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Where Musicals Can Dare to Be Different
NEW YORK TIMES

April 11, 2010

For those who dismiss musicals as the theatrical equivalent of cheerleading, the Bay Area arts scene is demanding that they be taken seriously.

The new musical “Scalpel!” at the Brava! Center for the Arts has a gender-bending cast dressed in candy-colored women’s business suits, singing about the joys of liposuction against a backdrop of free-floating body parts. The combination of bunraku puppetry techniques and drag performance makes for an unlikely and unforgettable experience.

At the Berkeley Repertory Theater, “Girlfriend,” a new musical opening on Wednesday and based on the pop musician Matthew Sweet’s 1991 album of the same title, plays with our expectations about gender and sexuality by recounting a romance between two young men, accompanied live by a four-piece, all-woman rock band.

The Bay Area has established itself as a breeding ground for musicals that go on to find audiences elsewhere, but many of these shows also buck traditional notions of what constitutes a winning work for the stage. In the world of musicals, where producers tend to favor mass appeal over experimentation, the passion for — and success at — developing quirky work in the Bay Area is leading many people to re-evaluate their opinions of musicals, attracting new audiences to the genre.

“Daddy Long Legs,” which recently ended its premiere run at TheatreWorks, quickly captured an audience and enjoyed an extended run. The musical chronicles a Victorian orphan’s coming of age solely by setting correspondence to music. The actors were essentially reading letters to the audience, but that literary conceit still felt dramatic.

Creating a musical that is both unusual and commercial is challenging, even in an environment as receptive as the Bay Area. Producers from out of town see the region as a safe place to forge adventurous work away from the prying eyes of industry executives and New York critics. They also benefit from the area’s strong talent pool.

“The Bay Area is a great place to test your material,” said Jason Craig, co-founder of a New York troupe, Banana Bag & Bodice, which collaborated with the Shotgun Players of Berkeley on an erudite, esoteric, song-infused take on the Beowulf legend. “It’s a lovely, supportive environment for creativity.”

The Bay Area does have its share of standard fare. The Shorenstein Hays Nederlander organization, the biggest commercial producer in San Francisco, often imports touring productions of proven Broadway shows like “Fiddler on the Roof” and “In the Heights.” It’s now hosting an open-ended run of “Wicked” at the Orpheum Theater, and the show continues to attract large audiences more than a year into its run.

Yet the area’s musical scene is still notably nonconformist. In the last five years Berkeley Rep has helped usher two unusual musicals to Broadway — “American Idiot” (which opens in New York on April 20) and “Passing Strange” (which won a 2008 Tony Award for best book of a musical).

Both works defy norms. The book for “American Idiot” grew out of Green Day’s multiplatinum album of the same title. And “Passing Strange,” by the singer-songwriter Stew and the rocker Heidi Rodewald, is a no-frills musical memoir based on the picaresque European travels of a young African-American.

“Tinyard Hill,” a new musical by Tommy Newman and Mark Allen that boasts a distinctive country music score, was produced at TheatreWorks in 2009; on Friday it begins a run at the professional Cumberland County Playhouse in Tennessee.

On a smaller scale, the Shotgun Players have produced a couple of well-received yet idiosyncratic musical theater pieces recently. Marcus Gardley’s “This World in a Woman’s Hands,” which employed an all-female cast to tell the story of the women who worked the Richmond, Calif., shipyards during World War II, had an a cappella score partly devised by the performers themselves. The company’s collaboration with Banana Bag & Bodice in 2008, “Beowulf: A Thousand Years of Baggage,” transferred last year to the Abrons Arts Center in New York.

Meanwhile, the Thrillpeddlers’ voluptuous drag musical “Pearls Over Shanghai” is enjoying a protracted run in San Francisco. (The show opened in June and keeps being extended.)

The Bay Area’s natural inclination toward the nontraditional and eccentric contributes to the success of these shows. Audiences here, like those for Broadway, represent a good mix of educated, broad-minded and sophisticated residents, suburbanites and tourists. The presence of Shorenstein Hays Nederlander and the increasing prominence of the Berkeley Rep provide a strong connection to Broadway.

Tom Hulce, a producer of “American Idiot,” said he thought that Berkeley Rep and the entire region provided an ideal home for fledgling musicals.

“The theater has an adventurous agenda,” he said, “and an audience that comes because of that agenda.”

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