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Slurs & Suicides: The new Bare musical

by Tara Beckett.

“Tony Perkins and the [Family Research Council] point to the LGBT youth suicide rate as proof that the ‘gay lifestyle’ is dangerous and unhealthy … while at the same time doing everything in their power to drive up that suicide rate. Tony Perkins sits on a pile of dead gay kids.” – Dan Savage.

 

I’ve been obsessed with Bare for quite some time now. Three years, actually which is longer than my love for Book of Mormon and eons more than my recent admiration of Newsies and its incredibly gorgeous star, Corey Cott, the easiest and quickest crush I’ve ever had. I’m a theatre fan, I love musicals, and Broadway is my idea of heaven if it exists.

Bare has never quite gotten to Broadway though; it’s always been Off-Broadway as its content is ever so slightly controversial. If you don’t know the show, it relies heavily on themes from Romeo and Juliet; forbidden love, a secret romance and I’m pretty sure the term ‘star-crossed lovers’ is used in the script. Except it’s more Romeo and Romeo and is set at a Catholic boarding school, which are always conductive places for same-sex love affairs. I’m only being a little facetious. The main plot point centers around the school play, which just happens to be… you guessed it, Romeo and Juliet. It’s a play within a musical!
The original Bare, starring Michael Arden, John Hill and Jenna Leigh Green in 2004.It’s kind of obvious and a little bit trite in the original ‘pop opera’ version of Bare, which premiered in Los Angeles in 2000 and made a brief Off-Broadway debut in. But the production has since been updated and the ‘musical’ version is rife with fresh costumes (complete with smart phones), fleshed out characters, new and altered songs and choreography by Travis Wall, with the same old teenage angst as there ever was in the original.

The integrity of the story hasn’t been lost in all the updating; I was laughing loudly throughout act one and tearing up at the end of act two. It still packs a punch and pulls at your heartstrings and as the music soars with a Spring Awakening-esque rock score you can’t help but want those two crazy kids to work it all out and live happily ever after.

Spoilers: That doesn’t happen. This is a gay love story that borrows from Romeo and Juliet; that’s never going to end well.

Our aforementioned star-crossed lovers are Peter (Taylor Trensch), a sweet, smart, awkward kid coming to terms with his sexuality and Jason (Jason Hite), the closeted, captain of the whatever team with a Letterman jacket and serious issues. Attending a Catholic boarding school exacerbates these issues. He’s gay and he doesn’t want to be, thanks to the people around him; unsupportive and distant parents, a teacher who is of the cloth and righteously so, and homophobic jocks.

Thus, slurs like ‘faggot’ are bandied around freely.

It’s hurled at Jason, who throws it back to Peter, his clandestine boyfriend in a desperate attempt to take the attention away from himself. Using the word ‘faggot’ in this fashion is and always will be the sign of a frightened closet case, which the show highlights accurately.

Taylor Trensch (Peter) and Jason Hite (Jason).
Taylor Trensch (Peter) and Jason Hite (Jason).

At intermission, I overheard two girls next to me complaining about the changes in the show, as were the two men in front of me. I understand this; people inherently don’t like change. Especially change to a show like this that was groundbreaking at its inception. But that was over 10 years ago. We’ve moved on a lot in the past decade in accepting gay people and LGBTIQ rights have progressed steadily in the western world, with several countries legalising same-sex marriage and granting adoption rights to gay couples. New York itself recently legalised same-sex marriages so the overly solemn tone of the original isn’t necessary. It’s not trying to get people on board with supporting Jason and Peter’s relationship; we’re largely okay with it.

What continues to be highlighted in the new version, perhaps moreso than the original, is the desperate self loathing and fear that comes along with being a gay teenager in an unsupportive environment and the dire consequences that can result in that self-hating isolation.

In the last few years, we’ve seen a spate of suicides, predominantly in the United States of almost exclusively gay teenage and even pre-teen boys. Driven to ending their own lives after relentless bullying and unable to receive support from their parents and teachers, this epidemic has been countered by wonderful initiatives like Dan Savage’s It Gets Better Project, Spirit Day and GLSEN’s Day of Silence to commemorate those who were forever silenced, far too soon.

The updated Bare reflects these societal changes, because although we’ve progressed politically, and adult LGBTIQ are being given their rights, we still have these kids killing themselves. It’s despicable that although we’ve never been as inclusive and accepting of gay people as we are now, it’s still not getting through to our youth: it’s okay to be you. It’s okay to be gay.

The most recent is Michigan’s Josh Pacheco. He suicided on November 27, 2012 after suffering bullying inside and out of school, just months after coming out as gay to his mother. He was 17.

Josh Pacheco, 17, commintted suicide on November 27, 2012 due to anti gay bullying. Image originally published by The Advocate.com
Josh Pacheco, 17, suicided on November 27, 2012 due to anti gay bullying. Image originally published by The Advocate.com

Similarly, in Bare, there’s a particularly heart wrenching song in the second act, which takes place after Jason speaks to his father over the phone and ends with Jason surrounded by his peers as they all scream his father’s words at him: “Be a man”.

I felt the grimace as it spread across my face.

It helps that Jason Hite is an incredibly good actor and the desperation and hurt and pain on his face hit me right in the gut. But those three words are just so damaging; be a man- as though he isn’t. As though being gay makes him less of a man. It’s a ridiculous notion, but to a teenager already questioning his identity it’s such a damaging thing to say and to hear. Being at a Catholic school, Jason goes to confession, which again just makes matters worse as the by-the-book priest, Father Mike, has no words of comfort for him, just cold ‘facts’: it’s not okay to be gay and he will go to Hell for loving Peter.

I’m not writing this to blame all religion for cultivating hatred against gay people because it simply wouldn’t be accurate. There are many churches that are gay inclusive and welcoming, but it’s also true that there are many more that are not. I think it’s important to highlight that in New York and most other places that have legalised same-sex marriage, although civil same-sex marriages are legal, churches are not obligated to accept these unions, nor perform marriages for gay people. Which on one hand is deemed acceptable due to free speech, but is it really responsible to uphold this attitude? To linger and grip on to the one mention in the Bible that is possibly anti-gay, in a testament of outdated and downright illegal practices? Is it acceptable to do so in a school?

Luckily for Peter, he speaks to the sympathetic and encouraging Sister Joan, who assures him that what he is, who he loves, is the greatest part of himself and he shouldn’t try to repress it. It’s not so surprising that he survives at the end of the show; Jason doesn’t.

If anything, the new version of Bare is less laboured, preachy, and more accessible to the audience who needs to see it; gay teenagers. Peter isn’t as conflicted as he is in the original. He doesn’t struggle nearly as much as Jason, largely due to the absence of his mother in the new show. He knows he’s gay and he loves Jason and he’s going to be all right.

The updated 2012 version of Bare, starring Taylor Trensch, Jason Hite and Elizabeth Judd.

During the performance of Romeo and Juliet, Jason pleads to Peter to take him back after continually ignoring Peter, not defending him against his homophobic ‘friends’, sleeping with Ivy to ‘cure’ himself and essentially rejecting him. Peter says no, which is the right thing to do. As much as I’m a sucker for a pleasant ending, and for the boys to end up together and happy, it doesn’t speak well to Peter’s character to take someone back who acted in such an abusive manner for most of their relationship. Love is blind, and teenage love is blind and stupid but it’s more important for Peter to hold his head high and be proud of who he is, than to hold on to a damaging love, no matter how great and romantic the notion may be. You cannot compromise your integrity to be someone’s dirty little secret.

On a more aesthetic note, supporting female characters like Ivy, the beautiful not-quite-mean girl with a bad reputation that has her eyes set on Jason and Nadia; Jason’s goth-ish sister who detests Ivy and acts as resident sarcasm generator, are more well rounded and have real personalities and nuances. The songs are a better mix of upbeat numbers, beautiful ballads and high energy pop rock songs.

The final lines of Bare take place at Jason’s funeral. Peter addresses the mourners and says: “You should know who I am”. This goes back to visibility and Harvey Milk’s eternal message: come out; let your friends and family know who you are and what you are. When straight people realise that they know a gay person that begins the bridge to acceptance and equality.

As I left the theatre with a tear in my eye and my heart in my throat, the sadness I felt at the thought of leaving New York City was intensified, because I probably won’t get another chance to see this show as it is, with this cast ever again. It’s touching and powerful, and if anything deserves a Broadway run, it’s Bare.

I’m not so optimistic that ‘faggot’ will leave our vernacular any time soon. But if we can add the sentiment that being gay is okay, it’s a start to all the kids out there struggling with themselves.

It’s okay to fall in love.

It’s okay to be gay.

You’re okay.

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