With words and melodies recognizable from a half-century of music created by Jim Steinman ’69, The Dream Engine barreled through Amherst’s Kirby Theater during Reunion 2019.
Steinman is a member of the Songwriters Hall of Fame who received an honorary doctorate from Amherst in 2013. For those who recognize his music from the hit 1977 album Bat Out of Hell, or subsequent songs written for Bonnie Tyler, Air Supply, Barbra Streisand and others, the resurrection of his senior-year Amherst project might have felt like a dreamed memory of a lost musical.
For alumni, it was a chance to relive the revels of a revolutionary year.
“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 Barry Keating ’69, Steinman’s longtime collaborator.
Keating—a New York-based writer, composer and director—has been passionate about Steinman’s play for 50 years. Both in 1969 and at Reunion this June, he directed and also performed as The Historian, a character who serves as the chorus of The Dream Engine.
Steinman has long referred to the play 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 NYU, Amherst and Smith—remained clothed throughout.
Bob Sather, cast member for an aborted New York production of the show in the 1970s, summarized The Dream Engine’s plot in a 1999 interview: “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 [played by Steinman in the original production]. 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.”
Or, as Jim Knight ’69 recalls: “What those of us who first saw it in 1969 probably remember most was its defiant anger and, of course, the ending when Baal and his tribe came out into the audience totally naked.”
In a 1984 interview republished on his website, Steinman put it this way: “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. Cast and crew took the show to Mount Holyoke College, where police stood by to make arrests should nudity ensue.
Theatrical producer Joseph Papp attended one of the Kirby performances in 1969, and the next few years saw rehearsals staged and edits made to the show for a New York run that never materialized: the Delacorte Theater nixed it over nudity and language. While The Dream Engine never made it to a mass audience, a transmogrified version called Neverland, which removed references to the Vietnam War and President Nixon and presented a dark version of Peter Pan, was staged in Washington, D.C., at the Kennedy Center in 1978.
Today, Keating says the spirit of The Dream Engine survives in Steinman’s Bat Out of Hell: The Musical, which will have its U.S. off-Broadway debut at the New York City Center theater in August, starring Andrew Polec, who played Baal in the Reunion performance of The Dream Engine.
Over the years, elements of the show have made their way into Steinman’s other shows and songs. For instance, anyone who’s heard the 1983 chart-topper “Total Eclipse of the Heart” will find some of the melody, and 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!
Still, there was always a desire to bring the show back in its original form.
“Jim and I had been talking about doing something like this for years—about how Dream Engine could only really find itself again at Amherst,” Keating says. Other original cast members and classmates agreed, and a committee of ’69 alumni Fred Hoxie, Richard McCombs, Robert Fein, Fred Baron and Larry Dilg set to work.
Ellen Parks, a Smith alumna who performed in the 1969 show and a longtime casting director and acting teacher at New York University, signed on as associate director of the Reunion production, and casted a group of NYU students. Dilg was joined in the production by his wife, Mimi Kennedy, a close friend and colleague of Steinman who stars with Allison Janney in the TV sitcom Mom. The cast also included an Amherst student, Sebastian Son ’21.
Unfortunately, Steinman could not make it to the performance, but he was not unremarked by the crowd, which shouted “we love you!” at the show’s conclusion. The Kirby seats were near capacity with ’69 alumni, as well as other Steinman friends and fans, and the crowd lingered after the curtain to praise the cast and chat with them.
Reflecting on his second run playing The Historian in Kirby, Keating said after the show, “I am the right age for the part now. 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 likewise 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,” says Keating. “Everybody in this show is a monster.”