I love the fact that Bloomington Playwrights Project has gotten into the brutally difficult business of incubating new musicals.
Crafting such a show isn't just about writing a good tunestack to go with solid source material. As with a child, a musical has to find its voice–not the voice of its individual creators but a voice of its own. And that voice doesn't always come with its birth, but can transform as it finds its feet.
I missed "Kissing Frogs," the musical crafted by IU alumni Schonfeld and Nicole Parker (she of "Mad TV" note) that took early steps at BPP in 2011. So I didn't want to miss Alex Gemignani and Brad Bauner's "The Truman Show," the latest BPP-produced new musical (Feb. 1-10).
Famliarity with the material seems to be assumed: Even the show's poster isn't worried about spoiler prevention. As those who have seen the film know, Truman is a man raised from birth in an elaborate, live reality show. The rub is that he isn't aware of it, naively buying into his world as the real thing. But cracks begin to show, not everyone in his universe buys into the morality of this manipulation, and Truman begins to believe that his life isn't as real as he once thought.
The movie requires an enormous suspension of disbelief (even these days with TV shows getting closer and closer to this kind of audience indulgence). The musical needs even more–and not just because, in this production, the roles, regardless of age, are played by college students).
Yes, we accept characters stepping out of reality in conventional musicals to belt out a telling tune and perform choreographed dance routines. But the musical numbers we see on stage aren't really a part of Truman's reality or the reality of the unreal real characters in his life. They are musical conventions and they muddy the lines in a story that, at its core, is anchored in the subtle differences between one reality and another.
One strong sign of hope for the material lies in in a second act song where the manipulative show producer sings instructions to the earpiece of one of Truman's "friends" and that character sings them to Truman. It's a unique duet that gives the show musical layers that don't exist elsewhere, despite the earnestness of the production.
As it stands, though, the big leap–the kind that led the "Wicked" and "Les Miserables" creative team to throw out most of their source material–hasn't been made. As represented here, the show stands, wobbly, in the camp with "The Wedding Singer" and "9 to 5"–adaptations that aren't quite sure, theatrically, why they've been adapted to this form.
Driving back to Indy, I couldn't help but wonder what would happen if Truman's "show" actually did feature choreographed dances, if his fake-life frinds did sing balads, and if his neighbords greeted him musically every morning. What would happen if that was the reality this guy grew up with, believing from a young age that people sing and dance their feelings. Wouldn't is reality include trying to find his own musical voice in order to fit in?
Now that might be a musical.