In 1994 as a junior in high school, I was cast as Gee-tar in a production of West Side Story. For those of you who don’t know this very important member of the cast, Gee-Tar is a member of the Jets gang. He has one line. Plus, like all of the Jets, he dance-fights a lot. While it wasn’t the leading role that I had dreamed about, I was grateful to be in the production because Gee-Tar also gets to sing all of Leonard Bernstein’s incredible music. I never get sick of listening to West Side Story.
And that’s why I love Trouble in Tahiti. Bernstein (along with lyrics by Stephen Sondheim and a book by Arthur Laurents) completed West Side Story in 1957 - the same decade that he wrote Trouble in Tahiti (1951) and another one of my favorites, Candide (1956). In all three of these works, Bernstein presents his most infectious, energetic, and realistic theatrical music. While most music historians categorize all three of these works differently - most people says that West Side Story is a “musical”, Candide is an “operetta”, and Trouble in Tahiti is an "opera” - they really aren’t all that different. All three are heavily influenced by jazz and popular music. All three have soaring lyrical moments that stay with the listener long after the show ends. All three switch from ridiculous comedy to searing tragedy in an instant. All three touch on some aspect of the real-life issues that faced Americans in the 1950s and still face us now.
Trouble in Tahitii reflects on these issues in a more intimate way than the grand problems faced by Tony and Maria in West Side Story but with no less anguish and heartbreak. Instead of being faced with the problem of how to get those around to accept their love, Sam and Dinah in Trouble in Tahiti face the issue of how to keep love and passion of marriage going through the grind of everyday life. Their tragedy is the slow and tortuous death of their love for each other, which is a tragedy that many of us have experienced first-hand. Their obstacles are not the enmity between their families, but the distractions of what they think life should be like: the white-picket fence, the material goods, society’s expectations of being a real “man” and a real “woman”.
Sound like fun? Well, it actually is! Connecting all these more serious moments together is a jazz trio that scats and dances their way through scenes. Plus, both Sam and Dinah show they are more than just sad depressed lumps in several moments of fun and passion (albeit without their significant other around). And, as I’ve mentioned, every second of Trouble in Tahiti is musically engaging and tuneful, just like West Side Story is.
For me, Trouble in Tahiti is perfect blend of American opera and musical theatre and also an ideal show to put on in the small stage of CitySpace in the basement of the Civic Center. We’re excited to bring it to you and hope to see you there on!
Trouble in Tahiti - January 25 at 7:30 pm, January 26 at 2 pm and 7:30pm, and January 27 at 2 pm, CitySpace, Civic Center Music Hall.