SONG SPOTLIGHT: Twenty-Something
Rewrites are essential in every storytelling medium, but theatre remains the one where the most can change for a product’s legacy. A film can only be edited so much; television is so immediate that it’s forever fixed. A play or a musical, on the other hand, is always changing just by the very nature of being interpreted by different artists over time—and that’s when the script stays the same!
Cast recordings and bootlegs can immortalize a version of a musical that the creators find to be less-than-stellar, but those don’t have to be the final word. These preservations make my world more interesting, allowing me to track the growth and change in my favorite shows.
I got my first taste of New Musical Theatre by watching lots of Tales From the Bad Years videos on YouTube in high school. While I was younger than the twenty-something characters depicted, I felt a connection, in sentiment if not experience.
Cut to today, and I am six months out of undergrad and hearing Kait Kerrigan and Brian Lowdermilk’s songs with a newfound resonance. After hearing that the show was currently being worked on, I thought that I would examine how it has developed.
The retired “Twenty-Something” was a group number that summed up the pros and cons of being at this restless age of seemingly unlimited possibility. In the new version, a single character, Rachel, takes the lead, while a chorus provides ambivalent backup. Because many lyrics remain the same, it would appear to express the same theme—but the way it expresses the theme is what makes the story and our impression of it different.
For example, in all versions of Merrily We Roll Along subsequent to the original 1981 production, “That Frank” has replaced “Rich and Happy” as the establishing number following the title song. Both look at Franklin Shepard’s shallow Hollywood life, but the focus and tone is quite different.
“Rich and Happy” is less about Frank and more about a poisonous Hollywood culture and is more blatantly cynical. The “friends of Frank” are gossips who think he’s a hack, but compliment him so they can party in his house (“Wasn’t it just terrible/Beautiful, Frank!”). Frank is insecure about his lifestyle, from the way the music hesitates each time he’s about to say he’s happy to his defensive insistence that “Every bit of this was earned.” While perhaps justified, the tone here is very judgmental and obviously vilifies Frank and Hollywood.
“That Frank” also describes shallow Hollywood and Frank’s participation in it, but with different characterization. His friends are vapid as ever, but are also sycophants who genuinely hang onto his every word. This Frank also has a shade more self-awareness, lightly mocking his posse while admitting with self-deprecation, “And notice who is their host.” Nevertheless, he embraces his association. We still don’t have to like Frank in this version, but you get a sense of why he’s picked this lifestyle.
The original “Twenty-Something” appears anthemic, but is actually quite downbeat. Ambivalence is constant from the beginning: “My whole life is right in front of me, I can go anywhere/Two whole decades can’t prepare you for the moment where the page is blank before you…” The refrain is “We’re twenty-something…and free”, with freedom’s dark side being nothing: nothing’s holding you back but nothing’s pushing you forward.
While caught in this paradox, time is moving too fast regardless. As the group steadily chants, “I’m young, smart, on my way. This is my day,” they twist things around with, “You blinked. You’re not twenty-something.” This might indicate a regretful look back, or a pessimistic look forward. The overall mood in “Twenty-Something” is pessimism, with a cynical edge that occasionally overtakes the sincerity.
Kerrigan admits as much, saying, “One of our biggest pivots in rewriting Tales from the Bad Years was about not apologizing for the subject matter.” Gone are glib references to the Wii, replaced by a comic-pathetic list specific to one person’s experience.
In the revised “Twenty-Something,” Rachel is at the moment when, Kerrigan says, “you first arrive in a new city with all of your options in front of you.” Rachel’s positive attitude appears at odds with her reality, littered with awkward qualifiers (“I’ve got a job/Sort of/Well, I’m temping”). But the tone is more playful and self-aware than in the song’s previous incarnation: “I’ve got a lot of range, and a plan/First, get a real job/Worst case, I’ll work at Whole Foods/I’m not a snob.” It pokes fun at the character’s privilege, while in the old version, earning “some damn degree” is reflected upon bitterly, which always turned me off (you don’t want to think your degree is worthless when the loan payments start rolling in).
With a humorous but not cynical outlook, we are allowed to validate Rachel’s outlook. Why shouldn’t she get to “change the world” and get “much more than what [her] parents have”? Unlike the old song’s “freedom/nothing” motif, everything Rachel says is couched in active language that indicates something happening. Instead of viewing her twenties as “time to kill until [her] life becomes more real”, she’ll get that job, she’ll rent a car, she’ll date, she’ll toke, she’ll live. “I am twenty-something,” she sings near the end, “and that’s a lot.”
The revised “Twenty-Something” still has a chorus, who retain many of their original lines (including the “You blinked” stanza). This provides a cautious foil to Rachel’s thinking while still allowing us to hear her out. “Twenty-Something”’s evolution is rather like “Rich and Happy” to “That Frank”’s. By lightening the cynicism and providing us with our character’s motivations, we can stand by them as they make naïve assumptions or bad decisions. This doesn’t invalidate the old songs—as I previously observed, perfectly good songs get cut from shows all the time. I might have moments where I identify with one or the other. And it’s a privilege to be able to experience both.