From “Hairspray” and “Memphis” to “Jelly’s Last Jam” and the current “Shuffle Along,” musicals about African-American musicians necessarily focus on how the white man has exploited their art. Stew and Heidi Rodewald also tell that story in their new musical, “The Total Bent,” which opened Wednesday at the Public Theater. But they’ve added something very different to the legend.
Joe, a popular but very underpaid gospel singer (Vondie Curtis Hall), has serious problems with a British record producer (David Cale), but the big crisis is with his upstart son, Marty (Ato Blankson-Wood), who wants to take his father’s music in a new direction.
“The Total Bent” begins its story in what might be the 1950s, and the word “faggot” is used a lot, even though Marty is never specifically identified as being gay. There are references to his sleeping with both sexes. He definitely spends a lot of time on his eyebrows. And most important, there’s no mistaking some serious gender-bending when Marty sings. He’s much more chanteuse than crooner, and Blankson-Wood is expert at being thrillingly androgynous as a performer in white T-shirt and jeans.
There are echoes of the Marvin Gaye tragedy in Stew’s book about a father-son rivalry. Also, Marty is able to mask some of his more overt femininity when Carnaby Street fashion comes to the rescue in the 1960s. The story prefigures Prince here. But it’s best to put aside any prototypes. Stew and Rodewald, who collaborates on the music, haven’t written a roman a clef. Rather, they’ve created something that’s utterly original. Just like Blankson-Wood’s breakthrough performance.
As with Stew and Rodewald’s previous effort, “Passing Strange,” the band interacts with the onstage actors, who are almost always performing in concert or in a recording studio. “The Total Bent” is a very pared-down all-male “Dreamgirls” (Hall starred in the original), with all of the emotional impact under Joanna Settle’s compelling direction.
Most musical-history shows offer up ersatz versions of classics. Stew and Rodewald write songs that are the real thing and destined to be classics in their own right. Stew’s dialogue for Marty at the end is also hallucinatory in its expression of the self-love that all great performers must have. His ascendancy is fueled not only by a sexual defiance but a very real Jesus complex.
Early in the show, Marty tells his father he “wants to put a mic to the inner voice” of the black man. Near the end, he rails, “Beware the TV preacher” and Joe’s brand of “Christian entertainment.” Marty’s ambitions don’t get any bigger. He thinks he is God.