A Delicate Balance: Reflecting on My Work with Teens Behind the Scenes

Yours truly, standing in signature gray sweatshirt, talking through Rent following a performance from its “farewell tour.”

On May 14th, I will make my final appearance as dramaturg for the Teens Behind the Scenes program at The National Theatre during a post-show talkback following a performance of Hairspray. As usual, my task has been to craft a study guide that puts the latest show to cross The National’s stage in context for local high school students and then lead a discussion that draws those students’ attention to significant features of that show. Since day one, I have done my best to balance genuine enthusiasm for the productions with the critical perspective required of me as a scholar. It’s a delicate balance, but searching for it has been a great way to refine my craft. With my last turn around the corner, and with blog ideas a bit lacking lately, I decided to look back on some of the material I prepped for my last round of study guides. Visit The National Theatre’s website to access these guides and more (expect Hairspray‘s out soon) and check out the bibliography at the end of the post for a list of really great sources.

The Revolution Before Rent

As is often the case, the touring production of Rent came with its own study guide, and an especially robust one at that. Instead of retreading their material, I decided to put Rent in context with the larger shift in queer and HIV-positive representation in theatre, examine its complex legacy, and write about Lin-Manuel Miranda’s adaptation of Tick, Tick…Boom!, because why not? There were two major challenges in that, the first of which was summarizing the vast, complex history of AIDS-related theatre and activism that played out onstage and in the streets prior to Rent‘s arrival. In my article, I decided to take a relatively expansive approach that accounted for everything from the early AIDS research benefits to the radical protests of ACT UP; from landmark plays like The Normal Heart and Angels in America to incisive comedies like AIDS! The Musical; and from (controversial) leading figures like Larry Kramer to less-heralded performers like the members of Black performance troupe Pomo Afro Homos. The objective was to familiarize students with the type of art and activism that had to be made first before a mainstream story like Rent could arrive on the scene.

The second challenge was to wrestle with Rent‘s complex legacy while maintaining a place for its enduring popularity. That meant including the “Rent-heads” who lined up around the block to get tickets and author/activist Sarah Schulman, who accused Jonathan Larson of plagiarizing her work and co-opting queer culture. What I attempted to do here was recognize that things have certainly changed since Rent, and among those changes is an increasingly strong (and fair) expectation that stories largely about historically marginalized people should center those people. That is a theme I have returned to again and again in my writing. Still, as others have observed, Rent‘s sustained resonance is largely down to its message of hope in the face of death, a hope that, while sometimes naive, does have its own place. Plus, some of the numbers really do wail, even after all these years.

“A 9/12 Story”: Come From Away

The show I was least familiar with coming into this season has arguably become my favorite. David Hein and Irene Sankoff’s musical about the townspeople of Gander, Newfoundland who rose to the occasion when thousands of unexpected visitors arrived at their airport on 9/11 is an international hit, and with good reason. It’s moving and funny, it’s heartwarming without being too saccharine, it has a great score, and it demonstrates how a stripped-down, actor-centric aesthetic can thrill you even more the glossiest production. It is also indicative of what the creators call a “9/12 story”: a story that focuses on life after 9/11, rather than the events themselves. What I tried to do in this guide is provide some context for how theatre, performance, and media have responded to the “post-9/11 world” that seems, at times, to have split the country in half. That includes everything from Ayad Akhtar’s brilliant, Pultizer Prize-winning play Disgraced to the virtually mandatory rendition of “God Bless America” that greeted the seventh inning stretch at Yankee games for years. It also meant recognizing that what makes the real-life story of Come From Away memorable is how unique it is. A lot of terrible things happened in the wake of 9/11, but the story of Gander’s response to the crisis is proof that people can come together in extraordinary ways in times of need. The challenge is to take inspiration from such stories and make them the norm, not the exception.

In addition to glossing post-9/11 theatre and performance, I also dove into the solo “Between Me and the Sky,” sung by a character based on real-life American Airlines captain Beverly Bass. Bass was a genuine trailblazer well before she landed on the Gander tarmac. In addition to being American Airlines first woman captain, she also flew the first flight staffed entirely by women in the airline’s history. She went on to be a much-admired flight instructor and an advocate for women pilots everywhere—and she did it all after pushing through the massive boys’ club that dominated the air for decades.

Negotiating Difference in Hairspray

Confession: I know the score to the 2007 film adaption of Hairspray starring a latex-clad John Travolta much better than I do the Broadway score, and there are numbers in there, namely “New Girl in Town” and “Ladies’ Choice,” that are really indelible to me. That’s partly why one of the most enjoyable parts of prepping this study guide was charting the many iterations of Hairspray, beginning with the 1988 film and continuing all the way to Hairspray Live!, which aired on NBC in 2016: there really is a bit of Hairspray for everyone. It was also a great primer on the practical and interpretive challenges of taking a film from screen to stage and then back again. Even the 2016 rendition, presented with a mix of Broadway and post-Broadway film numbers and with Harvey Fierstein’s Edna thrown in to boot, had to retool itself for a unique medium. That some sense of John Waters’ Baltimore, the hometown that so obviously shaped his worldview, survived in each case is something special.

Having said all that, listening to Hairspray for the first time in several really primed me to address how the show navigates the politics of difference. That it is very much a White liberal fantasy of inclusion and integration is evident even in a peppy, infectious score that borrows from a range of styles and is sometimes a bit fetishistic of the Black characters. It’s also worth noting, as many scholars have, that the show does blunt a lot of the edges in Waters’ original film. As Waters himself once said, he preferred “scary” drag queens like Divine, the original Edna Turnblad, rather than family-friendly ones, like you see in the show, because they challenged norms much more openly. Furthermore, drawing attention once again to the fact that Tracy is at the center of the play reminds us that the story is very much hers: she is the one who leads the charge to integration and she is the one who scores the conventionally attractive boy at the end. Granted, a lot has changed since the film debuted in 1988 and the musical debuted in 2002; negotiations with difference are far more open, nuanced, and prominent than they were before, even if the results can sometimes be frustratingly similar. As is often pointed out, musicals can be great sources for utopian ideals because they already create a world that could be, rather than a world that is.

Bibliography

A lot of great sources, ranging from scholarly monographs to internet thinkpieces, shaped my writing this year. Here they are, presented in order of show and alphabetically by last name.

Rent

Grady, Constance. “The intertwined legacies of Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda.” Vox, November 19, 2021, https://www.vox.com/culture/22787502/tick-tick-boom-lin-manuel-miranda-jonathan-larson.

Juntunen, Jacob. Mainstream Aids Theatre, the Media, and Gay Civil Rights: Making the Radical Palatable. New York: Routledge, 2016.

Larson, Jonathan, and David Auburn. Tick, Tick… Boom!: The Complete Book and Lyrics. New York: Applause Theatre & Cinema Books, 2009.

O’Keefe, Kevin. “20 Years Later, ‘Rent’ Is Still One of the Most Influential Works in Pop Culture.” Mic. March 4, 2016, https://www.mic.com/articles/137077/20-years-later-rent-is-still-one-of-the-most-influential-works-in-pop-culture.

Prahl, Amanda. “Rent Gets One More Shot at Glory.” Slate. January 25, 2019. https://slate.com/culture/2019/01/rent-live-tv-hamilton-dear-evan-hansen.html.

Román David. Acts of Intervention: Performance, Gay Culture, and Aids. Indiana University Press, 1998.

Schulman, Sarah. Let the Record Show: A Political History of ACT UP New York, 1987-1993. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2021.

Specter, Michael. “How ACT UP Changed America.” The New Yorker, June 7, 2021, https://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2021/06/14/how-act-up-changed-america.

Come From Away

Brady, Sara. Performance, Politics, and the War on Terror. New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2012.

Fierberg, Ruthie. “13 Theatre Works That Responded to 9/11.” Playbill, September 11, 2021, https://playbill.com/article/13-theatre-works-that-responded-to-9-11.

Jones, Chris. “How the Shows Went On, with an Assist from Ovid.” American Theatre, November 19, 2018, https://www.americantheatre.org/2018/11/19/how-the-shows-went-on-after-9-11-with-an-assist-from-ovid/.

Laurence, Rebecca. “Come From Away: Why we need the ‘9/11 musical.’” BBC, February 14, 2019, https://www.bbc.com/culture/article/20190212-come-from-away-why-we-need-the-911-musical.

Martin, Lisa. “‘Come From Away’ Inspiration Beverley Bass Tells Her Story.” TCU Magazine, summer 2017. Texas Christian University, accessed March 29, 2022, https://magazine.tcu.edu/summer-2017/come-away-inspiration-beverley-bass-tells-story/.

Spencer, Jenny, editor. Political and Protest Theatre after 9/11. London: Routledge, 2012.

O’Kane, Caitlin. “33 years after making history, American Airlines’ first female captain honored for pioneering role.” CBS News, December 10, 2019, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/female-pilot-honored-beverley-bass-american-airlines-captain-tpg-awards/.

Taberski, Dan. “Don’t Hate Me Because I’m Beautiful.” 9/12. Produced by Pineapple Street Studios. September 15, 2021. Podcast, MP3 audio, 35. https://podcasts.apple.com/us/podcast/dont-hate-me-because-im-beautiful/id1581684171?i=1000532529141.

Williams, Cynthia A. “Fort Meyers native Beverley Bass made aviation history.” The News-Press, March 19, 2016, https://www.news-press.com/story/entertainment/2016/03/19/fort-myers-beverley-bass-aviation-history-american-airlines-broadway/81758696/.

Hairspray

Colling, Samantha. The Aesthetic Pleasures of Girl Teen Film. London: Bloomsbury Academic, 2017.

Delmont, Matthew F. The Nicest Kids in Town: American Bandstand, Rock ‘n’ Roll, and the Struggle for Civil Rights in 1950s Philadelphia. Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012.

Kare, Jeffrey. “The Journey of HAIRSPRAY—From Screen to Stage and Back Again!” Broadway World, 7 December 2016, https://www.broadwayworld.com/article/The-Journey-of-HAIRSPRAY–From-Screen-to-Stage-and-Back-Again-20161207.

Pogrebin, Robin. “Riding High With a Big, Bouffant Hit; After. 25 Years of Paying Dues, an Independent Producer Scores with ‘Hairspray.’” The New York Times, 16 October, 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/10/16/theater/riding-high-with-big-bouffant-hit-after-25-years-paying-dues-independent.html?sec=&spon=&pagewanted=3.

Russell, Curtis. “Four Hairsprays, One Baltimore: The City in Trans-medial Adaptation.” Studies in Musical Theatre 12, no. 3 (2018): 367-375.

Stebbins, Samuel. “Here’s What a Six-Pack of Beer Cost the Year You Were Born.” USA Today, 20 November 2018, https://www.usatoday.com/story/money/2018/11/20/cost-beer-how-much-six-pack-cost-year-you-were-born/38528543/.

Waters, John. “Finally, Footlights On the Fat Girls.” The New York Times, 11 August 2002, https://www.nytimes.com/2002/08/11/theater/theater-finally-footlights-on-the-fat-girls.html.

Woodward, Suzanne. “Taming Transgression: Gender-bending in Hairspray (John Waters, 1988) and Its Remake.” New Cinemas: Journal of Contemporary Film 10, no. 2 & 3 (2012): 115-126.

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