From the Artistic Director: Bella

By Tim Sanford, Artistic Director

Not everyone loves musicals. Tell some theater-goers you are doing a musical, and they’ll reply automatically, “I don’t like musicals,” kind of like in La La Land when Emma Stone’s character shrugs, “I don’t like jazz.” I get it. I didn’t grow up with musicals either. And there seem to be a lot of musicals that just follow a formula, where the impulse to sing is unexamined and where the musical style seems caught in a time warp, leading to a performing style that tries too hard, alternating between way too serious and way too silly. Yet, music and storytelling are ancient artistic forms, and our oldest recorded dramatic form — the Greek tragedy — married the two. Eventually, the paths of theater diverged into a drama without music and a drama with elevated music: opera. The best musical theater brings these paths back together. Music can underline the poeticism and emotionalism of a story and elevate it out of bare realism. Best of all, it can invade the audience’s mind and get them to sing along. We go out humming, carrying the story with us.

Bella also becomes known for one special, almost magical attribute: her booty. 

Based on sheer listenability, Kirsten Childs’s The Bubbly Black Girl Sheds Her Chameleon Skin remains one of my favorite musicals from the Playwrights Horizons canon. Jam-packed with infectious R&B-inflected pop tunes, giddy-up dance numbers, and sweet, deft ballads, this album has steadfastly held up to many repeat listenings. As a coming-of-age story, the music flows naturally from its exuberant young characters who so readily define themselves by their music and whose tumultuous feelings find spontaneous expression in song. But perhaps the most distinctive achievement of Bubbly is its dead-aim, butter-wouldn’t-melt satiric tone. There is something Candide-like in the way Viveca, its sweet and bubbly heroine, learns to brave all the racist, sexist indignities that befall a pretty, black teenager growing up in Los Angeles. We feel this contrast vividly in the marriage of its infectious melodies to its acerbic lyrics. 

The lead character of Bella: An American Tall Tale is also a plucky innocent. But whereas Bubbly is ultimately a very personal story, Kirsten uses a much broader lens to track the story of her larger-than-life heroine on her own picaresque American journey through the Wild, Wild West. Her points of comparison should be Johnny Appleseed, Paul Bunyan, John Henry, Pecos Bill, Calamity Jane. Most of these figures are based on historical characters whose exploits gradually have assumed legendary status through the accumulation of exaggeration. And just as Johnny Appleseed had his bag of seed, Paul Bunyan his axe, John Henry his hammer, Pecos Bill his lasso, and Calamity Jane her rifle, Bella also becomes known for one special, almost magical attribute: her booty. Wherever Bella goes, her booty grabs attention, but hers is a booty that fights back, allowing her not only to stave off objectification, but to win her battles. Even when she is co-opted by a circus as a kind of Venus Hottentot-esque freak, she soon finds a way to rise above and rewrite the narratives of the skits she acts. Along Bella’s journey, she meets a wide range of important Americans, whose stories are usually left out of our received history, including a caballero, a Chinese railroad worker, a buffalo soldier, a porter, and a host of other colorful characters.

It is fitting for this most American folk story, the tall tale, to meet this most American of dramatic forms, the musical. And it is worth noting how deftly Kirsten has assimilated the musical flavor of the components of her story into her score. The score commences with a single, syncopated note that invites us to take a journey with her. And as we meet each character, the musical palette of the show keeps expanding. Somehow, it always sounds like her, but it also sounds like the whole world. And in these days, a show that sets our toes a tappin’ while celebrating its full-figured, sweet-tempered, fearless heroine and a world that expands with every good-natured exaggerated exploit is a welcome balm to these fractious times.