I think I was the first person unassociated with Swimming Upstream to see the production. Ever. This seems like pretty heady stuff as I sit in warm darkness waiting for the cast’s final run-through to begin. I feel like an insider: I watch volunteers scurry behind the set with big rolls of duct tape, I silently side with the musicians in their power struggle with the sound guy, I smile benevolently at the writer’s nervousness. I have no idea what I’m getting myself into; really, no one does. The sign says WORLD PREMIERE- maybe I’m gonna be a part of something big, I think. From the sound of the band warming up, it looks like I’ve got a rock musical ahead of me. As far as I’m concerned, no good has ever come out of a rock musical-Hair, Rent, Tommy-spare me. But still, this could be something big. Then the show starts, and I’m thinking I couldn’t have made this up if I wanted to.
In Swimming Upstream, there’s a new kid in school, and he’s got dreams. He wants to write a musical; something funny and moving, all at the same time! He gets his chance when he is assigned a creative health class project. What follows is his pursuit of the ‘in-crowd’ as his cast, and the development of his musical about sperm. Since the whole show poetically mirrors the challenges of sperm swimming toward an ovum, I am intermittently subjected to huge slides of the act of conception. As our hero faces the problems of bullying and falling for the prettiest girl in school, so our sperm faces deadly acids and threatening antibodies. And the audience faces an hour and a half in a small, hot black room, staring at a monster-size genital-pink birth canal set. Now, I’m a liberated woman-I’m pro-choice and I love tampons and all-but the effect is indeed menstrual-nauseating.
There are several horrendous interludes. If the biology slides aren’t enough, every so often seizure-inducing carnival-style music blares, and a diminutive masked man bounds about the stage. His name is Conscience McBadass-and yes, this is where I realize I couldn’t have made this up-and he shows up periodically to cajole the main character toward the glory of a smash-hit health class musical with integrity. En route to that glory, our main character tries out several different styles of musical. The show’s best number is its Gilbert and Sullivan take-off, as Todd imagines his show as “The Pirates of Men’s Pants.” After the pirate seduction scene, Todd dreams up a stupefying operatic presentation of the binding of Isaac which dissolves into a song about smegma. It is needlessly gross, and I don’t get the musical allusion, which is probably even more offensive. Todd cheerfully offers this scene as a “modernistic show that won’t make any sense,” and the same can be said of Swimming Upstream.
It’s a concept show, absent compelling plot or narrative. Whatever imitation of plot exists is murky at best. Since this is a thoroughly modern musical, the writer and composer feel free of the bounds of common sense. Since there’s no set to speak of and no narrative dialogue, it would be convenient-no, critical-that I be able to hear what they’re singing. I do figure out what’s going on after about ten minutes. But when I do figure it out, eighty minutes of guesswork remain.
For all those eighty minutes, the script can’t seem to decide on a level of realism. The characters burst into song constantly, but every so often one character will stop another and tell him how wonderful a singer he is, how glad he is to have overheard him singing. The confusion triples as Todd dreams his musical-in-a-musical. The dependable musical conventions are present-the dreamy, winning boy, the unattainable babe with a heart of gold, “I am” songs directed at the audience, a duet that unites our hero and heroine-but those conventions are obscured with “modernistic” self-awareness and creativity. Musically, it’s a boy and a girl and a barbershop quartet, and thematically it’s a boy and girl and a musical. Eventually, the dream girl inspires the dreamer boy to be himself, to create a musical that is all his own. Thusly inspired by love and integrity, Todd puts forth a piece about sperm swimming upstream toward fertilization. This explains why the theatre has been transformed into a gaping vagina, but it does not justify the spectacle.
Despite all the ridiculous vulgarity and painfully deliberate layering, the most off-putting component of the show isn’t even on stage. The powers that be behind this musical clearly think they have smash hit. It borrows elements of recent popular successes like Rent, Urinetown, and Avenue Q. It rocks and rolls with indulgent vulgarity, and it plays on the idea of a children’s entertainment for grown-up “laughs.” The songs are annoyingly catchy, and the winning anthem is repeated ad nauseam, so as to make sure that the audience doesn’t miss it. Watching the writer watch her show only sharpened the embarrassing disconnect. The producer-type in the audience laughed, and beamed, and really looked hopeful. It reminds me of Waiting for Guffman, but in real life it feels tremendously depressing.