The Next Big Story"). When Sam reflexively assigns it to a young male reporter, she calls him on it and demands that he let her interview the latest trendy guru, a mysterious woman named Mama Sid (Annemarie Rajala) whom  Raina suspects is a fraud.

When Raina arrives at Mama Sid's ashram, she thinks Sid's trusting, emotionally needy followers are either brainwashed or crazy. As they wrestle with their compulsions and obsessions ("Monkey Mind"), Raina finally gets a chance to interview Sid, who sings of "The Human Experience" and begins to open up about her previous experiences. For some reason, Sid feels compelled to divulge her past to Raina, starting with her youthful crush on Yasha (Barnaby James) and the sheltered existence she enjoyed while being raised in a gated community ("Bois Riche").

As Sid describes her traumatic exposure to poverty and disease outside Bois Riche, her story deepens and takes numerous unexpected turns. By the time the audience learns that Sid is actually Raina's mother (who abandoned Raina shortly after she was born in order to seek her own path in life), Shaffer's musical has the audience emotionally involved in the story and, often, on the edge of their seats.

Mama Sid (Annemarie Rajala) and Raina (Anna Ishida) in
The Fourth Messenger (Photo by: David Allen)

A lot has been written in recent years about the growth of online crowd funding services. Last year, Kickstarter boasted that it had raised $150 million for creative projects (more than 2012's operating budget for the National Endowment for the Arts). Songwriter Jeff Bowen ([title of show]) launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $75,000 he needed to record a cast album of his recent off-Broadway musical Now. Here. This.The happy result? Bowen's Kickstarter campaign brought in $89,833!

In addition to money raised through traditional approaches, Shaffer and Teng brought in almost $40,000 through a crowd-funding campaign on Indiegogo. As the producer/playwright explains:
“We live in a time when it’s more feasible than ever for artists to take matters into their own hands. The decision for Vienna and me to produce this ourselves came about organically. Talking with theaters, we encountered reluctance to even consider a world premiere musical that required a minimum of nine actors and four musicians in the current economic climate. After a few of those conversations, we came to this Little Red Hen moment of ‘I’ll do it myself.’ The response from supporters was immediate, enthusiastic, and truly empowering.”
Sid (Annemarie Rajala) with her close friend, Andy (Jackson Davis) in
The Fourth Messenger (Photo by: Matt August)

Even in a show about Buddhism, money buys artistic freedom. The results were obvious at the world premiere of The Fourth Messenger (which is so much more than a labor of love). Joe Ragey has created a simple yet remarkably elegant unit set which allows for quick and highly effective transitions between scenes. The orchestrations by Robin Reynolds are first rate and, under Christopher Winslow's solid musical direction, Teng's music and lyrics reveal a fresh and exciting new theatrical talent with a distinctive voice of her own ((click here to listen to excerpts from the show's musical score).

Above all, The Fourth Messenger has been beautifully staged with grace, wit, and plenty of dramatic flair by Matt August (who staged Shaffer's Baby Taj and pulls exceptionally poignant performances from his two female leads). Jackson Davis has some fine dramatic moments as Sid's close friend, Andy. Cathleen Riddley, Will Springhorn, Jr., Reggie D. White, Simeone Kertesz, and Barnaby Jones all score strongly in supporting roles.

The Fourth Messenger is a hugely ambitious and refreshingly original piece of musical theatre that is highly recommended. Accessible to contemporary audiences and relevant to today's search for spirituality, I wish it a long and healthy future enchanting audiences around the world. Here's the trailer:

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