It’s interesting watching a generation struggle to come to terms with musicals. As I wrote last year in a review of a Joe Iconis show, popular consensus maintains that musicals are not cool. For the past few years there have been a lot of different productions and rock groups trying to rebrand the musical as something different. I’m still looking for hip-hop to take on the rock/rap opera and make it huge. Imagine Kanye West’s outsized personality following up on R. Kelly’s Closet saga: could be good, could be horrible, probably entertaining either way.
Enter Banana Bag & Bodice and the Shotgun Players, who have teamed up for what they are calling a “songplay” that retells the story of Beowulf — that ancient epic poem you were probably supposed to read in high school English class, about the man who kills the monster. Now, we all had to study postmodern theory as undergrads, so we all know about categories and signs and signifiers and narratives and meta-narratives, but rebranding a musical as a songplay is a tough sell, even in the 21st century (a century famous for rebranding what already seems ubiquitous). This show is a musical — it may be new, but it’s still a musical, and who cares? It’s not Stephen Sondheim or the emo-mania of Spring Awakening, it’s more NY indie: smart, self-conscious, ironic lyrics over creative instrumentation (a saw, for instance) with that approximation of cabaret that’s been popular for a while now, and vocals that aren’t pristine but boast a lot of character.
The show also taps into a longer-running trend of epic anti-heroes that has been big for the past decade — think of all those films adapted from comic books with conflicted protagonists who have to commit violence in order to rid the world of violence. Beowulf in this production is no towering Adonis, he’s a little bit from the Stan Lee school, mixed with a dash of American Splendor — he’s the kind of guy who needs to lean over and take a few breaths after slaying the dragon.
There’s also a subplot involving a conflict between the set of three critics who narrate the show (see earlier note on postmodern leftovers), which is supposed to boil into an epic fight between intellectualism and art. Sadly, this part of the piece is a little bit weak in comparison to the rest of the show, as it ultimately pits Beowulf against the critics — and he never would have cared what anyone thought of him. Not to mention that, like all good epic poems (and musicals), it doesn’t really matter what the academics say because they can’t steal the experience of the thing (that’s why guilty pleasures persist in the face of pundits). Paying attention to critics is a choice you make, and you can always choose not to. Truth is, the critics won’t know the difference, they’ll keep talking anyway, and some of them are totally ok with the fact that you’re always free to make up your own mind.