Wednesday, October 27, 2010

An Explosive New Musical

Earlier this week, theater fans received the news that In The Heights would close on January 9, 2011. As sad as it is when shows close, especially one as joyous as Heights, it did have an impressive three-year run and made a lasting impact on musical theater. After seeing the explosive (it's a term used in the subtitle, but it's the most appropriate description) new musical Venice at the Kirk Douglas Theatre in Culver City, California, I got to thinking about how a musical like In The Heights made it possible for a musical like Venice to exist.
Venice, with a book by Eric Rosen and music by Matt Sax (Rosen and Sax share a lyricist credit), is loosely based on Othello. The show takes place in a fictionalized Venice after 20 years of war. A group called the Disappeared, who were kept safe during the war, are finally returning to the city. One of them is Willow (Andrea Goss), who is about to marry the new leader Venice (Javier Muñoz). Venice's half brother Markos (Rodrick Covington) is still reeling from Venice's decision to promote Michael Viktor (Erich Bergen), also one of the Disappeared, to lieutenant general over him, and which leads into the Othello-like story of betrayal and jealousy.

Matt Sax has written one of the most contemporary scores I've ever heard in a musical. He is also a skilled rapper as he plays the narrator Clown (the cast is pretty much perfect, not a weak link among them). While In The Heights does have a hip hop score, it is still a traditional musical. Venice is not only much darker (the character of Venice is a product of a rape), but it feels like it's breaking new ground in the way the score is used. Any type of music could be used to tell this story, it just happens to be hip hop, but it's not the point. And because In The Heights set the groundwork, I think audiences will be more likely to accept Venice.

Lately, critics have crowned Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson as the future of musical theater, which is troubling. It relies on silly jokes rather than saying anything all that intelligent about the political situation today or then. Though it's billed as an emo music, it bears little resemblance to the emo music that's played on the radio. I won't include American Idiot in this discussion because that was an album by Green Day first. The music of Venice was composed specifically for a show, but I could hear many of these songs played on the radio. There is a lot of talk of Leap of Faith, also part of the Center Theatre Group's season, coming to Broadway in the fall 2011. While that would be nice, especially so Raul Esparza can finally win his Tony, Venice is a show that needs to be on a New York stage, or really any stage.

Photo credit: Craig Schwartz

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