January 26, 2013

Bare Facts About the Gay Teen Musical "bare"

The coming out narrative, in which a young or closeted homosexual struggles to accept his or her sexual identity, has been the dominant theme in gay literature since at least 1862 when the pioneering LGBT activist Karl Heinrich Ulrichs told his family that he was “a female Psyche in a male body” and began writing about it.  

Over the following 150 years, the fear of being found out, the horrors of being bullied or ostracized, the despair that ends in suicide have provided the dramatic story line for countless novels, movies and plays, including the pop musical bare, which opened at New World Stages last month but announced this week that what had been planned as an open run will now end on Feb 3. 

Bare, which chronicles the secret—and tragic—romance between two boys at a posh Catholic boarding school, originally debuted at L.A.’s Hudson Theatre in 2000. Four years later, it had a brief run in New York.  

But the show's creators, composer Damon Intrabartolo and book writer and lyricist Jon Hartmere, also put together an 11-song CD sampler that won bare a cult following among gay adolescents (click here to read about the role it played during the teen years of one its cast members).  

I'm far outside the show's target demographic—straight, closer in age to senility than puberty—and so this was my first time seeing bare even though a video of an earlier production is on YouTube (click here to view it). But I've read about the changes that have been made over the years. 

The biggest is that what had been a sung-through show is now a more traditional book musical. Characters have also been tweaked (one of the lovers’ sister is no longer the school’s lovelorn fat girl but its cynical drug supplier). Musical numbers have been moved around; new songs added. And, of course, a new production team has been brought in.

I had been particularly intrigued by the fact that this production marks the New York stage debut of Travis Wall, a runner-up on the TV show “So You Think You Can Dance,” who has become one of its leading choreographers and was hired to do the dances for this show. 

I was eager to see what Wall would do with more than three minutes of dance time. The answer was disappointing: too many of the steps he devised were too similar to one another, too little of his movement connected to the characters or to the overall storytelling.

Still, the cast is energetic and winning (click here to read interviews with leads Taylor Trensch and Jason Hite) and does nice work under the direction of  Stafford Arima, who seems to be making a specialty of these kinds of shows: he also helmed the recent evival of the similarly outsider-in-high-school themed Carrie. And now, like that production, this one too has failed to find an audience. 

In this case, I think that may be because the stories we embrace tend to be the ones that not only reflect who we are but also show us how we want to see ourselves. 

Maybe bare would have fared better if had been framed as a period piece (I still remember seeing a twentysomething couple weep—probably with sorrow and reliefat Signature Theater's recent revival of the AIDS-era Angels in America) but this production aggressively places the action in the present with lots of iPhones and social media references.

That's not enough of an update. As the general society’s attitude about homosexuality has changed in recent times, gay people, particularly young gay people, have less interest in seeing themselves as victims and are more eager for stories that show other aspects of their experience.  

It’s not, of course, that gay kids aren’t still confused or sometimes bullied but I suspect that those kids in particular want tales about gay couples in love who openly walk down city streets holding hands, get married surrounded by loving parents and friends and don't stand out in any way unless they make a conscious effort to do so. 

In other words, bare has been done in by the now-preferred narrative that life for gay adolescents, like life for most angst-ridden teens, gets better. 

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