In the late 1980s, Seattle looked very different than it does now. The Columbia Center had just opened in March of 1985, alarming downtown, which had in a Scandinavian way reached an unspoken agreement against growing too tall. Nordstrom was still known for shoes. And the town had a blue-collar streak that was in its last throes as a cultural force (in contrast, today’s lists of dive bars read like an endangered species list).
Capitol Hill had a strong stock of decrepit old mansions and 4-to-6-bedroom homes that owners had purchased as investments, and would rent out at rates that paid for the mortgage. With no particular demand for them, older apartment buildings, all seemingly run by half-cracked pensioners, rarely raised their rents — it was understood that conditions there were only going to get worse.
But you could get by, and a lot of high school and college graduates did, working a part-time service job while they pursued other interests. Seattle was not a place for “strivers,” as Bryan the dj/oral historian says in These Streets (through March 10), the new rock musical down at ACT Theatre. He’s one of the volunteer on-air talent at KCMU.
But nonetheless, Seattle developed a brand — its icon, a slacker-outcast tortured by the demands of authenticity and intimacy — that a glam-pop music industry crushed to its breast like a cleansing asp. Brands and icons can hide as much as they reveal, These Streets reminds you. It wasn’t all grunge, it wasn’t all scruffy guys in knit caps.
The musical provides a then-and-now view. Finding that the women of Seattle’s grunge era have been overlooked, present-day Bryan has been collecting interviews with them as they reminisce about the time, and the show flashes back to a fictional “Seattle Six,” united by music. Conceived by Gretta Harley and Sarah Rudinoff (who also wrote it, along with Elizabeth Kenny), it’s a tribute to the survivors as much as the fallen, and a belated chance to hear how it “really” was — Bryan’s interviews are based on real-life interviews they did with more than 40 people.
It’s not that the women rockers were waiting quietly to speak their minds but maybe they “didn’t fit the narrative.” (There’s even friction as being misremembered as part of the Riot Grrl movement that blossomed in Olympia, which was also DIY, and whose musical exponents you could hear on KRS.)
The musical includes guitar-laden songs from 7 Year Bitch (“Knot”), Bell (“Transit”), Capping Day (“Visions of Mary”), The Gits (“While You’re Twisting, I’m Still Breathing”), Hammerbox (“When 3 Is 2”), Kristen Barry (“Seeing Gun”), and Maxi Badd (“Righteous”), to name a few, performed by Harley, Ron Rudzitis (guitar, vocals), Fiia McGann (bass, vocals), and Mitch Ebert (drums). It’s loud, but not as loud as in a club, if you’re wondering about ear plugs, and Robertson Witmer’s sound design is actually superior to what you might hear in a few clubs.
The set from Montana Tippett looks like a dive bar stage, raised a few feet, the front plastered with show posters; they’re also affixed to a leaning telephone pole that, with years stapled to it, keeps the chronology straight. Robert Aguilar’s lighting plays up Seattle gloom against the rock-show lights, maybe offering a bit more variety than Seattle venues do even today. The dance floor, once it gains a couch and an old wooden cable-spool (wired Seattle’s version of the wagon-wheel coffee table) becomes a house’s living room. If you’re of a certain age, Harmony Arnold’s costumes will look all too familiar.
Harley and Rudinoff (who songwrite for their band We Are Golden), have also supplied a few original numbers to help set scenes, or, in the case of the valedictory “Diamond,” to bring the whole thing to a halt as Rudinoff rummages around in your tear ducts and squeezes.
Director Amy Poisson has a lot on her plate to tie together the interview excerpts, and the trials and tribulations of the group of musicians (young) and (older). But the show is surprisingly coherent and many-layered, never bogging down in minutiae of the moment or pressing too strenuously for a dramatic conflict. What’s perhaps most appealing about the show is its truthfulness, its grounded nature, and the interplay between the past and present.
In These Streets, that’s given corporeal form by the two age-sets of characters: Evan Crockett plays Bryan in his youth, slightly standoffish but intensely curious about the music scene, while John Q. Smith gives him a world-weary air, though he’s still fired up by the music and the women who made/make it.
There’s also over-achieving Christine (the ineffably wonderful Terri Weagant), who ages terrifically into the regal-but-brass-knuckled Imogen Love; gangly young siren Kyla (Hollis Wear-Wong) who hooks up with Jarrad (Peter Richards); the dredlocked, activist-minded Dez (Samie Detzer), taken on by Elizabeth Kenny; and the self-medicating, fierce Ingrid (Eden Schwartz) who mellows into Gina Malvestuto’s portrayal of her as a still fiery ex-alcoholic who has music in her bones. Rudinoff is the older version of Kyla, fun at a party, but who comes alive most in a song about just carrying on.
The fictional group of musicians meet each other, move into a house (or in together), start to learn the ropes of live shows and low-budget tours, and then, as the industry’s spotlight searches Seattle for grunge talent, watch as some rise and some fall, and some just keep on keeping on. The show ducks the heroin use that was so prevalent, but throughout, it peppers you with astringent observations about class and gender and fame’s fraying of social ties. As a tapestry of the era, the show never tries to mold itself into the standard rock-musical model — it’s an ensemble piece times two, miles and miles away from, say, Jersey Boys.
But then, that’s what you would hope for a musical that came out of Seattle, that it have Seattle in its bones. (In the lobby is a Who’s Who of Seattle’s women in rock from the time that’s worth walking through.) No one else could have created this.