I’m Glad They Brought It On
Those were the words I kept hearing about Bring It On – the new musical that started at the Alliance in Atlanta and arrived at the St. James for a limited engagement – which recently became less limited.
I’m delighted with its success, mostly because I don’t think it’s just fun and fluff. At the risk of being grandiose, I say that Bring It On has something important to say to its core audience of kids.
The first word of the show is unexpected: it’s “God,” for the cheerleaders at Truman High School are seen in prayer. Two girls each hope to be chosen captain of the cheerleading squad, and everyone is beseeching the Deity that this be the year that they win the championship trophy.
The song is called “What I Was Born to Do,” which would make any mature adult say, “Well, actually, no, let’s hope it isn’t what you were born to do, because we’d like to think that you’re capable of much greater achievements.”
After all, adults, how important is that trophy that you won in high school? Where is it now? How much dust is weighing it down? You’d be embarrassed to prominently display it, wouldn’t you? So how emotionally involved can we get with cheerleaders competing against each other and then against another school?
Bookwriter Jeff Whitty knows that, too. He makes the musical about the kids’ emotional journey, and in the process, makes us care for them.
We like Campbell (the excellent Taylor Louderman) because she’s willing to mentor Eva (the superb Elle McLemore), currently a sophomore at Truman. Campbell sees solid qualities in Eva and is already planning ahead and grooming her to be a cheerleading captain in a couple of years.
Meanwhile, there’s Skylar (the delicious Kate Rockwell), Campbell’s rival who was denied the cheerleading captainship. By the time the decision is made, she’d already been shown as quite ego-centric and somewhat bitchy. Skylar is the type who congratulates herself on how beautiful she is 16/7. (She would do it 24/7, but she needs those other eight hours for beauty sleep.)
So we’re going to have a story of a good leader undermined by someone disgruntled. But Whitty knows that you assume he’ll go in a certain direction, and he makes certain to surprise you.
First, however, there’s a school redistricting, and Campbell must now relocate to inner-city Jackson High. We like her for making the best of a bad situation – better than Elder Price takes his in The Book of Mormon -- but she does find that locating kindred spirits will be as hard as the attitudes of the kids she encounters.
Truth is that Jackson High students have more pressing concerns than cheering sis-boom-bah for a football team. Especially contemptuous is Danielle (the grounded Adrienne Warren), a black girl who must work at a fast-food outlet after school if college is going to become a reality. Danielle’s life made her a pragmatist early on, so only after Campbell tells her that a cheerleading TV-reality show is on the horizon -- and that it will be offering scholarships -- does Danielle sign on for cheering duty.
Also getting involved is a transsexual student (or at the very least a drag queen) who’s wittily named La Cienega (the appropriately haughty Gregory Haney). How the audience takes to this character, cheering her every move! Bring It On also gives us the opportunity to see that many theatergoers now respect a person who has the courage to be himself or herself. Shakespeare may not have had transsexuals or drag queens in mind when he was writing Polonius’ advice to Laertes, but “To thine own self be true” still remain words to live by.
As the show continues, Campbell increasingly feels undermined about the redistricting, but Whitty keeps us wondering whether or not she’s being paranoid. Eventually Campbell gets some evidence to bolster her suspicions, but it’s all circumstantial. Let’s put it this way: we’re still guessing long after the point in All about Eve where we’ve made up our minds about Margo and Eve.
What happens may startle you. Sometimes shows that go for That Big Surprise at the End can’t convince you that the surprise was warranted or logical; it was just put there so you’d be surprised, and the authors hoped that you’d be so surprised that you wouldn’t mind the lack in logic. (Case in point: Mae Peterson, bigoted against the Spanish in Bring Back Birdie, actually turned out to be Spanish.)
Here, not one but two people turn out to be villainous. One of them learns from her mistake, and one doesn’t even come close. As the latter sings in a terrific lyric, “I’ll have a trophy, and you’ll just have friends.” (And speaking of lyrics, how clever of the writers to list the songs in the program but not identify who sings them. That way, we have no idea who’ll come out with “Killer Instinct.”)
Bring It On also suggests that if you’ve made a titanic mistake, one for which you’re guilty as charged, you must do what you can to rectify it and move on. If your friends have turned to enemies, you needn’t see it as a lifetime sentence. There’s enough time to redeem yourself if you use it properly. You may just be able to win them over if you’re sincere and realize you’ll never make that mistake again.
When we actually see the cheerleading competition between Truman and Jackson High Schools, there is marked difference between the two teams. This is intentional: we have no doubt which squad should win, and the one we think more qualified does emerge victorious. But Jeff Whitty makes certain that everyone wins, some in more important ways than others. He doesn’t feel the need to make everyone “learn” something. At least two characters wind up being happy just as they are, just as they’ve always been. Adults know, however, that there will be trouble ahead for both.
I suspect co-lyricist Amanda Green had a hand in naming one of the characters, because the girl bears an astonishing resemblance to a character from one of her daddy’s biggest hits. Whether Green did or not, she’s made certain that the idioms are in place for kids to sing. So has her co-lyricist Lin-Manuel Miranda. The music he wrote with Tom Kitt sits right in these kids’ mouths.
Given that there are male cheerleading members on the squad, I would have liked to have heard more from them. How do they feel being “mere” cheerleaders while other members of their sex are doing the truly heavy lifting of playing football? Do the quarterbacks make them feel like dorks, or do they appreciate their support?
On the other hand, male cheerleaders may get more out of it than we think. How many boys can say that they pick up girls so often and easily? But perhaps the issue of male cheerleaders is meat for another musical. Fine with me if the Bring It On team moves on to that one next. If so, keep Andy Blankenbuehler as director; he did a fine job with this one.
Harry Truman once wrote a critic who’d criticized his daughter’s singing ability. Wonder if he’d write a letter of thanks to the musical that celebrates his name. The bucks will stop at the box office for the next few months. In the meantime, I’m happy to be on the cheerleading squad for Bring It On.
— Peter Filichia