Street Musicals Infuse Theater With Energy of Improvisation

Groundbreaking shows 'Bring in 'da Noise' and 'Rent' make the big move to Broadway

Exploding like pent-up volcanoes, two youthful new musicals are shaking up the landscape of musical theater. This month, they will leave their downtown birthplaces and invade Broadway, joining two other Off Broadway shows in forging a new direction for this classic American institution.

"Rent," the East Village rock opera by Jonathan Larsen, and "Bring in 'da Noise, Bring in 'da Funk," the street musical created by George C. Wolfe, Reg E. Gaines, and Savion Glover, will both officially premiere on Broadway, qualifying them for Tony Award consideration as best musical of the year.

But with the excitement comes a cultural dividend: These shows, along with the percussion blockbuster "Stomp" and the hip-hop musical "Jam on the Groove," have jump-started the musical-theater world.

In the same way that independent film has become a home for the most innovative work in motion pictures, these small, alternative musicals represent a backlash against the million-dollar, effects-heavy productions that have taken up residence on Broadway. They also offer an alternative to the increasing number of revivals that harken back to Broadway's midcentury golden era.

Today, musicals can be grouped into three basic categories: the megamusical ("Cats," "Les Miserables," and "Phantom of the Opera"); revivals ("Showboat," "The King and I," and "A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum"); and so-called street musicals ("Stomp," "Jam on the Groove," and "Rent").

The latter dispense with the rigid, act-sing-dance structure of conventional musicals and allow improvisation, rock and rap music scores, and on-the-edge theatricality. Cast members in their teens and 20s deliver soaring performances.

These new productions have focused attention on audiences that don't usually go to the theater - young people and members of minority groups. Worldwide, audiences are increasingly drawn to American hip-hop culture. They respond to its energy and freedom. "Jam on the Groove," for example, will tour Japan and Europe.

"Rent" reflects the young, post-slacker culture of New York's Lower East Side, and "really succeeds in capturing that feeling, that chaotic street life," says actor Anthony Rapp, one of the show's stars. A resident of that neighborhood himself, he adds, "I've had friends say that when they saw the show, they felt like they were on St. Mark's Place." And Savion Glover - the tap-dance whiz who provided the inspiration for "Bring in 'da Funk" and choreographed and stars in the show - observes that "a lot of younger people, we want to express ourselves on a broader level, showing, groovin'. We want to be seen and be heard."

"Bring in 'da Funk" represents the clearest example of new energy married to established production processes. Wolfe (see accompanying interview) oversees all aspects of the Papp Public Theater, itself the starting place for "Hair" nearly 30 years ago.

A five-time Broadway director and Tony-winner for "Angels in America," he was dedicated to having an audience "experience the energy of people who are in their 20s. I was determined to have a musical that felt like it was happening in 1995, as opposed to the most recent contemporary thing that is happening in American musical theater, 'Tommy,' which is based on music that is about 30 years old."

Wolfe teamed with Glover last August to tell in "Bring in 'da Noise" the story of the influence African sound has played in American culture. He uses that objective to assault the existing musical-theater form, something he has been interested in as a playwright since his earliest work, "A Colored Museum." He notes that "even though it wasn't a musical, but a play with music, it mocked the musical. And in 'Jelly's Last Jam' [about legendary musician Jelly Roll Morton, which he directed on Broadway], I was experimenting, trying to do a 'Broadway show' while deconstructing the form inside the form. Here, it was building from scratch. There was no life story, no tale I had to tell.

"I was interested in trying to figure out how, if you have text prose, if you have certain poetry, if you have lyrics, if you have songs, if you have walking, standing still, and dance, how can you constantly shift them and use them to tell a series of stories, so that you are not really obeying some archaic thought process about how things are constructed. You're obeying the story you're telling, and not somebody's idea of what makes a musical."

With Glover and other participants in the show, Wolfe created a piece - which played to sold-out houses at the Public last fall - that is eclectic, moving from scene to scene, style to style, but accomplishes the basic goal. It tells the story of the African beat, threading it chronologically from the earliest slave days to the most current MTV incarnations.

Because Glover is widely acclaimed as his generation's most accomplished tap dancer, that aspect of the story could be given prominence. The dancers even feature tiny microphones attached to their ankles to emphasize the percussive force of their work. As choreographer, Glover was aware that these young performers, some of whom had only worked on street corners previously, were not used to a locked-in routine.

"None of my boys ever performed on Broadway, in an ongoing show, having to do the same thing. I know what I was like when I was beginning," Glover says with a smile, recalling his earliest appearance in "The Tap Dance Kid" when he was 12, then moving on to "Black and Blue" and "Jelly's Last Jam."

To accommodate their need "to have some freedom to work out, to express themselves," Glover incorporates three numbers that permit improvisation. "I kept that in mind and snuck those spots in." That shrewd decision further enlivens an already electric evening, in which the focus shifts from slave-ship lament and inner-city Chicago bustle, to sly comment on Hollywood's stereotyping of blacks and today's world of subtle racism and rap music.

"Everything in our show is real," Glover comments, drawing comparisons to the traditional format. "It's not like there's a scene and, all of a sudden, music comes from nowhere to do a dance piece. Our pieces are expressing ourselves, about things like trying to get a taxi." He predicts "a lot of young-minded shows coming up that are real." On April 9, "Bring in 'da Noise" opens at the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway.

A different kind of evolution emerged at the New York Theatre Workshop in January. Housed in a converted warehouse, "Rent" uses the original story of Puccini's "La Boheme" and updates it to the '90s on New York's scrappy Lower East Side - home to starving performance artists, part-time students, struggling drug abusers, defiant drag queens, introspective independent filmmakers, and seasoned homeless people, trying to survive in a world of financial impoverishment, AIDS, and life-in-the-moment philosophy.

In a bold stroke of innovative theatricality, Jonathan Larsen retained the opera structure, but ripped out all its 19th-century underpinnings. He replaced it instead with dynamic rock performances, vivid characters, bare-bones design, and a free-flowing integrated storytelling process that pulls the audience through the show.

And it's not just young people who have given the show its phenomenal response. Rapp recalls how, on a recent night, "there was an old woman in her 80s who was clearly moved by the show, and then there was this kid who was 11 or 12, standing at the end, applauding. It's really remarkable to me what's happening."

And it happened very fast. Opening Jan. 28 of this year, following a few developmental workshops, "Rent" was smothered in glowing reviews, prompting a mad rush for tickets and an outpouring of interest from uptown producers, including offers to record a cast album.

Its initial six-week run was extended, and the transfer process of adapting it to a Broadway theater began. It premieres at the Nederlander Theater on April 29.

Since 1994, "Stomp" has been ripping up the Off Broadway Orpheum Theatre, using everything from garbage-can lids to matchsticks to create a percussion-based musical with no dialogue and endless energy.

The show's British creators, Steve MacNicholas and Luke Cresswell, started fooling around with sound-only pieces by sticking a short free-for-all at the end of their street-band sets, eventually taking their group to the Edinburgh Festival in 1981.

What began as a 90-second routine grew and grew, until it evolved into a full-length performance piece celebrating the joys of sound from found objects, including rubber hoses, Zippo lighters, paper cups, steel drums, and even newspapers. While this style of music-making is not totally new - film buffs will recall Gene Kelly, Michael Kidd, and Dan Dailey hoofing about with garbage-can lids on their feet in the 1955 musical "It's Always Fair Weather" - today's practitioners emphasize the raw, personal elements in their work.

"When we put the shows on," MacNicholas points out, "we were really part of a renaissance of alternative music hall in Great Britain," an era when working people found live musical entertainment they could relate to in local theaters. "Even though our whole scene was always labeled 'alternative,' an awful lot of it you could trace back to variety shows."

He even credits early Hollywood films "going back to 'Gold Diggers' and 'Stormy Weather,' for instance," for inspiring the exaggerated style of their performance, and also credits international cultural influences such as Japanese and Burundi drummers as models of performance.

When they teamed 16 years ago to do comedy street musicals, MacNicholas had more acting and performing experience than Cresswell, who had been a musician. This background provided him more perspective on the state of musical theater in general, at that time, and since.

"One really good thing about a percussion musical," MacNicholas observes, "is that, if you remove melody and you remove dialogue, then you have removed an awful lot of cultural baggage. One of the problems of stage musicals from the '60s onward was that musical tastes changed so radically, and popular music is radically different from the kind of music you expect to hear in a 'musical' - that there's this huge divergence. I don't think anyone knows what kind of music will work in a musical that's going to be huge and that everyone's going to love."

Now firmly established as a long-running Off Broadway hit, other companies of "Stomp" are heading to many major American cities during 1996 and 1997, and European versions are also planned.

"Jam on the Groove" might be called the American counterpart to "Stomp," concluding a recent Off Broadway run and readying a domestic and international tour that kicks off in June. Basically a revue in structure, the show strings together short dance pieces and narrative stories told in music and movement, all derived from urban American hip-hop culture of the '80s and '90s. Three original hip-hop groups, the Magnificent Force, Rock Steady Crew, and the Rhythm Technicians, joined forces to launch GhettOriginals, drawing from black, Latino, and Caribbean musical cultures to produce the musical.

Starting with small pieces as far back as 1989, each of the groups caught the attention of small theater producers; they were even invited to participate in larger events at Lincoln Center and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts. Last summer, the new GhettOriginals presented "So What Happens Now?" at the experimental theater space P.S. 122 in lower Manhattan, a precursor to "Jam on the Groove." Jorge (Fabel) Pabon, one of the original founders, notes that "a couple of Broadway producers and a couple of film companies approached us." That interest led to the current show.

Some of the cast had experienced previous exposure as dancers, notably in Bill Irwin's Broadway production "Largely/ New York," which convinced them that a wider audience could appreciate their intricate, body-twisting routines. But the hip-hop culture, which reaches wider than the music itself, has not been on view in theaters, a culture Pabon points out "is not gangsterism, is not misogynist, is not one that glorifies or condones drug use or criminal activity, but is pretty life-affirming."

"I think this is our first plateau in terms of what can be done with what we do," Pabon adds. A disc jockey opens the show, setting a street atmosphere tone and welcoming an unfamiliar audience into this new world of music, rhyming, rapping, and dance.

Pabon recognizes that "Jam on the Groove" violates most tenets of conventional musical theater. "I think people are used to seeing one or two or three long pieces, more of the traditional stuff. This is still pretty much a young form, although some of it comes from ancient dance forms and martial arts from long ago. It's showcasing all the potential that exists here."

That potential will be clear as the Tony-nominating process unfolds during the coming weeks, pitting "Bring in 'da Noise" and "Rent" against more traditional new shows, such as "Victor/Victoria," "State Fair," and "Big."

Whether or not they receive the Broadway establishment's official acknowledgement, these lively new shows have permanently altered the future of the American musical.

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