On Friday, June 10, “Bruce” splashed into the Seattle Repertory’s Bagley Wright Theater. Set in 1974 Hollywood, this new original musical throws the audience into the maw of production chaos surrounding “Jaws.” Based on the book “The Jaws Log” by Carl Gottlieb, “Bruce” manages to inspire and surprise by playing with what’s not there, much in the same way the original film terrified viewers by keeping them always on edge and waiting for the final reveal.
The small opening night technical difficulties — which the orchestra and cast powered through without missing a beat — only added to the feeling of being along for the ride and having the chance to be a part of something exciting.
The first half of the musical is staged with a Hollywood Squares-esque set piece; inside nine boxes rimmed in lights, Universal Studio producers in flared-leg suits call each other on rotary phones while working the kinks out of an unnamed horror-action script. Each box has backgrounds that can change, giving each isolated “room” a groovy feel and instantly closing or expanding areas within a relatively small working space.
The persistent rat-a-tat by percussion echoes typewriters. The incredible orchestra, under the baton of Maestra Lily Ling, keeps the quick pace moving as producers build a team and look for a director. Eventually, they’re convinced to take a chance on a little-known go-getter: Steven Spielberg (Jarrod Spector). The corporate workers of Universal act as a Greek chorus, reacting and commenting as the studio makes calls with experts, shark aficionados and executives.
“Bruce” follows the formula of many musicals from the setting’s time period, starting with the big opening number, aptly named “Big One,” and then going into the star’s solo, “Give It to Me,” which showcases the lead once the ensemble has been introduced. Spector wields his strong voice with an incredible amount of control so that it still feels like Spielberg’s personality, growing with confidence at all the right times.
With the team in tow, the set evolves and becomes bigger, just like the story of “Jaws” itself. The ups and downs of production continue, including the many disasters surrounding the innovative mechanical shark developed for the film — the titular Bruce — and the looming deadlines.
As Robert Shaw and Richard Dreyfuss respectively, Hans Altwies and Ramzi Khalaf do an incredible job bringing out the contentious relationship between the two actors. Altwies fully embodies Shaw’s intimidating (and, in my humble opinion, pretentious) aura and how his alcoholism manifested in toxic masculinity. Dreyfuss tells Shaw, in a particularly fraught argument about method acting, “Oh, you think that's method acting, but it's a crutch.” This shines a particularly good light on Shaw’s performance in the movie “Jaws,” which sets the tense and erratic nature of every scene the two share. Also not lost to viewers is the distinct power dynamic between established Royal Academy-taught Anglo-Saxon Shaw and Jewish newcomer Dreyfuss.
In fact, through the song “Superhero Jew,” Spielberg convinces Dreyfuss that the world deserves a regular, Jewish action hero. The two of them commiserate about how regular Jewish men like them don’t have a hero who looks or acts like them, not without subscribing to the great Gentile idea of masculinity. In “Jaws,” Dreyfuss could push against the politics of the time and act as a hero who outwitted the monster using his smarts, common sense and persistence.
Another way “Bruce” lifts up the actual struggles of the ’70s: Verna “Mother Cutter” Fields (E. Faye Butler) saves the whole film time and time again. She ensures not only that there are no continuity errors but also that every scene is stitched together perfectly. This is made even more difficult by the fact that there were thousands of feet of footage shot — out of order — for “Jaws.” Butler delivers a show-stopping, feet-stomping stunner with “Verna’s Work.” Fields was just one of many female editors who reworked action movies in the ’70s and ’80s to elevate them from decent films to blockbusters.
In fact, “Jaws” was the first summer blockbuster. It was also the first movie that was shot in the water and a bunch of other firsts; the final number, “We Change Things,” talks about all of the ways “Jaws” changed the landscape for movies and Hollywood in general.
The new musical “Bruce” is an ode to the tenacity and creativity of Spielberg and his team, full of people who were at the margins of Hollywood at the time. Although Fields was not a Black woman, as Butler is, there were many women behind the scenes of Spielberg’s production. “Jaws” was an action movie that featured a Jewish man expressing masculinity outside the white Christian idea of patriarchy.
Just like the movie it tells the tale of, “Bruce” is a team effort. The cast, the orchestra and the crew together all make the musical work. This is the Bruce that Seattle deserves, as quirky and full of denim as the Pacific Northwest itself.
And, if you listen closely, although John Williams’ iconic “Jaws” theme isn’t expressly played, the familiar motif is hidden in the orchestral melodies, not unlike a shark swimming in the depths.
Leinani Lucas is a writer from the Pacific Northwest. She can be found on Twitter @LeinaniLucas.
This article has been updated: The song "Regular Guys" was changed to its actual title, "Superhero Jew." A quote about method acting was reworded to be accurate to what appears in the script.
Read more of the Jun 15-21, 2022 issue.