The Blue Flower is an appropriate name for Jim and Ruth Bauer's musical tale of artists and thinkers in the early 20th century, now playing at Off-Broadway's Second Stage. For this show is an unusual specimen indeed.
The story — about the friendship between three artists and a scientist during the years leading up to the tumult of World War I — is told through every media imaginable: text, film, projections, collage, performance and music that draws from both the cabaret of Weimar Germany and the country-western genre. Songs are inspired by — but not directly about — historical figures such as Max Beckmann, Franz Marc, Hannah Hoech and Marie Curie. (What does a Max Beckmann-ish tune sound like?)
"It is unusual," Ruth Bauer admits. "But hopefully when you're in your seat it will grab your attention and keep you engaged."
The project — which marks the Bauers' Off-Broadway debut — began in 1999 when Jim, the composer of the duo, started exploring the dark and darkly humorous music of the Weimar Era. At the same time, he gave in to what his wife calls "a soft spot for country music." A score began to take shape. A graduate of the Rhode Island School of Design who has seen her work exhibited at Boston's Museum of Fine Arts, Ruth's contributions to the piece came in the form of collaborations on storyline and films, as well as numerous collages (a total of 70) representing the memories of central character Max Baumann (played by Marc Kudisch).
"We're really inspired by the golden age of German Expressionistic film and silent film," says Ruth.
For the couple, any aspect of the theatrical experience can be used to telegraph the story to the audience. "For us, 'writing' might be thinking about what image could communicate the emotions of the piece, or whether the music should carry the story here," she says.
Blue Flower's journey to Second Stage has been circuitous. The Bauers received the Jonathan Larson Performing Arts Foundation Award in 2004 for their work on the show. It was featured in the very first New York Musical Theatre Festival that same year and received an Off-Off-Broadway production by the Prospect Theater Company in 2008. Last season it had a staging at American Repertory Theatre in Boston. Will Pomerantz, the director at Second Stage, has piloted it all along. "It's been a long and winding road," says Ruth.
Bauer pointed out that Baumann's birth year, 1889, is a symbolically significant one: "The Eiffel Tower was completed; it was the year Hitler was born; and Crown Prince Rudolph of Austria killed himself." It was a year, it could be said, when the fate of the 20th century was sealed.