Bringing His Talent to bare
Composer Damon Intrabartolo raves on about his new coming-of-age musical bare at the Hudson Mainstage Theatre.
Don't be misled. Though a new show named bare by an openly gay composer is playing in Hollywood, it's not a fluffy, all-male, nudie musical along the lines of Naked Boys Singing. Far from it; this is a pop opera with a much more serious subject on its mind (see below).
The show's wunderkind composer is Damon Intrabartolo, a 26-year-old New Jersey expatriate now residing in L.A. And though bare is his very first theatrical venture, Intrabartolo--whose credits as an orchestrator and conductor include such films as The Usual Suspects, The Cable Guy, and Urban Legends: Final Cut--seems up to the challenge. I spoke with him a couple of weeks before the show's official opening on October 14, and this is how the conversation ran:
TM: Welcome to the world of live theater. How are you enjoying your virgin experience?
DAMON: It's like learning how to fly an airplane. There are so many components of production I had no idea about. I'm learning as I go along that moveable lights are better than non-moveable lights, that digital mixing boards are better than non-digital ones...that actors care about where their names are placed on the posters. Who knew?
TM: What was the genesis of the project?
DAMON: It all started when I was getting tired of doing film music. I had always wanted to write a musical, so I started noodling around and I came up with a score that would tell a story through music alone. I didn't have any lyrics at that point. Then I found a lyricist, John Hartmere. We started with one story, but we scrapped it and came up with another one about young people's relationship to Catholicism. It took about a year and a half to write it.
TM: You composed an entire score for the show before you had any lyrics?
DAMON: That's right. I didn't want to bother with words at first. I through-composed a lot of music, just imagining what the soundscape of the show would be like--feeling out the kinds of textures and colors that I thought would be good. It's a nice way of controlling how a show flows, the continuity, the timing that's important in good musical theater. I drew on my film music background to arrive at this score, which is definitely operatic. It has characteristics of Wagner--and, I guess, Andrew Lloyd Webber.
TM: Where are you from originally?
DAMON: I am from the loathsome state south of yours: New Jersey. Specifically, a southern New Jersey town called Barnegat, which is extremely uncultured. It's kind of like living in Albania; very conservative and confining. Not a fun place to grow up! I wanted to go to music school to study film music, but my dad wasn't thrilled with that, so I had to come up with a happy medium between a conservatory and a university. I chose USC, which has one of two film music programs in the country. I think the other one is at Eastman, but I wanted to get as far away from New Jersey as possible. That's how I got out--and, since then, I haven't returned for more than 48 hours.
TM: How did you get involved in film music?
DAMON: I met John Ottman [who scored The Usual Suspects] when I was 19. At that time, he was not a known composer. He was working on some projects and we had become really good friends, so he asked me if I knew how to orchestrate. I lied through my teeth and said "Yes!" I thought, how hard could it be? When you're 19, you have this idea that everything is really easy. John and I developed a kind of rapport musically, and we started working on a lot of film music together; I would conduct for him. It's the creative relationship that I value most in my life. We became this team, and that's how I made my living, but in 1998 I started to feel that I needed a break. John and I were wearing on each other! Now, we've reunited; he's the executive producer of bare. I have to say that John is one of the few people who puts his money--and his faith--where his mouth is. It's cool that the executive producer of my show is a composer and an artist whom I respect so much. That's an ideal situation. I can actually feel confident about the work, rather than being so neurotic all the time. I really am a mess.
TM: You mean, at the moment?
DAMON: No, always. Just a crazy composer
TM: How old were you when you started writing bare?
DAMON: I was 24.
DAMON: Everybody says that! There are a lot of young composers, aren't there?
TM: Yes, but not many of them have their work produced.
DAMON: I guess that's true.
TM: Can you elaborate on the subject and theme of the show?
DAMON: I've had to define it in a sentence so many times that it sounds canned, but: bare is the story of six high school seniors, boys and girls, on the verge of graduation from Saint Cecilia's Catholic boarding school. In struggling with coming of age and leaving adolescence, they explore all these ways of dealing with what comes next. They look to the church, their parents, rave culture, the media.
TM: Are you concerned that the title of the show might be confusing?
DAMON: I love the title. I've always loved it, because it's absolutely what the show is about. Every one of the characters is laid bare. They bare their souls. I'm not going to tell you if they run around naked, but remember that the actors and the characters are very young, so the odds are that they're not going to show any serious booty--though they might show some! The show is tastefully done. I'd say it's PG-13. My two leads are John Torres and John Griffin, who play Peter and Jason, respectively. John Torres is basically a rock star in the making, and that's the timbre I wanted for the character's voice. He's one of those prodigy singers who can tear the shit out of anything you put in front of him, but the sound is beautiful and heartfelt. John Griffin is a young TV actor who does spots on shows like Diagnosis Murder, but he's also a great singer. Jenna Leigh Green, who plays Ivy, was on Sabrina the Teenage Witch for four years, and she's a goddess. Keili Lefkovitz plays Nadia, and she provides much-needed comic relief. She's who I was in high school, so it's like I'm looking into a mirror. Mark Edgar Stephens, who was Joe Gillis on the Sunset Boulevard tour, plays the priest. And he loves it, I might add. He's having such a good time. I think he's never seen a group quite like this--and there might not be one! They're very crazy, but all 21 of them are amazing artists.
TM: In terms of style, is bare comparable to any show we all might know?
DAMON: Some people are calling it "a Rent for the new century," and I'm okay with that. I think what Jonathan Larson did with Rent was really important. We're calling bare a pop opera, which is kind of a new classification. I don't really know of any others. It's different from a rock opera, because that pigeonholes the type of music you use. Rent, Jesus Christ Superstar, and Tommy are definitely rock operas; bare ups the ante quite a bit in that it draws on a lot of alternative rock textures like Red Hot Chili Peppers, Nine Inch Nails, Fiona Apple. It also crosses over into more pop sounds, like Green Day or Toni Braxton. And it's loud. We have two sub-woofers in a 99-seat theater! The one thing I liked about The Phantom of the Opera was that you really felt that bass line at the beginning. In film music, you always feel the bass. My orchestrator, Debbie Lurie, and I set out to show what could be done, sonically speaking. I remember, as a kid, being frustrated by not being able to understand lyrics at the theater. When the drum kit in Little Shop of Horrors takes over, the balance is really off, and I don't think you're hearing what the composer intended.
TM: Did you see a fair amount of Broadway musicals when you were living in New Jersey?
DAMON: Yes. I saw Annie when I was five; my grandmother brought me to see it. But what changed my life was seeing Evita with Patti LuPone and Mandy Patinkin when I was six. The cool thing is that what really changed my life about that show was the French horn in "A New Argentina." I also loved that Evita was through-sung. I mean, I liked Annie, but there was all that dialogue. Boring! I was raised in the '80s, when Ronald Reagan was president, so my attention span is not great.
TM: What are your hopes for bare?
DAMON: I hope the set doesn't collapse, the lights don't fall on me, and everything goes well. I'm very lucky to have the show produced; I acknowledge that. I hope audiences come to bare with an open mind. Most of the people I know who really like the show are very young, around 15 or 16. They're kind of going through what the characters are going through. Sometimes, those of us who live in big, metropolitan areas forget how hard adolescence can be. And it's even harder if you're a boy in a small town who's in love with another boy.
TM: Is the show mostly gay-themed?
DAMON: I would say it's strongly gay-themed, but not exclusively. There are a lot of elements of rave culture that are brought to the surface. And that's interesting for adults, because I don't think they really know what kids do on Friday nights. What are these things called raves? They don't realize it's this elaborate ritual where you get dressed up, you buy your Ecstasy, and then you have to go on the Internet to find directions to the rave because it's top-secret. I think it's cool for them to see that.