The Rebirth of ’Radiant Baby’
Few artists have had the same impact on the world as Keith Haring. His vibrant use of color, appropriation of street art, and bold lines changed the face of pop art, and his legacy lives on more than two decades after his untimely death at the age of 31.
So it wasn’t altogether surprising that such theatrical talents as George C. Wolfe, Ira Gassman, Stuart Ross, and Debra Barsha came together to help create "Radiant Baby," a musical about Haring’s life and work, that had an all-too-short life at the Public Theater in 2003. Now, the East Village-based company Theater C is working on an all-new production of "Radiant Baby" and will present a concert preview of the work at 9:30 p.m. on Monday, Feb. 24 at the Public Theater’s Joe’s Pub.
The project, however, actually began with a call from John Dias, the artistic director of New Jersey’s Two River Theater Company, which is working with Theatre C on the remounting. "We’ve created this reputation for producing innovative, immersive works that are sort of a hybrid of theater and art," says Theater C producing director Lauren Rayner.
"John had seen our production of ’Spring Awakening’ at the Carousel House in Asbury Park and he felt Theatre C might have an interesting viewpoint about ’Radiant Baby,’" recalls Carlos Arnesto, Theater C’s artistic director and the director of the upcoming concert. "But I had never seen or heard the show, so I went to view it at the New York Public Library for the Performing Arts. And I was just blown away by the spirit of Keith Haring - his sense of warm engagement, and his need to educate as well as being an artist."
His interest piqued, Arnesto went and spoke with the show’s creators about putting together a reimagined new version of their musical. "My thought was ’what if we do this show in a more immersive fashion, in the style of Keith’s art.’ And then they talked about how he had always wanted it to be more like an art installation," says Arnesto.
Soon, the show was being re-written to adjust to this new vision and the music was being re-arranged by Barsha, who is acting as the musical director for the new production and the concert. "It is much more funk-rock-pop than before. We’re using a lot of synthesizers. I feel like it will be a whole new sound we’re hearing," says Arnesto.
Naturally, casting the role of Haring was a key element to any new staging, and Arnesto chose openly gay Broadway actor Andrew Keenan-Bolger to portray the artist. "Andrew has such warmth and this direct innocence, along with a bit of edge, much like Keith did," says Arnesto.
As it happens, Keenan-Bolger was quite familiar with the work. "Daniel Reichard originally played Keith, and he is one of my sister’s [actress Celia Keenan-Bolger] best friends," recalls the actor. "So when I heard there was going to be a revision, I was super-excited. And I am thrilled to get to be able to play such an iconic character."
In addition, the role of Haring has a lot of personal resonance for Keenan-Bolger. "I really relate to Keith on many levels. I am at the time of my life, nearing my 30s, when I am trying to make an impression on the world through my art, and after his 20s, Keith eventually took his art into the community and beyond the art world," he says. "Keith was also a nerdy, quirky type of fellow, and it’s not hard to find those qualities in my own personality. And it’s very exciting to be able to play an openly gay character. It’s not so much that when I play a straight person that I have to turn something off, but I do feel more freedom when the character is gay."
As one might expect, Keenan-Bolger has done some research into what the real-life Haring was like. "He lived in a time when he was being documented a lot by his friends and others. I watched this great documentary, ’The Universe of Keith Haring,’ and saw a lot of filmed interviews with him," he says. "I want to catch his mannerisms, but I am not trying to do an impersonation. I need to be honest to myself, as well as being honest to this other person I’m portraying."
So is the world ready for this new take on this show? Keenan-Bolger certainly believes so. "I think 10 years ago theatergoers were in a different head space, but since then we’ve been taught to experience musical in new and innovative ways," he says.
That viewpoint is definitely shared by Rayner and Arnesto, both of whom have big plans for their real production of the show down the line. "My ultimate hope would be to mount the show in some kind of big studio or warehouse," says Arnesto. "But I’ll be fine with any kind of large space without a proscenium, which has flexibility, and where the audience would be able to move around."