Thursday, May 16, 2013

Murder Ballad: The Problem of the Pop Opera

Caissie Levy and Will Swenson as Sara and Tom
Murder Ballad, by Julia Jordan and Juliana Nash. Directed by Trip Cullman. Starring John Ellison Conlee, Rebecca Naomi Jones, Caissie Levy, and Will Swenson. Currently in previews Off-Broadway at Union Square Theatre, opening May 22nd, running through September 29th. Previously played at MTC at City Center Stage II, October 21st, 2012-December 16th, 2012.

The Pop Opera is a troubling genre. It's not true musical theatre, it's not true opera, and it's not a concert (well, maybe Movin' Out was a concert with dance). There's no problem with having a sung-through narrative, provided the narrative still takes precedence in the storytelling, but all too often that is sacrificed - because in the pop idiom, the songs are not plot- or character-driven, as in a traditional musical, but emotion-driven. Pop songs, as a form, sit in the emotion of the moment, but rarely move beyond it. And often (unless we have a narrator to help us through it, which we'll get to in a moment), we are left to rely on a bare-bones narrative full of familiar tropes and archetypes (or just flat-out cliches), with not much new to say about any of them. American Idiot was a rousing good time, but I don't think anyone was there for the story; I don't think anyone left with much of a story beyond, "Gee, it's hard to be a guy in his 20s in Modern America." The plot's there, but it's rarely actually in the action of the songs themselves - the songs are reactions to the plot. And there's no dialogue to help us literalize whatever dreams or plans were abandoned or compromised, as it's all skated through on the way to the next chorus.

This is the way the Pop idiom cripples storytelling and prevents Pop Operas from being true musicals.

What's fascinating here is how much Murder Ballad embraces those very limitations of the genre and turn them on themselves - it luxuriates in those flaws and says, "Yes, that's the point, and that's the story we need to tell."

The score, as written by Juliana Nash (music & lyrics) and Julia Jordan (lyrics), exists fully within the pop/rock medium, and very good within that. While one does perhaps wish for more book numbers, "You Belong to Me" and "Answer Me" serve well at walking the line between the two, as they are grounded in emotion, but use that emotion as argument, not to wallow. But for every rich image in lyric, every "harmless as a hand grenade," there are also clunkers, which land with a quiet chuckle in the audience - "your kiss is like a mouth tattoo." And it does fall victim to lyrical flaws accepted in Pop, though less acceptable in musical theater - rain and again do not rhyme unless we are British, and the phrase "There but for the grace of God go I," sung repeatedly in the opening number, is thrown off its iam, such that you don't quite understand what you're hearing the first time it's sung. These flaws being acknowledged, I did really enjoy the music and most of the songs, and will absolutely buy the cast album.

A huge percentage of the songs around the songs, the actually storytelling, are left to someone outside the action of the story. Here we are gifted with a Narrator, in the form of Rebecca Naomi Jones, utilizing her considerable charisma and singing prowess to take us through the story, but reminding us all along what the rules are. This is a murder ballad, which means, she tells us, "Someone's gonna die." With a King, a Queen, a Club, and a Knave, the only question is who and by whom we will get our promised murder.

John Ellison Conlee, Caissie Levy, Will Swenson, and Rebecca Naomi Jones
This Narrator is ever-present, guiding us through the story in a way the characters themselves can't - because the characters, Sara, her husband Michael, and her adulterous lover Tom, are caught up in the cliches inherent to murder ballads and pop operas in a way the Narrator isn't. So the characters drown in their moments, in their emotions, while the Narrator guides us smoothly through ten years to the next event. The Narrator, unlike her characters, is fully aware of her genre, remarking slying, as Sara's and Tom's affair rekindles, "It's so sophisticated," likening it to a French movie, or any story we've seen a million times over.

This is the first fully blatant acknowledgement of familiar ground, after the opening, and it's further highlighted by our first moments of abstracted movement, choreographed by Doug Varone, as the characters twist and caress each other. It is also the first moment one of the characters, Tom, seems aware of the Narrator, constantly throwing her off as she tries to interfere with his coupling with Sara. It is, intriguingly, our first hint that the Narrator is more than she seems.

The Union Square Theatre has been transformed into an arena-style dive bar by scenic designer Mark Wendland, with old movie posters and grafitti plastering the floor and pool table. Small tables cover half the stage area, where a chunk of the audience sits. But director Trip Cullman has expertly tackled this challenging playing space and kept the movement fluid and dynamic - the characters move among the tables, across the bar, on top of the pool table, up into the aisles. They inhabit the whole of the space, making us ever more the voyeurs, invading their space, rather than watching behind a protective proscenium. We are the interlopers into their tortured love triangle.


Unfortunately, the more tortured the triangle becomes, the less believable it becomes as well. Tom grows unnaturally, obsessively possessive of the woman who got away, but we are shown Points A and B without experiencing the journey there, and it's all the more surprising, considering how commitment-phobic he was a decade earlier.With nothing to ground his obsession, we must fill in the blanks of the trope ourselves, but elements are ringing false as we get closer and closer to the moment when we know, since we were promised, someone's gonna die. Cue the 11 o'clock reveal that our nameless Narrator, who has been getting drunker off a bottle of vodka as the night progressed, tying her hair back to reveal she was a player in this sordid affair all along, Tom's neglected, unnamed girlfriend. It's a nice coup de theatre, as she lifts the bat (the Club) to beat Tom, the Knave, to death with it. But as she repeats, gearing up for the blow, "I'm not erasable! I'm not erasable!" she doesn't recognize that she herself has become a victim of the tropes of Murder Ballads and Pop Operas herself - plunging into the emotion of the moment without recognizing just how erasable she actually is - so erasable that she erased herself entirely from the narrative until the climactic moment; so erasable that the only other character ever aware of her presence was Tom, and him barely. It's a fascinating moment in terms of an omniscient character losing perspective.

The story winds down, and just when we thought it was over, the lights return and the four characters sing joyously of the cautionary tale we just witnessed. Lost is the angst and the melodrama, and suddenly the whole evening is thrown into a new perspective, something to chuckle about, nothing to be taken seriously, even as they warn us not to let this happen to us. As an apology for any moments so overwrought we chuckled (yes, there were some), it doesn't quite work, because it feels like it's also dismissing anything we were meant to take seriously, anything we were meant to feel. As a finale, it's terrific fun.

There are so many interesting ideas in here, framed by a completely ordinary story. It's a fascinating ride, though flawed, caught by the very tropes it's trying to rise above. A noble not-quite success.
John Ellison Conlee, Caissie Levy, Rebecca Naomi Jones, and Will Swenson

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