I’ve been a theatre girl for as long as I can remember — probably since birth. As a toddler, I could sing the entire scores to Rodgers & Hammerstein musicals, which is a little weird when you think about some of the lyrics. In high school, my friends and I would reenact scenes from “Les Mis,” building “barricades” from our bedroom furniture. Sleepovers contained sing-alongs to the “Wicked” cast recording. It was without question that I would go on to major in theatre in college, and that my career would involve the arts in some way.
As an audience member and consumer of theatre, I often gravitated towards shows that were light, fluffy, and fun. When “Thoroughly Modern Millie” had its Broadway run in 2002, I saw the show multiple times. I was enamoured with the dazzling tapdance numbers and in love with Sutton Foster’s power belt. As a performer, I idolized roles that were filled with glamour and drama. My actor’s bucket list was filled with characters like Elphaba or Velma Kelley.
In 2007, I was first exposed to “bare: A Pop Opera” through a community on livejournal. Although the show itself had been around for seven years, it was making waves at that time due to the release of the cast recording. I downloaded the music out of curiosity, and it took maybe twenty seconds of listening to the opening number before I was not only hooked, but had legitimate chills. It was clear that there was something special about it.
For the next five years, I lived and breathed this cast recording, feeling that every song held so much weight. I didn’t see a live production of the show until the Off-Broadway version in 2012. As I grew more and more in love with the story, I realized: this kind of theatre is different.
“bare” tells a story of teenagers at a Catholic boarding school. It contains a simple plot structure, circulating around the school’s drama production – a musical version of “Romeo and Juliet.” It’s a trope that is common, but it serves as a stable foundation for the rest of the complex character struggles that ensue. The story leaves no stone unturned – it deals with drug abuse, bullying, teen pregnancy, sexuality, religion, parental judgment, depression, and love. It’s a lot to tackle in a two-hour time period, but “bare” manages to approach each topic with focus, dedication, and unapologetic candor.
Some theatres and schools shy away from “bare” because its material is considered to be too polarizing and “racy” – but this is the exact reason why it should be done more often. Audiences need to see the pain that teenagers experience when they are bullied, shunned, and forced to deny who they really are. At its core, that is what “bare” is about.
Here is what I have learned as an adult working in theatre education, and it is essential to the future of the performing arts: Theatre should not always be an escape. Sometimes, theatre should act as a vehicle to promote discussion. Instead of going to the theatre and always expecting entertainment, perhaps we could view it as a thought-provoking environment — a place that might foster awareness of issues affecting the world around us.
Musical theatre is a strong tool for promoting social and cultural relevancy, as it has the power to speak to us through song. When I saw the 2012 Off-Broadway production of “bare,” I was not only moved by the beautiful music of the show, but also by the collective reaction of the audience. There was not a dry eye in sight – and it wasn’t the cathartic type of weeping one might display at Eponine’s death in “Les Mis,” but rather the raw sorrow of several generations.
Perhaps there were some young people in the audience who recognized themselves in Peter, the show’s protagonist, who struggled against a host of forces to come to terms with who he really is. Or maybe there were girls who saw themselves in Ivy, the female lead who was labelled as the “slut” of the school, someone who built up walls around her heart because it was safer than letting others inside. And maybe – just maybe – there were some people in the audience who wept over their own guilt. Maybe they were bullies in high school. Perhaps they contributed to someone’s sadness, and it’s very possible they didn’t even realize it. “bare” enables us to see through the eyes of all the students we knew in high school – from the popular prom queen to the quietest kid in the back of the room.
“bare” is the epitome of the kind of theatre I want to promote as an artist. It is a musical that everyone – no matter what generation – should be exposed to at some point. There’s no doubt that the story would resonate with today’s generation, some of whom are subjected to the worst bullying imaginable, simply because of who they love. “bare” brings this injustice to light, and it’s something that shouldn’t be ignored, but fought against. Beyond that, the show’s central romance is completely universal. Everyone, regardless of age, gender, or sexuality, can relate to the very simple human fact of finding someone who feels like your other half — someone whom you feel like you’ve known and loved from the start.