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By MARK BLANKENSHIP
When someone asks what a musical is about, you generally can mention the characters: Jersey Boys is about The Four Seasons.Mame is about Mame. But See Rock City & Other Destinations demands a different response. It may have plenty of characters, but it’s about something else.
The structure makes that clear. Now playing at the Duke on 42nd Street in a production from The Transport Group, the show delivers six vignettes about people visiting kitschy North American landmarks. The characters don’t know each other, their stories never overlap, and when their scenes are finished, they disappear.
Yet the pieces hang together all the same. “All the stories have this kind of reach,” says composer Brad Alexander. “Everybody’s reaching for someone or something and can’t get at it because of their own fears, their own expectations. There’s this thread tying everything together of trying to connect but not being able to.”
Then there’s the order of the scenes. The first, “Rock City,” follows a couple that takes impulsive trips but can’t communicate, while the last, “Niagara Falls,” depicts a woman’s dawning awareness of why she’s afraid to get married. If the former is about the pain of not speaking, then the latter is about the freedom of being honest. Adam Mathias, who wrote the book and lyrics, explains, “‘Rock City’ was written intentionally as the beginning of a story that is continued by the pieces in the middle and concluded by ‘Niagara Falls.’”
In other words, See Rock City uses six tiny stories to create one giant arc, and that arc, that emotional throughline, is what the show’s about.
Few musicals use this episodic approach, but for the writers, it makes perfect sense. “The kind of stories that we wanted to tell with this piece don’t really lend themselves to a full evening,” says Mathias. “We wanted to talk about real moments and smaller moments that kind of need to be told in this form. When a musical is based on character, the characters have to be much bigger and the events have to be much bigger, so we chose to base it on theme and allow the characters to be more human-sized.”
Director Jack Cummings III appreciates the miniature scale. He says, “I love the idea of having to focus on a single moment and how that affects people’s lives. They aren’t aware of it, but we in the audience are. To be able to look at something like that and examine it form all angles and sides is really a treat.”
Alexander adds, “This scale is also a great exercise in telling a story really quickly. We have about a minute to let the audience know who they’re dealing with and what the stakes are. It’s been a great challenge for us in terms of, ‘How much do we let them know?’”
Cummings adds, “It prevents writers from over-explaining things or giving too much away because you just can’t. You give the audience something to go with, but it prevents you from tying things up neatly, which I really love. And at the end of our show, there is a happy ending, but it’s not Hallmark Hall of Fame. There’s progress, there’s possibility, but there are no definite answers.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor