By Robert Sandla
With Your Own Thing, Driver said he wanted to create something far out yet comfortably familiar—a protest play that even tourists would enjoy. Driver told reporters that the show attacked The Establishment, the military-economic complex, and the Big Brother government. If it did that, it did so by depicting the kids of its day as endearing madcaps, lost in love, not Molotov-flinging revolutionaries. The whole thing had an impromptu, homemade flavor: Apolinar himself designed the show’s logo and appeared onstage as one of The Apocalypse, the show’s rock band. Driver streamlined the story, pared the cast down to nine actors, and focused on the central romances. The clownish rustics were replaced by a jokey rock group called The Apocalypse that recalls the Marx Brothers, or, more appropriately, The Beatles. Since the starchy Malvolio was banished, the show needed some authority figures as a foil for the youthful antics, so the team appropriated such Establishment figures as John Wayne, Senator Everett Dirksen, the Pope, and God, all of whom pop up via the show’s 12 slide projectors and two movie projectors—the cutting-edge multimedia of the time. A modular white set allowed for speedy scene changes via projections and colored lights, while mod costumes indicated the super-hip milieu. Driver made the whole thing zip right along without an intermission. And no doubt it was Driver who wrote such priceless stage directions as “Orson enters and closes door. Viola, not noticing him, does [a wild frug in her frustration.]”
Your Own Thing plunges us right into the confusion of a shipwreck. Everyone bails out but the rock duo of Sebastian and Viola, who even in the mayhem find time to bicker as twins do (“No One’s Perfect, Dear”). They are separated, and Viola is saved by a friendly mariner in a scene straight from Shakespeare, which leads her to ask a thoughtful young person’s question when making one’s way in the world: “And what should I do in lllyria?”
This being a contemporary comedy, New York City Mayor John Lindsay materializes in a projection to tell her that “lllyria is a fun city”—before he coughs from the smog. Bereft in this brave new world, Viola sings plaintively about life in a big, impersonal city (“The Flowers”).
Orson (Orsino in Twelfth Night), the manager of a group called the Four Apocalypse, is hot for Olivia, the soignée owner of a discotheque; her character was deliberately based on Sybil Burton, Richard Burton’s first wife. Suddenly Your OwnThing turns into a backstage musical, à la 42nd Street. We meet the nutty members of The Apocalypse, who sing an unabashed credo for the time, “I’m Not Afraid/I’m Me.” Orson has to find a replacement for the guy who played Disease in the group, who was drafted. Through the intervention of a projection of the Buddha (a plot device not found in Shakespeare), Viola learns of the group’s opening and pretends to be a guy in order to audition. Though initially gawky, she wins a spot in the quartet (“Somethin’s Happ’nin’ (Baby, Baby!)”). Orson finds himself strangely drawn to “Charlie” (“Cesario” in Shakespeare), and Viola finds herself attracted to the comparatively “square” Orson.
Meanwhile, Sebastian, mistaken for a girl, is recovering in a hospital, and sings of his woe in words that belonged to Feste in Twelfth Night, “Come Away, Death.” A busy Buddha intervenes with news about the casting needs for The Apocalypse and Sebastian perks up with “I’m On My Way to the Top.” Sebastian bumps into Orson, who thinks Sebastian is “Charlie,” who is really Viola. Sebastian is a bit confused but decides to do what Orson asks of him and just go with the flow. After lots of running back and forth, during which everyone thinks Sebastian is Viola and Viola is Sebastian and both of them are Charlie, Viola realizes that she is falling for Orson in “She Never Told Her Love,” the show’s other Shakespearean lyric. In a moment that recalls a similar scene in Twelfth Night, Viola/Charlie instructs Orson in the ways of wooing Olivia (“Be Gentle”).
Viola and The Apocalypse sing of how great it is to be young (“The Now Generation”), but Olivia puts a different spin on things when she sings ruefully of how quickly time flies when one turns 30 (“The Middle Years”)—scary stuff, in an era when you weren’t supposed to trust anyone over 30. She’s attracted to Sebastian/Charlie, who is 20, but they gamely decide to try to bridge that yawning gap of ten years of age.
Inept with women but drawn to Charlie, Orson delves into psychology books about latent homosexuality as images of Freud and historical homosexuals swirl around him—it’s a multimedia reimagining of Orsino’s confusion about his hot-and-heavy attraction to Cesario/Viola. Orson is glad his mom isn’t around to see this weird new development, but decides to stick with it (“When You’re Young and In Love”).
Accompanied by a kaleidoscope of gyrating colors, The Apocalypse sing “Hunca Munca” at Olivia’s disco, in a scene capturing the fervor of 1960s “Happenings.” In a quiet moment, Olivia and Sebastian understand each other better with “Don’t Leave Me.”
After a series of zany gender-blurred misunderstandings, Viola reveals that she’s a real girl, Olivia realizes that “Charlie” is Sebastian, the twins are reunited, and we hear dialogue along the lines of:
Olivia: You don’t mind me being older?
Sebastian: It’s where I’m at. You don’t mind me being younger?
Olivia: Listen, it’s my bag.
Happy ending all around: “Your Own Thing.”
–ROBERT SANDLA has written frequently about musical theater, and is the Editor in Chief of Symphony, the magazine of the League of American Orchestras.
This synopsis has been updated from the liner notes Sandla provided for the 1999 RCA Victor reissue of the original cast recording.
Red Bull Theater's one-night-only benefit presentation of YOUR OWN THING will be held Monday, December 12, 2022 at Manhattan's Symphony Space. Get full details here.