In a refreshing change to its usual season programming, Ram’s Head Theatrical Society staged one of its first original musicals in years last weekend: a high-energy, contemporary joyride entitled “Disrupt!” Written by Samantha Bloom, ‘17 (with music by Ian Lim, ‘17) the show is an attempt to take on the Goliath of Silicon Valley startup culture – that specter that looms, subsumes, and influences every part of life here at Stanford.
The story begins in a banal coffee shop in Palo Alto, and gives us a glimpse of the Valley through the eyes of an average Joe (in this case, a joe-selling Joe named Joe) working behind the counter. The coffee shop, frequented by tycoons of the industry, is a hub of D-School jargon, lucrative business deals, and outrageous drink orders from the “Unsalted Butterchino” to the all-too-tempting “Excedrin Latte.” To facilitate the staged-reading aspect of the performance, actors roamed the stage with iPads in hand – a sight so natural I often found myself forgetting it wasn’t part of the show’s gimmick.
As an intervention into musical theater, “Disrupt!” is compelling in a number of ways. Bloom’s writing is clever, and Lim’s musical composition is catchy as hell. Where many musicals are inaccessible in their length and in their tendency to come off as passé, this production is refreshing in its ability to cut to the chase. The pacing is snappy, sentimental plot points veer away from indulgence, and Bloom’s dialogue emerges in scenes of straight acting as well as in musical numbers – making the show understandable and engaging even to those who may not be fans of the genre.
The show makes a number of reads on the absurd realities which inform life in the Valley, all highlighted by the campy and well-choreographed directorial vision of J.B. Horsley, ‘19. The story kicks off when Joe (in a dorky-yet-charming performance by Carter Burr-Kirven, ‘18) meets aspiring tech CEO Lucy (played by the enchanting Amanda Yuan, ‘20) and gets wrapped up in a plot to introduce the next big tech revolution: a DIY coffee app that allows customers to side-step baristas altogether. Their endeavors lead them into a competition for copyright with Joe’s childhood bully, Chad (Benjamin Share, ‘19), and plunges them into a world of high-stakes investing, cougar clubs, the ghosts of Hewlett & Packard, and a common drive to disrupt – even when there’s no way to tell what it is, exactly, that’s being disrupted.
In the spirit of new work, “Disrupt!” is appealing in not only its centering of emerging writers and directors, but also of a number of debuting performers – many of whom appear destined for larger stages. Though working with new actors can pose a number of challenges, the production featured some notable performances – from the stunning portrayal of a zealous investment tycoon (Elizabeth Gray, ‘20), to the eager intern (Andrew Savage, ‘19) whose enthusiasm to make it big in the Valley felt all too familiar amidst a crowd of Stanford students desperate to refill coffee for anyone working for Tech Crunch. The song “Tech Evangelist Hymn,” a gospel in the name of Steve Jobs, is a hilarious diagnosis of the quasi-religious relationship we have developed to creators of technology, and an absurdist depiction of the social power they yield.
Yet despite these successes, the show, as a piece of commentary, walks a fine line between sardonic and quirky. This is in part due to the fraught relationship between the genres of musical and satire. From a comedic perspective, the purpose of satire is to bring an element of discomfort to the theater – and discomfort is, above all, quintessential to avoid in musicals. The culture of musical theater is one of feel-good medleys, cathartic (but rarely political) explorations of sorrow, and rehashings of historical moments which feel far enough in the past to be safe artistic territory. Part of the danger of addressing contemporary issues lies in the reality that everyone in the room has an investment in the world being portrayed. One cannot do humor about contentious subjects (in this case, class) without making either rich or poor people feel uneasy. Though Joe represents an “average” perspective, working class people are as expunged from the script as they are from the Valley itself – and even Joe’s role is one of the cynic who is finally converted.
Bloom mentions, in her director’s note, that she was inspired by “The Book of Mormon” to write something true to her own life – and while “Disrupt!” certainly makes the bold leap of addressing social and cultural dynamics which are still in play, the success of “The Book of Mormon” (though incredibly problematic in its own right) lies in its ability to go deeper and, in terms of content, bleaker than “Disrupt!” ever does. Throughout the piece, there is a sense that the work is smart, but in urgent need of something real. It is critical, but only teasingly so – and at many points crosses the line separating satire from light-hearted whimsy.
For a show aiming to be critical of the Valley, the juiciest material is conspicuously absent. The culture of hyper-productivity which fuels life at places like Stanford is joked about in passing, but left without the context of the sordid realities which lurk beneath the surface – such as the suicides which put Palo Alto on the map, the military contracts which facilitate the existence of the tech bubble, and the immense inequality lying just on the other side of the freeway.
The question of gender – though marketed as a major selling point of the show – leaves much to be desired. The world of “Disrupt!” is one which is ruled by women; every major executive in the show is female, and the script is teeming with examples of Miss CEO success stories. Despite the immense importance of bringing visibility to women in positions of power, I couldn’t help but feel torn about the decision to do so through the lens of the very institutions the show sets out to critique. In the femme-vestors’ final song, they sing about the power of women in terms of their two chromosomes, X and X: a definition of femininity which is just about as transphobic as one can get.
This lack of intersectionality felt, at times, too glaring to be self-aware – but the end of the show, which saw Lucy’s success at launching an incubator for female run businesses, left me feeling like “Disrupt!” was less of a critique, and more of an advertisement for a Seussian (and strangely inspirational) representation of startup life. This dynamic is not uncommon among shows of this hybridized genre; indeed, even “The Book of Mormon” had the unintended effect of persuading audience members to take up the religion.
A plot device which contributed to this problem was the inevitable romance between Joe and Lucy – a narrative choice with the tendency to put a nail in the coffin of good politics. My personal aversion to love stories aside (I do believe my eyes may have rolled all the way around the room and back into my head), romance and satire are a difficult combination, rife with moments where the sincerity of each character’s passion slows the momentum of the piece, and makes it difficult to maintain focus on whatever fragments of political commentary might have emerged. In addition to this, Joe’s ode to the “friendzone” – that space teeming with male entitlement – felt oddly sexist after such a profession of feminism by the show’s marketing team.
Like the tech work that Joe criticizes so early on, “Disrupt!” seeks to throw into disarray something which it hasn’t quite seemed to identify. To use criticism to change minds and hearts, a show must have some sort of political direction – and unfortunately, few musicals make more than a gesture towards this. Yet the piece does upset a number of existing conventions in the genre. It dares to rethink what musical theater can look like, presents fresh new work in an industry where the same classics are regurgitated again and again, and, most importantly, holds a mirror to the world we live in today. These things take courage, and if another version of “Disrupt!” were to approach this world through a more discerning lens, I’d be the first in line to buy a ticket.
Contact Madelaine Bixler at mbixler ‘at’ stanford.edu.