Ben’s Guide to Musical Theater: Bare A Pop Opera

There has been a massive surge in representation for the LGBT community, especially when gay rights has been a widely debated topic in politics. We’ve gotten to a place now where gay and lesbian couples are typically seen as normal, with the legalization of gay marriage and the pushback against discrimination against their culture. Musical theater, in particular, has always been open about gay rights, with musicals like “Rent’, “Falsettos” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” touching on gay relationships without being stereotypical, demonizing or in your face. One of the best examples of a gay relationship being depicted on stage is the Off-Broadway musical, “Bare: A Pop Opera”.

While not the first to discuss LGBT issues in a musicalized format, Bare takes a more direct and critical approach, not only featuring a gay couple as the main focus, but also touching on homophobia in schools, religion, and society as a whole. The musical takes place in a Catholic school and follows Jason and Peter, two senior students in a committed relationship who have to constantly hide their love for each other due to fear of rejection from their families and church. While Peter wants to be more open about his feelings and is tired of always hiding, Jason fears being found out due to his popular status and continually denies his sexuality. This eventually leads to their breakup, and Jason starts to develop a relationship with a fellow student named Ivy, further denying his sexual orientation. The rest gets complicated. There are drugs. People get pregnant. Angels sing backup. The Virgin Mary’s a black woman. White boys can’t rap. Some kids die. It kind of a mess.

Now, this show actually holds a special place in my heart. I was actually in a production of the show a couple years ago for the theater company “Center Stage Players”. There was actually quite a few notable Metea students and alumni in the cast. Some of them include Rich Adrian Lazatin, Josh Keske, Mal Carter, Danny Scoville, and Zenia Walker. I played the super important role of “that one male ensemble member that didn’t have any solos or lines” and I grew attached to the play ever since. I actually credit it for helping me discover my sexuality, which is something I am thankful for. Plus spending three months on one show leads to me over analyzing everything, which is why I’m writing this review.

As you could tell from the plot description, this is quite a heavy show, tackling themes of religion and LGBTQ rights, and how these two aspects of life create conflict for the main characters. Peter and Jason are forced to hide their relationship within the church out of fear of alienation, which makes sense as a prominent factor of homophobia in real life does come from extreme religious groups. Because the main story focuses on the gay relationship and their ideologies, the parts of the show where these themes are in focus are the best elements of the show. Peter and Jason’s relationship is realistic and tragic, positively representing their sexuality while also showing the inner turmoil that they both face. Peter’s refusal to hide his sexuality despite his devotion to god contrasts with Jason’s reluctance to come out, creating a conflict that is relatable to teens who may deal with the same issues. Also, while the show does criticize the church for its blatantly homophobic beliefs and for its questionable guidance of the young students (representing by a recurring priest character), it doesn’t completely demonize religion as a whole. The characters want to remain close to god despite what the church proclaims, and there are people in the school that are more accepting of the characters sexualities. One of the more minor characters, a nun and theater director Sister Chantelle, is at first shown to be a more comical, sassy presence that insults the students whenever she can, but we find out that she is fully accepting of Peter and Jason’s sexuality, adding more depth to a show that could have been one-sided. We even see a little bit of the other side of the LGBT argument through the eyes of a parent. There’s a heartbreaking scene where Peter tries to tell his mother over the phone that he’s gay, only for her to hang up on him. She then sings the song “Warning”, where she laments over her sons’ sexuality and how she’ll be able to handle it. These small moments give the story a lot more edge over similar stories that try to talk about the same issues, adding a layer of emotional complexity and relatability.

However, these aren’t the only issues that the show tries to tackle. Throughout the narrative, Bare attempts to talk about more teen topics that are relevant to its audience. This includes drug use, teen pregnancy, isolation, peer pressure, body image problems, and much more. Basically any edgy early 2000’s topic you can think of, Bare has it. While it’s cool that the musical tackles these issues, they aren’t treated with the same amount of depth and sensitivity as is covering of homosexuality and religion. It overcomplicates a story that’s already complex is not always needed. Very rarely do these topics actually tie in with the overall narrative theme, so they often come off as throwaways or padding. This can often lead to tonal inconsistency as some scenes are extremely comedic, but then they’re followed by a really emotional moment, creating a very inconsistent show. In fact, a lot of times the show kinda unintentionally glorifies drug use. Yeah, people get hurt by drugs and die, but when one of your characters has a whole white boy rap number going into great detail about specific drugs, it kinda gives off the wrong impression.

This does bring up one of the weakest elements of the show, which is the story and the characters. Like I said before, Peter and Jason’s storyline is well done and their characters are well developed and for the most part understandable. However, most of the other characters in the show don’t have that same amount of development. The previously mentioned Ivy, who is in love with Jason but feels isolated because of the misconceptions of being a popular girl, has her moments of relatability and her character is kind of understandable, but she mainly acts as an object to move the plot forward, getting physical with Jason to challenge him as a character. The other two main characters, Matt and Nadia, don’t really contribute to the plot either and aren’t super interesting. Matt acts mostly as a foil to Jason, being jealous of him because he basically stole everything from him without even trying (including the affection of Ivy). He also kind of acts of a parallel to Peter as they both struggle with maintaining their trust in God, which does make for a potentially interesting character, but his subplot doesn’t really go anywhere and he only acts as a catalyst for more drama due to knowing that Peter and Jason are gay. Nadia, Jason’s brother who is angsty and bitter towards Ivy, is, in my opinion, one of the most useless characters in the show. Her conflict, which is isolation from the world because of her weight and jealousy of Ivy, is completely disconnected from the rest of the story and she doesn’t contribute anything to the story. She doesn’t change any characters, nor does show really do anything except be there. Yet the play acts like she’s one of the central characters. She literally has three songs all to herself, which is more than Jason and Peter may I add, and yet she could be cut from the musical without losing anything.

The biggest story element that I feel was poorly handled was its touching of teen pregnancy. After Jason and Ivy get physical at the end of Act 1, Ivy reveals that she’s pregnant through the song “All Grown Up’, which is admittedly one of the best songs in the show. However, after a heated argument with Jason, she tells him the news and Jason is immediately confrontational, blaming her for being pregnant. This not only is unrealistic and makes Jason look like a terrible human being, but this plot is never resolved. Jason never apologizes for his actions and never offers to help raise the child. I guess she’s just expected to raise the baby all by herself. The fact that they forget about it so quick is terrible and a poor representation of a serious issue. Especially for a show that does a great job attacking other themes, this comes off as even more of a slap in the face.

Despite these obvious story flaws, there is still plenty to appreciate some of the deeper elements of the storyline. One part that I really appreciate is the “Romeo and Juliet” parallels. In the show, the kids are all involved with the school play, which happens to be “Romeo and Juliet” and while at first glance it doesn’t seem important, these scenes actually represent the character dynamics of the show the best. In the play within a play, Jason plays Romeo and Ivy is Juliet, while Peter is Mercutio and Matt is Tybalt. Since Tybalt and Romeo were rivals in the play, it represents the jealousy Matt has towards Jason. However, all the other roles play off of irony. Jason playing Romeo and Ivy playing Juliet not only plays off of the relationship they had at one point but also creates an idea of the idealistic love that the general public is used to. However, the true “Romeo and Juliet” story is the one of Peter and Jason, who secretly love each other but are divided by the ideals of the church, leading to tragedy and conflict throughout. This is made obvious during a pivotal scene in Act 2, where Peter fills in for the role of Juliet to recite the Pilgrims Hands speech. In a way, Peter playing Mercutio is its own form of irony as the later is one who detests love and views it as selfish, while Peter wants to express his love and be more open about it. This turns the “Queen Mab” speech into something deeper that becomes a longing for desire. These ideas create more depth for a story that could have been more surface level.

One of the most notable features of the show is the soundtrack and how it helps drive the narrative. Because of the “Pop Opera” format, the entire show is told through song, with the exception of a few brief dialogue scenes. Because of this, many of the songs also act as dialogue scenes that drive the story forward and reveal things about the characters. Every song has some sort of purpose to the story and makes the viewing experience a lot more enjoyable. The styles of songs tend to vary, but many of them take on a punk rock vibe, especially for the ensemble pieces like “Confession” or “Epiphany”. This type of sound helps establish the tone of the play and helps keep what could have been dull scenes interesting. Often times the show will take a more soft approach and give their pieces a more emotional vibe. Songs like “Role of a Lifetime” and “Once Upon a Time” are intentionally more reflective and subtle in approach to help establish the somber scenes and better represent the message of each song. At times the more quiet songs will have very metaphorical and dramatic lyrics, creating a greater emotional response for the audience. One of the most unique features of the soundtrack is during the play scenes, where they sing the writings of “Romeo and Juliet” in a beautiful context. There is a lot to love about the soundtrack as it represents the story, influences the message of the piece and often adds layers to an already deep story.

“Bare: A Pop Opera” may suffer from story problems in the second act and an inconsistent tone, but what it represents is so powerful. The representation of the LGBT community and themes of religion are powerful and make for an engaging and relatable story, which is helped by strong leads, powerful metaphors, and a soundtrack that compliments the message perfectly. If you find that your local area is doing a production of this show, please give it a look as its a must see for anyone to look at.