Street Musicals Infuse Theater with Energy of Improvisation Groundbreaking Shows 'Bring in 'Da Noise' and 'Rent' Make the Big Move to Broadway

Article excerpt

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. …