The theater is full of big egos, and musical theater probably boasts the biggest of all. Noel Coward acted as spokesman for the genre when he said, "I'm an enormously talented man, and there's no use pretending that I'm not." Perhaps this is why successful musicals hardly ever feature the input of more than a couple of core creators. On the rare occasion that a musical involves more than two composers and lyricists, disaster almost invariably ensues. Take the fiasco surrounding the development of the musical version of Peter Pan back in the 1950s, for instance. The combination of the original Mike Charlap and Carolyn Leigh score with revisions by Adolph Comden, Betty Green, and Jule Styne created something of a musical Frankenstein's monster. The show lasted barely four months when it opened in 1954.
It's a good thing Dan Wilson didn't pay much attention to history when he set about creating his latest musical for Cassandra's Call Productions. If the local black-box-theater maverick had thought too deeply about the pitfalls of collaborating with multiple songwriters, San Francisco audiences might have missed out on a vicious theatrical treat. For the bravura of "Sweetie" Tanya: The Demon Barista of Valencia Street extends well beyond its clever if tangential parody of the Stephen Sondheim classic, Sweeney Todd (which has been much in the news of late owing both to Tim Burton's new movie adaptation and the Broadway production which recently visited A.C.T. — both "happy accidents," according to Wilson). The best thing about Wilson's musical is its music, which, featuring the diverse yet improbably seamless efforts of no fewer than 10 songwriters, throws cold coffee in the face of received theatrical wisdom.
"Sweetie" Tanya grew out of Wilson's desire to bring a barista friend's outlandish real-life stories of on-the-job sexual harassment to the Darkroom stage. Seeing his friend as a modern-day Sweeney Todd, Wilson spins her narratives into a ghoulish-hilarious tale about a world-weary thirtysomething by the name of Tanya with a short fuse for dealing with misplaced male urges. Life is tough enough when Tanya's difficult past causes her to flee to San Francisco. But it only gets tougher when her job at a seedy Mission District cafe sparks bloodthirsty consequences.
Only the barest outlines of Sweeney Todd remain in this contemporary, Bay Area–centric recasting of Sondheim's musical about a 19th-century barber who, with the help of resourceful piemaker Mrs. Lovett, wreaks revenge on all of London for destroying his family life. Sondheim's ghost is most obviously present in the evolution of the main plot, the crumbling moral framework of a thankless world, and the opening number ("Attend the tale of "Sweetie" Tanya/Her smile was dead when she stared upon ya" versus "Attend the tale of Sweeney Todd/His skin was pale and his eye was odd"). In most other respects, "Sweetie" Tanya presents a vivacious departure from the source material. From its offbeat morphing of Mrs. Lovett into a certain well-known country music artist to its pat dismissal of Sweeney Todd's carnivorous conceit (Lovett: "Why not grind him up and serve him to your customers?" Tanya: "Nah. He'd make terrible coffee, and we don't have the equipment to make calzones"), Wilson's musical does more than simply send up Sondheim; it gleefully rejects the great American songwriter outright. Sweeney Todd might examine the grimy underbelly of society, but "Sweetie" Tanya dances a fandango on its insides.
It's quite a dance, thanks to the show's memorable music. "Sweetie" Tanya's use of multiple song styles isn't what makes it special — musicals often flaunt a songwriter's skills by veering among styles from madrigal to electro-pop. "Sweetie" Tanya rocks from a compositional standpoint because its songs, though the product of many different creative partnerships, blend seamlessly into the story. It's like a musical version of a mocha frappuccino: There are more ingredients involved than might be deemed healthy, yet the mix tastes delicious on the tongue.
The show starts out with a sonic espresso shot as the cast, led by Bryce Byerley in the role of the show's parched-eyed bum of a narrator, Mad Biscuit, intones the clipped lines of composer Steve Kahn and lyricist Wilson's Sondheim spoof, "Prologue," with caffeinated urgency. Then the mood switches to simple green tea, as Kate Austin-Gröen's clear-eyed Tanya contemplates her life through the faltering chords and plaintive harmonies of Rachel Efron's lovely "A Fearful Thing to Dream." We're on to black drip with "I Know I Shouldn't," a bluesy yet businesslike exchange between Tanya and her boss (composed by Jeffrey Bihr and Wilson). In a particularly lively bit of word painting, a wacky, augmented guitar chord (A #7 with a twist, I believe) makes the seedy coffee shop manager's intonation of the word "fears" sound like the equivalent of pouring salt into a drink instead of sugar. That one chord is all it takes to tell us that the man isn't to be trusted. Then it's on to sugary blended drinks with Efron's spry, Coward-esque "Maybe I'm Just Not as Old as You" in which Tanya's co-worker, Kim (Alexis Wong), chirps winningly about the joys of being 22.
The musical marvels keep coming. From the tinny, synthetic strains of Caroline Smith's, Julie Potter's, and Wilson's "Coffee Crush" (in which the cafe's dreadful clientele bark their orders like crazed automata) to Thessaly Lerner's, musical director Dave Malloy's, and Wilson's hilariously backhanded ode to West Oakland, with its joyous refrain of "West Uh-Oh Oakland," the collaborators keep us on a caffeine high. Even occasional tuning issues and some mawkish overacting from one cast member (who sometimes seems to think she's performing in a tragic opera at La Scala rather than in a musical satire on the Darkroom stage) barely interfere with our ability to attend Tanya's lurid tale.
When I e-mailed Wilson to find out what prompted him to bring in so many composers, I was surprised by his prosaic response. He'd originally planned to work with a single songwriter, but after three years hadn't progressed very far. "My inspiration was purely practical," he wrote. "I felt that I might have better luck hitting up people for a single song, rather than a whole show's worth." Unusually for the main creative force behind a musical, there's not a trace of egoism in this attitude. Wilson's first impulse was to get the job done, so he perfected the art of extreme teamwork.
This is wonderful, but also ironic. Besides Sweeney Todd and the 2006 Broadway hit Spring Awakening, it's hard to think of a musical with more of an antisocial, fuck-the-world message than "Sweetie" Tanya. Of the work's many powerful visual moments (some of the most lurid involving the inventive use of service implements as murder weapons), the most enduring must be the scene in which Tanya sits alone in the cafe, enjoying a quiet conversation with a variety of baked goods:
It's nice to have some peace and quiet
At last, some peace and quiet
Just me and this focaccia
To get me by
How strange that a work born out of such generosity of spirit and rampant collaboration should make me feel like moving to the Nevada desert, building a house with a razor-wire fence, and buying a shotgun. Then again, perhaps that's the point. We strive as human beings to make music together, when the world's ears are more often attuned to solos.