When I went to see “Independents” last December, I found it sweet and sad. It was a poignant coming-of-age story in the guise of a nonsensical tale. Even though I could relate to neither historical re-enactment nor drug smuggling, I was pulled along by the sentiments that the characters conveyed — of the fear, uncertainty and near-reckless ambition that lie at the center of growing up.
Before seeing the musical for a second time at its Aug. 25 performance for the New York City Fringe Festival, I worried that it would be much changed. I knew that it had been cut short by 45 minutes to fit the festival, and of course, it was unclear what a second version of the production would look like without the guidance of the talented and astute Marina Keegan ’12, whose tragic death this May meant that the rest of the creative team — lyricist Mark Sonnenblick ’12, composer Stephen Feigenbaum ’12 MUS ’13 and director Charlie Polinger ’13 — have had to go it alone.
But they say that the greatness of any work of art lies not in specifics, but rather in the inexplicable ways it makes you think and feel. In this regard, “Independents” doesn’t miss a beat. Although certain relationships between characters have been altered and certain story arcs removed, the overall impression given by the musical remains the same. It speaks to the beauty and fragility of youth.
“Independents” takes place in the present, on an 18th-century schooner where a group of young people undertakes an historical re-enactment business in order to pay off the mortgage for the ship, a former drug boat that transported marijuana from Nova Scotia. Among the vibrant cast of characters are an androgynous former Navy officer named Johnson, a quirky but vulnerable white “slave” named JT and a mysterious rogue named Chris whose sudden return to the ship unravels their entire operation. We see ourselves in the faces of these people — in their fear of commitment, in their penchant for dreaming, in their nostalgia for childhood.
The musical owes its great success to the way in which it expresses the shared anxieties of youth within a storyline that strays far from the conventional tale of someone who leaves home to discover himself in the big city. The metaphor of the ship conveys a sense of drifting, a transition period in which you are not quite young enough to be carefree but not quite old enough to know what to do with your freedom. In wild spurts of energy, the cast sings of the invincibility that you feel when you’re young.
“We’re not everybody,” they cry out, “we don’t fade!”
The story hinges on the choice facing the play’s central character, Liam. He must decide whether to sell the boat that he inherited from his deceased parents in order to finally amass enough money to forge a life back on shore. In Liam’s romantic life, too, we see the push and pull of freedom versus stability. While his longtime girlfriend Isabel urges him to give up the seafaring life, Liam is taken by the ever-ambivalent Grace, whose own indecision around her feelings for Chris throws her adrift.
For the group on the boat, making choices is daunting. With all the anxiety and fear of college students, the characters voice how it feels to stand on the edge of both the past and the future.
Chris asks Liam, “Hey Lee, when are you going to wake up?” And Isabel (TK) tells him, “Every day is a decision.”
A few revisions have been made to place the musical more explicitly into the modern day. Whereas there was no mention of technology in the December production, in the Fringe version Liam often makes reference to Wikipedia as a source of information. Carl, the aspiring actor who comes to work on the ship thinking that it is a legitimate business, mentions that he is an intern looking to enhance his performance portfolio. Once he finds out that the ship’s crew is not comprised of real acting professionals, he agrees to stay and train them under the condition that he can cite his role as “anything I want on my resumé.”
With thoughts of Keegan’s death lingering in the hearts of so many in the audience, sections of the musical that highlight the fleeting nature of youth and life strike a particular chord. There is an urgency to the characters’ actions, to the words they speak when they are pondering the unknown. And in many cases, there is a sadness, too. It is a sadness linked to both nostalgia and a growing resignation to the end of childhood.
“I miss a lot of stuff,” Grace says. “If you miss it, that means it’s gone.”
In the musical’s beginning and ending refrain, “Plymouth Harbour,” there is a line that sings, “And we’ve mourned the ones have died.” Sonnenblick told the News that while he worked on the production, his “tremendous feelings of loss and sadness were coupled with this idea that something was still being created.” It is a rare kind of mourning that creates a work as entertaining, touching and resonant as “Independents.” Like the ship’s crew, we are made to look for something greater beyond the shoreline.