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.