Now that it’s officially July, I am preparing for one of my favorite holidays - Jaws Day. Some people celebrate Independence Day, but I choose to use the time to celebrate the release of one of my very favorite films. It’s a summer movie, an epic adventure, and a terrifying piece of horror. I watch it every July the 4th, without fail. It’s the main event of the day (usually screening in the early afternoon, before my neighbors start blowing things up and I can’t hear my tv anymore), and I’ll usually pepper in other summer horror around the edges (I Know What you Did Last Summer, Return of the Living Dead), but ultimately, it’s all about Jaws.
This year, I also had the privilege of augmenting that celebration with a new addition to the Jaws cannon - a performance of the brand new musical, Bruce. Produced by the Seattle Repertory theater and directed by Donna Feore, I got in on the world premiere run of a new play. A musical (!) about the production (!!!) of my favorite movie Jaws (!!!!!!!!!!).
Based on The Jaws Log by screenwriter Carl Gottlieb, the play tells the story of how Jaws made it through a notoriously troubled production to become the classic that I (and many others) celebrate every year. We go from Peter Benchley’s novel being optioned and a young Steven Speilberg (Jarrod Spector) coming aboard to direct, through casting, location scouting and the beyond difficult shoot (wherein the titular shark prop refused to work, time after time), all told through song and the performances of an amazing cast.
“That sounds amazing!!!” you might say. You would be correct. It was amazing. And fun. And quite possibly the nerdiest thing I have ever seen. If you have The Jaws Log or Memories from Martha's Vineyard on your shelf, you will absolutely find something special here. From Leigh Fierro's audition to the many actors who were considered for Quint before Robert Shaw (Hans Altwis) was finally cast, to the on-set personality clashes between Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss (Ramzi Khalaf), Bruce goes far beneath the surface of the film and incorporates the many stories that have circled the making of Jaws for years. These stories are brought to life onstage and the many bits and pieces that went into creating the legendary Jaws are all part of it.
The music and songs were good, though not overly memorable. These aren't songs that you're going to leave humming, but they're the right songs for setting the scene and conveying the proper mood. And as someone who absolutely hates getting earwormed by Broadway soundtracks (I have spent over a week with I Dreamed a Dream floating through my head), that’s the perfect balance. A standout moment was the piece that focused on the filming of the Indianapolis scene. All of the actors just took a step back and focused on the effortless enormity of Robert Shaw’s performance. It all perfectly captured the magic that happens every time you watch the film and the world just falls away as Quint tells his devastating story.
The staging and the scenery were very dynamic. The story beats are quick, with set pieces sometimes changing every minute or two. It crams a lot in, but it uses every moment. Nothing is wasted and every moment merges seamlessly with the next. “What about the shark?” you may ask. Does the titular Bruce ever make an appearance? Not really. Much like the shark in the film, Bruce stays offstage; we experience his presence through the reactions of the characters and it’s fantastically effective. Every time they try to get the shark working we are filled with anticipation, and every time it fails we fall to disappointment, right alongside Speilberg and friends.
One of the biggest highlights is the way the play acknowledges the individual contributions of the various crew members. It notes that though Speilberg was the captain of this ship, he did not complete this massive undertaking alone. And in a final number (that I have no shame in saying brought tears to my eyes) he sings a big solo and acknowledges those contributions one by one, reminding the audience that it was all of these people who helped create such a special and timeless work.
I'm a huge film nerd, but admittedly, I don't know a ton about theater. Luckily, I have a theater nerd brother who saw the play with me. So in addition to my own geek outs, I enlisted his opinion as well.
Joe, you're a theater kid - what did you think of Bruce from a stagecraft perspective?
I thought Bruce was a ton of fun, with incredibly tight pacing and excellent use of the clever scenic design. The production team of Bruce ended up having to tackle some of the same challenges as the story they were telling - technical issues, getting you to care about a cast of underdogs out of their depth, etc. And similarly to Spielberg and crew, a less-is-more approach sells it. How do you get folks to care about months of pre production meetings? Quick and clever staging using a tri-level, "Hollywood Squares"-esque set in the first act which had a fantastic set change - splitting the squares down the center to reveal the sprawling scenic seafront of Martha's Vineyard. How do you appreciate the passion and prowess that went into designing the shark? Show the beauty in the process, in a STEM nerd's counterpoint to Sondheim's "Finishing the Hat" - giving Joe Alves and Bob Mattey a moment to shine. And also the obvious - how the hell do you do the shark? And much like the film, the less the audience sees, the more they fill in the gaps, allowing the joy, anticipation, and agony of the crew to paint the picture. In our current era of theatre-as-spectacle, Bruce bucks a lot of trends. And honestly? It has some rough edges. But like JAWS itself, It's a hell of a ride. - Joseph Maubach
The thing that really shines above everything is the fact that this production celebrates Jaws along with the rest of us. It respects the work that went into the filming, but it also celebrates all of the strange stories from the production that have been told and retold and over time, have become bits of Hollywood legend. The story knows everything that we love and hold dear about Jaws and celebrates it along with us. So it’s not just a musical about Jaws, but a musical about Jaws from people who clearly love it, and that makes it feel all the more special.
I’m hoping this won’t be the last time Bruce is performed. It is absolutely something that will be loved and admired by Jaws fans everywhere and I hope more of us have the opportunity to see it. But in the meantime, I wish you all a Happy Jaws Day, 2022!
Editor's Note: If interested in checking out Bruce, there are only a few more performances taking place this weekend. To learn more and purchase tickets, visit: https://www.seattlerep.org/plays/202122-season/bruce/