For every contemporary-spirited Hamilton, Broadway stages numerous revivals of musicals from half-centuries ago, few of which have books, lyrics, or music by women or people of color. Even those productions with relatively diverse casting are unlikely to involve queer or trans characters. Meanwhile, Broadway’s tendency to latch onto franchise properties that audiences have experienced countless times over — whether in books or GIFs or movie theaters — further encourages patterns of sameness in representation. All of which makes especially pivotal the mission of the New York Musical Festival, which originated in 2004 with an aim to “introduce new shows, new perspectives, and new blood into the musical theater canon.” Over the course of the festival’s existence, a number of its selections — including Chaplin and In Transit — have made the vaunted and against-the-odds leap to Broadway.
This year’s NYMF, the fifteenth, opened earlier this week with Interstate, a creation of such vibrantly staged energy that this short festival run may very well be just the beginning. The book and lyrics are the work of Melissa Li, a cis, lesbian singer-songwriter, and Kit Yan, a queer, trans spoken-word performer. Ten years ago, the pair started a band, Good Asian Drivers, that toured around the U.S.; they later decided to adapt their on-the-road experiences to the form of a musical. (Li also did the music for Interstate; the direction is by Jessi D. Hill.) The show stars Angel Lin as Adrian, the character based on Li, and Jon Viktor Corpuz as Dash, the character based on Yan. It also incorporates a fictional thread involving the coming out of Henry (Sushma Saha) — a small-town Kentucky high schooler from a South Asian family — as trans. Henry maintains a YouTube channel to which he confides all the thoughts he cannot share at home or in school. Like many trans teens, Henry first finds a supportive community online, including on the Myspace page (the action takes place in 2008) of Dash and Adrian’s band, Queer Malady.
Saha, who was discovered via the theater program at Ithaca College, does a fast-paced, flawless rendition of Henry’s energetic first song, “I Don’t Look” — the catchiest in the show — about the high schooler’s crush on a classmate who “doesn’t know either of my names.” They also make poignant Henry’s spoken, daily updates posted to YouTube. Lin as Adrian conveys an air of hilarious frustration, whether the character is being interrupted by Dash during a radio interview or encountering straight racists in a bar. Adrian’s mouth at times becomes akin to the wavy lines of Charlie Brown’s expression whenever he sighs, “Good grief.” Corpuz (who was in the recent revival of The King and I at Lincoln Center) is equally at home with Dash’s big solo number (“Loser Dumplings”) as with the loose, playful dialogue. In one scene, when it comes time for the band to move its equipment, Dash counters Adrian’s “You’re the man” with “You’re the lesbian.” Even the smaller narrative strands are written and performed with exceptional nuance. Esco Jouléy as Carly — the would-be record-label impresario Adrian picks up on the road — scores laughs simply in the way ze eats from a bag of Doritos. The familial arcs also hit close to home: Dash’s first-generation immigrant father (Kiet Tai Cao) accepts his only son in a manner not untainted by traditional Asian patriarchal values. And Adrian’s corporate, go-getter mother (Michelle Noh), coolly dismissing her daughter’s artistic career (and queerness), will be painfully familiar to anyone who has been a disappointment to a parent.
The music throughout is live keys, guitar, bass, and drums, and the numbers alternate between songs Dash and Adrian perform on the road to thoughts and feelings they — and Henry — confess to the audience. Much of the show is sung: In a different era, and with different music, it would be called “operetta,” but Interstate bills itself as a “pop-rock poetry musical.” The production’s commitment to casting trans or nonbinary actors in trans roles, and its portrayal of a young trans man encountering resistance from his parents, is clearly (and depressingly) timely. As always, work from actual trans artists injects much-needed reality and authenticity onstage. Handsome Dash easily passes as a cis man, but in a bar, racist homophobes call him “faggot.” When Henry’s mother throws out his binder, he uses duct tape to flatten his chest, constricting his breathing. But even though the course isn’t always smooth, Dash and Adrian eventually find solace in their friendship and their art, just as Henry locates support in the greater community. The news has been so bad these past few weeks (well, these past few years), especially for queer and trans people and people of color; this show — and, crucially, more like it in the future — can perhaps be what we turn to for our own solace.