"Keith Haring! This was my life in the '80s," exclaimed the boisterous songwriter, who came to New York City in 1978, roughly the time Haring's star began to rise. "We all related to this piece because we were all in the clubs," she continued, referring to her collaborators on The Public Theater show. "I was a club kid. I was on tour with Thomas Dolby and bands in the '80s. I was a rock and roll girl. All my days in the clubs and never seeing the light of day. Waking up at five in the evening and going to dinner. Who knew when I was getting trashed and dancing in the clubs that I was doing research for this show?!"
Radiant Baby begins performances on Jan. 31. George C. Wolfe directs the world premiere, which features lyrics by Ira Gasman, Stuart Ross and Barsha and a book by Ross. Haring's simple playful paintings of dancing figures and glowing babies made him a beloved icon of the '80s and one of America's last true art stars. The show tracks his life from his arrival in New York from rural Pennsylvania, to his discovery of the Manhattan gay club scene, his early guerilla drawings in subway stations, his later fame in Soho galleries, and, finally, his early death from AIDS.
"We're dealing with the intimacies of his story in a very specific way, but it's also what he was about," explained Wolfe, who decided to develop the piece after attended a workshop four years ago. "He was a part of the Lower East Side movement. He was a part of the early hip hop movement that was happening in the south Bronx. All those energies and influences defined him and shaped him. Then, all of a sudden he had to negotiate a relationship with a time limit on his life. It makes his life so incredibly compacted, but, to me, it also makes his life so large. In a sense, all of us can find pieces of ourselves in his life."
It was Gasman (The Life) who got the idea. A decade ago, he attended a reading by John Gruen, who penned the book on which the show is based, "Keith Haring: The Authorized Biography."
"He said 'Oh my gosh, this would make a great musical,'" related Barsha. "He went on to write some lyrics on spec and went to John Gruen—they both lived in Sag Harbor." A friend recommended Barsha to Gasman when the latter went looking for a composer. Barsha immediately responded to the subject matter. "It rang a bell for a time in New York that we don't have anymore, when it was a messy, funky place and people were creating art out of the streets. The spirit of taking art and bringing it from the street to the elite. I saw [Haring's] subway drawings as they popped up and I remember saying to my friends, 'Quick, go to 81st Street and Central Park West. There's this unbelievable one.' " For the score, Barsha drew from the musical styles that dominated in the late '70s and '80s, the music she had danced to, including hip-hop, pop, club music and synthesizer music.
Ross was the last writer to join the project. Four years ago, Barsha asked Ross, the writer of Forever Plaid, to recommend a bookwriter. He too remembered Haring—"I waited on him once as a cater-waiter"—and suggested himself.
Unlike many modern, pop-flavored musicals, the show has solid book scenes, said Ross. Eventually, as the songs and scenes began overlapping, Ross' added co-lyricist to his title. Daniel Reichard, the relative unknown who plays Haring, describes his vocal assignments like this: "I wouldn't call them raps, I'd call them rants. They combine rock and roll with rap with narration." Reichard—who was fitted with Haring's famously large glasses—almost never leaves the show during the stage. He calls the show the most exhausting thing he's ever done. The cast also includes Gabriel Enrique Alvarez, Tracee Beazer, Celina Carvajal, Julee Cruise, Rhett G. George, Curtis Holbrook, Kate Jennings Grant, Anny Jules, Adam Michael Kaokept, Christopher Livsey, Aaron Lohr, Christopher Martinez, Jermaine Montell, Sarah Jane Nelson, Billy Porter , Angela Robinson, Keong Sim, Christian Vincent, Michael Winther and Remy Zakin.
Barsha hopes the show will be more celebratory of a past era in New York City than mournful about the colder, more corporate place the town has become. She admits, however, that the piece may be "bittersweet, because AIDS happened. It's not an AIDS musical, but it does play a big role.
"People ask, 'Why's he so interesting, Keith Haring's life?,'" she continued. "But it represents New York in the '80s! It does! If you're weren't here, you don't get what it was."