There’s nothing like mechanical malfunction to make you want to break into song. Though that may well be unique to “Bruce” — unless you can name another musical with a spectacularly unruly prop among its main characters.
Now premiering at Seattle Rep through June 26 (with wider horizons in mind), “Bruce” tries to make fresh waves from the stormy creation of the mega-hit film “Jaws.” Created by the duo behind the Broadway musical “Bandstand,” “Bruce” is based on “The Jaws Log,” co-screenwriter Carl Gottlieb’s behind-the-camera chronicle of Steven Spielberg’s 1975 creature-feature horror flick — a box office smash that can be credited (or blamed) as the progenitor of Hollywood’s annual summer spree of action blockbusters.
Gottlieb’s wry, informative book is a bonanza for film nerds, a tell-all saga of shooting delays, budget woes, actor feuds and location troubles (on a somewhat inhospitable Martha’s Vineyard and a turbulent ocean). And it charts the inability of a small navy of special effects people to get a fabricated 25-foot great white shark (dubbed Bruce, after Spielberg’s lawyer Bruce Ramer) to function properly.
This debacle-to-triumph saga is also elaborated in “The Making of ‘Jaws,’” an engrossing 1995 video doc offering plenty of location footage and candid testimony from Spielberg, principal crew and cast members, plus many shots of Bruce, who, though literally dead in the water, looks scary nonetheless. There was even another play on the subject, “The Shark is Broken,” co-written by Ian Shaw (son of “Jaws” co-star Robert Shaw) and Joseph Nixon and produced in London recently.
So do we really need another account of the “Jaws” backstory? With songs? Richard Oberacker (who composed the score) and Robert Taylor (who penned the book and lyrics with Oberacker) clearly think so. They have framed “Bruce” as a hero’s journey, but the mythic resonance they’re reaching for proves elusive. By trying to cram in too many details of a long, shaggy saga, the busy show strains for uplift.
At Seattle Rep, Act One of “Bruce” features designer Jason Sherwood’s imposing, grid-like, tri-level set piece (think the set for TV’s “Hollywood Squares”), which suggests several rows of film frames.
Director-choreographer Donna Feore’s peppy, jump-cut staging of the opening number (“Big One”) introduces a batch of real-life film folk in nine stacked cubicles as they wheel and deal, hype and fret over the concept, script and other pre-production matters. Also aboard are producers Richard Zanuck (Eric Ankrim) and David Brown (Timothy McCuen Piggee), film editor Verna Fields (E. Faye Butler) and casting director Shari Rhodes (Alexandria J. Henderson) — not exactly household names or familiar faces, though esteemed Hollywood veterans all. As the deals congeal, there are also loose impersonations of the on-screen talent, including principals Shaw (Hans Altwies), Richard Dreyfuss (Ramzi Khalaf) and Roy Scheider (Geoff Packard).
The many personae can be hard to track in this hectic retelling. But when a tousle-haired Steven Spielberg enters downstage (portrayed by appealing, power-voiced Broadway stalwart Jarrod Spector), it’s clear who the “hero” is here: the ambitious 26-year-old director, who dives eagerly into a make-or-break gig. Still, despite its ultimate rewards, the making of “Jaws” turned into a nightmare project that Spielberg has said still haunts him (and not in a good way).
In Act Two, as the crew takes up residence on scenic Martha’s Vineyard, Mass., the set changes to an ocean backdrop and projection screen. Once on that island, the highs and lows of making “Jaws” are depicted in broad comic and increasingly soggy emotional strokes.
Other than Spielberg, there’s little character development. Shaw’s heavy drinking and hostility toward a flustered Dreyfuss are played for laughs. Zanuck and Brown sweat over budget and time (the filming took 159 days, not the planned 55). With no Bruce on hand, Feore just lines up the ensemble periodically to react to unseen, dismal trial runs of the fake fish.
A brief nod to a celebrated Shaw monologue triggers “Master at Ease,” an awestruck choral number celebrating the actor’s genius. But like other snippets of “Bruce,” you need to see “Jaws” for the context of the speech. It describes the 1945 torpedoing of the USS Indianapolis in shark-infested waters — after, ironically, the naval ship delivered parts of the atom bomb that decimated Hiroshima.
The clever lyrics to “What Would Hitchcock Do?” echo Spielberg’s genuine admiration for his filmmaker heroes, and the inspiration from Hitch to terrify an audience by leaving some frightening stuff to the imagination.
But while Spector sings the anguished ballad “Tame You” compellingly, it piles on the cliches about persevering and learning from adversity. And Spielberg’s huggy farewell ode to his “Jaws” collaborators (“Thank You Enough”) is a bit disingenuous. Though the director later acknowledged their contributions, he entrusted the shooting of the final shot to others and left town quietly with a nasty case of self-diagnosed, “Jaws”-induced PTSD.
The finale (“We Change Things”) also goes overboard in glorifying the success of “Jaws.” Yes, it became the highest-grossing film in history. It made Spielberg a superstar director. It showed Hollywood how summer could be a gold mine for splashy action pictures. And even today, without computer-generated effects, the film can still frighten the bejesus out of you.
But despite its seismic popularity and movie-biz import, did “Jaws” have great social impact? Does it deserve a reverential anthem for its world-shifting artistry?
At least at this point in the show’s development, “Bruce” does not make the case for that — nor for more stage musicals about filmmaking under duress.