By MARK BLANKENSHIP
Unlock'd is a brand new musical about a very old story, and the creators want to honor both time periods at once. But how do you give an 18th century tale a modern sensibility without at least one of the time periods feeling false?
Composer Derek Gregor and lyricist-liberttist Sam Carner have been pondering that question since at least 2004, when an early version of Unlock'd won a Richard Rodgers Award. (Prospect Theater is presenting the official Off-Broadway premiere through July 13 at the Duke on 42nd Street.)
A riff on Alexander Pope's mock-heroic poem The Rape of the Lock, the show charts the tangled love of an Englishwoman named Clarissa, who wants to show up her popular sister Belinda by cutting Belinda's hair. Plenty of men also want Belinda's locks---not to mention the rest of her---and a group of sylphs and gnomes gets sucked into the action, too. Eventually, everyone bumbles toward love with the high-spirited madness of a period comedy.
But despite the source material, the writers don't want their story to feel stuck in the 1700s. "The goal is to be relevant to our own times, but also connected to timeless things that all humans experience," Carner says. "But that's difficult to find in musical theatre. It always wants to be heightened, but it's hard not to make it feel either irrelevant or precious."
Asked how they can find that happy medium, Gregor says, "It's about going to extremes in both directions, letting both parts of it be obvious and creating that tension. There's more harpsichord [in the final version of the show] and more classical piano and strings, but there's also more electric guitar."
He continues, "There's also an element of using certain classical instruments in a more contemporary way and using certain contemporary instruments in a more classical way. So we'll have fanfares on electric guitar, for instance."
Carner brings the same mix-and-match aesthetic to his book and lyrics. "I like to use a contemporary syntax, but pepper in certain word choices that fee more antique," he says. "That's sort of my formula for making something contemporary and approachable, but that also has the flavor of an older time."
Asked why he likes working with both styles, Carner says, "Not being forced to speak in an entirely contemporary diction allows for a verbal exploration that I probably wouldn't have been allowed otherwise. And at the same time, to really set it in a period diction would make it inaccessible."
At that, Gregor adds, "It really lets us do more and tell a bigger story by having both palettes to draw from."
Mark Blankenship is TDF's online content editor
Photo by Lee Wexler/Images for Innovation. Photographed at the Duke on 42nd Street.