The Bitch of Living

Last night I caught the opening night of the traveling version of Spring Awakening. Based on an 1896 German play about teenagers “waking up” to the changes in their bodies and their emotions, it tells the story of a group of school kids wrestling with adolescent woes, centered around lovers Malchior and Wendla (pictured above in the original Broadway production).

I’m a tough musical theatre audience member to please. What got me interested in the show was Duncan Sheik’s contribution to the music. Although he’s now considered somewhat of a one-hit wonder for his 90s radio earworm “Barely Breathing,” that first album of his was one of the major soundtracks of my life during college. (The rest of the album really transcends a lot of the pop wizardly of that particular single.)

The show is, overall, really great. The music is rocking, fun, powerful, and well-written both musically and lyrically, and the set design and lighting were unique and fascinating (audience members can sit on the sides of the stage while all the action takes place in a central area, which is so cool). The acting in this touring show was also great. The lead roles were very compellingly rendered, and the supporting players offered a good balance of archetype and individuality to be memorable and unique. The actors also interacted a lot with the on-stage band, with a few characters sitting at the piano and playing along, both diegetically and non-diegetically.

Of course, my favorite part of the show is its use of anachronism. The costumes, much of the dialogue, and the subject matter of the play are all very Victorian in nature, but the set featured bright neon lights. The actors often sang with handheld microphones, or sometimes stood behind microphones on stands like rock stars or American Idol contestants. And the content of the songs themselves, such as the loud, punk-inspired “The Bitch of Living” and “Totally “F***ed” keep the show contemporary. The overall message suggests that perhaps some Victorian values about sexuality and morality are not as outmoded as we like to think.

My only beef with the show was in the brief treatment of a very minor gay subplot. While the heterosexual characters’ loves are treated with operatic seriousness, there’s a brief sequence in which two of the schoolboys connect romantically, with one even professing he loves the other “more than I’ve ever loved anything.” And yet, the exchange is played comedically–with joy, but still for comedy. It felt a little awkward to sit side-by-side with straight people who laughed riotously at this, and I wondered if the kind of exchange is only okay if it’s comedy, or if it’s inherently funny, or if they would reject it if it were treated with the same level of seriousness as the rest of the play. Or, I’m being sensitive.

Beau and I are thinking of seeing it again, but sitting on the stage next time!

Jesus Christ! (Superstar)

In a move that shows you’re never too old to play Jesus, Ted Neeley showed up in DC this week starring as Jesus in the touring version of Jesus Christ Superstar. I caught last night’s show–my first time seeing it on stage, since I love the film version so much. I didn’t outright love it, although Beau kind of did.

One of the best parts about the film is that it uses anachronism to comment on today/yesterday through the lens of the passion. Guns in the temple, hippies celebrating free love, etc, are all integral parts of the film. The stage version is much more Bible-y: traditional dress even as Jesus’ followers are chanting “What’s the buzz? Tell me what’s a-happening!”

In the touring show, the stand out was Herod, whose role affords him the most latitude in performance. This show’s Herod sang a Calypso version of his solo, with four Carmen Miranda-like back up singers. My only reservation is that the actor played Herod as a kind of mincing bitchy queen–and the last thing the gays need right now is to be connected to the crucifixion of Jesus, if you ask me. But he was funny, and he incorporated the most anachronism into his brief moment on stage, combining a divaness with the kind of critcal rancor usually reserved for restaurant reviews and NPR film reviews.

The letdown was Judas. But how can anyone live up to Carl Anderson’s portrayal in the film? It’s amazing, impassionated, and truly demonstrates the conflict between loving Jesus and wanting to do “what’s right”–one of the most important commentaries the show makes about contemporary society. The stage Judas sounded frequently off-key, had difficulty conveying passion that wasn’t mechanical and premeditated. He did turn it out for his Vegas-style final number, though.

The other standout was Mary, who had a gorgeous voice, although her entire performance was pretty understated, kind of as it should be.

Ted Neeley’s getting a little too old to play Jesus. I think one of the interesting aspects of this show is that Jesus is a rock star, a young, handsome, charismatic rock star who collects groupies and takes them to Jerusalem. The film is 36 years old now, and Neeley’s performance then was excellent (if a little stiff). The stiffness is mostly gone now, replaced with a holy arrogance, and his voice is blissfully unchanged. But he looked a little waxy under the lights. I’d like to see a younger, hotter Jesus next time around.

The Anachronist’s Cookbook: Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette

It seemed an unlikely pairing this weekend, when I watched both Jesus Christ Superstar and Marie Antoinette, but I found the juxtaposition of these two films especially fitting. While both maintain a connection to an historical past, they both engage in felicitous and creative use of anachronism to create a further commentary on their source texts.

Superstar is a passion play detailing the last weeks in the life of Christ and the events leading up to the crucifixion. Norman Jewison’s 1973 film version features hippies, heavy artillery, pipe scaffolds, and even picture postcards in the temple. The film opens with a bus full of hippies arriving in Israel, unloading their props and costumes, and then beginning to act out the rock opera from there.

The musical itself is a fairly modern critique of celebrity and American culture, laid over the familiar story of the events that led to the martyrdom of Christ. “What’s the buzz? / Tell me what’s a-happenin,” one song chants over and over, while another connective piece features reporter-like characters sticking their fists in Christ’s face, as if holding a microphone, while they ask a series of invasive questions. Even the lepers, wrapped in black bandages as they crawl over the rocks and beg for Christ’s healing, bear a strange resemblance to starfuckers and autograph seekers you see on, say, TMZ.com. That particular number concludes with Christ sinking deeply into a sea of lepers, who pull him down into their circle. It resonated oddly with footage I saw on Best Week Ever this week of the paparazzi swarming Britney Spears’s car—in traffic—ambushing her.

Antoinette is anachronistic, too, but mostly in a non-diegetic way. Coppola takes her straightforward filming of the ill-fated queen’s rise to the throne and puts down modern rock tracks. While the music is obvious, it does not detract from the film, but draws attention to Antoinette’s youth and rebellious nature (as portrayed in the film). By linking Antoinette to the modern culture of youth while showing her engaging in the decadent partying, drinking, gambling, and seduction that were her ultimate downfall, Coppola locates a renewed humanity in her story, a way we can understand her—and her failings.

Dunst’s Antoinette is capricious, barely able to keep her mouth shut, and she speaks not in the stuttered tones that affect the French around her, but in a nonchalant and flowing tone that bespeaks her confidence. Contrast her to Judy Davis’s Countess, who can barely wrap her teeth around her carefully enunciated lines and you see the difference. Dunst’s line delivery is also playful and sort of seductive in and of itself. It’s an interesting performance for a costume drama to say the least. A breath of fresh air, if you ask me.

Superstar is one of my favorite musical dramas. I’m not sure why. I do enjoy the anachronism present, but I also think the staging and choreography are brilliant, and Judas turns in a star-making performance here, particularly in the final number that solidifies the show’s primary themes:

“Could Muhammad move a mountain
or was that just PR now?
Did you mean to die like that, was that a mistake,
or did you know your messy death
would be a record breaker?”

It’s also fun to watch this song evolve while Judas wears a bright white bellbottomed jumpsuit with arm-to-floor fringe, backed up by Solid Gold-style dancers.

Antoinette, on the other hand, is an intensely internal film. Coppola tries to invite us not only into the decadant world of her heroine, but into her psyche as well. Echoing the imagery of her version of The Virgin Suicides, Coppola shows us Antoinette’s disembodied hand gliding over the tall grasses of the fields beyond Versailles, Antoinette lounging in the grass, filled with ennui and disillusionment. The conceit, for me, was effective and moving; a departure from the stereotypcial portrayals we historically see.