By Erin Crandell
I make it a point not to wait in line to get into bars (ahem, lookin’ at you Brixton), but I’ll gladly wait in line to get into a fake bar inside the Studio Theatre. There I drink real drinks, surrounded by people who spend about two hours together without actually talking to each other. About half of the other patrons at this bar are invariably over 50, and giggle about getting carded by the bouncer (“For the first time since 1986!”). Four people belt in perfect harmony about how much they love/hate New York and each other, while everybody else in the bar watches. There are bowls of pretzels on each table. Best. Fake bar. Ever.
The atmosphere becomes an afterthought when the show starts. Murder Ballad is awesome. The rock opera follows the story of Sara (Christine Dwyer), her husband Michael (Tommar Wilson), and her ex-lover Tom (Cole Burden). Playing no part in the action, but with a commanding presence, is our Narrator (Anastacia McCleskey). She provides as much love, anger, and pain as the other three characters, even though her connection to the others is unknown. Every member of the cast is tremendously talented, and it is mesmerizing to watch them bring the music to life.
If you didn’t guess it from the title of the play, someone dies. Before that though, the play Sara and Tom are in love. The two of them stumble through their twenties without a care in the world, until they break up, as many couples do in their late-twenties. When it ends, a heartbroken Sara finds solace and peace in Michael. After many years, a move to the Upper West Side, and a child, Sara finds that peace has become tedium and reconnects with Tom.
Creators Julia Jordan (book and lyrics) and Julianna Nash (music and lyrics) took the concept of the murder ballad (a sub-genre of the traditional ballad, see “Folsom Prison Blues” by Johnny Cash), and applied it in an arena quintessentially associated with melodrama: musical theatre. Some of the songs got kitschy, but those moments recall “We’re Not Gonna Take It” in The Who’s Tommy, rather than “We’re all in This Together” a la High School Musical.
Murder ballads are often told through multiple perspectives, which can include the killer, an eyewitness, a stranger or the dead person. Even though the audience knows that someone will die, no one knows who it is until the murder actually happens. It’s a perfect fit for a rock opera.
Centering the story on Sara was another refreshing twist to the trope of middle-class temptation, infidelity, and murder. That story can get really tedious when it is another middle-aged white man on a screen debating whether or not to have an affair. Setting it to music and focusing on Sara’s story lets the audience connect more to the universal feelings of dissociation and guilt.
Instead of going to any of a number of regular bars this weekend, go to a fake bar. Bring your friends. Drink a pitcher of beer. Smile at all the older patrons who will dance with each other to the pre-show music and play pool. Admire the dicks and profanity that the Studio Theatre crew has gleefully painted on the walls. Enjoy some killer (heehee) musical theater.