Let’s rip the Band-Aid off right away: the titular star of Seattle Rep’s world-premiere production of “Bruce” has even less stage time than it did screentime in Steven Spielberg’s 1975 classic “Jaws.” Unfortunately, where limited shots of the story’s central shark in the movie — necessitated by a slew of on-set issues with the mechanical shark named Bruce — added to the suspense around its movie presence, its absence from this new musical left a gaping hole.
“Bruce,” the new musical from Robert Taylor (book and lyrics) and Richard Oberacker (book, lyrics and music), is based on the Carl Gottlieb book “The Jaws Log.” Gottlieb worked on the original “Jaws” script, aiding the adaptation from Peter Benchley’s 1974 novel about a great white shark that threatens a beachside town, and proceeded to write “The Jaws Log” detailing how a 26-year-old Steven Spielberg created a classic. Gottlieb also shed light on some of the behind-the-scenes turmoil that almost derailed “Jaws” along the way, including its malfunctioning central predator, actor feuds and an elongated timeline that led to “Jaws” becoming the first great summer blockbuster.
The musical methodically lays out the series of events from producers loving Benchley’s novel and wanting to turn it into a movie, bringing together the team and casting, filming on set on Martha’s Vineyard and then all the way through to the completion of filming. As fellow theater critic Dusty Somers and I sat down to chat about our experiences watching “Bruce,” we began to wonder if that step-by-step approach truly helped the production, especially when done absent its most dramatic star.
Jerald: If you had to pick a most memorable moment from the show, what would it be?
Dusty: I think that’s sort of the problem — it lacks that big, memorable moment. We were all kind of waiting for the shark to show up. I think we joked when there was an unplanned delay on opening night that, OK, well, is this the shark malfunctioning behind the scenes? Of course, there was no shark to malfunction.
But I think the reveal moment between scenic designer Jason Sherwood’s two set designs is definitely the “aha” moment that sticks with you. They go from a “Hollywood Squares” tic-tac-toe and it opens up to this sort of sea as it transitions from Hollywood offices to Martha’s Vineyard. It’s almost like waves — this very big, expansive set — which is a great moment. But they don’t really do a whole lot with the space once it’s there. It’s just more room for this massive (22 person) cast to get plunked onto the stage in various configurations.
Jerald: Well, the show’s title, “Bruce,” seems to be actively pointing to the movie’s biggest star and problem: the shark. Without it physically being there, the show felt like it waffled between whether or not it wanted to focus on it. In playwriting, there’s this idea of a major dramatic question. What is that central question that’s pulling us as an audience along? In “Jaws,” it’s basically, “Will Chief Brody save the town?” And you can potentially add in the idea of, “Will he kill the shark?” That one question takes you through the entire movie. I have no idea what that question is for “Bruce.”
Dusty: That’s a great point. There’s not a real strong through line. Spielberg as a protagonist is intermittently interesting. We’ve got this young, kind of upstart director and there’s the question of will he be able to pull this off. There are doubts from the beginning from the studio. It’s all kind of a tenuous proposition.
But there’s a question of how well this works when we, of course, all know who Steven Spielberg is. We know he’s maybe the most iconic figure in American filmmaking of the last 50 years. Seeing him as sort of this plucky upstart, I think it’s hard to sell that as the driving force of this story.
Jerald: I feel like the biggest thing this show, as a concept, is battling against is the fact that it’s been decades and “Jaws” is one of the most well-known movies in cinema history and a massive success. At multiple points throughout the show, it felt like they were just telling the story of its creation point by point: “I have a timeline of certain things that must happen during this show because it is a factual representation of the timeline of events that happened.”
The opening number is a good example, where everyone’s singing about how this story is the best story they’ve ever seen, they just have to assemble a team. Then we watch them methodically assemble a team for the next 30 minutes.
Dusty: There’s also this idea of trying to take this anti-auteurist angle, where in the end it’s not about Spielberg overcoming all these obstacles to will this piece of art into reality, it’s this collaboration between this group of people. I think any filmmaker would say that the entire team is essential, but it sort of muddies the waters, right?
Jerald: I agree. And part of that muddiness for me is that I felt that the strongest points in this musical wound up being the ones that were kind of pro-auteurist around Jarrod Spector’s performance as Spielberg.
One of the best lines from the show was from the song “Tame You,” where Spielberg was talking about the movie, but more specifically about the dang shark, singing, “I will own you” and “I will tame you.” It felt like the central conceit of the story wanted to be that: Spielberg looking at this project and just being like, “No, I’ve got this. I can do this. I will do this.”
Dusty: I enjoyed his performance as well. He has a great voice and he carries this show, even if the show doesn’t necessarily let the character carry it that well. I think there is a lack of inner turmoil or conflict. There’s never a convincing loss of control, where he needs to tame this creature, but he’s incapable of doing it. Maybe that comes back to the fact that we don’t see his antagonist here, ever. I think there’s only so many scenes of people staring offstage at an unseen shark that we can take to really convince us of the difficulties that are occurring.
Jerald: Though not quite an antagonist, I felt like Hans Altwies playing Robert Shaw, the actor behind “Jaws” boat captain Quint, had potential to be an impediment in the story. There are repeated mentions of Shaw having problems with alcohol and nods to the real-life feud Shaw had with another actor on set, but there’s really only one scene in the musical where it was almost a problem. He throws the script in the air, complaining about the number of changes and has the props person put actual alcohol in their cups for the next scene.
But seconds later, Spielberg and the other actors in the scene being “filmed” sing an almost romantic ballad to his acting, praising how amazing he is. Like you said, there’s nothing really for Spielberg to overcome here. The musical gestures at conflict, but then any potential issue is resolved effortlessly.
Dusty: I think that’s sort of the issue here. It’s not a comedy really, but it’s so lightweight that it feels like it has the emotional stakes of a comedy without any of the actual jokes or humor.
It also has a pretty unmemorable score. In the program Oberacker and Taylor talk about how the score is “inspired by the authentic sounds of 1973 and ‘74.” I don’t really get that very strongly at all.
Jerald: I wonder how much of that feeling is connected to a lack of stakes. It didn’t feel like any song was truly pulling us, except for the one that I mentioned that Spector gets. There was a song that E. Faye Butler got to sing as the film’s editor, Verna Fields, and another that Alexandria J. Henderson sang as the film’s casting director, Shari Rhodes, that had wonderful, big vocal moments, but they didn’t really do much in the plot.
It goes back to my initial point: What is the major dramatic question here? There seemed to be three: They want to tell the story, point by point, of how “Jaws” factually got made; and tell how Spielberg was a visionary talent against all these crazy odds; and then show how a mechanical shark named Bruce almost ruined a guaranteed smash hit. It wasn’t very clear which of those wound up winning.
Dusty: I think it comes down to this: “Jaws,” when we think of it as a movie, it’s sort of this perfect blend of art and schlock. The story is kind of ridiculous. It relies on this kind of corny idea of this man-eating shark. Yet, it turns that into art. There’s no sense of that schlocky fun in this musical at all. It feels very disconnected from its inspiration.
Jerald: In the program, Oberacker and Taylor even refer to this as a “love letter” to all those who made “Jaws” happen. It really never felt like that outside of the final epilogue song, where the cast reflected on everything “Jaws” went on to accomplish despite all of the issues along the way. It was the one time, I was like, “Oh, you do love ‘Jaws.’ You just saved it until the end.”