North of the 17th century, few great dramatists have been great poets, and vice versa. Maybe it’s the vogue for realism in theater; maybe it’s the quiet lives most modern-day poets seem to live. Nonetheless, with the new show Rimbaud in New York, BAM, The Poetry Foundation, and forward-thinking theater troupe The Civilians have shown that a poet’s life and influence can make for exciting theater – and musical theater at that.
At least it can when the poet is Arthur Rimbaud, the French enfant terrible who died at age 37 in 1891, and when the translations used are by John Ashbery, whose own highly musical and imaginative poetry has owed something to the proto-surrealist work of the youthful Rimbaud.
A casual dinner party attended by a group of puffed-up hipsters blossoms into a rock musical that’s also a collective lecture on Rimbaud and a set of wry, generalized reminiscences about the heady Rimbaud-influenced downtown 20th-century decades that spawned the likes of Patti Smith, Bob Dylan, and David Wojnarowicz.
The show carries splashes of the gritty street patina of Rent, the glam of Hedwig and the Angry Inch, the adolescent angst of Spring Awakening, and the peripatetics of a variety show. All this coalesces into a rainbow shout that’s accented sharply, but always with a wink. Brimming with a studied outrageousness, and brushed with sentiment, the show takes a sidelong look at the pretentiousness of downtown artsiness, while reminding us – or introducing us to – the French force of nature who provoked the spirits of so many 20th century creatives.
Rimbaud never set foot in New York. But his poems, particularly the set of prose poems collected as Illuminations, sparked an honor roll of important musicians, poets, painters, and playwrights there and elsewhere. As Roger Clarke has put it in The Independent, Rimbaud was “one of those visionaries who happened to push back the envelope of perception and who adapt so well to the era of pop and cyberspace.”
As a musical, Rimbaud in New York benefits from a superb cast and creative team, helmed by writer and director Steve Cosson. Joseph Keckler has a platinum voice with an incredible range. The agile, powerfully magnetic Jo Lampert, who doubles as dance captain, is razor-sharp. Adam Cochran and Rebecca Hart have instrumental skills to go with their stage talent. Joining their contributions to the collectively-written score are others by Keckler and music director Matthew Dean Marsh.
Sam Pinkleton’s choreography veers endearingly from goofy to sophisticated through Andromache Chalfant’s deceptively simple-looking set. The lighting and costumes effectively convey the meta-ness of the show’s time and place. Twenty-first century technology mingles with tradition. Projections are kept to a minimum, keeping the focus on the live performance, and voice sampling is used brilliantly in the fabulous “Phrases” number. A musical saw, balloon animals, and a fake mustache all make appearances.
But the focus never really leaves the poetry. Whether read straight, or transformed into rocking songs, Rimbaud’s symbolist verse pulls us in, then sends us out feeling like we know where the surrealists were coming from – not to mention Bob Dylan and Patti Smith and Tom Verlaine and Jim Morrison (and my favorite Rimbaud-referencing songbird, Katell Keineg).
The script quotes Ashbery as having called Rimbaud’s poetry a “disorganized magic lantern show.” That’s just what Rimbaud in New York is – minus the “disorganized.” Optimistic, thoughtful, inventive, and crisply staged, this delightful musical’s brief world-premiere run continues through March 6 at BAM. For details and tickets visit the website.