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In the late 1990s, when lyricist Jon Hartmere Jr. and composer Damon Intrabartolo started working on Bare, Hollywood had few loud and proud homosexuals, gay marriage wasn’t legal in any state, and author-activist Dan Savage was doling out sex advice, not preaching self-love to LGBT youth. For two young gay artists (only one of whom, Intrabartolo, was out), writing a pop opera about the secret romance between two Catholic boarding-school boys must have seemed downright daring.
Today, Bare’s story of forbidden gay teen love may sound like something out of a less enlightened era. But Hartmere believes that, despite evolving laws and mores, the musical’s core issues and emotions remain the same. “It’s a strange world: On the one hand, it feels so supportive, but just read the comments on any YouTube video where there are boys kissing and you’ll see all of the anonymous nastiness that’s out there,” he says. “Really, not that much has changed.”
Bare, however, has undergone quite the transformation. The piece originally debuted as a sung-through popera in Los Angeles in 2000, then had a brief 2004 stint at New York’s American Theatre of Actors, meant to spawn an Off Broadway run that ended up falling through. Hartmere says the experience was so disheartening, he and Intrabartolo put Bare aside for a few years before finally releasing a cast album and a licensed script in 2007. Soon after, producer Randy Taradash approached the duo and director Stafford Arima about reviving the show, but while developing the production two things became clear: Bare needed to evolve into a traditional book musical, and Intrabartolo didn’t want to be involved.
Arima had a large part in inspiring Hartmere to go down the new road. “I’m the kind of director who asks a lot of questions,” he says. “It opened up this Pandora’s box. Jon started to look at the piece in a different way.” Best known for helming another musical about teens trying to find themselves—the reboot of Carrie, which played Off Broadway earlier this year—Arima says the new Bare is still “an emotional roller coaster, but it’s truly a reexploration of the old material.”
Despite Intrabartolo’s exit, Hartmere insists there are no hard feelings. “Damon said, ‘If you want to take this approach, go for it,’ which I thought was very gracious and magnanimous,” he says. “He’ll e-mail me occasionally to ask how it’s going, but he doesn’t pop in or anything. I don’t even know if he’ll see this version.”
If Intrabartolo does catch the revamped Bare—currently in previews at New World Stages, the same theater complex where the show was supposed to have opened back in 2004—he’ll notice the changes from the outset. Bare has a brand-new opening number, “A Million Miles from Heaven” (with music by Lynne Shankel, who composed eight new songs for this incarnation), in which the coming-of-age characters croon, “When does it get better?” Hartmere acknowledges the line is, in part, an allusion to Savage’s two-year-old It Gets Better Project, founded after a rash of bullied gay teens committed suicide. But he says it’s a question all teens ask themselves, regardless of their sexual orientation. “I remember feeling like that in high school, and I think that sentiment still stands today.”
Other tweaks include character overhauls (gay jock Jason’s sister, Nadia, is no longer a plus-size loner; she’s now a gothy, angst-ridden drug pusher), dropped numbers (fan favorite “A Quiet Night at Home” is gone, as is gay marriage fantasy “Wedding Bells”) and the addition of book scenes. The latter allowed Hartmere to add some much-needed humor and flesh out the relationships, not just of the central lovers, but also between romantic rivals, social groups, a progressive nun and a traditional priest, and even teens and technology. In fact, a revealing smartphone photo now sparks the harrowing climax.
According to Hartmere, the Internet, social media and camera phones make being a gay teen today harder than when he was young, which underlines Bare’s continued relevance. “It used to be that if you were bullied in school, it ended when you went home. Now you take it home with you. It’s constant and it’s all around you,” he says. “In a way, because of the Internet, high school never ends, even when we grow up. The insecurity of, What are people saying about me?—that stuff never stops.”
Bare is at New World Stages. Click here for tickets.