Originally published in The LA Stage Times
For Topher Rhys, producing the first Los Angeles revival of the rock musical bare since its premiere in 2000 at LA.’s Hudson Theatre has been a project nine years in the making.
He first heard a cast recording of the musical, which is set in a Catholic high school and explores the romance between roommates Jason and Peter, in 2004 when he was 16 years old. The story’s dark examination of religion intrigued him, and he has been “circling it” ever since.
“It’s interesting how this show has stuck with me for so long, to the point where we’re opening tonight,” Rhys says, sitting in the Hayworth Theatre just three hours before opening night on Friday. “And I succeeded in our goal of bringing the show back to LA.”
But that achievement occurs within a sad context — Damon Intrabartolo, who composed the bare score and granted his permission for the LA revival, died on August 13 at the age of 39.
Rhys produces the show with his partner in the glory|struck company, Jamie Lee Barnard (the two also produced recent concert engagements of Spring Awakening and Glory Days In Concert). They tapped Calvin Remsberg to direct. His previous directing credits include Musical Theatre West’s Sweeney Todd and Lucid By Proxy’s Into the Woods). The cast includes The Sing-Off’s Payson Lewis and Jonah Platt, who appeared in the finale of The Office earlier this year, as Peter and Jason, respectively, as well as The Glee Project’s Lindsay Pearce, American Idol’s Katie Stevens, and original cast members Stephanie Andersen and John Griffin.
The premiere of bare, written by Jon Hartmere and composed by Intrabartolo, won the 2001 Ovation Award for best musical in an intimate theater, then disappeared from the LA theater scene. But it has gathered a passionate, cult-like following thanks to CDs of the cast recording and more than 100 productions that have been performed around the world.
Barnard says she was first introduced to the musical when Rhys burned her a copy of a 2007 cast recording, which she then kept on “repeat” in her car.
“She would IM me at work and be like, ‘Oh my god, I heard the song ‘Cross’ and I cried the whole way to work,” Rhys says.
“I started just leaving my makeup bag at work. Some of them were happy tears,” Barnard admits. “I didn’t know what was wrong with me. The show is so emotional.”
With characters like the secretly-in-love Jason and Peter, Jason’s twin sister and sarcastic outsider Nadia and the attention-seeking Ivy, who’s obsessed with Jason, it’s easy for audiences to recognize how bare relates to their own lives, Rhys says, and he always wondered why it hadn’t been revived in Los Angeles. He made the show his first project after graduating from college, and launched glory|struck with Barnard in 2009 with a bare workshop. They were trying to leverage it for a longer run when the authors restricted the rights in anticipation of a heavily revised Off-Broadway production in 2012.
That production, which featured new characters, songs and lyrics, was the first live performance of bare that Rhys and Barnard saw, and they fell in love with it. After the show closed last fall, Rhys contacted Intrabartolo and asked if glory|struck could revive it. He finally got the “yes” he’d been waiting for.
Although they considered creating a hybrid of the Off-Broadway and original productions, they ultimately decided to preserve the original version, but with a more modern interpretation. Perhaps the biggest change is the music — fans of the 2000 production will notice that the sound of the music isn’t quite as reminiscent of the 1990s.
“When it was written,” Rhys says, “a lot of the orchestrations were very ‘90s, very synth heavy. [Jamie] always says ‘One Kiss’ sounds like Janet Jackson. It was originally billed as a pop opera, and because Damon was a pianist it was very piano-heavy and it had a lot of organ and synth tones, which we still incorporate. But for example, ‘One Kiss’ was a very R&B-type piano tune and we’ve made it an acoustic guitar folk song, something that’s a little sexier. For ‘Are You There,’ instead of having a heavily strummed acoustic guitar, we make it electric. We just amp everything up a little.”
They say that they have taken a more nuanced approach to the characters, too; for example, Jason’s twin sister Nadia has evolved from a comic-relief type who’s angry about her weight to a less superficial and, they hope, a more heartbreaking figure.
“When we’re trying to modernize it for a new audience, with girls nowadays, you don’t have to be obviously overweight to have body image issues, especially in LA.,” Rhys says.
In fact, Rhys and Barnard say that from a production standpoint, their revival is very different from the original version, despite the fact that Remsberg had seen the original and their cast includes two original members. Neither Rhys, Barnard nor many of the new cast members had seen any semblance of the 2000 version until very recently, when Griffin found a tape of one of the original performances.
Intrabartolo’s death rocked the cast and crew. Subsequent rehearsals were emotional, Rhys says, and friends have filled a Facebook page with memories. bare’s original director, Kristin Hanggi, recently announced on the page that a memorial service for Intrabartolo will be held Sept. 23 at the Pasadena Playhouse.
For bare‘s new generation, Intrabartolo’s passing makes it all the more special that original cast members Andersen and Griffin joined the new production. Lewis says they’ve been able to serve as a link between Intrabartolo and the new cast and crew, helping preserve his original intentions for bare.
“It’s nice to be able to feel his presence in a way we wouldn’t be able to if we didn’t have these people who had a personal connection with him, and knew who he was and what he was trying to accomplish when they created it 15 years ago,” Lewis says.
Andersen, who is reprising her role as the sympathetic Sister Chantelle after originating the role in 2000 and singing in the 2007 recording, can still remember joining the original cast for the first reading. The show affected everyone there, she says, to the extent that there wasn’t a dry eye in the house.
“I remember having this feeling like there’s something big going on here that I’m a part of, and even [original director Hanggi] said something to the effect of, ‘You have no idea how big this is going to be.’ She really already knew, something has happened here,” Andersen says.
Though bare’s exploration of same-sex relationships was probably more provocative in 2000 than it is in 2013, the show’s cast and producers maintain that its themes of love and acceptance are still just as relevant — though perhaps in a different way. Rhys describes the two versions as embodying an external versus internal struggle, asserting that the revival more subtly examines the struggle of teen love since contemporary audiences are more familiar with same-sex relationships.
Rhys reports that after the preview performance on Thursday, audience comments were enthusiastic and “very visceral.”
Andersen, as well as new cast members Platt, Lewis and Pearce, agree that they feel a responsibility to make their revival live up to the original, though they’ve opted to put their own spin on the characters instead of adhering strictly to the book. Lewis says he listened to the album only once, and Pearce says they were encouraged to think of the revival as a unique show.
“One of our first rehearsals,” says Pearce, who’s playing Ivy, “was a music rehearsal and [music producer Elmo Zapp] was like, ‘I get that you want to sing it by the book but I really want it to be your show…The music does it all, the show does it on its own, you guys just have to do your own and hopefully people will love it.’ And I think that they will. We’ve stuck true to the root of the show whilst updating it and I hope that they like our updates.”
Even though progress has been made in LGBT rights, the cast and producers insist that bare is unlikely ever to feel outdated. Being true to yourself, figuring out your sexual identity and learning to “bare” your soul are issues teens will still face, and adults will remember that often painful time.
“Even if we were in a place where people are comfortable coming out, people still have those memories of those times when it wasn’t comfortable, when they had to endure this terrible struggle, and seeing this reminds them of what they’ve been through and [that they] have come out the other side,” Platt says.
“The issue of homosexuality and religion may resolve itself at some point, but there’s always going to be conflicts that young people encounter when they question how they feel versus the status quo,” Lewis adds. “Throughout time there’s always been that phase when people have to question whether things are right or true and what they have to do. Whether it’s about the church or something else in the future, the show is about those people trying to find themselves.”