When Carl Nassib made history a few months ago by coming out as the first openly gay active NFL player, he generously announced a sizable donation to The Trevor Project. While many know that the non-profit is dedicated to LGBTQ teen suicide prevention, not everyone realizes that it was sparked by an Oscar-winning 1994 short film called “Trevor.” The film was drawn, in part, from screenwriter Celeste (formerly James) Lecesne’s own painful experiences growing up gay.
The pioneering film, set in 1981, follows the rambunctious 13-year-old grappling with his identity. Considered a freak and bullied for his flamboyant ways — he “acts like a girl,” is obsessed with Diana Ross, and has a crush on a hunky jock at school — Trevor becomes despondent, leading to a suicide attempt. Thankfully, he is unsuccessful and meets a mentor who helps him embrace his otherness.
Nassib knew what he was doing. Although the 16-minute film’s story took place 40 years ago, suicide among LGBTQ teens is hardly a problem of the past. According to The Trevor Project website, suicide ranks as the number two cause of death among young people. Shockingly, LGBTQ youth are four times more likely to attempt suicide, make a plan for suicide, or seriously consider suicide, compared to their peers, according to The Trevor Project. At least one LGBTQ person aged 13-24 attempts suicide every 45 seconds in the US.
And now, Trevor’s story is taking on a whole new life, in the form of a full-fledged, splashy musical Off Broadway at Stage 42. The results, however, are a mixed bag.
To its credit, “Trevor: The Musical” deals with the fraught subject matter of untimely death that few mainstream musicals have dared to tackle. “Next to Normal,” for example, went the hauntingly dramatic route by eschewing choreography and delivering plaintive ballads, where sobs and sniffles from the audience competed with the harrowing action onstage. “Dear Evan Hansen” achieved a deft balancing act, leavening the pathos with biting humor. After one performance, a young woman near me wailed, “I cried my makeup off!”
With a book and lyrics by Dan Collins, ““Trevor: The Musical” has chosen the “Afterschool Special” route. Under the direction of Marc Bruni (“Beautiful: The Carole King Musical”), the show is decidedly targeting a teen audience, or perhaps, skittish parents. This broad approach is long on accessibility but short on dramatic intensity.
The show pulsates with buoyant musical numbers, with music by Julianne Wick Davis and choreography by Josh Prince, chronicling Trevor and his classmates’ day-to-day lives in Lakeview Junior High. My favorite, “Can’t Wait,” finds the hormone-amped kids in a deserted construction site, finally about to discover what kissing is all about. Poor Trevor, alas, can’t wait to get the heck outta there.
Bruni’s imaginative staging injects flights of fantasy, such as when diva Diana (a pitch-perfect Yasmeen Sulieman) emerges in a flowing, sparkly gown, like an angel, to perform a snippet of one her hits to underscore the action. She is both Trevor’s idol and his alter ego.
“Do you know where you’re going to?” she asks Trevor, crooning the famous “Theme From Mahogany.” The tenderhearted teen has no clue.
The plot has been expanded to trace the complex bond that forms between Trevor and his crush, the school’s star athlete, oddly named Pinky (played with an engaging, boyish insouciance by Sammy Dell). This bond is sorely tested after the gang discovers Trevor’s notebook with Pinky’s name doodled all over it, revealing Trevor’s secret.
Trevor is played with spunk and humanity by the talented Holden William Hagelberger, who snagged the demanding role after a virtual national casting call attracting more than 1,300 entries. Throughout the show I kept reminding myself that this fearless kid is only 13 years old, the same as Trevor in the film.
In fact, quite a few of the 18-member company are in their early teens. And if some of the numbers lack the polish of maturity, they exude gobs of jaunty charm. Noteworthy performers include Aryan Symhadri as Trevor’s nerdy buddy who lusts after busty models in a lingerie catalogue, and Alyssa Emily Marvin as the even-nerdier girl who is flummoxed when Trevor avoids making out with her.
Like the film, “Trevor: The Musical” relies on satiric comedy to tell this complex tale, perhaps out of fear of bruising tender sensibilities. The parents register as cartoon cutouts and detract from the gravity of Trevor’s plight.
Throughout the two-hour production, the term “weird” (uttered more than 20 times in reference to Trevor) is used as a coy substitute for “gay” (uttered just once). The stinging pejoratives most kids would use, like “queer” or “homo” or “pussy,” are oddly absent. Only “faggot” makes an appearance, just once. It’s not exactly a realistic depiction of LGBTQ bullying, even in 1981. The suicide scene where Trevor, alone in his bedroom, pops aspirin like Tic Tacs, fails to land as devastatingly as expected.
Simply put, I wanted more grit and less fizz.
I trust that this somewhat benign iteration of “Trevor” will find a place onstage in middle school auditoriums and expose a new generation to the crises faced by LGBTQ teens, and to the work of The Trevor Project. This is particularly vital in pockets of America where the hatred of otherness is not only tolerated but encouraged.
When the short film “Trevor” was first slated to air on TV in 1998 (on HBO with an intro by Ellen DeGeneres), the creators wanted to list a national helpline for LGBTQ youth in crisis, but realized that none existed. Thus, The Trevor Project and Trevor Lifeline (866-488-7386) was born. It is now the largest suicide prevention organization for LGBTQ youth in the world.
TREVOR: THE MUSICAL | Stage 42 | 422 W. 42nd St. | $59-$150; trevorthemusical.com | 2 hrs., 20 mins. with one intermission |