Fertile Ground: “4 X 4” equals Eight Tiny Musicals

What happens when you compress the American musical?

Rebecca Teran and Morgan Mallory in "See Jane. See Jane Drive. Drive Jane, Drive"/Photo by David Kinder

Rebecca Teran and Morgan Mallory in “See Jane. See Jane Drive. Drive Jane, Drive”/
Photo by David Kinder

By EMILY STEVENS

“Like most great ideas,” curator Mark LaPierre reminded us on Thursday night, “this one was stolen.”

Live on Stage’s series of 8 mini-musicals, “4×4=8,”  is directly inspired by Ten Tiny Dances, one of Portland’s favorite experiments in performance art, most apparently because it takes place on  a tiny 4-feet x 4-feet stage. And like Ten Tiny Dances, it is focused on pushing the limits of how we think of dance, movement and performance, through this compression. Taking this idea and applying it to performance art’s black sheep cousin, musical theater, may not be revolutionary, but perhaps it can offer a way to think about the genre in a different way.

6727812097_c97a2f222eAn offering of the 2013 Fertile Ground Festival, “4×4=8” brings together 13 performers,  11 writers and composers, two directors, and a four piece band to showcase some of Portland’s finest musical theater talent, including Mont Chris Hubbard (Christmas on Broadway,”Carnies: The Musical,” “Work Friends”), Aubrey Jessen (“Work Friends“), John Vergin and William S. Gregory (“Necessity,” “The Confessions of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde”). Live On Stage artistic director John Oules and curator Mark LaPierre commissioned the new works and set up workshopping opportunities for the creative teams to share and polish their work.

But what is Musical Theater anyway? Encompassing works like “Candide,” “Rock of Ages,” “Anything Goes” and “Songs for a New World,” it’s such a mishmash of styles that it’s hard to tell exactly what the root of it is. Even the king of musical theater, Leonard Bernstein, struggled to define the genre. In a 1956 episode of “Omnibus,” he devotes the better part of an hour to tracing the evolution of the American musical and never really comes up with a true answer, just that collaboration across genres and ingenuity in form and style are essential.

Of course, 1956 was a golden age for the American musical (and, American television, apparently), and Leonard Bernstein predicted that the American musical would evolve into an entirely new genre of opera or performance art.  Unfortunately, that isn’t quite the case. Nowadays, the shows coming from Broadway are most likely musical versions of movies, jukebox musicals or revivals.

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Enter Live on Stage. “John [Oules] is very supportive of new work, which is something that new work desperately needs… attention,” explained “4×4” composer Eric Nordin, “Too much expense is riding on works of theater these days that producers tend to play it safe and stick to shows that aren’t new, that don’t take risks, which is understandable, but not ideal.”

So, while shrinking the format may not drastically change a musical’s concept or form in the way it does in Ten Tiny Dances, it can offer a chance to incubate new works and talent, in both of which Portland abounds. And, the range of styles presented at “4×4” proves that limiting scope and focusing attention can spur creativity.

A shining example of “4×4=8″’s success as an incubator for creativity and artistic growth is “7 Minutes of Heaven,” a musical written by 14-year-old Amber Kiara Mitchell under Mark LaPierre’s mentorship. Teen angst is so painfully and wonderfully palpable in this piece, and Marcella Crowson’s direction fully captures the sheer agony of being forced to spend seven minutes cramped in a tiny space with someone you are both terrified and enamoured of, while simultaneously trying to triangulate and assert your own identity.

Though this is the second year of “4×4=8”, it’s director Marcella Crowson’s first experience with the project. Crowson, who directed four of the eight pieces, explained the attraction of the teeny tiny stage:

“Maybe I’m a glutton for punishment, but the challenge of the ‘rules’ is precisely why I was intrigued enough to take it on” she explained, “part of the appeal is simply that it’s a new set of boundaries — theatre’s all about obstacles, after all.  But more than that, what I’ve discovered is that the limitations compel the playwrights and composers (and directors, and actors, for that matter) to focus on essentials.  It forces a kind of thoughtfulness and urgency in the storytelling that can get lost in a longer form.  There are no ‘filler’ numbers, no dream ballets.  It’s all action and reaction.”

Composer Eric Nordin agrees that shrinking everything allows the creatives to focus on “small moments in life that when spotlit and paid attention to, reveal something special about the human experience.”

In “4×4=8” some of these moments in are fantastically extreme, some are ludicrously melodramatic,  while others are quietly intense and thought provoking. In Nordin’s piece “Roads,” he and writing partner Sam Gregory were inspired by an  episode of WNYC’s Radio Lab, “Bus Stop,” in which a German care center finds an unusual solution to the problem of patients with dementia or Alzheimer’s wandering off and trying to return to their former lives: “A bench and sign out in front of the building.  A kind of “fake” bus stop,” Nordin explains, “That way patients who are looking to leave will sit at the bench, thinking that a bus is coming, and wait. This gives the nurses and staff some time to discover them before they get too far. When a patient is discovered on the bench, a nurse will sit with them, ask them where they are going, what their plans are, in general be friendly and curious. They let the patient have some time to chat and let it out and hopefully with some time, the bubbles of realization will start to come to the surface, they will remember where they are and what is going on and the nurse can very gently help them get back inside and settled…I thought this piece was so moving and such a creative and humane way to solve a very real and scary problem.”

This idea of two people meeting at a bench under the strangest (and saddest) of circumstances became “Roads.” It’s is sweet and simple, focusing on, not the horrors of dementia, but rather, the the surprising amount of compassion you can encounter from a stranger, and the wisdom you can glean from a single conversation.

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The rest of the musicals on docket for “4×4=8” are a little bit less serious, but no less entertaining. Sherlock Holmes sings and dances for his life, an omnipotent stage manager calls a show with a narcoleptic sound operator, and love and travel collide in two very different ways . There is murder, comedy, self reference, romantic duets, soaring ensemble numbers and belty solos. I can say with confidence that Leonard Bernstein would be pleased.

NOTES

“4×4=8” runs January 24, 25 & 26 in the Brunish Theatre, 1111 SW Broadway ; doors open at 7:00 pm, curtain at 7:30 pm

For tickets, visit www.liveonstage.us or call 503-875-1149

2 Responses.

  1. Mont Chris Hubbard says:

    As much as I’d like to, I can’t take credit for “Christmas on Broadway” – that clever and charming show is a Rick Lewis joint. (I did co-write “Work Friends” with Miss Jessen.)

  2. admin says:

    Thanks for the correction! Our apologies to you and Mr. Lewis for the misattribution… (corrected above)

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