A Musical for the Future
Why Venice takes place in an unreal world
Venice is set in Venice, but not the Venice you’d expect.
The hip-hop musical, now in previews at the Public Theater, unfolds sometime in the future, when terrorist attacks have torn the city apart, leaving the privileged to create their own private colony far away from the rubble. Meanwhile, everyone else survives in the ruins, and we join the story when a freedom fighter tries to unite his people with the elite.
“We knew we wanted to set the play in a place that was not referring to any other: We didn’t want to say it was in Europe or in the year 2087 on the continent of Anarctica,” says Eric Rosen, who wrote the book, co-wrote the lyrics, and directs. “We wanted to create a world that sampled from many styles that were around us, but still created its own rules.”
The sci-fi conceit frees the show to be allegorical. Ghosts can walk among the living without having to explain themselves, and composer and co-lyricist Matt Sax can play an omniscient, tech-savvy narrator who drops in an out of the action. Those elements remind us that we’re watching a show with archetypal themes about community, loyalty, and purpose.
The sense of “the future” also supports the show’s mashed-up aesthetic. The score references rap, pop, opera, and legit musical theatre, but it’s not beholden to any of those styles. “In the playwriting, there’s also a sampling of Shakespeare,” Rosen adds. “There’s a sampling of the Greeks. There’s a sampling of the Arab Spring and current events. Those blend with all these musical styles and the multicultural, multi-racial characters.”
Choreographer Chase Brock was inspired by this approach. His work on the production references ten styles of dance from all over the world, including jumpstyle, a form of street dancing popular in Scandinavia; krumping, the American hip-hop style; and rhythm tap, which has roots in Africa and Ireland. “I thought about the globalization that’s going on in fashion and dance and food, and I projected that into a future where all of cultures are mashed up more than ever,” he says.
At the same time, Brock made sure his futuristic choices related to Venice‘s story. That’s why most of the dances are folk dances, reflecting the spirit of characters who rise against oppression.
Communal energy also defines the act one finale, when a wedding unites the citizens. Brock shapes the dance so that eventually, the entire ensemble begins moving in unison. Underlining the show’s allegorical ambitions, he says, “I think it’s exciting because it fulfills the storytelling needs of the show, but it also becomes about something larger. It becomes about watching the actors doing something incredibly polished. That kind of community event that can be both inside and outside of the play can be a really special thing for an audience.”
Mark Blankenship is TDF’s online content editor
Photo of Matt Sax and the company of Venice by Joan Marcus