Wednesday, 28 September 2011

Short Eyes: Subverting the Jukebox Musical

The Jukebox Musical has taken over theatreland.  It would seem almost every major popular music artist from the last 50 years, from Elvis and Abba to Madonna and Queen, feature in thinly veiled tribute shows stitched together by increasingly flimsy narratives.  

Whilst it might be easy to dismiss the Jukebox Musical as theatre for people who don’t like theatre, featuring music for people who don’t like music, it’s hard to deny the popularity of a genre that consistently draws coachloads of eager audiences night after night.  Whilst in Melbourne earlier this year, I admit I was lured to Rock of Ages by the promise of a night of absurd 80’s hair metal and I enjoyed it thoroughly.  Deep down I knew it was wrong and I knew it was the equivalent of a fast food burger or a pornographic movie – a pre-packaged, safe, sterile and weak imitation of a real thing – but it was disposable fun that delivered cheap thrills exactly as promised.

Whilst it is easy to snobbishly criticise any popular art form, perhaps, at a time when even critically acclaimed new theatre is failing to find an audience and attendances are dwindling, it is better to look at how this odd mutant genre is succeeding.  Maybe it even has the potential to be subverted and grow into something altogether more positive and healthy.

If new audiences are flocking to the Jukebox Musical, why not use the form to revive a genuinely challenging piece of theatre?  Why can’t serious and provocative themes coexist within the crowd pleasing greatest hits of an artist or era?

It’s easier done that you might imagine.  Consider, for instance, the sleeping giant of potential Jukebox Theatre: The Soul Hits of the 70’s.  If a genre can pack a dancefloor at the most hipster nightclub and the squarest wedding party alike, then surely it will draw the crowds onstage.  Furthermore, beneath the familiar breaks, beats, funky bass and sweet honey vocals, there lurks a breadth of social commentary and personal confessional, just ripe for narrative exploitation.

A perfect vehicle for this musical back catalogue already exists in Short Eyes, a 1974 drama written by playwright Miguel Piñero.  Short Eyes, prison slang for a paedophile, was written for a prisoners' writing workshop during Pinero's incarceration for armed robbery.  The play was nominated for six Tony Awards. It won the New York Critics Circle Award and an Obie Award for the "best play of the year". 

The play was also a success in Europe and catapulted Piñero to literary fame.  In 1977, it was adapted for a film and soul legend Curtis Mayfield composed and performed the acclaimed soundtrack, the lyrics of which already provide an inescapably funky narrative.  Insert the soundtrack into the performance, integrate a wider spectrum of popular hits from the era and suddenly you have an explosive combination. 

Short Eyes begins with Clark Davis, a middle-class white man, accused of raping a young girl.  An ensemble performance of Short Eyes/Freak, Freak, Free, Free, Free (Curtis Mayfield), led by the father of the victim, narrates Davis’ journey from courtroom to custody at unnamed House of Detention in New York City. We are then introduced to this new harsh reality with an inmate led performance of Do Do Wap is Strong in Here (Curtis Mayfield).

The prisoners are predominately black or Puerto Rican and Davis is notably conspicuous. Furthermore, Paedophiles are considered the lowest form of prison life and fellow inmates immediately turn against him.  Davis is kept separate from the other prisoners, who become increasingly threatening toward him at every opportunity.  This imbues their frustrated performance of I Can’t Get Next to You (The Temptations) with a sinister undercurrent.

At this point, Davis still maintains he is innocent of the crime and invites the audience to empathise with his situation in a poignant Nobody Wants You When You’re Down and Out (Bobby Womack).

His only friend is Juan, one of the institution's older prisoners, who treats him with kindness and dignity.  Juan is a quiet and thoughtful man, a devout Catholic resigned to atoning for his past sins. He performs Mercy Mercy Me (Marvin Gaye) alone in a moment of world-weary reflection.

Eventually, Davis takes Juan into his confidence.  Although he insists he doesn't remember raping the girl, he admits that he has molested several other children.  Nevertheless, the case against him is weak and, unless Juan tells prison authorities about Davis' confessions to him, it is only a matter of time before he is set free.  As Juan struggles with the right thing to do, the other prisoners plan to rid themselves of Davis permanently, with the Gospel tinged Are You Ready? (Pacific Gas and Electric) building toward the climax.

Further musical possibilities are endless – I would certainly find a way to include Curtis Mayfield’s apocalyptic If There’s a Hell Below… - but I think you get the idea.  By the time the curtain falls, the audience has had their butts and their emotions shaken in equal measure, perhaps the latter even moreso through being presented by stealth.  Far from being an object of derision, this genre has the potential to reach out, challenge and enrich audiences far more diverse than the usual informed clutch of regular theatregoers – and isn’t that what theatre should aspire to if its to thrive?

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