Eight years ago, Jon Hartmere, book writer and lyricist of the cult rock musical Bare, thought the time had passed for his show's chance at an Off-Broadway commercial run.
The piece — which, in 2004, was subtitled a Pop Opera — was slated to make the leap from a developmental run at American Theatre of Actors to Dodger Stages (now New World Stages) that fall; the transfer never happened, and a wider audience — including many who had heard buzz about it or seen its earlier version in Los Angeles — never made it to the hallowed halls of St. Cecilia's Boarding School, the show's insular setting where students' agendas were, as the musical says, "Best Kept Secret."
|photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
Years passed. A studio album was released. Regional and college productions were mounted. And, something was happening in American culture: there was a well-publicized outbreak of suicides tied to LGBT youth, a drastic rise in awareness of bullying among adolescents and an ongoing fight for marriage equality. Maybe the timing was finally right for the musical about anxious teens coming of age. With new producers behind it, Bare has made its way back to New York City, but with a slight makeover by the show's creatives: Hartmere, director Stafford Arima, musical supervisor/arranger Lynne Shankel (Altar Boyz, Cry-Baby, Paper Mill Playhouse's Once On This Island) and choreographer Travis Wall ("So You Think You Can Dance").
"Because of the timeliness of what's happening out there in the world, and because we have an author who is alive and living and present in this world, it only made sense to continue to evolve the piece so that it maintained its heart and its soul and its…guts," Arima explained while sitting in the auditorium of New World's Stage 4 — the former home of his Altar Boyz in 2005 — during a recent tech rehearsal for the show, which began previews Nov. 19 toward its Dec. 9 opening night. Hartmere added that "the core of the show is the same" although the work — originally co-created with composer Damon Intrabartolo, who is not attached to the current Off-Broadway staging — is no longer sung-through in the style of opera. "That's probably the biggest change — having more space to explore the characters," he said. "To know these characters a little bit better… you just need more room — you need more room for book scenes, and I personally just wanted to get under the hood and investigate a little bit further."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
To aid in Hartmere's exploratory process, Arima, Shankel and Wall were enlisted to help bring a fleshed-out and evolved Bare to 2012. Relationships have thickened, characters have changed, songs have been added and the students of St. Cecilia's are products of the iPhone and Facebook generation — things unimagined a decade ago. "We're seeing [Peter and Jason's] relationship begin," said Hartmere about the show's central characters — two teenage boys who fall in love behind closed doors, but were immediately conflicted in earlier stagings. "We're seeing the love blossom, and we're seeing them be happy together, but I think the relationship is the same. When you first meet someone...you want to spend every waking moment [with them, but] how do you do that?" Hartmere also poses an exciting challenge for Jason and Peter — they are no longer roommates, as they once were in 2004, and must now find the proper time and place to be with each other.
"The first time you see us in the show is complete bliss," said Jason Hite, who plays Jason, the teenage "golden boy" struggling with his sexual identity. "We're deeply in love and at Jason's lake house — kind of secluded away… It's really heartbreaking to see their relationship go through the twists and turns that any relationship, especially a young relationship, goes through. We go through the secrets, and we go through lying and arguments."
Jason, the character who once presented himself with a tough exterior, truly "bares" his heart and soul in the current revival. "Role of a Lifetime," a standout internal monologue once performed by Peter, takes on a new "Role" with Jason behind the lyric.
Arima explained, "[Jason thinks,] 'I'm falling in love with this guy named Peter, but I have to play sports, and I have to be in the locker room with a bunch of guys who are all talking about girls. I have to marry someone…' It's all of that, so when you think of 'Role of a Lifetime,' it felt [more natural]."
(Hartmere also confided that the song was originally attached to Jason in Bare's early stages.)
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
As for Jason's sister, Nadia, Arima explained that her anger "comes from a more complex place now," and she is no longer depressed solely for being the group's "Plain Jane Fat Ass" (a song from earlier versions). Barrett Wilbert Weed, who plays Nadia, added, "From my conversations with Jon and Stafford, I think it was very important to them that [Nadia] not feel isolated or be a dark character or be sad just because of her physical shape. It should be more of a psychological thing." Nadia now has her heart broken by Matt (Gerard Canonico), who begins to date St. Cecilia's newest transfer student, Ivy (Elizabeth Judd).
"The cool thing about this production, specifically for Ivy, is that they filled out her character — where she's come from," said Judd, who takes on the show's misunderstood leading lady, Ivy. Hartmere explained that re-envisioning that character as a transfer student and setting her up with Matt has justified Nadia's anger toward her.
New to the plot are the characters of Father Mike (Jerold E. Solomon) and Sister Joan (Missi Pyle), who oversee the high school's production of Romeo and Juliet. They replace similar characters from the 2004 staging — the Priest and Sister Chantelle, respectively. Arima explained, "As Jon and I and the team were working on the show, [we were] figuring out how each character serve[s] the narrative" and discovered "economical ways for us to bring [certain] characters together." With the deletion of Peter's mother, fans of the show who know the property from the studio recording or regional productions can expect Sister Joan to take on a maternal role as well.
Changes in character prompted changes in song. Tunes such as "See Me," a duet between Peter and his mother, and "A Quiet Night at Home," a heartbreaking ballad for Nadia, are no longer part of the revised edition. "I think the biggest job for me, in coming into this, is to make sure that this sounds like a cohesive score," said music supervisor Shankel, who composed new material for the show, augmenting the work of original composer Itrabartolo. "[Damon Intrabartolo] and I spent some time together… so I would know all of the things that are important to him, musically."
Although Intrabartolo is not attached to the current Off-Broadway staging, he has had multiple conversations with Shankel and Arima about the piece. Shankel added, "The heart of this is Damon and Jon. It always has been, and it always will be."
|Photo by Joseph Marzullo/WENN|
New songs also paved the way for contemporary choreography — or "expressive movement," as Wall described it — to be integrated. "These characters in the story are trying every possible way to express themselves. They're reaching out, and they're sometimes screaming so loud inside that it translates to movement," said Wall. "It's very story-driven." Contemporizing the piece was also made possible with the assistance of Tony Award-winning scenic designer Donyale Werle. The set has been covered in over 14,000 four-by-four inch Instagram pictures from the musical's fans as well as the cast and creatives. "There's a zillion photographs, and literally it takes one to undo somebody's life if they're living a lie," explained the Tony winner for her work on last season's Peter and the Starcatcher.
Hartmere acknowledged that social media has "completely changed the way teens interact," and Arima added that, "with literally a push of one button, you could destroy someone's life." Audiences can expect the spread of information to play a big part in the 2012 version of Bare.
However, with all of the changes, the message of Bare remains the same — discovering your true self. "The message of the show really is being yourself and the struggle that we all go through to present our authentic self to the world," said Hartmere. "How much do you lie and how much do you show? Especially in high school — it's such a time fraught with conflict. But to me, high school never ends, so I think that this struggle is something everyone can relate to."
Although Bare never moved from its developmental run to a commercial run Off-Broadway in 2004, it has finally arrived. Hartmere said, "It's really been quite a ride, and I've loved the journey…because that's really all you can control — where you are right now."
(Playbill.com staff writer Michael Gioia's work appears in the news, feature and video sections of Playbill.com. Follow him on Twitter at @PlaybillMichael.)
Watch performances from Bare's press preview, including the new songs "You Don't Know" and "Million Miles From Heaven":