For a lot of people, half time at sports events is usually the cue to head out for a hot dog and beer. But James Mason is betting that his form of stadium pageantry—moved indoors and dressed up in theatre craft and values—is going to keep the audience riveted to their seats or even dancing in the aisles. Mason’s multi-million-dollar wager is Blast!, the musical extravaganza that opens at the Broadway Theatre in April. The Irish may have their Riverdance; the British, Stomp; the Australians, Burn the Floor; and the Argentines, De La Guarda. Now the Americans have entered the visceral theatrical sweepstakes with this homegrown hybrid culled from the disciplines of dance, gymnastics, drum-and-bugle corps and color guards. In the show 52 young, athletic musicians zip from classical to blues, from jazz to rock-and-roll and techno-pop. At the same time, they toss off feats of physical dexterity, such as running backwards in unison or doing one-handed somersaults.
“Blast! is uniquely American, and I think it’s about time we had one of those spectaculars,” said Mason, the 47-year-old artistic director of the Star of Indiana, a Midwest drum-and-bugle corps whose successes at international competitions gave him the idea for Blast! “It’s like Fantasia come to life, with the musicians animating the music.”
Indeed, when Blast! had its world premiere in London in December of 1999, the English critics were favorably taken aback by its American insouciance and infectious energy. “It’s pure razzle-dazzle Americana . . . as if Busby Berkeley and Florenz Ziegfeld had risen from the dead,” wrote critic Roger Foss, noting the sabers, flags, streamers and rifles tossed up in perfect unison. When the show opened a six-month United States tour in Boston the following August, Globe reviewer Bruce McCabe described it thus: “Blast! stands, blows, pounds, marches and whirls with panache . . . there’s no heavy thinking involved, just the thrill of seeing sheer virtuosity in a different kind of art form.”
Different, it certainly is. Odd and quirky even. “The whole thing is an ingenuous initiative; it’s like walking into another world,” says Michael David, the head of Dodger Theatricals, which is helping Mason and producer Bill Cook, an Indiana pharmaceutical magnate who is financially backing the show. “Broadway is a great theatrical theme park these days where anything can happen. And it’s a perfect fit.”
Blast!’s reception in London and on its United States tour has delighted Mason, whose sunny Midwestern optimism apparently is shared by his company of twenty-somethings who, except for a snare drummer from Japan, hail from all over the U.S. Many, like Mason, are former champions of international drum-and-bugle corps competitions, a subculture that inspires fledglings to begin training early for a chance to win. Born in Iowa and raised in Indiana, Mason, at age seven, began blowing on a soprano bugle and then graduated to a saxophone when he started performing in the marching band for the University of North Iowa. He first competed in the corps championships as a member of Iowa’s Madison Scouts. Then, in 1984, Bill Cook hired him to lead the 128-member drum and-bugle corps, Star of Indiana, which the business-man had begun that year to provide teens with a healthy summer outlet for their high-octane energy. From 1994-1996, 15 members of the Star of Indiana toured with the Canadian Brass orchestral ensemble. Mason was impressed with the way the audience viscerally responded to the concerts. “They could literally feel the music,” he recalls. “It was sort of like what the composer [Andrea] Gabrieli tried to do in the 16th century. He couldn’t move the organ, so he placed trumpets around the church for what was probably the first surround-sound in history.”
Mason began to think about presenting a proscenium-style show of stadium entertainment that could tap into that kind of excitement, aided by theatrical values of sets, lighting and costumes. Using brass, percussion and what Mason calls “the visual ensemble,” the director fashioned a show that would bring the musicians “out of the pit and onto the stage” as the performers and actors. But they would not only have to march out of that pit but also, in Mason’s words, “lunge, lurch and crawl” because of the demands in moving the spectacle from a football field to a Broadway stage.
“I didn’t want to lose the power and presence of what we had,” says Mason. “But I also knew I had to vary the pacing, to give the dynamic range within the cast. It’s not two hours of a marching band onstage—that would be equivalent to your mother screaming at you. There are duets, quartets and octets. But it’s when Blast! is hitting on all cylinders, with the synergy created by the brass, percussion and visuals, that I find the show most exciting.”
While the demographics for Blast! have so far proved wide, Mason hopes that it will appeal to young people in particular. “We’re delivering the sounds in a live audio-visual fashion that I hope is kind of hip,” he says. Then referring to the turn-of-the-century conductor and composer whose flamboyance inspired the song “Seventy Six Trombones” in The Music Man, Mason adds, “After all, John Philip Sousa was the Beatles of his day. When he came to town, he created such an uproar. I hope Blast! can capture some of that same excitement today.”