background and analysis by Scott Miller
bare is difficult to pin down. In form, it’s closer to an opera than a musical, but it’s not exactly either. It’s clearly the artistic child of Rent, but it’s also very much its own thing. While Rent’s music was a 1980s Broadway-pop hybrid, bare’s musical vocabulary is closer to alternative pop and emo rock than anything Broadway has heard before. It’s a story about emotional turmoil amidst the breakdown of our institutions – religion, education, the family – and the resulting moral hypocrisy that traps many of us behind masks of conformity. And it’s also inescapably about the fact that every five hours an American gay teen kills himself and twenty others try. Yet despite all this weighty stuff, at its heart it’s a very intimate, very raw love story, incredibly personal and emotional – the title is as much a verb as a noun – while also suggesting all those bigger ideas.
And there is also a quality and honesty in the writing that makes a great idea even better. The real surprise of bare is not its emotional impact, but the sophistication, craft, and complexity of this score and this storytelling. The harmonic language is unique, living entirely in the musical vocabulary of pop and rock, but crafted with a confidence and fearlessness that takes the music in much more interesting directions than most pop and rock could. Theatre music has to do much more heavy lifting than pop music does – it has to move forward the story, or at least the character – and bare consistently rises to that challenge. Composer Damon Intrabartolo is also a successful film orchestrator and conductor, having worked on X-Men 2, Superman Returns, Fantastic Four, Dreamgirls, and other films, so he knows how to write long-form, how to support a scene with music, how to build tension through music. He knows the conventions of pop music, but they never tie him down, and throughout the show he violates them with a freedom and a quirkiness that is refreshing and exciting.
Unlike conventional theatre scores, in the 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); Intrabartolo loves using ambiguous, "emo rock" open-fifth chords; and he often screws around with the rules of harmonic progressions, surprising our ears but never so much that our ears rebel. To the untrained ear, the score just 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) or Adam Guettel (Floyd Collins, The Light in the Piazza). The open fifths are musically 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, as we're all used to, makes many of the songs sound like they don't finish, and that adds dramatic tension to the narrative, while it also keeps the audience from applauding after many songs, and that also builds tension, refusing the audience the release of applause. His film scoring experience is obvious throughout. He really knows how to dramatize through music.
Structurally, Intrabartolo uses the vocabulary of opera – arias, recitative, leitmotifs and themes, 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 a musical vocabulary that fits their youth and their world, while also giving their drama powerful, dramatic forward motion through the underlying musical structure.
But just as remarkable and just as fresh as the music are Jon Hartmere’s lyrics. He’s as adept at a structured song as he is at musicalized conversations, some of them in the form of rap. He has written big solos – soliloquies, arias – for all the central characters in bare. They seem to be conventional in form, often with a pop "hook" in the lyric, but most of them are more complicated, running through evolving, conflicting emotions, or sometimes sitting, brooding over just one; some of the language bare and stark, while other moments are more like minimalist, stream-of-consciousness poetry. In a way, even as he has used Romeo and Juliet as a jumping off place, Hartmere has created a contemporary equivalent to Shakespeare’s contrasting blank verse and soaring poetics.
Hartmere also skillfully writes complex conversations set to music, sometimes for an extended scene, sometimes with more than one conversation going on at once, sometimes among just two characters, sometimes among five or six (see "Promise" as an example). It’s the one of most advanced uses yet of the kind of extended musical scene Oscar Hammerstein pioneered back in the 1920s in Show Boat and in the 1940s in the classic Rodgers and Hammerstein musicals. But though those Hammerstein scenes are impressive for their time, there’s a formality and an awkwardness that keeps them from actually feeling real. In bare, those conversations feel both spontaneous and real. Where Hammerstein had to contort sentences and use odd word choices in order to hold to his structure and rhyme scheme, here Hartmere knows that rules are made to be broken and authenticity is the highest goal now, so he forsakes rhyme when it makes sense to. Composer Stephen Sondheim believes that the amount of rhyme in a song connotes a character’s intelligence and/or presence of mind. The less intelligent or the less rational a character is, the less he rhymes (look at "Getting Married Today in Company, which has almost no rhyme). In bare, Hartmere fashions believable spontaneity by not getting chained to the old conventions. When characters are fighting and emotions are running high, Hartmere ignores rhyme. The audience doesn’t notice because they’re too wrapped up in the conversation.
That’s smart, confident writing.
But all this is still not 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 is authenticity. And bare has that in spades. It is truthful about being young in America at this moment in time like very few other musicals are – with the possible exceptions of the extraordinary American Idiot and maybe Bill Finn’s wacky Spelling Bee.
Old School, Meet New School
Some people find Oklahoma! silly. They think it’s a trivial issue whether Curly or Jud takes Laurie to the box social. But to Laurie – to this sheltered seventeen-year-old – it's hugely consequential. The stakes are very high for her and anyone working on Oklahoma! has to respect that. If the director and actors take it seriously, the audience will recognize the truth in it. It’s the secret to rock and roll, the first art form ever to take teenagers seriously, their dreams, their pain, their confusion, their love. And that’s exactly what makes bare work. There is truth in these characters and this story. There’s truth in the moral gray area at the heart of the story, because that’s the way the world is. There aren’t always good guys and bad guys.
Still, for those who like their musicals more old-school, bare does follow some of those rules. Jason follows the model of the musical comedy hero of the so-called "Golden Age" of musical theatre, though only to a degree. In those classic musicals, the central conflict is between the hero and an established community. He must either assimilate into that community or be removed from it. These central characters must make a choice to either change in certain ways in order to join the existing community or they must be removed from that community by leaving or by dying. In Sweeney Todd, Jesus Christ Superstar, Bat Boy, and Evita, the main characters will not (or cannot) conform so they must be removed by death. In Show Boat, Julie and Steve will not play by mainstream society’s rules, so they must be removed, and they leave the Cotton Blossom. In Man of La Mancha, Quixote/Quijana refuses to live by conventional rules of behavior, so he must die. In Rent, Angel doesn’t conform to mainstream gender/sexual roles, so he must be removed too.
On the other hand, in The Music Man, Harold Hill turns legit in order to join the River City community. In Brigadoon, Tommy decides he must reject his previous life in order to stay in Brigadoon and become part of the community. In Grease, Sandy ultimately assimilates into the greaser community, rejecting her parents’ world view of morality and sexuality. In Hair, Claude confounds the convention; he conforms to the mainstream society and then is immediately sent to Vietnam to be gunned down and killed. He tries to assimilate and is still removed. The old rules on longer apply, Hair’s creators were telling us – Vietnam turned everything upside down. Likewise, in bare the old rules don’t work for Jason. He tries desperately to assimilate, to conform, to fit in, but he still must be "removed" from the community. The rules of old-school musical comedy no longer apply in this more complex world, these shows’ creators are telling us. Rodgers and Hammerstein’s rules and conventions are no longer relevant; they no longer reveal truths about the world in which we live. America has changed.
In many ways, bare is a reassessment of musical theatre as much as it is an indictment of American institutions. Now that rock and pop are the default musical languages for new work in the musical theatre, the rules and conventions of rock music are beginning to supplant the rules of old-fashioned Rodgers and Hammerstein-style musicals. Sondheim has always said that content dictates form, and the complex, ambiguous content of many of the new musicals today doesn’t line up with perfect rhymes and tightly regulated form and structure.
Rent Meets Dead Poet’s Society
Before the internet there was generally only one way for a show to get produced in theatres around the country: it had to run on or off Broadway and get a cast album recorded. Major regional theatres usually won’t produce a show unless it has a decent New York pedigree, including a respectable run and good reviews. But in the past that has left a lot of cool, interesting shows unproduced.
But today, everyone can read on the internet about the newest, original, offbeat musical produced in a sixty-seat basement theatre somewhere in Colorado or Ohio. And since the early 1990s, the idea of musical theatre as art theatre (as opposed to purely commercial musical theatre) has emerged, in a few nonprofit theatres in New York and in small regional companies across the country. A short run and mixed reviews no longer dooms a show to obscurity, and shows that never run in New York at all can still have a life. No longer is that New York imprimatur necessary.
It’s true that many large regional theatres are still timid about untried shows, but there are so many smaller, more adventurous theatre companies in the U.S. now, not constrained by multi-million dollar budgets, subscriber bases, and the placating of major donors and government funders. And as long as these smaller, alternative companies can find the shows, they revel in producing this less conventional, commercial work. Perhaps more than any other show, bare has been a beneficiary of this technological revolution.
The pop opera bare (usually spelled in lower case) first opened in Los Angeles at the Hudson Theatre in October 2000, where it won the L.A. Weekly Award for Best Musical, the Ovation Award for Best Musical and the L.A. Drama Critics Award for Best Score. Originally called bare: a pop opera, it was supposed to run in L.A. for 32 performances at an 87-seat theatre on Santa Monica Boulevard. Four months later, it had become a multi award-winning sensation, created by two 26-year-old writers and a 23-year-old director. The show then opened off Broadway at the American Theatre of Actors in 2004, but ran only a few weeks before closing. The off Broadway reviews were grudgingly admiring, but decidedly mixed. The New York Times wrote, "bare has youthful promise written all over it." The Associated Press called the show an "ambitious and original creation." TalkinBroadway.com said, "The show is breathlessly energetic, and an obvious labor of love crafted with care down to its smallest details." Now with a shortened title, bare is enjoying an active life, with productions in Sacramento, Houston, and Seattle in 2008, Amherst, Denver, Kansas City, and Toronto in 2009, Sydney, Australia, in 2010, and Minneapolis and St. Louis in 2011.
bare has been described as a mix of Rent and Dead Poets Society, exploring sexuality, self expression, guilt, jealously, teen pregnancy, female body image, and religion, all overflowing with the kind of urgency and intensity that comes with being seventeen. Like Rent, bare explores a community that includes both straight and gay people, all struggling with the complexities of being young in contemporary America. Like Rent, bare is important in the history of gay theatre because though both shows focus on gay relationships, neither show is really a "gay show." Gay theatre is slowly coming out of the ghetto and being allowed to mix and marry with "straight shows."
The show follows five seniors at a Catholic boarding high school, all struggling with various issues. At the center are Jason and Peter (whose name, significantly, is both a Catholic saint – he was an original apostle and the first Pope – and a euphemism for the penis), who are forced to deal with their mutual romantic attraction while trying to live up to the expectations of their parents and the Catholic Church. We watch over the course of the show as Jason goes from school hero to outcast, in a way that’s only possible in the freaky social structure of high school. Both Jason and Peter have screwed up parents; Peter’s are divorced while Jason’s parents are merely oppressive. Jason’s twin sister Nadia struggles with her weight and self-loathing hidden behind a mask of aggressive cynicism. Ivy struggles with her status as the school slut. Matt, the story’s agent of chaos, struggles with his unrequited interest in Ivy. The show's first director, Kristin Hanggan, said in an interview about the show, "Its real allure for audiences is the commonality of experience – alienation, fear of rejection, confusion of sexual identity and the poignancy of marginalization." Hartmere said in an interview, "There are still kids killing themselves. There’s a long way to go. One kid calling you a faggot where you’re nine is enough. You pray that you survive high school, and then you begin your adolescence in college, maybe. I don't think that’s the best we can do, so hopefully, something like bare will bring us a step closer."
Though the show’s authors have tried to distance themselves from their own label of "pop opera," that is what they wrote, in an extremely interesting, artful way. The score is reminiscent of Rent but where Rent mined the sounds of 1980s pop, bare speaks more in the language of twenty-first century alternative pop and emo rock, very minimalist, very melodic, relatively simple harmonically. There is complexity and gray area here in the music as well as in its lyrics, and there is no Broadway in this sound. Despite its aborted run off Broadway, bare quickly became a cult favorite across the country, especially among younger musical theatre fans, through bootleg audio and video recordings and YouTube.
bare helped move forward a trend toward musical authenticity in contemporary pop and rock musicals. Where shows like Miss Saigon, The Full Monty and Hairspray forged a commercially safer Broadway-pop hybrid sound, bare is pure alt pop. And that may account for its fervent cult following and its simultaneous dismissal by much of the musical theatre establishment. Like emo, most of these lyrics are about pain, isolation, loss. Though there are laughs (including two very funny dream sequences), those laughs come at a cost, and early in Act I, we know this story will not end well.
And like emo, bare takes its teenage characters seriously. The show never laughs at their pain, never suggests that their problems are trivial or ridiculous (as shows like Bye Bye Birdie used to do), and it never doubts the depth of their love. Using a musical within a musical, the school’s production of a Romeo and Juliet musical, may at first seem like a cliché, but it is exactly the right reference here, and the parallels play out in unexpected ways. How many of us first encountered Romeo and Juliet’s teen angst in high school? Unlike most of us, at least these kids see relevance to their own lives in the passion and tragedy of the Shakespeare play. It’s just as hard to be a kid now as it was then, the bare writers are telling us. In fact, it’s always been hard. Adults can look back cynically and see only puppy love here, but these struggles are real to these characters and to the millions of young fans the show has across the United States.
A workshop of a revised version of bare was held in New York in November 2010, with an eye toward a possible new production on Broadway. Chosen to helm this rewrite and revival was director Stafford Arima, who had directed the one-joke revue Altar Boyz and the horribly misfired revival of the seriously flawed Carrie.
Bowing to pressure from Arima and producers, Hartmere set about a complete rewrite of the show, cutting twenty-three of the show’s thirty-six songs, turning many of them into dialogue scenes. Composer Intrabartolo refused to be part of it, so the show’s music director Lynn Shankel wrote some new songs with Hartmere, while Hartmere wrote new lyrics to some existing songs. Longtime bare fans were horrified, comparing this "revisal" to reviving Rent or Jesus Christ Superstar and cutting two-thirds of those score to make them into conventional musicals. Arima said in interviews that they wanted to turn songs into dialogue so they could get deeper into characterization, but the new version did exactly the opposite – almost all their changes cut out complexity and nuance, and replaced it with cliché and stereotype.
In rewriting the show, they eliminated the characters' shared childhood and consequently lost a big part of the dramatic conflict among them. In the new version, Jason and Peter hadn't known each other since childhood. Ivy is now a transfer student and just misunderstood; she's also lost her shared past with Nadia. Matt is actually dating Ivy. Nadia is no longer heavy and has been turned into a Goth drug dealer. They've cut Peter’s mother 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, very blonde, Broadway-pretty Sister Joan.
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), and 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 doesn’t make sense because Jason can't have that kind of self-knowledge that early in the story. And all the Shakespeare scenes were converted back into dialogue, so Intrabartolo's cool "Elizabethan pop" was all cut. Also, both dream scenes were cut, and with them all the psychological depth they brought to the character of Peter. And they added a hazing scene.
The reviews were pretty withering. Backstage said, "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."
The New Yorker review 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."
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."
Fortunately, the revised version was never to be licensed to any other company or producer. Everyone else wanting to produce the show will always be able to do only the show's original version.
One of the things in bare that people talk least about is the use of Romeo and Juliet. Perhaps it’s because lots of shows and stories have used Shakespeare plays as revealing parallels (perhaps most notably, in Kiss Me, Kate). But Hartmere and Intrabartolo do it differently and those differences and complexities raise the device above the ordinary.
First, Sister Chantelle’s Romeo and Juliet is apparently a rock/pop musical. Though these teenagers might relate less to the straight Shakespeare play, bare gives their Shakespeare story a more contemporary, more relevant voice, an invented musical language that melds the two time periods into a kind of Elizabethan pop, a sound we might well expect from Chantelle as the drama teacher. Just as Arthur Laurents invented his own slang for West Side Story, here Intrabartolo has invented his own musical language for Romeo and Juliet.
Second, bare’s larger frame story and the inner Romeo and Juliet story do parallel each other, but in more surprising ways than is usually the case. Jason/Romeo and Peter/Mercutio are best friends in both worlds. Nadia/Nurse and Ivy/Juliet are connected but not friends in both worlds. Romeo/Jason and Tybalt/Matt are rivals in both worlds. Of course, Lucas, the school drug dealer, parallels Shakespeare’s apothecary. And Chantelle stands in for Friar Lawrence, the only adult that is truly on the lovers’ side. But Matt also parallels the character of Paris, whose romantic intentions toward Juliet are rebuffed in favor of Romeo. In bare, the "real world" characters also depart from their parallels in interesting ways. In bare’s "real world," Tybalt/Paris is in love with Juliet, who falls for Romeo, who is already in love with Mercutio. The romantic couple in Shakespeare becomes a more complex, romantic double-triangle in bare.
But there are other, more subtle parallels. There’s a moment in rehearsal, when they’re working on the play’s street fight scene, when Chantelle steps in to break up a fight, just as the Prince does in R&J. In the Shakespeare play, Romeo bemoans the unrequited love he feels for Rosaline, but in bare , it’s the Juliet figure who feels unrequited love for Romeo. In both stories there are parties – the Wonderland rave and Ivy’s birthday party in bare, matching the Capulet’s party in R&J – and at all three parties there are romantic encounters. But in bare, the romantic encounter at Wonderland is between Jason and Peter, while the romantic encounter at the birthday party is between Jason and Ivy. Because bare presents this double-triangle, it needs two parties. The masked ball the Capulets throw parallels the metaphorical masks, the secret lives, that all the main characters in bare wear. And Romeo’s romantic fickleness shows up in both stories, though in a very trivial way in R&J, and in a more complex, more destructive way in bare. In the "Pilgrim’s Hands" scene in Shakespeare, the two lovers meet and fall in love; while in bare, this same scene – between Jason and Peter in a rehearsal – is about two lovers who are already deeply in love but ultimately can’t be together. In both stories, the central love story is a secret one, and the idea of secrets and masks becomes one of the primary themes of bare. The biggest difference between the two stories, of course, is that in the Shakespeare, Romeo and Juliet can’t be together because of family issues; while in bare, Jason and Ivy can’t be together for a much more fundamental reason: Jason is gay.
Romeo and Juliet’s marriage in Friar Lawrence’s room mirrors Jason and Peter’s "marriage" by Chantelle in the dream at the beginning of Act II, though bare’s complexity makes its marriage scene much more complicated. And the scene in bare when Matt tells Ivy that Jason is gay mirrors the scene in R&J when the Nurse tells Juliet that Romeo has killed Tybalt (interestingly, Matt’s parallel character). In both scenes, Juliet is devastated by this news that now makes her love impossible. In both stories, Romeo and Juliet sleep together, but Shakespeare’s Juliet doesn’t get pregnant (that we know of), which adds an extra layer of tragedy to bare.
And at the end, just as Capulet and Montague decide to end their destructive feud, so too does Claire put aside her hurt and anger, to fully embrace her son. And ultimately, though bare’s ending reflects the ending of Romeo and Juliet – both have vials of poison – it does not match it exactly.
Hear My Voice
Because composer Intrabartolo is also a film orchestrator and conductor, the bare score is more complex and more sophisticated than most other rock musical scores. He uses musical themes and motifs to connect characters and events, and to subliminally underline important moments and ideas. He and Hartmere use musical conversation throughout the show – music and lyrics that aren’t as structured or regular as a song, though much more so than recitative in opera.
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, 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.
Hartmere and Intrabartolo 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, 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 – though sometimes slyly misleading – 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’ 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 fully 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 "all that he has"?
Of course, later in the Jesus story, Luke 23:26 says, "And as they led him away [after his conviction by Pilate], they laid hold on one Simon, a Cyrenian, coming out of the country, and on him they laid the cross, that he might bear it after Jesus." In that context, Peter’s friends’ command to "bear the cross" would mean to accept someone else’s burden – Jason’s? – as his own. That also carries implications of the story ahead, as we will see Peter suffer under the weight of Jason’s fear.
Finally, 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.
And in addition to setting up everything else of importance, it also establishes religion as oppressive, cold, unresponsive, a theme running through the entire show. Most of the central characters will question the existence of God at some point in the show. Later in Act I, Peter and Matt will both sing to God/Jesus:
Are you there?
Do you watch me when I cry?
And if it’s in your power
How can you sit idly by?
In Act II, Jason will sing to God, "Are you there? There at all?" In Act I, Nadia will sing, "God ignores me." Significantly, Ivy has no relation to God or religion and virtually never mentions either one. But the rest of the students have the same problem as the leads and they voice their doubts in the "Hear My Voice" section of "Confession." Kyra and Tanya sing, "I don’t think you see me," and the others ask questions along the same lines. In "911 Emergency," even the alcohol induced vision of the Virgin Mary has complaints about the "first family" being unresponsive. And this abandonment by God and by the Church will figure prominently in the plot in Act II.
You and I
And yet, we haven’t met Jason. The scene transitions to a school hallway and we see Peter and Jason together for the first time, playful, happy, horny, and very much in love, singing the playful and gleefully suggestive "You and I." To establish the darkness behind this relationship, in Jason’s first words in the show he casts himself jokingly as a child molester, offering Peter a lollipop and a puppy in exchange for sex. It tells us a lot about how Jason sees himself and their relationship – it’s dirty, inappropriate. Later in the song, Jason sings, "When I have you near me, I go out of my mind." On first hearing that may sound like an innocent enough comment; but there’s a darkness there, an implication that Jason can’t be in his "right mind" when he’s lusting for Peter, that there is something insane about same-sex attraction. On the surface, things seem to be great between them – except we already know the turmoil and confusion going on inside of Peter and now we see the darkness in Jason. Things aren’t great.
Peter suggests for the first time that they tell his mother about their relationship. This will become one of the central issues of the show, but this first reference is almost a throw-away. Jason reacts by dismissing the suggestion as crazy ("Let’s lay off the crack.") and forgets it. Then Peter sets the plot in motion by suggesting that Jason audition for the school musical. This is the show’s "obligatory moment," the act from which everything else will spring. Throughout this entire conversation, Peter jumps from topic to topic, but Jason wants to talk of nothing besides sex. We see the imbalance in this relationship.
After Jason leaves, Peter gets the first of his soliloquies, "Role of Lifetime," setting up the central metaphor of the entire story, finding himself unhappy with the mask that he and Jason both wear. Here, Peter consciously works through the questions he was asking himself subconsciously, probably for the first time, in his crazy daydream. The second half of each verse introduces a new musical theme, the "mask" theme, representing the lies, the deceptions, the hiding, the denying of Peter’s own identity. Jason is comfortable with his mask; Peter no longer is. And this confusion is beautifully and insightfully described by lyricist Hartmere as "Thoughts battle words over deeds, a war with such casualties;" that war will be the central action of the entire show.
Every major character in the show wears a mask and plays a role (just as most of us do in real life). Both Jason and Peter are playing straight men, hiding their feelings and their identities, and Jason also plays the popular, confident Big Man on Campus. As we will soon see, Ivy plays the self-assured, sexually aggressive femme fatale, hiding her loneliness and insecurity. Nadia plays the smartass with armor an inch thick, hiding her damaged, self-loathing side. Peter’s mother Claire plays the together, modern woman, pretending her thin façade of normalcy and control isn’t just a thin façade. Sister Chantelle plays the sassy, brassy, strong Black Woman, almost to the point of stereotype, when in reality she’s probably the only black person in the school, trapped amongst privileged white kids. This "mask" theme will show up again at the end of "God Don’t Make No Trash."
The "Auditions" scene establishes an entirely different style of music, that will be used for all the Shakespeare scenes. It’s both Elizabethan and emo rock. It uses open fifth chords, missing the third step that makes it sound major (happy) or minor (sad), which the music of Shakespeare’s time often did; but so does contemporary emo rock. And the driving, syncopated beat that Intrabartolo establishes gives it an urgent pulse, both exciting and ominous. This will be the music of rehearsal and presumably the show within a show, a Romeo and Juliet musical (or rock opera?), exactly the kind of show Sister Chantelle would want to produce.
Though most plays and musicals that use Romeo and Juliet as a metaphor tend to set up exact parallels between the world of the play and the "real world," bare is more complicated and more interesting than that. Here, Jason will play Romeo and Ivy will play Juliet, but they aren’t the true lovers in the real world. Peter plays Mercutio, Romeo’s best friend, parallel to everyone’s perception of Jason and Peter, but not to the reality of their relationship. And though in Romeo and Juliet, Mercutio is the cynic who prefers dirty jokes to Romeo’s romantic idealism, in the real world, the reverse is true of Jason and Peter. Their "masks" onstage reinforce their masks in real life. And fittingly, Matt plays Tybalt, Romeo’s antagonist who doesn’t want Romeo anywhere near Juliet.
Late in this scene, we get to the "Hear My Voice" theme, which will appear periodically throughout the show. Its accompanying lyric tells us exactly what this theme represents:
Hear my voice.
Did you really hear me?
Hear my voice.
I don’t think you see me.
And you think you know me.
Did you really hear me?
Would you really know me?
And you think you see me.
Hear my voice.
And you think you know me
But you didn’t hear me.
The phrase "see me" will return in Act II, but it will become a command rather than complaint. This is a story about teenagers, on the cusp between childhood and adulthood, finally feeling like they have found their own voice and have something of value to say, but no one’s listening. The whole plot hinges on the idea of communicating or failing to, of being heard or being silenced. This idea, though without this music, will culminate in the show’s finale as the show’s primary message. Even in these snapshot moments that don’t feel like they’re advancing the plot, there’s so much going on underneath the surface. The scene ends with Peter on the phone to his mother, and the giant unspoken problem hanging between them. Significantly, when Peter tries to get his mother to say hello to Jason, neither Claire nor Jason want to talk to the other. Everyone around Peter chooses silence over communication.
In the next scene we meet Jason’s sister Nadia, a very damaged girl who sings the sardonically autobiographical "Plain Jane Fat Ass." We don’t need this song for the main plot, but it gives us insight into Jason’s family. If Nadia and his parents are as screwed up as they seem, there’s a good bet he is too. We’ve only seen hints of that so far, but this song gives us a glimpse of where Jason comes from and the kind of expectations he is struggling against.
The next scene is a rap number in the school library (and we have to wonder, where’s the librarian?), where the kids plan an excursion to a rave called Wonderland, a name intentionally conjuring up the kind of alternate reality we’ve already encountered in the opening dream sequence; but in this case evoking escape from the oppression of the church and school, rather than the judgment of the other fantasies. This lyric is an exceptional example of Hartmere’s extended musical conversations, as natural and unforced as dialogue, but set to a driving musical beat. Lucas, the school drug dealer, promises Peter and Jason a world where "life is as it ought to be," a fantasy world far away from the oppression and judgment of the real world. Not incidentally, the more staid Matt only decides to go once Ivy urges him to; he has an agenda in Wonderland too. But as it’s described in the lyric, Wonderland is an exciting but unreal place; Peter may find what he wants here, but it’s not real:
Off to Wonderland,
Where never never finds you,
For one enchanted night
Of dreams disguised as swirling light.
Ten thousand friends to make,
An ecstasy of motion,
You’re floating, rolling free,
And life is as it ought to be.
This entire chorus is about the deception of Wonderland. The sexy Ivy is do drugged up she has to be carried outside. The swirling light isn’t really a dream. And a rave full of people aren’t all your friends. Life may be as it "ought to be," but only because of the drugs. It’s not real.
The next song is a soliloquy for Nadia, "A Quiet Night at Home," where she tries to make peace with her life. Unlike Jason, Nadia can’t hide her outsider status; she’s heavy and she can’t "pass" for thin. So unlike Jason, Nadia is not out with the popular kids tonight. Hartmere’s lyric is unusual, less about full sentences than stream of consciousness, snapshots, fragments. At first it’s just the repetition of its title phrase over a very minimalist accompaniment, making us feel the monotony, the emptiness of what Nadia feels, then images of the humiliation she fears, and finally resignation to her fate. Underneath it all, we can’t forget that her twin brother, just as much an outsider as she is (though she doesn’t yet know that), is the king of the school. It’s the luck of the draw. Or as the kids in Bill Finn’s Spelling Bee put it, "Life is random and unfair."
Now at Wonderland, Jason and Peter get a taste of the life they want to live, free of adults and judgment. Dramatically, the rave scene functions as a last celebration of the joy of being young, a joy that is about to be shattered. Even before they leave the rave, we witness a deep crack in the fantasy world that Peter and Jason have been living in, and the beginning of the destruction of several relationships. Even in this relatively safe environment, Jason is still scared. He and Peter argue for the first time ("Best Kept Secret") about whether they should keep their secret. The bridge of this song will later become the bridge of Claire’s "Warning," connecting son and mother in their moments of greatest confusion. Here in "Best Kept Secret," Peter calls Jason a coward. Jason calls Peter a fool. They are in fundamentally different places now and this gap can’t be bridged. They sing:
Peter: You know we can’t go on forever this way.
Jason: All this "forever" – can’t you live for today?
Peter: We have to grow up. There’s so much more to love.
Jason: It’s best kept secret.
But this isn’t really a fantasy world; it’s just pretending to be. As Jason kisses Peter at the end of the song, Matt is there and he sees it. The real world has poisoned the dream, though they don’t know it yet.
This segues back to church and the line for the confessional, as the kids question the very nature of the confession. They’re getting nothing from their religion but judgment. They sing:
We’re doing time in confession.
It’s the sacrament of oppression.
We have no need for forgiveness
Because our shit’s none of his business.
As the writers do throughout the show, here they’re planting a seed that will emerge as an important plot point later on. It feels like a mood or transition piece, but it’s actually more than that. The middle section reveals just Peter and Matt struggling with their individual issues. They ask questions of complexity beyond the simplistic certainties of the Church. And in response to these questions, the Priest essentially just tells the kids to shut up. And this transitions tellingly into another quote of the "Hear My Voice" theme.
We segue into Romeo and Juliet rehearsal and hear the first use of some beautiful four-part choral writing set on the opening lines of the play, "Two households, both alike in dignity…" We’ll hear this music several times in the show. This music is used whenever a sad part of the Shakespeare play reveals something about Peter and Jason’s story. Here, the Romeo and Juliet prologue predicts death; later this music will accompany the play’s final words.
Left alone after rehearsal, Ivy gets her first soliloquy, "Portrait of a Girl," and just like Nadia’s "Quiet Night at Home," this title also hides a sadder, subtextual meaning. Here, Ivy thinks about the mask that she has to wear, the role that she has to play, and she realizes that "the portrait has captured the girl." But this phrase has two meanings. It means both that the portrait (in other words, this song?) "captures" the essence of who Ivy is. It portrays her accurately. But the other meaning is that this portrait – this persona – has "captured" Ivy by imprisoning her. And in counterpart to her melody, Matt is there in the background watching her, and we find out how much he loves her. He understands her mask. He sings, "Stripped bare beneath all the layers, I know there’s love lying there." But will Ivy choose Jason who wears a mask as impenetrable as hers? Or Matt, who can see through her mask and loves the real Ivy (and now knows that Jason is gay)?
At Ivy’s party, there’s more rap conversation, along with the incredibly nasty birthday song Nadia has written for Ivy, called "Birthday Bitch." It’s the casual vulgarity of certain parts of the show that lend reality to these teenagers and also that balance the very naked, non-ironic emotion of other parts.
At the party, all the relationships become more complicated and closer to boiling over. Peter pulls Jason aside and sings a waltz about wanting to go back to the rave. Intrabartolo uses waltz time in the show a lot, and though that’s not very rock and roll, it is very emo. They fight again and Peter leaves. The music transitions to the first use of the seduction theme, opening "One Kiss" as an instrumental. In more musical conversation, Ivy launches an all-out campaign of seduction on Jason and, in the wake of his fight with Peter over being open about their love, Jason succumbs to Ivy’s advances.
Meanwhile in the church, Peter and Matt sing "Are You There?", part double soliloquy, part musical conversation. They get drunk and commiserate, somehow finding themselves waltzing together, and Peter confirms for Matt that he and Jason are a couple. What’s really interesting here is the first lines of each of their verses. Matt sings, "Do you know – well of course you do – what it’s like to stand outside, to watch the world and wish you didn’t hurt so much you cried?" In the second verse, Peter sings, "Do you know – well of course you do – what it’s like to be afraid, that nothing will become of all the plans that you have made?" They’re both talking to Jesus, finding in his ordeal a parallel to their own, and casting themselves as Christ figures. Of course Jesus knows these emotions. But Jesus doesn’t respond. God is silent in the fact of their despair; he offers them literally nothing. They sing:
Are you there?
Are you there?
Do you watch me when I cry?
And if it’s in your power,
Why do you stand idly by?
I’ve tried so hard to please you
But you never seem to see.
This last line connects to Peter’s Act II song, "See Me." Throughout the show, these characters grapple with the question of why they should adhere to all the church’s rules and morality if their faith offers no comfort when they need it most. Jason faces the same question later in the show in his song, "Once Upon a Time."
Matt leaves and Sister Chantelle enters. Except it’s not Chantelle; it only looks like her. Apparently it’s the Virgin Mary, and she’s got two backup singers. Once again, we’re inside Peter’s head, though this time through the fog of alcohol rather than dream. They tell Peter in a funky gospel number, "911 Emergency," that now that Matt knows about Jason and him, he has to tell his mother before she hears it from someone else. Once again, instead of giving us the expected "To Call or Not To Call" song, Hartmere and Intrabartolo opt for the more interesting choice and they take us inside Peter’s head to see what’s swimming around in there. Considering his screwed up relationship with the church, is it a surprise that Mary comes out looking like Chantelle and singing like Diana Ross? It’s also notable that the only adult Peter can confide in is an imaginary one, but maybe this is Peter’s subconscious telling him he can trust Chantelle, even if he hasn’t figured that out consciously. Musically, Intrabartolo establishes a theme here in the second half of each verse (the section where the backup singers are singing "Operator") that will come back in "Wedding Bells."
We return to rehearsal the next day and the fight in the play between Romeo and Tybalt becomes a fight between Jason and Matt, spurred by Matt hurling the word faggot at Jason, in a song aptly titled "Reputation Stain’d." The fight is broken up, and when everyone else clears out, it becomes a fight between Jason and Peter, with Peter arguing, forcefully now, for coming out to everyone. This is no longer a throw-away line, like it was in "You and I." To Peter, Jason’s refusal to come out is a denial of their love. To Jason, this would destroy his life and his future. Peter wonders aloud what has happened between them, set to a waltz; and Jason replies in anger, set to a driving rock beat. We’ve come a long way since the second scene and "You and I." Now these two can’t even sing the same music, the sign in a musical that two characters don’t belong together.
Nadia returns as a kind of Shakespearean chorus, speaking for all the characters, for the times, for the mess; and accompanying herself on the cello, with JS Bach’s Prelude from Suite No.1 “for unaccompanied cello.” Nadia is so alone even her cello is alone. And her only available duet partner is her instrument. But everyone is alone now, as we move into the Act I finale, “One.” It’s a multipart piece (as much of the score is), using both the seduction music from “One Kiss” alongside some hard driving rock. Jason and Ivy’s music here is the same as the music Peter sings to try to convince Jason to audition for the school show. It’s music that comes to represent people trying to get close to Jason. And Jason, desperate to find any port in this emotional storm, begs Ivy to “Hide with me.” He sees that she’s as trapped as he is. Here, at the end of Act I, Jason and Ivy try to connect by having sex, both trying to convince themselves how right it is; and in a stroke of dramatic brilliance, all the people who will be hurt by their act are onstage with them. As the act ends, they all sing, “Help me find my way.”
And just as both acts start with dream sequences, both acts end with parallel songs. Here, at the end of Act I, the title "One" refers to:
One chance connection,
One stolen dare,
One answered prayer.
By the end of Act II, "No Voice," will transform "no voice" and "no sound" into:
By the end, their thoughts will turn from the concrete to the abstract, from the everyday to the eternal. They will be changed by all that has happened. There has been pain but there is also hope. What hope there is back at the end of Act I is all self-delusion.
Act II also opens with a fantasy sequence, "Wedding Bells." Its intro (really more a quickie entr’acte) quotes "See Me" from later in Act II, then it turns to a heavy beat, gospel funk number. This time around, things seem to be going pretty good for Peter – he and Jason are getting married by Sister Chantelle and everybody’s on board. Peter and Jason tell Chantelle that they’ve written their own vows, which they proceed to sing (this wedding seems to be a musical too). It’s the same accompaniment as the song "Bare" – which is also the show’s central musical theme (though the audience still hasn’t heard "Bare" in its full form yet), but here the melody is different. These dream vows are a variation on their later real-world declaration of love which will come too late; here in the dream, it’s not yet too late. Except no sooner do they finish their vows than Ivy shows up and displaces Peter as the person Jason is marrying, and to Peter’s growing horror, everyone there just keeps singing the word "forever" over and over (to music we first heard in "911 Emergency") faster and faster, beating Peter’s loss into him. Peter’s subconscious is trying to tell him something.
We return to the real world where Jason struggles through his problems with Ivy in "Touch My Soul" and Peter decides to come out to his mother in "See Me." Both songs borrow an accompaniment figure from "Are You There?" in Act I, though only in the intro of "Touch My Soul," and this musical device connects these songs that are all three about characters literally baring their souls. Ivy pours her soul out to Jason, but he rejects her. And Peter’s mother repeatedly refuses to let him come out to her, their awkward, interruption-strewn conversation set to its musical equivalent, as throughout the song, the meter and style change constantly, erratically. At first only Peter sings while Claire speaks. Then as Peter gets closer to his revelation, Claire interrupts him with a jumpy, nervous melody in an unnatural 5/8 time signature. It shifts briefly into a flowing waltz time, then a harder rock, then returns to the schizoid back and forth from earlier. The music literally is the sound of their conversation. Peter’s demand to "See Me" connects back to the earlier "Hear My Voice," articulating a desperate need (in all these kids) for respect and a recognition of their pain. Then the phrase was passive; now it’s active. And thematically, both "Hear My Voice" and "See Me" point us toward "No Voice" at the end. There’s also a short instrumental quote of "Role of a Lifetime" midway through "See Me," subliminally connecting Peter’s repeatedly blocked attempts to live honestly with Jason’s deliberate choice to live dishonestly. Peter plays a role because he can’t get out. Jason plays a role because he’s scared not to. It’s not the same, but it’s connected, and the music tells us that.
Ultimately, Claire hangs up before Peter can tell her, but we know she got the message because she now gets her soliloquy, "Warning," mourning the loss of the son she now knows she never really knew. It’s very minimalist musically, using very little musical material over and over, as Claire’s mind runs in circles. Her melody is built largely on triplets, but over an accompaniment in 4/4. Her voice works against the music; she’s lost her footing. And though for the most of the show, Claire speaks rather than sings, here her emotions pour out of her and she needs music. She goes through several emotional states. First, the recognition of the truth and the recognition of her intentional denial of it. Then her anger takes over and her music becomes harder rock (using the music Peter sang in "Best Kept Secret"); she mourns the "loss" of the son she thought she had raised. But her love for Peter is stronger than her anger, and she returns to the gentler music. But now her thoughts turn to the practical. How will she tell he ex-husband? What will other people think of her now?
The song ends with a reference that conjures up all kinds of meaning. Claire sings:
Could this really be my child,
My firstborn, my child,
Who lay in his cradle,
So tender and mild?
Those last four words tell us so much as they quote "Silent Night." They carry on the Christ imagery swirling around both Peter and Jason throughout the show, but they also tell us something about Claire’s religion, that it comes less from the Bible than from popular culture, and perhaps that she is one of those "Christmas Catholics," who only attend church on holidays. She’s also indirectly raising herself to the martyr status of the Virgin Mary, not connected to her (ex-) husband but mother to a son who will be persecuted, even killed…? But she’s also (unconsciously?) making the point that now that Peter is revealed as being gay, he is no longer "tender and mild," no longer pure as he once was. Now he is sexualized in her eyes. Now, he is a cross to bear.
We return to Romeo and Juliet rehearsal, where they’re working on the scene where Romeo first meets Juliet at the dance ("Pilgrim’s Hands"). But Ivy isn’t there. So her understudy Diane tries to step into the role of Juliet, but she doesn’t know it. So Peter pushes her aside and becomes Juliet himself, flirting with Jason/Romeo in front of everyone. If we hadn’t made the connection before, it’s explicit here: Peter and Jason may be playing Romeo and Mercutio, but they are the star-crossed lovers. If we didn’t know already, we know now that their relationship cannot end well. And when Jason notices Ivy come in and see him with Peter, Jason freaks out. Jason tries to finish the last line of the song, but he can’t, so Peter does it for him, and significantly, that last line is "O, then, dear saint, let lips do what hands do. They pray; grant thou, lest faith turn to despair." In other words, "I’m praying for you to kiss me. Grant my prayer so my faith doesn’t turn to despair." Though they’re just rehearsing a show, the line becomes potent foreshadowing as we watch Jason’s happiness quickly turning into despair. Rehearsal breaks up, and Ivy confronts Jason again.
After rehearsal, Chantelle stops Peter. She’s figured out what’s up and she tries to give him a little encouragement with another gospel song, "God Don’t Make No Trash." At the end of the song, as Sister Chantelle comforts Peter, her kindness and her embrace of Peter’s true self proves emotionally overwhelming for him and he breaks down in her arms. He doesn’t need the mask anymore. It’s the first time anyone other than Jason has truly accepted the real him. And to accompany this, we hear the mask theme return briefly, but it ends when Peter speaks. He will take off his mask now, so the mask theme no longer describes him musically. Chantelle sings a short tag at the end of the song:
Nobody has all the answers –
Remember the message well.
If you hide from yourself,
Be someone else for someone else’s sake,
That would be the greatest mistake.
It’s exactly the opposite message from what the Priest will soon tell Jason, and we see in their choice of moral authority figure a fundamental part of why Jason and Peter don’t work together. Jason chooses the Old Testament judgment of the Priest, while Peter chooses the New Testament compassion of Chantelle. They live in different philosophical worlds now. And we hear a short fragment of "Role of a Lifetime" as Peter and Chantelle exit. Maybe Peter will give up the role he’s been playing, but will Jason?
All Grown Up
The next song, "All Grown Up" is a cousin to "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" in Grease. Both do the same work for similar characters in similar situations. But rather than the wailing rock and roll saxophone of "Worse Things," "All Grown Up" is a more stark, minimalist song. Where there is strength is "Worse Things," there is only fear in "All Grown Up." This is a song about being a teenager, part child, part adult, dealing with adult issues without the necessary experience of having lived an adult life which could inform her choices. We see now that bare is about young people having to grapple with moral gray area, problems too complex for their limited life experience or for the simplistic religious morality they’ve been taught. Ivy has the body of a woman but still the soul of a child. And though we felt little sympathy for her in Act I, the writers have changed that in Act II. The minimalism of the music traps her emotionally in this difficult moment, and the simplicity of the melody gives the impression of childhood, of a music box or merry-go-round. Like Nadia, Ivy will now be unable to hide her outsider status. We understand her now in a way we didn’t in Act I. It is to Hartmere and Intrabartolo’s credit that there are no clear heroes or villains in this story. That’s not how the real world works.
In "Promise," all the show’s conflicts come to a head, mostly to the music of the Romeo and Juliet musical. Ivy tells Jason she’s pregnant (with a brief, ironic musical quote from "All Grown Up"), Matt tells Ivy that Jason is gay, and then tells Peter about the pregnancy. And all hell breaks loose in a very public way. One of the dramatic elements that makes the story work so well is its very skillful and careful plotting, and writing this scene as not just Jason’s humiliation, but his public humiliation, is such a strong choice and it helps us believe the extreme events to come. Throughout the evening, Hartmere takes us step by step through exactly those moments that we need both to get emotionally involved in these characters and to believe the end of the show, which could turn melodramatic in less skillful hands. (And in fact, some of the less thoughtful productions of bare have fallen into that trap of melodrama despite the powerful writing.)
At one point in "Promise," Matt asks Jason, "Are you gonna stand there and deny it?" which may be another Biblical reference, this time to the apostle Peter’s famous denial of Jesus. But which of them is the Christ figure – Peter or Jason? The answer is coming. Nadia tries to comfort Jason as the music quotes "Quiet Night at Home," the show’s aloneness theme, as we and they realize Jason is totally alone himself now. At the very end of the number, we hear an instrumental quote of the finale, offering up some foreshadowing as Jason asks Nadia – his twin – to leave him alone.
And just as all the other major characters have had, Jason finally gets his own soliloquy, "Once Upon a Time," the title phrase perhaps implying that the good times weren’t real, that they were just a fairy tale (with all that implies), and he finally tells us what he really feels. Not only could Jason not open up to the people around him, he couldn’t even open up to the audience until now. This is Jason’s equivalent of Christ’s "My God, why have you forsaken me?" which is often known among Christians as The Word of Abandonment (and, interestingly, is the only saying that appears in more than one Gospel). If anyone ever felt abandoned, it’s Jason. "Once Upon a Time" is an interior monologue, in which he tries to figure out how he got from that beautiful, simple, uncomplicated beginning with Peter to the incredibly screwed up, dark, lonely place where he is now. The lyric starts with the past:
Once upon a time,
I first held your hand
And love was not a crime,
In a private world where
You said don’t look down
And then I did,
And now you’re lost above me.
The metaphor here is one of a tightrope or a high, narrow bridge. Jason "looked down" and fell, while Peter stayed balanced up on the tightrope that Jason just can’t get back to (and now you’re lost above me"). And then we move on to the present moment:
So much left to say,
Trapped alone here with my
Best laid plans astray.
Standing scared outside
A cold church, soul search,
Seeking some lost answer
From a God who loves me.
He’s trapped; in fact, he has unconsciously constructed a trap for himself. He wants to turn to religion but he knows there’s only judgment ("a cold church") there. As the song continues, he asks for help from God, and with none forthcoming he questions the very existence of God. Still, his Catholic training has infused him with a self-hatred that may be insurmountable. As the song ends, he gets lost in his confusion, even (unconsciously?) comparing himself to the Romans who crucified Christ, echoing Jesus’ famous quote on the cross in Luke 23:34, "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do." He believes he has betrayed God.
Once upon a time,
All I needed was his hand in mine,
And we knew it all.
But now I know not what I do.
I bow my head and turn to you.
It’s interesting that most of the song is in the second person; in the first verse, you means Peter, but in the second verse, you means God. The two are connected. Once, Peter was Jason’s salvation; now he only has God, but a God who remains silent and unmoved.
Still, true to his word, Jason turns to the church. He goes to confession and in the song "Cross" the Priest tells him to sublimate and ignore his feelings. He tells Jason to keep everything secret, which of course is what Jason has always wanted but which is no longer possible. Just as Claire couldn’t let Peter say the word "gay" when they talked on the phone, here neither the Priest nor Jason can bring themselves to say it, so they dance around the topic, both knowing exactly what they’re talking about. (Perhaps the Priest represents the third path Jason could choose as a gay Catholic – a life in the priesthood.) Significantly, the word gay only appears in the show once, in passing, in a joke at the end of Chantelle’s "God Don’t Make No Trash." But we hear the words queer and faggot in much more serious contexts; this is the world Peter and Jason are trying to navigate. In both "See Me" and "Cross" numbers, Peter and Jason go to parent figures who are not equipped to help. Both songs end with the word "please," these kids begging for acceptance and guidance, but both adults turn away. The Priest tells Jason, "Don’t question too much, and you’ll get along fine." Has the Priest himself been through this same crisis? He seems to have first-hand knowledge though he would never admit it. Perhaps he has lived his whole life in silence, without a voice, just like these kids. Chantelle has given Peter permission to love himself, but the Priest refuses that permission to Jason.
Finally, we get to opening night of Romeo and Juliet. We hear a repeat of the "Two Households" theme as the kids rehearse last minute. The mask theme returns as Jason makes one last plea to Peter to run away together, but Peter breaks into the mask theme with the music of "Role of a Lifetime." Peter walks away, leaving Jason alone to the sound of the "Hear My Voice" theme, while Nadia and Ivy make a tentative peace. All these musical themes established and developed over the course of the evening now come together and pay off.
Alone onstage before the show begins, Jason and Peter share one last duet, "Bare." And all the quotes of this music earlier in the show have set us up to know (even if subconsciously) that this music accompanies raw, honest emotion. For once, both these guys are saying exactly what they feel, no masks, no lies, no anger. Though we’ve accepted their love throughout the story, here’s where we see just how real and how deep it is. Both remember falling in love and both can see clearly now. Jason sings:
Someday you’ll look back
And I hope you’ll remember
The moment of truth
When I knew who I was.
It took this tragic mess for Jason to find his truth. As the song climaxes, they both sing, "I’ve never been this bare. I’ve never felt such honesty." But it’s too late. Peter sings:
But forward is calling
And I cannot stay here.
A parting of souls
As I try to move on…
With surprising insight, Jason sings later in the song, "Here in a world where there’s safety in falsehood" – meaning the theatre but also living the lie of being straight – "I have discovered the one thing that’s real – that I love you and I loved you from the start." In a metatheatrical sense, Jason is talking about bare itself, where these difficult struggles can be explored and experienced without real consequences, in the safe world of storytelling. Jason, Hartmere, and Intrabartolo are all three celebrating the necessity of theatre and of storytelling. As actor Ben Kingsley has said about theatre artists, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."
That’s never been truer than with bare.
But Peter and Jason talk past each other through the whole song, even though they sometimes sing the same words. At the end they both sing, "I love/d you from the start," but they’re saying different things. For Jason, it’s an argument for being together again. For Peter, it’s an attempt to lessen the pain he’s causing by leaving Jason. Same words, very different meanings.
As the show ends, what was the music of "Two Households" becomes "A Glooming Peace," the last lines of Romeo and Juliet. Significantly, it ends with, "Some shall be pardoned and some punished." This is how religion is used in this world, as judgment, as oppression; not as comfort. But the penultimate line is even more interesting: "Go hence to have more talk of these sad things." In other words, Hartmere is telling us, don’t forget this story when you leave; it’s important that we as a society talk about what has happened to these kids and their millions of real-life counterparts.
Peter has a final exchange with the Priest ("Absolution") in which Peter breaks away from the church, using the same music as "Role of a Lifetime," Peter’s early song about the impossibility of Jason’s charade. In the original Act I song, Peter sings about Jason:
He plays a perfect part,
Straight from the heart,
Knowing the risks he takes
And hoping that the house is not brought down.
Now at the end of the show, the house has indeed been brought down. Peter had seen what was coming all the way back at the beginning.
The show ends with the finale "No Voice," a kind of epilogue that stands outside the reality of the story. The idea of having no voice is a textual theme that has been winding throughout the entire story – an inability to be heard, to communicate, to be taken seriously. But here, each leading character who feels some responsibility for what’s happened gets a final chance to be heard. Peter sings:
In a world that’s quick to judge,
I will try to understand.
It’s so hard to find your way
When you have no voice to guide you on.
The last words of the show, arranged in glorious four-part choral harmony sum up the show itself, its point, its tragedy, the great loss at its center: And in those final moments, we see that this is a story about responsibility. There has been "no voice, no sound" to help these kids navigate their world. There has been only silence from those in authority. But now, these kids understand that they have a voice, that they can help each other and those like them, that if they raise their voices together as one, maybe it will be heard. One precious voice has been lost, but another voice has been found. And perhaps that voice is bare.
The show ends with these words:
No voice, no sound.
No sound, no words.
No words, no song.
No song, no heart.
One heart, one love.
One love, one light.
One light, one truth.
One truth, one life.
Hartmere has created a shorthand in his poetry here. What he’s really saying is:
If there is no voice, there can be no sound.
And if there is no sound, there can be no words.
And if there are no words, there can be no song.
And if there is no song, there can be no heart.
But if there is one heart, then there can be one love.
And if there is one love, then there can be one light.
And if there is one light, then there can be one truth.
And if there is one truth, then there can be one life for us all to share.
It’s a message of religious faith and of human community, both personal and political. Maybe these words will start to heal these damaged kids, but maybe it could also heal our nation.
We can be Jason (no voice), the show tells us, but we can also choose to be Peter (one voice). We can choose light over dark, redemption over condemnation, joy and love and community over fear and isolation. The show goes so far as to argue that even those who are serious Christians can choose New Testament compassion and acceptance over Old Testament judgment and punishment. That’s a potent message for a rock musical or a pop opera of whatever they want to call this beautiful and powerful piece of theatre.
Copyright 2011. Excerpt from Scott Miller's upcoming, untitled book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Sex, Drugs,
Rock & Roll, and Musicals.
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