the rock musical
background and analysis by Scott Miller
When the quirky, anarchic rock musical Two Gentlemen of Verona opened in New York in 1971, it was truly like no other show that had come before it. Sure, it owed much to Hair, which composer Galt MacDermot had also worked on, and to the other experimental theatre of the 1960s. But its biggest influence was its producer, Joe Papp, founder of the New York Shakespeare Festival. It was Papp’s commitment to bringing the entire Shakespeare canon to the people of New York – for free – and in decidedly relevant terms, that made the show special. It wasn’t merely based on a Shakespeare play (as The Boys from Syracuse was); it was the Shakespeare play, transformed into a rock musical, a relatively new form.
It’s easy to say in hindsight, but Two Gents was the perfect Shakespeare play for the composer of Hair to tackle. After all, this play was Shakespeare’s Rent, youthful, raw, rowdy, messy, rude, and certainly flawed. Just as composer Jonathan Larson’s Rent was based on his own life, friends, and social milieu, so too was Shakespeare writing about himself to some extent with the original Two Gents. Shakespeare himself had only recently arrived in the Big City (London), coming from a small town (Stratford), a young man in his twenties ready to take on the world, just like Valentine (which may explain why Valentine is the least ridiculous character in the story). Shakespeare was even younger than Larson when he wrote Two Gents; Shakespeare was in his mid-20s, while Larson had hit 30 before he wrote Rent. Shakespeare was the age of Proteus and Valentine. He was writing about himself and his generation, just as Larson and the Hair team did. Just like his Two Gents characters, young Will Shakespeare reinvented himself in London, living as a single man even though he had a wife and family back in Stratford. It makes us wonder if Proteus’ rejection of Julia was Shakespeare’s way of acknowledging his own sins, notably leaving his wife behind while he lived a wild and wonderful life in London?
To bring this all around full circle, Jonathan Larson said many times that he always intended Rent to be the new Hair. These three shows, all born out of similar impulses and out of youthful experiments in presentation and storytelling, form an unlikely triptych of rock musicals. All three shows lack the polish and precision of standard Broadway fare, but it’s precisely that lack of polish that gives Hair, Two Gents, and Rent their rawness and rough edges. They don’t feel manufactured or focus-grouped. They possess that same authenticity that the best, most lasting rock and roll has. The same is true of lots of more recent rock musicals, like bare, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, Love Kills, Passing Strange, and others.
Like the brilliant filmmaker Tim Burton, Shakespeare wasn’t always the best narrative storyteller in the world. He borrowed plots, he relied on improbable coincidences, mistaken identity, and other devices we’d find amateurish in anyone else’s hands. Even West Side Story fixed some plot problems in Romeo and Juliet. And just as Burton’s real artistry is in his rich visual language, Shakespeare’s real artistry is in the complex psychology of his characters, maybe even more so than in his incredible language. He was the first theatre writer to delve deep down into the complexities of human emotion and motivation, and he got it so right in most of his plays that we continue to perform them hundreds of years later.
Two Gentlemen of Verona was Shakespeare’s first play, and though he’s not at the top of his game here, he’s still Shakespeare, and that’s enough. The musical’s original director Mel Shapiro and playwright John Guare fixed many of the play’s problems and completely overhauled the play’s narrative structure; and together with composer Galt MacDermot, they fashioned a new work, one still very organic to Shakespeare’s play but with a contemporary sensibility that still today brings Shakespeare’s rarely produced work to vivid, modern life. The musical’s 1971 cultural vibe brings with it so much more complexity and high stakes to the story, adding to the original plot an unplanned pregnancy, a decision about abortion, and the Duke’s habit of sending Silvia’s boyfriends not just away, but literally off to Vietnam, presumably to be killed.
It’s true that Two Gents as a play doesn’t have the artistry or polish of Hamlet or The Tempest, but there is much that’s wonderful here. St. Louis critic Paul Friswold wrote about the other Shakespearean rock musical, Return to the Forbidden Planet, "This is no parlor trick of a musical; there’s a rich vein of Shakespeare’s favorite ingredient – the wondrous depths of the human heart – that elevates the show from cunning stunt to artful meditation on the destructive nature of power and the redemptive power of love." The same is true of Two Gents. Papp and the musical’s creative team returned to the original spirit of Shakespeare’s plays – rowdy, sexy, dirty, funny, popular, irreverent, rule-busting, and most of all, deeply, crazily human.
Though Shakespeare’s play was about the tension between friendship and love, the musical shifts that central theme to more relevant concerns for a modern audience. To some extent, the musical is about how the hippies got selfish. In doing what made them feel good, they too often ignored how their actions affected others (one of the themes of Hair). As the 1960s ended and Vietnam and political assassination turned America dark and cynical, the hippie movement turned from peace and love, more toward getting laid and getting stoned. Two Gents as a rock musical is about the birth of the "Me Generation" of the 1970s. The show subtextually charts two major cultural shifts in early 70s America – both the Sexual Revolution (free love, the tearing down of gender roles, the embrace of androgyny, etc.) and also the exodus of America’s youth from small towns to big cities like New York and San Francisco. With the resonance of 1971, the hippie movement, the women's movement, and of course the beginning of the "Browning" of America as a big wave of Latino immigration came to New York, this becomes a much more complicated story.
In the Beginning
Legendary producer Joe Papp first approached composer Galt MacDermot because Papp was preparing to produce Two Gentlemen of Verona and saw that the play contained some songs (as several Shakespeare plays do). Having just produced Hair, Papp asked MacDermot to set Shakespeare’s songs to music. MacDermot started with "Who is Julia?" and apparently never stopped. Soon, the play was morphing into something new. Playwright John Guare, who had just had his first big hit with The House of Blue Leaves, joined the project to contribute new lyrics to all the music MacDermot was writing. Guare’s initial idea was to have one song in each scene written in modern-day language As Guare puts it, "We had this idea that the songs would function as kind of subtitles. You would be aware of the meaning, you would understand what the text was saying, and the poetry wouldn’t get in the way. The idea was to make it bold and simple, without reducing it in any way." Guare says, "One day Raul Julia [as Proteus] would do a Harry Belafonte imitation, and the next day I’d say, ‘We have to have a Harry Belafonte number for Raul, and it’ll be ‘Calla Lily Lady.’ I would call Galt up and leave lyrics on his service, mail them to him, or drop them off. Songs were written, thrown away, and put back. Mel [Shapiro, the director] created a wonderful moonstruck atmosphere and bit by bit we assembled it."
But that many songs made the show so long that they started cutting the script, getting rid of anything that didn’t move the story forward. They went into rehearsal with nine songs, but had thirty-five before they opened. Director Mel Shapiro set about cutting down the play to accommodate all these new songs, and later, he and Guare did a lot of work, rearranging the chaotic original structure to create a more direct, more coherent narrative structure. Shapiro remembers, "Joe [Papp] kept saying, ‘Are you going to keep the essence of Shakespeare?’ And that was a very good note, a Rand McNally roadmap. What we did was keep the essence of Shakespeare, in the sense that it wasn’t the play but the idea of the play. What we did was substitute, find metaphors. It was a real collaboration, a sensational time." Without changing place names, their Verona became San Juan, and Milan became New York City, with all that implies – energy, danger, and a smorgasbord of race and ethnicity. The point of Papp’s Shakespeare project was to make the Bard accessible to an average urban audience. And they did.
John Guare wrote about the show at the time:
Don’t read me the papers. The noise levels, City people to go deaf in ten, at the most, years. But luckily, we’ll suffocate from the pollution before we go deaf and can’t hear the bad news. Buildings torn down. Streets torn up. You know all this. The point is: I love the city. Every minute, the city dangles, flashes something for your eye to sink into (if a fist or a knife hasn’t sunk into you first). The city makes you a glutton – awful, crowded, frantic, desperate, extreme, dangerous, criminal as it is. On those rare gorgeous days when the moon is full in your head, the extremes transform themselves into their mirror images and the city segues into a music that is exotic, mysterious, and life-giving.
This was New York at one of its darkest moments, long before the rebirth and Disneyfication of Times Square, back when Manhattan was as dangerous and as exciting as hell. Two Gents became both a love letter to all that was exciting and an exploration of all that was nasty. It was real and authentic in a way that was wholly unexpected. Raul Julia remembers of the rehearsal process, "Mel Shapiro was very open and let the actors improvise a lot and do their own thing, and whatever we did, they would write down. John would come in the next day with some new lines and Galt would come in with a new song, and we kept doing that until we opened."
The musical first opened in July 1971 and ran for several months, at the outdoor Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, in Brooklyn, Staten Island, Greenwich Village, Bayside, and elsewhere, usually on a flatbed truck, like many of the New York Shakespeare Festival’s traveling shows. They played to 3,000 people a night – all for free – through early September. Producer Sol Hurok thought it was so brilliant he wanted to take it on a round-the-world tour. And then arts patron LuEsther Mertz gave Papp a blank check to produce the musical on Broadway. On December 1, the show opened on Broadway at the St. James Theatre and ran until May 1973, racking up 634 performances. Future stars Stockard Channing and Jeff Goldblum were both in the chorus. During the run, Channing moved up to one of the leads.
Bernard Gersten says, "By bringing Two Gentlemen of Verona to Broadway, the Shakespeare Festival began a movement that has become tremendously important for the theatre. What we began in 1971 is now very much taken for granted, which is that a certain number of plays and musicals on Broadway spring from not-for-profit sources. It signaled a change in the theatre: suddenly the not-for-profit theatre that were growing in sophistication and capability began to feed Broadway." One could argue the movement began even earlier, with Papp’s transfer of Hair to Broadway, but the point remains. Later in the 1990s, a new nonprofit model for creating musical theatre swept the country for the first time, expanding significantly on Papp’s model and creating a genuine revolution in the musical theatre.
The critics loved Two Gents. Rolling Stone said the score sounded like "walking down the street in El Barrio with all the windows open and a different radio blaring out of each one." Clive Barnes wrote of the original off Broadway production in The New York Times, "The New York Shakespeare Festival Public Theater is doing Shakespeare a power of good and turning Central Park into a place of celebration with its new production of Two Gentlemen of Verona. It is jeu d’espirit, a bardic spree, a midsummer night’s jest, a merriment of lovers, a gallimaufry of styles and a gas. It takes off."
After its move uptown, Barnes went further: "It has a surge of youth to it, at times an almost carnal intimation of sexuality, and a boisterous sense of love. It is precisely this that the new musical catches and makes its own. The musical also has a strange New York feel to it – in the music, a mixture of rock, lyricism and Caribbean patter, in Mr. Guare’s spare, at times even abrasive lyrics, in the story itself of small-town kids and big-town love. It also has a very New York sense of irreverence. It is a graffito written across a classic play, but the graffito has an insolent sense of style, and the classic play can still be clearly glimpsed underneath." Jack Kroll wrote about the show in Newsweek, "Two Gentlemen of Verona is a rousing delight, a rare example of how to manhandle Shakespeare for his own and the public's good." Brendan Gill wrote in The New Yorker, "At the end of the opening night performance of Two Gentlemen of Verona it seemed likely that nobody would ever consent to leave the theatre -- neither the merry band of marvelous young people onstage nor the audience that stood applauding."
Barnes wrote perhaps the most telling description of the show in his review: "Mr. Shapiro keeps the whole thing going as if it were a merry-go-round that had got slightly drunk wherever it is that merry-go-rounds go when they need to celebrate."
The show won Tony Awards for both Best Musical (beating out both Sondheim’s Follies and the very popular Grease) and Best Book of a Musical, and it was also nominated for Best Original Score and five other Tonys. Three of the four leads were nominated. It also won a Theatre World Award and eight Drama Desk Awards.
In 2004, a "newly arranged concert version" was performed at the Guggenheim Museum in New York, conducted by MacDermot, and followed by a panel discussion with both MacDermot and Guare. It was for this version of the show that the song "Howl" was first inserted into the score, replacing "Mansion," perhaps over concerns that the lyric to "Mansion" was too New York-centric, with references to rent control, sublets, and other uniquely urban concerns. For 1971 Broadway audiences, which were more New Yorkers than tourists (the reverse of Broadway audiences today), these references would have been both commonly understood and very funny in this faux-Shakespearean context. Theatres producing the show now have a choice between using "Howl" or "Mansion." In 2005, the show was produced once again at the Delacorte Theatre in Central Park, with Rosario Dawson, Oscar Isaac, and Norm Lewis, directed and choreographed by Kathleen Marshall.
Shakespeare vs. MacDermot and Guare
The Two Gents team changed a lot in Shakespeare’s early play. In the original version, the action shifts repeatedly between Verona and Milan; in the musical, the action begins in Verona, shifts to Milan about halfway through Act I, and then stays there. In the play, Lucetta doesn’t go to Milan, but in the musical all three of the traveling lovers bring their servants with them. In the play, a character we never see again convinces Proteus’ father to send him to Milan; in the musical, they just cut this guy. In the play, Eglamour is just another suitor who’s trying to win Silvia, and he tries to help her get rid of Thurio so that he can have a shot; in the musical, Eglamour is Silvia’s lover who’s been sent to Vietnam by her father, the Duke. In the play, Valentine is merely banished from the city, he meets up with pirates in the forest, and he is elected their leader; in the musical, the pirates are cut entirely and Valentine is sent to Vietnam rather than just banished to the forest. Much higher stakes. Though other political issues are touched on (welfare, the environment, pot smoking, race, abortion), the issue most fully woven into the plot is America’s involvement in Vietnam and the racial politics behind who went and who stayed behind. Because rich, white boys could get draft deferments if they went to college, Vietnam troops were disproportionately people of color, who couldn’t afford to go to college. In an exaggeration of the real situation, the Duke has the power to send anyone he doesn’t like off to Vietnam.
Each of the four main lovers represents a powerful force in the story. Proteus represents chaos, as he blunders through people’s lives, throwing everything and everyone into turmoil. Valentine represents discontent and obsessive ambition, at first for money, then later for a rich girl. He wants everything he doesn’t have. Julia represents faithfulness, through her love which survives despite geography, the odds, and relentless abuse. Silvia, the most passive of the four leads, represents captivity, both physically and emotionally. But like Proteus and Julia, Silvia doesn’t hesitate to employ deceit and secrecy to get what she wants. We know that Silvia and Valentine belong together because they have the same problem – both of them sing, "I wouldn’t know a spiritual relationship if I tripped over it and broke my nose." True, Valentine is just reading back what Silvia has dictated, but the device is important because it reveals his character as much as hers. They are made for each other, neither having ever found true love, the two now thrown together by the forces of fate. These four characters and the forces they represent come into conflict with one another over and over throughout the show. And all four are way too easily "metamorphosed," falling in love at the drop of some red paper hearts. This is young love, the show is telling us, trivial, mercurial, and chaotic.
And just as the play is divided into five acts, the musical is essentially divided into five sections, though they don’t correspond to the play’s acts. This early play is constructed almost entirely of duet scenes, just two characters at a time (scholars say this shows Shakespeare’s lack of confidence as a playwright, that he couldn’t handle big scenes yet). The musical mostly maintains that emphasis on pairs in its construction. Generally speaking, the musical could be broken down into five sections, each focused on a relationship between two characters.
Act I – Proteus and Valentine
Act II – Proteus and Julia
Act III – Valentine and Silvia
Act IV – Proteus and Silvia
Act V – All is resolved and everyone couples the right way.
And just as there are quite a few soliloquies in the play, the musical mirrors that structure, with a healthy dose of musical soliloquies. In both cases, all the classic comedy devices are present – disguises, cross-dressing, forced marriage, love at first sight, a letter, a chase, etc. – devices that later became standard Shakespearean devices and classic musical comedy devices.
And like many of Shakespeare’s plays, this is a story about l’amour fou, (crazy love). We fall in love with the charming, funny Proteus, then we watch him screw over everyone he loves in the name of his new love. It’s this complicated, uncomfortably real behavior (even worse in the musical than in the play) that gives the chaotic, wacky story the ring of truth. The four lovers here are very young – how many of us haven’t seen behavior just as bad, if not worse, among high school kids? They say a person’s brain is not fully developed until 23, which may explain why young people are so bad at empathy and impulse control. As the story progresses, we keep changing whose side we’re on, and that’s what keeps the audience engaged.
Shakespeare even gives us a head start on following the story with the main characters’ names. Proteus is, like his name implies, protean, fickle, changing, inconstant, unfaithful. Valentine, on the other hand, is the passionate romantic (in the original sense), even though that romantic spirit is aimed at money and power when we first meet him. Proteus is the classic Petrarchan lover, pining away, sick from love, writing sonnets and songs for his beloved. He is falling in love with love. Proteus’ main dramatic arc is that he has to learn not to be selfish and, because it’s 1971, he also has to learn not be sexist, something his Elizabethan counterpart did not have to worry about.
Yet, despite Proteus’ various crimes against his loved ones, none of the leads are blameless here. While Valentine tries to steal Silvia away from Thurio (who stole her away from Eglamour), Proteus tries to steal her away from Valentine. So it’s hard to feel sorry for Valentine, since he is equally guilty, and his crime is only mitigated to some extent because we don’t care about his victim, the bizarre, creepy Thurio. It’s far easier to feel sorry for Silvia, who is passed around from man to man in the last scene -- imagine a 1971 audience’s reaction to that – although she has been sneaking around the backs of her father and her fiancé, and betrays the man she’s supposed to marry. These young lovers would not be out of place on The Jerry Springer Show.
Julia is the stand-in for the audience. Nearly everyone has been in Julia’s place at some point, thrown over, abandoned, betrayed. She represents the random indignities the world throws at us, which everyone has to suffer through on a regular basis. But Julia and Lucetta practice deception as well, though their aims are more honorable, so we excuse their lies more easily. Only servants – in other words, those without power and privilege – are faithful in this story.
Though it only appears in the text in subtle ways (mostly in interjections of Spanish), race and ethnicity have always been a big part of this musical. Its original Broadway production was aggressively multi-racial, with a Puerto Rican Proteus, a Cuban Julia, a Chinese Eglamour, a Jewish Launce, and African Americans as Valentine, Silvia, and Duke. In fact, the Duke was unmistakably costumed as a Black Panther. But all that made sense, considering the source. After all, this was an English play based on a Spanish comedy set in Italy. John Guare wrote that the musical was about:
the idea of the Big City itself, the megalopolis that forces the kaleidoscope of races and colors and cultures to come in constant friction with one another, to deal with each other, betray each other, love each other, hate each other, in the deepest sense, live with each other and ultimately, hopefully, celebrate each other.
Even the original three-level set itself, constructed mainly out of scaffolding, reinforced that idea of cold, disconnected, modern urban life.
Initially producer Joe Papp had been concerned that Shakespeare’s theme of courtly love would be so foreign and inaccessible to New York audiences, particularly those living in the projects in 90-degree heat who had been through racial problems in the city just a year earlier. But the musical’s creators were finding new and much more relevant themes to explore.
As the collaborators largely discarded the play’s original themes of friendship versus courtly love, other themes emerged. In contrast to the play, the musical is more about growing up. By the late 60s/early 70s, American youth were lost. After the tumult and, in many cases, consciousness raising of the Sixties era – and still enmeshed in Vietnam – American teens and young adults found themselves without a road map, without any discernible guidelines for growing up and making their way in the world. The American Dream didn’t anymore in the same way it did in the earlier days of the century, yet young people were still being sold on the Protestant work ethic that promised rewards for those who work hard. Graduating from college, hip deep in student loans, with the shadow of the draft hanging over them, the majority of young people were finding it impossible to achieve what their parents did at the same time that they were questioning everything about the "success" that adults were chasing. Unlike the previous generation, these kids went to college at a much higher rate, and came out with an understanding of other cultures and philosophies that complicated the once simple American Dream. So many of them "dropped out" of society and the Rat Race.
Like the novel High Fidelity and the film Diner, this is a story about young men trapped between childhood and adulthood, wanting the permission to be selfish that comes with childhood as well as the freedom that comes with adulthood. These are thoughtless, selfish heroes, and like Luke Skywalker (or any other hero myth), they all have to go through obstacles and learn about themselves before they can be successfully integrated into civilized society. The journey in the story is their journey from the world of childhood to the more complicated, more dangerous, more consequential world of adulthood. Proteus is the last to learn that he can no longer play games with people’s lives. They've grown up and they have to live grown up lives now. That means accepting responsibility, recognizing their wrongs, and, because it's a Shakespeare comedy, getting married!
But there's another, related layer to the story, suggested by the multi-ethnic approach and the show’s politics and social commentary. This is also a story about America growing up in regard to sex and gender, having finally reached national puberty at long last with the Sexual Revolution, but still scared of these new feelings. And still fiercely and obliviously sexist. We now see this moment in time through the eyes of a post-millennial America, but there are relevant parallels to our current cultural zeitgeist.
Still (or again) today, our country seems to be struggling to grow up as well. It’s interesting these days to hear the politicians begging for a "civil debate" and a "grown-up conversation" about important issues, since it's exactly the childish thoughtlessness and selfishness from rhetorical bomb-throwers like Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, and others, and the accompanying lack of empathy or respect, that drive the story of Two Gents. Proteus has the excuse of callow youth, but political pundits on our nation’s airwaves do not.
1971 feminism is also very present in the show. Unlike in the original play, the musical Julia exercises her sexual freedom by sleeping with Proteus, and then later grapples with its consequences, when she considers an abortion – and this is pre-Roe vs. Wade. There’s even a song to accompany her decision, "Don’t Have the Baby," which is heartfelt and funny and serious, all at once. And significantly, in that song Julia is being given advice about whether or not to keep her baby by three men (Launce, Speed, and Lucetta’s drag persona "Cesario"), which was the feminists’ central complaint about the politics surrounding the issue. But Silvia too is exercising her sexual freedom in her insistence on choosing her own man, rebelling against social pressures and family pressures, rejecting her father’s idea of an arranged marriage. This is not the Silvia in Shakespeare’s play and even more than the other characters, she lives fully in 1971.
In his later plays, Shakespeare would often send characters into the woods – a world without rules – where they could discover their true selves and work out their problems. But in Two Gents, Shakespeare sends them into the metaphorical woods of the Big City before sending them into the literal forest outside Milan. And the musical goes Shakespeare one better by replacing his forest with the much more potent and more dangerous Vietnam.
Like Hair, this is a score that sounds playful and inconsequential but is actually loaded with incredibly skillful storytelling, as well as character and thematic development. The central narrative statement, that anyone can be metamorphosed by love, for better or worse, is announced in the show’s very first moments, with the a cappella "Love, Is That You?" and the opening number, "Summer, Summer." The references in this song to the changing of the seasons mirrors these young people’s constantly changing moods and loves. But the last of these first four solos introduces the running theme of "spring," rebirth, new beginnings, and yes, love. The cast sings, "I am like all seasons" and indeed they are, all at once. But this is also a song about a shallowness (or even a complete lack) of self-awareness that will drive the plot and a naďve understanding of love. This first song ends with the line, "Love reminds me of me." Of course it does. These are kids.
That first song segues directly into the next, "I Love My Father," which will recur several times during the show. These kids throw around the word love a lot, but none of them really knows what love actually is. Proteus knows only what he’s read about, an idealized, courtly love. Julia wants perfect love, so she rejects (our of fear?) anything that doesn’t hit that mark. Valentine has no interest in love whatsoever. And Silvia thinks she’s in love, but as she’ll admit to us later, she wouldn’t know a "spiritual relationship" (in other words, real love) if she tripped over it and broke her nose. They haven't experienced real love, so their take on it is, of necessity, shallow. At this point, all these kids know is the very different love of family, so those are the only terms in which they can think about love. Notice the end of the song: "I love my mirror, I want to tell me, I want to love me." These are selfish, childish people. This is a joyful song, but it's also a song about being selfish, and it tells us that this is a story about being selfish.
The opening lyrics are deliberately more childish than sophisticated. After all, how could these childish, spoiled young people have a sophisticated view of themselves? To give characters self-knowledge they haven’t earned would be bad writing. MacDermot’s other hit, Hair, made the same point, frequently giving its hippies (particularly the totally self-involved Berger) intentionally shallow, childish things to say or sing. Berger's rant before "Easy to Be Hard" is as selfish and hurtful as anything Proteus does in Two Gents. The creators of both shows were making the point that the hippies were not all Zen masters. Because so many of them were so young and were rejecting the guidance and accumulated wisdom of the older generation, they also tended to be selfish and self-involved. Two Gents is about the selfish side of the hippie movement. Sure it was about peace and love, but it was also about getting laid and getting stoned.
The next section of the show is a series of soliloquies in the form of musical theatre "I Want" songs, that set up who the main characters are and what their central motivations are. The first of these is an "I Want" duet for our best friends and twin protagonists. It’s starts with "That’s a Very Interesting Question," a very unconventional song because it’s really nothing more than a stall while Proteus tries to think of an answer. That he has obviously never thought about what he wants to do with his life tells us both how young and how trivial this guys is. While writers in the Rodgers and Hammerstein mold always insisted that characters in musicals could only break into song when the emotion became too "big" for spoken words, that rule was often broken by the time the experiments of the Sixties and Seventies got underway. Here, Proteus breaks into song to tread water. He’s never even considered his life before. And just as we realize that he’s stalling, he comes up with a answer – something completely inane (he wants to be a rose on Julia’s breast?) – and we segue into the next song. In "I’d Like to Be a Rose," we contrast the two friends, one interested in nothing but love, the other focused on more "important" things, like money, fame, and power. Both these young men have some growing up to do, and that’s the spine of the story.
Then after only brief dialogue, we meet the third screwed up character, Julia, the object of Proteus’ obsessive love. First we see her deal uncomfortably with Proteus’ comically extreme declaration of love, "Symphony" (complete with overblown choral back-up), a song which is as much clumsy emotional blackmail as it is a promise of love. During the song, Proteus passes a love note through the ensemble to Julia, who reads it, tears it up, and throws it on the ground. A now distraught Proteus leaves in despair as Julia sings her "I Want" song, "I Am Not Interested in Love," laying out her emotional damage for us, along with the primary conflict of the show – Proteus and Julia are the central romantic couple but how will they ever end up together when Proteus understands love only in the shallowest way and Julia is terrified of love altogether. When Julia tells us, "Frankly, I don’t even care for people," we have to wonder what past hurt has scarred her this deeply. As with many of Shakespeare’s comedies, the eventual resolution of the main conflict seems pretty much impossible at this point.
One of the cleverest adaptations is in the song, "Pearls," the primary function of which is to get through the plot point that Proteus and Julia have sex before he leaves. This incident is not in the Shakespeare play, but it gives Julia a much stronger motivation for traveling to Milan. So while Proteus and Julia have sex, Launce sings this charming little song about pearls getting in the way of love-making. The song is really only there to give the characters time to copulate before Proteus leaves. But it also achieves some thematic work and, under the surface, it’s also a song about the awkwardness of first love and first sex. It tells us indirectly that both Proteus and Julia are virgins and therefore this sexual encounter is going to have huge implications.
Many of the changes made to the Shakespeare play, changes that anchored the musical so firmly in 1971, pass by so fast an audience may not even consciously catch them. But it all adds up to a unified, fully drawn world, existing both in Renaissance Milan and 1971 New York. A couple examples can be found in the song "Two Gentlemen of Verona." First, like the play, this is the moment when the audience realizes that Valentine and Proteus aren’t the gentlemen of the title; Julia and Lucetta are. And with the show opening around the same time that glam rock was taking hold, this blurring of gender lines must have felt unusually contemporary. The other obvious change is in Julia’s pregnancy, not found in the original play. Not only does this strengthen her motivation for traveling to Milan (making her less of a stalker), but it also raises the (at the time) new national issues of women having babies out of wedlock and abortion, which we’ll return to at the end of the show in the song "Don’t Have the Baby." But the strongest cultural comment in the song "Two Gentlemen of Verona" comes from Lucetta’s lyric, "Throw off all the fears you have – we’ll dress like men." Lucetta is the hippie here, encouraging Julia to let go of her entrenched assumptions about a male-dominated society, exactly the kind of cultural reassessment women all over America were in the midst of at this moment in history.
The scene late in Act I in Valentine’s shop is almost entirely musical, segueing almost seamlessly from "To Whom It May Concern" to "Night Letter," and these two numbers work through a lot of plot. We get details on Eglamour, on Thurio, on the Duke’s habit of sending Silvia’s boyfriends off to Vietnam. We also get a seduction, at first more cynical, then later more enthusiastic. And true to Shakespeare, the seduction is unmistakably sexual, starting off with Silvia’s lists of body parts in "To Whom." Imagery invoking sex, even rough sex, is peppered throughout "Night Letter," references to being "hot," to drooling, to being "wetter," to licking, to slapping, to a clearly phallic "high tower," and even the old standby, "S.W.A.K.," for "sealed with a kiss." As they did in "What an Interesting Question," here toward the end of "Night Letter," Guare and MacDermot once again give us musical stalling, as Valentine tries to gather his thoughts and ignore his penis. At the beginning of the show, Proteus is stalling over a question Valentine has asked him; here Valentine is stalling over a question from Silvia. This makes the point, continued in the following scene, that Valentine has become just as hopeless a lover as Proteus. Just hearing the song on the cast album, it sounds longer than it needs to be, but on stage, it plays like a perfectly wrought scene, very funny and very truthful.
Act II starts with a very brief entr’acte, which requotes "Thou Hast Metamorphosed Me," but this time very up-tempo, with a rowdy, Latin rock beat. Though the audience probably doesn’t register it consciously, this little throwaway instrumental tells us something important (as does much of MacDermot’s music). Just as the love stories are originally defined by the three "Metamorphosed" bits in Act I, for Proteus, Julia, and as an instrumental for Valentine, here the music itself tells us that these love stories are going to spin out of control. Love is no longer represented by ballads in this story, but now by driving rock numbers. This plot is kicking into high gear and it won’t slow down till the end.
The first song in Act II, "The Land of Betrayal" seems on first hearing to have little to do with the story, but it actually functions in two ways. First, it’s a very funny opportunity for Lucetta to scold Proteus repeatedly for his behavior without revealing her true identity. But also, it’s a portrait of New York in 1971, a glimpse inside the very dark vibe of the big city at that moment in history, as the context for this dark comedy. The original production’s audience would have picked this up more easily than contemporary audiences might, and they’d recognize immediately the references to pollution and other urban problems, along with the standard defense that, though New York was dangerous and dirty and crumbling, at least, New Yorkers would say, "the cultural advantages are great." Guare is commenting on the mess that Manhattan had become even as he celebrated the city’s energy and ethnic richness.
Later in Act II, in the song "What a Nice Idea," Guare takes us into some pretty interesting and unexpected territory. The premise of the song is familiar to anyone who’s been in dysfunctional love. Julia sings, "Because he loves her, he despises me. Because I love him, I pity him." These are complicated emotions. She starts with imagining that she could become Silvia just long enough to disrupt whatever’s going on between Silvia and Proteus. But in the second verse, Julia’s fantasy goes further. Standing there in male drag, she realizes that if she could be Silvia, she could just as easily be Proteus. She realizes that in a world where she can pass for a man, her options are suddenly more numerous. It’s a funny/sad moment, watching Julia suffer through indignities and escape into revenge fantasies; but it’s also a powerful commentary on gender and drag from a 1971 perspective. And MacDermot does something both subtle and powerful with the music in this song – with each verse, the rock beat gets stronger and more aggressive, mirroring Julia’s growing confidence as she starts to understand the power that goes with being a man. It’s a major turning point for the character; from here to the end of the story, Julia takes progressively more and more control of her situation, until the final scene in which she becomes fully "male" by exposing her disguise, scolding Proteus, taking possession of him, and laying down her rules for how their relationship will now function. Julia changes more than any other character in the show – and so arguably she is the story's central protagonist – transforming for completely passive to fully active.
The next scene likewise starts with Shakespeare then moves slyly into the world of 1971. Proteus assembles a choir to sing "Who is Silvia?" (a song actually found in the original play) below Silvia’s balcony. The lyric is pure, overblown Shakespeare, love verses from a kid too in love with love to actually consider the feelings of the woman he’s serenading. And then Guare takes us screaming into the seventies with the next song, the driving "Love Me," in which Silvia scolds Proteus and his choir for idealizing her, for pretending to worship her without even bothering to know her (at this point, Proteus hasn’t even spoken to her!). The lush, choral music of "Who is Silvia?" gives way to the relentless, driving, angry beat of "Love Me." Speaking for the women’s movement in America, Silvia demands to be seen for the real, flesh-and-blood woman she is. She rejects the faux romanticism of high-flown poetry, and in the process, rejects Proteus as well.
The Two Gents music often sounds unmistakably like Mac Dermot’s Hair score, but with a distinct Latin edge, from the habanera of "I’d Like to Be a Rose" to the calypso of "Calla Lilly Lady," the bolero of "Kidnapped," and most blatantly and comically in "Thurio’s Samba." About that song, Irene Dash quotes John Guare, in her book Shakespeare and the American Musical:
…first of all, Thurio is a fool, and secondly, this musical was playing primarily to an audience for its traveling theatre. The language would be understandable to that audience. They would recognize it as gibberish spoken to a fool by someone intent on winning points and convincing a rich suitor to continue to pursue [the Duke’s] daughter.
Though the chorus is full of nonsense syllables, it’s not without meaning. Like Hair did, here Two Gents is playing with words as percussion more so than as conveyors of meaning. Though it’s not obvious reading the script, what the audience actually hears is a playful and weirdly innocent incantation of the words fuck, cock, and pussy. Without actually saying the obscenities, the song still gets across its comically creepy sexuality.
But the score also plays with the conventions of old-school musical comedy, in the reprise of "Love’s Revenge," in "Hot Lover," and in "Milkmaid." In all three songs, the show’s creators play with the sillier practices of early musical comedy; in all three cases, the songs seem completely unmotivated, yet an audience accepts them because we so readily accept characters breaking into song in musical comedy. But really, those conventions are no sillier than the conventions Shakespeare practiced. Theatre is artificial, the Two Gents creators are telling us with these songs, and like the musicals of Kurt Weill and Bertolt Brecht, both old-school musical comedies and Shakespeare plays are far more open and honest about the artificiality than shows in the mid-century Rodgers and Hammerstein style. Two Gents was one of the first musicals to realize the value in returning to the devices, the energy, and the lack of a fourth wall that were hallmarks of George M. Cohan’s prototype musical comedies at the beginning of the twentieth century.
And in line with that admitting of artificiality – and the parallel embrace of the authenticity of rock and roll performance – the show’s finale, "Love Has Driven Me Sane" acts as a companion piece to the opening. This last song, a kind of coda after all the plots have been resolved, matches Shakespeare, who often ended his plays (though not his Two Gents) with a summation by one of the secondary characters. Here, this postscript delivers the show’s message, that shallow love and love driven by lust will drive you crazy, but real love, adult love, will drive you sane. It’s a song firmly rooted in the hippie era, about letting go of the bullshit that always surrounds human interaction. The main characters have learned that "the shock of happiness" comes when they stop thinking about what they want and start thinking about what the person they love wants.
And though the "I Love My Father" section seemed shallow and perfunctory at the beginning (matching the four lovers), here there is some more adult understanding of the interconnectedness of everyone. The discovery of real love, rather than the excitement of lust or the easy gratification of selfish love, teaches them what a wrong road they've all been on. When Launce sings, "Wonderland is not where Alice is..." he's standing in for all the lovers, who now understand that true, adult love doesn’t exist in a chaotic fantasy world of hearts and flowers and love notes, but that love and joy can be found in the real world. But these final moments of the show are significant. All the crazy events of the evening have changed these young people and that in turn has changed the lyric they sing. Now that they have all learned something about becoming an adult, about caring for others, now this simplistic lyric transforms itself and becomes about much more, about civility, empathy, love of our fellow humans, and a rejection of the nasty, hateful public discourse of 1971 America – but also of America today in the early years of the new millennium. Both then and now, America needs to heal, these young people are telling us, and much as it is at the end of Hair, it takes innocents to tell us what we should already know.
Copyright 2011. Excerpt from Scott Miller’s upcoming, though still hopelessly untitled next book. All rights reserved. Miller is also the author of Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre, Deconstructing Harold Hill, Rebels with Applause, Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, From Assassins to West Side Story, and Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals.