Luke Cresswell and Steve McNicholas’ enduringly popular performance piece Stomp is part musical composition, part dance, part wordless comedy and, on some level, part creation-myth narrative in which humans recognize rhythm and the essence of music in themselves and in their environment. Its repeated plot device is the discovery and awakening of sound, pattern and – with the joining of others – complexity, interdependence and community through the most ordinary and magic-depleted objects: matchbooks, brooms and hubcaps, the refuse of the industrial world.
The players appear as urban primitives, janitorial in ratty garb, themselves Industrial Age refuse living in a comfortless, meta-theatrical setting, equipped with a scant-but-critical materialism that is just barely more than their own bodies. It is what the world has offered them. The musical movements typically start not with artistic intent, but with sparks of recognition: The player likes the sound of a workplace accident and runs with it. Nearby soot-nosed ragamuffins join in from under lids. Next thing you know, it is a riot of complex design. Stomp revels in the aboriginal impulse of music, spiking it, ’90s-style, with the thematic undercurrent of a radical, almost-Marxist populism: a celebration of the adaptability and the irrepressibility of the spark (and its intensification amongst the forgotten and oppressed).
But in the hands (and feet) of the New York cast of the ’90s – fierce; gym-body buff; spangled in its multiculturalism, gender fluidity and urban-slam style – Stomp sent a contrary message as well, equally blunt: You can’t do this. It is too hard for you. This jam is for the fiercely talented alone, the kinesthetically superior ones wherever the social order should locate them, those hardwired for physical virtuosity. It’s not Everyman; it’s Superman. A “y’all join-in-now” participatory outreach would have made a lot of commercial sense (and is certainly how they would have played it in the ’70s), but no: Stomp never once invited you to stomp. Stomp was not really about the universal prerogative of rhythm; it was about the exclusive prerogatives of badassness.
And it killed my band, so maybe I’m still a little hurt. In ’96, Wormwood was rolling along, modestly peaking, even: Our third record was well-underway and hinting strongly at big-leap growth, and we were finally approaching consistency as a live group, the bugaboo and Grail quest of my entire musical life. People were listening. Adrian Belew half-offered to produce us, but I think that he had been drinking. Then, in about one week’s time, Mark announced that he was leaving to tour the world with Mercury Rev, and Seth got cast in Stomp. Ah, the body-blows of success when it calls on your friends, twice in one week, taking out your band out in the process.
My consolation was a frequent spot on the friends-and-family bench, last row of the balcony at the Orpheum on Second Avenue, where Stomp has been plopped for about 20 years now. You can’t hate Stomp when you are in its presence, though. You just can’t. The musical composition itself is just too good, the players too fierce and committed, the production too spare and smart. But it was from that consolation bench (my only distinction there being that I was one of three people in the theater, all on that uncomfortable bench, who hadn’t paid to get in that night) that I began to formulate the interpretation of Stomp finally realized, 20 years later, in the first three paragraphs above: that it wasn’t global musical Marxism after all, but a global musical Nietzscheism.
Then one night, Seth got me on the bench for a special performance. (Stomp doesn’t really have special performances; it is, if anything, fiercely consistent.) The show’s British creator, Luke Creswell, would be appearing in the lead role. Yes, Stomp has a lead role. I don’t remember the circumstances, but it might have been shortly after the night when Seth’s friend (and thus mine) Dashiell Eaves broke his foot badly during the broom sequence, finishing out the long remainder of the show through white beads of pain, and then taking a vacation. He has since gone on to play Rolf in The Sound of Music on Broadway and to get punched in the balls by a mechanical fist in a shaving commercial.
And that was the night that Luke Creswell put my theory to rest. It was a revelation to see the piece play in the hands and feet of its creator: light, elfin, crisp and mindlessly easy-looking, utterly free of the fierce “slam” attitude of his New York cast of the ’90s. The contentious street vibe just bled away – even from the rest of his New York cast. It was just music. It was just joy. It just shut me up about it. Until now. Luke, Stomp is great. But it killed my band.
Stomp makes its Kingston premiere (took a while) at the Ulster Performing Arts Center (UPAC) on Saturday, April 16 at 8 p.m. Tickets cost $33 to $53 based on location. Purchase tickets in person at the Bardavon box office at 35 Market Street in Poughkeepsie, (845) 473-2072; the UPAC box office at 601 Broadway in Kingston, (845) 339-6088; or via Ticketmaster, (800) 745-3000. (Please note that Bardavon member benefits are not available through Ticketmaster.) For more info, visit www.bardavon.org.
Stomp, Saturday, April 16, 8 p.m., $33-$53, UPAC, 601 Broadway, Kingston; www.bardavon.org.