You know that thing about a large-enough quantity of monkeys sitting at typewriters writing all of Shakespeare? This isn’t that.
Suppose, instead, a hundred musical theatre writers were forced to come up with shows based on the common scourge of bullying at school. 99 of those hundred would include lachrymose ballads about how sad you feel when mean kids pick on you. It’s like an open manhole cover that a parade of creators would fall into. The exception, the one-out-of-a-hundred who avoids the trap, is Michael Gordon Shapiro.
His wholly original musical, The Bully Problem, now at the Broadwater near Santa Monica Blvd. & Vine as part of the Hollywood Fringe Festival, is the sort of relentless delight that musicals used to be but rarely are any more. It refuses to wallow. It delivers jokes and events at an impressive pace that never flags. It keeps the entertainment balloon aloft, rather than getting stuck in the manhole labeled Life Can Be Cruel.
I’m honor-bound to disclose Mike is a friend, and this means some readers will disregard the praise here. But I’m writing to illuminate certain issues of show construction, not to convince you to go. But here’s a handy link for tickets.
You might think bullying is no laughing matter. As a former bullied kid myself, I can understand that line of thinking. But my mind goes to Kander & Ebb. The rise of the Nazis is a dark subject, but we enjoy their fabulously entertaining diegetic pieces in Cabaret. Years later, their Kiss of the Spiderwoman found glimmers of brightness in a dank and hopeless Latin American prison. Even more extraordinary was their subversive high-kicking minstrel show about The Scottsboro Boys. Why haven’t more people learned from them? They juxtaposed serious subjects with razzmatazz, toe-tapping tunes and gut-punch punch lines more than once.
What I find in most new musicals – and it depresses me – is that the miserable shows are so damn depressing. Too many creators are overly attracted to the shiny bauble that is the Moving Ballad. They see shows and shed tears during a song and decide they want to write something that will get their audience to cry. Sixty years ago, a revue made fun of this, with an up-tempo showing songwriters excited to serve up Man’s Inhumanity To Man. Nowadays, we get dragged into the theatre to see kids with cancer – I’m not kidding, although I wish I were – and it’s a fine though unfunny mess we’ve gotten ourselves into.
What a blast of fresh air is The Bully Problem, with its myriad witticisms, actions and events coming at a pace that puts you at the edge of your seat. I’m not saying I loved every moment, but when story beats keep hurtling at you, a confidence grows that the next moment will be one you’ll like or love. When I say it doesn’t wallow, the word, “wallow” has two senses. One is to amplify depressing emotions; the other is to do that… really… slowly.
This, more than the refusal to play up the sad, seems to me the secret of the show’s success. The Bully Problem zips along. Punch lines land like a boxing champion’s punches. Things happen – I imagine an outline of this might make it seem like a three-hour epic, but it’s actually half that. There are surprises along the way. And also something you might not realize if you’re not a music nerd: the meters and feels of the songs are varied enough to create their own subtle propulsion. In any good show, audiences look forward to the next song (sorry, book-writers), but this score manages, almost magically, to kick us into a new gear every time. There’s actually a song called Off Balance, an apt title because that’s how we feel taking in its jagged rhythm.
Torpor can set in when a musical keeps a steady tempo, keeps feeding us new blips of information at regular intervals. The adrenaline rush of The Bully Problem is connected to an irregular fusillade of surprises. And some weeks before I saw this fairly slick production, Mike said something on a similar wave-length:
“Writing for stage requires an intuition about the pacing of human speech, and an ability to imagine a real-time performance. Otherwise a scene that looks reasonable in text can actually feel interminable when performed. Time is the most valuable resource on stage, and each word hogs some.”
It’s particularly satisfying to discover he’s kept the hogs at bay.
Now I suspect there are some people reading this who firmly believe that for a musical about a serious subject must musicalize the pain of a victim’s plight. How, you wonder, can The Bully Problem provide catharsis without some gloriously-sung It’s Sad To Be Bullied cri de coeur? Maybe you’d have to see it to believe it. But sitting next to me was someone who’s recently dealt with a Mean Girl and she shed some tears over what was happening to these characters and felt better after the show was over. You will too.