A black and white photo and a color photo of people on a stage surrounding a man making a wild gesture
The Kirby productions in 1969 (left) and 2019 (right, with Andrew Polec as Baal).

For those who know Jim Steinman ’69 from the 1977 album Bat Out of Hell, or from songs he wrote for Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply and others, the 2019 resurrection of The Dream Engine might have felt like a dreamed memory of a lost musical.

For an audience in Kirby Theater this spring, it was a chance to relive the revels of a revolutionary year.

The Dream Engine was Steinman’s senior-year project at Amherst, and as part of his class’s 50th reunion this year, it returned to Kirby for a one-night revival.

“It’s about the madness of what is going on in our world, and especially in our country, and always the conflict between youth and age, and Dionysian and Apollonian,” says theatrical composer, lyricist and director Barry Keating ’69, Steinman’s longtime collaborator. Keating directed and performed in both the 1969 and 2019 productions.

Steinman has long referred to the musical simply as “a three-hour rock epic with tons of nudity.” The reunion production was trimmed to a gentler 90 minutes, and the cast—made up of Amherst alumni, New York stage actors, and students from New York University, Amherst and Smith—kept their clothes on.

Bob Sather, cast member for an aborted New York production in the 1970s, summarized The Dream Engine’s plot in 1999: “A group of runaway young people meld themselves into a tribe, reveling in excess and animal physicality, in a remote part of California. Their leader is a charismatic, amoral poet named Baal. Eventually, the wicked forces of the city try to find and destroy them. The Tribe return to the city and burn it. At the end, everyone is dead, a pile of bodies, except for Baal.”

Steinman put it this way in 1984: “The school didn’t appreciate it at all, but I had a great time. I still think it’s the best thing I’ll ever do.” Other than the failing grade he said he received, the composer’s only trouble in Amherst came when the town forbade a Sunday performance, as the play was deemed a violation of the laws protecting the Sabbath.

An older man on stage reading from a large book in front of a microphone
Barry Keating ’69 reprises his role as The Historian. “Now I’m old and ancient, so it’s a lot easier to play it,” he says.

Joseph Papp, founder of New York’s Public Theater, attended the show in Kirby in 1969. The next few years saw rehearsals staged for a New York run that never materialized: the Delacorte Theater nixed it over nudity and language. Elements of The Dream Engine made their way into Steinman’s subsequent work. Anyone who’s heard Bonnie Tyler’s 1983 “Total Eclipse of the Heart,” for example, will find these lyrics immediately familiar:

Turn around! It’s a black day dawning
Turn around! There’s a corpse in mourning
Turn around! To your tin can graveyard
Turn around! To your tin foil savior
Turn around, bright eyes!
Turn around, bright eyes!

Of the 2019 revival, Keating says, “Jim and I had been talking about this for years—about how Dream Engine could only really find itself again at Amherst.” While Steinman was unable to attend, Kirby’s near-capacity crowd of ’69 alumni praised him with shouts of “We love you!”

After the curtain, Keating reflected on his two runs, 50 years separated, playing the character known as The Historian: “I was a character actor in college, so I often played older parts. Jim wrote that for me as this very, very old, ancient historian. And now I’m old and ancient, so it’s a lot easier to play it.”

That the cast featured both 70-somethings and 20-somethings also struck him as fitting: “It was never like Hair, where the young people were the good ones with the right position and the old people were the monsters. Everybody in this show is a monster.”

Sweet is a news writer at Amherst.

Photos: 2019 production: Jiayi Liu (2); 1969 production: Amherst College Archives