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The music man 

Director Kent Gash gets personal with tick ... tick ... BOOM!

Stage musicals have a reputation as the most lite 'n' fluffy of the performing arts -- or at least they do until Kent Gash gets through with them. The Alliance Theatre's award-winning associate artistic director helms three shows this season that engage heavy themes amid the songs and dances. The shadow of creator Jonathan Larson's death hangs over tick ... tick ... BOOM!, opening this week on the Alliance Hertz Stage. In January, Actor's Express' Love, Jerry takes a challenging look at pedophilia, and Jelly's Last Jam, a Cotton Club-era glimpse of jazz and race, opens on the Alliance mainstage in March. Gash talks about how being a musician, a missionary and a "mess" all enhance his stage work.

Creative Loafing: What's your musical background?

Gash: I started as a musical theater performer when I was a kid. My parents always believed strongly in the arts and everyone in my household had to take piano for at least a year, so I played from when I was 8 years old until I graduated from high school. At the time I wanted to sing, and my parents said, "You can do anything you want as long as you go to college," and it worked out. My first time in Atlanta was playing Jacob in the national tour of La Cage Aux Folles.

Do you need to sing and dance to be able to direct a musical?

I also do choreography and musical staging, and I find being able to read music and understand just how music works is enormously helpful. The more tools you have to understand what rhythms and harmonics do in terms of character and story, the better.

Jonathan Larson, the creator/composer of Rent, died of an aortic aneurysm at 35 before finishing tick ... tick ... BOOM! Can you explain the play's origins?

Jonathan Larson developed tick ... tick ... BOOM! as a one-person piece while he was working on Rent. He was going to play all the characters, including ones based on himself, his best friend and his girlfriend, a dancer/choreographer. He was aware of turning 30 and wanting to make some kind of contribution to musical theater. After Jonathan died, Rent became such a zeitgeist piece for the 1990s that many people desired to hear more of his voice. David Auburn, who wrote Proof, adapted [tick ... tick ... BOOM!] as a piece for three actors. I hope Jonathan's death doesn't hang over it. You can see the piece and be caught up in the personal relationships.

The musical hinges on Larson's character evaluating his life as an artist on his 30th birthday. Does directing the show make you review your life in the same way?

Absolutely. My personal life is a mess. It is! Because I'm in Atlanta 75 percent of the time, but still have an apartment in New York. I travel a lot, so I'm always asking myself, "What city am I in now?" When I became a director, I naively thought my life would be simpler than when I was an actor, but it's just the opposite. I have lots of friends, a great family, but I'm romantically unencumbered right now. It's like I'm married to my work. My friends say, "You don't have time to be in a relationship."

Even the silly, escapist musicals can be logistic nightmares to stage. Is it daunting to do shows that have such heavyweight content, too?

Sometimes I wonder if my work has any importance, or is just fun to watch. I love shows that are pure entertainment, like Five Guys Named Moe, but these three have a little something extra. Part of me is some kind of missionary, I guess. I hope this group of plays lets us dialogue about things that we don't talk about. Jelly's Last Jam is one of the toughest looks at what it means to be an African-American ever put on stage. It sheds light on things that African-Americans don't talk about publicly, like the light skin vs. dark skin thing.

In Love, Jerry, playwright Megan Gogerty takes subject matter [pedophilia] and puts it in a genre that doesn't make sense for it. The music is very folk-based, very acoustic. But the way she uses music lets you understand and get to know these people, while being tasteful and bearable to watch.

Your productions often have striking visual flourishes, like the tilted set of A Lovely Sunday for Creve Coeur, or the cage surrounding the set of Topdog/Underdog. Are things like that your signature?

I don't think of myself as a purely visual director, but I like my work to have multiple access points. Some people respond just visually, so if I give clues that pull people further into the experience, that's great. When I talk with designers and have a "What if ... ?" meeting, sometimes our most outrageous ideas are the ones that really crystallize a production and make it to the stage.

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