Je Suis Charlie

I've been trying to process the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris. I try to believe that it won't happen in America, but of course it could.

I really am Charlie. My life is spent making public art, telling stories, and a great deal of the time, indulging in fierce, even offensive satire. And a healthy portion of that satire is directed at religion. What if someone told me that we couldn't produce bare or Bukowsical or Bat Boy because they're sacrilegious? What if someone killed me merely because I wrote Johnny Appleweed, easily a quarter of which would be offensive to many hardcore Christians?

We take the freedom to offend for granted. Satire likes to grab you by the throat and shake you, to get your attention, and offense is one way to do that. Think "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue" in Cry-Baby or "Mama Gimme Smack on the Asshole" in Jerry Springer. It wakes you up from the (cultural or political) Matrix you're sleeping in, and slaps you awake. New Line does a lot of shows with an agenda like that. It never even occurred to me that we couldn't produce Jerry Springer the Opera because of its content – which is really offensive and really sacrilegious, FYI – because it's also a smart, insightful piece of theatre about the dysfunction of our culture in this time of massive change and upheaval. And art makes order out the chaos of the world around us and inside us. We need that.

I remember the year I graduated high school, Theatre Project Company, here in St. Louis, lost both their theatre and funding for Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a wickedly funny satire (Stray Dog Theatre did an excellent production a while back), but it's hard to believe people were that scared of it. But like Charlie Hebdo, it was shining a light on the dark and/or stupid side of religion.

When we were doing Hands on a Hardbody last season, it occurred to me that it was the first time in twenty-four years that religion was a major theme of a show and not in a critical or ironic light. The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green told me that it hadn't occurred to them to make religion that central a theme, until they met the real people the characters are based on, and saw how much religion pervaded their culture. But that show was the exception for us.

I think back through all the shows we've produced over the years on controversial topics. We really are Charlie. The great actor Larry Luckinbill wrote to me on my 21st birthday, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." New Line lives by this idea and it has served us well these last twenty-four years. We do our audience a disservice if we self-censor in their name.

The whole point of terrorism is that the idea is even bigger and more destructive than the actual attack, so that fear then drives us more than reason, so that we defeat ourselves. What will be the fallout from The Interview and Charlie Hebdo? Will film studios and magazines self-censor in fear? Charlie Hebdo responded to the attack by putting a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover of their next issue. Well, fuck yeah. But television networks in the West will not show it. Is it too simplistic to say, then, that the terrorists won?

The only thing we can do in response to all this is take even more seriously our job to illuminate, using all the tools of our trade, including the fiercest satire. Did I mention that Jerry Springer the Opera opens in a few weeks...?

We can't do anything else, because the darker the world gets, the brighter and more piercing our light has to be.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.

Jerry Springer the Opera

What the hell is Jerry Springer the Opera?

Good question.

Honestly, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. But people keep asking that question, I think because they can't imagine that it could possibly be what it actually is. So in response, I always say something fairly uninformative like, "Well, it's a Jerry Springer show... as an opera..." That really is what it is. But it's a lot more than that, too. After all, The New York Times called it "genius," and the Sunday Times of London called it "a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece!" They wouldn't be saying that if it were really just a Springer show.

As you can see, I'm still trying  to figure out how to talk about this show, and I think that's because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what this thing is and why I love it so much.

One thing I know – you really have no idea what this show is like until you actually see it. Nothing I say can really prepare you.

Here's what else I know. It's whip-fucking-smart. It's consistently, outrageously laugh-out-loud funny, on a level with Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, and Cry-Baby. It's deeply insightful culturally. It's probably the most offensive thing you will ever see on a legit theatre stage. By a mile. People keep saying, "Well it can't be worse than Bukowsical!" It's worse. But also, it humanizes its characters more than you would think possible, considering the context.

It's really an opera, and the music is really wonderful, beautiful, exciting; and also extremely expressive, doing every bit as much storytelling as the lyrics. And my favorite thing in the musical theatre – the music itself is quite often really, really funny. There's nothing better than funny music.

I also know, having let the show percolate in my brain for quite a while now, that though it is an opera, it operates as a neo musical comedy; and so the trick here is to play it all as seriously and honestly as we can, to let the outrageous situations and language take care of the Funny, while we take care of the human emotions at the core of all the lunacy. This is serious comedy, like Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. No camp. No commentary. No winking. 100% honest. As the Bat Boy writers put it, "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity." The more seriously we take this crazy world, the funnier it will get.

Why is it an opera? I think probably the real reason is that seemed like a really funny idea. But it goes deeper than that. Why does the idea seem so funny? Because it's both surprising and truthful. I realize as I watch our early rehearsals that these characters and emotions are already operatic, even without music. Richard Thomas and Lee Stewart merely followed the First Law of Sondheim: Content Dictates Form. These huge emotions, these sky high stakes, this ravenous crowd (our "studio audience") demand the size of opera.

When Dwight sings "I've been seeing someone else," in a soaring operatic melody, we get not only the fact of his betrayal, but the self-importance of his decision to drag his loved ones onto national television. What seems trivial to us does not seem trivial to Dwight or his multiple paramours. After all, this small moment in their lives that we're witnessing may destroy or salvage those various lives. We laugh at the over-drama, at the meta joke of the operatic music, at the excessive chaos of these interlocked lives; but most of us also know we've been dumped or almost dumped, we've felt old, we've felt trapped. These are universal human emotions. And maybe that, at the root, is why the show works so well.

Take a look at this lyric, in which Shawntel tells us how desperately she wants escape from her life. The show's ironic, meta edge remains – she's talking about being a pole dancer, and she sings this clutching Jerry's famous stripper pole – but the emotion is unmistakably real.
I don't give a fuck no more,
If people think I am a whore –
I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
Things are going bad for me,
I am feeling sad for me,
So I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
I’m tired of laughing,
And I'm tired of crying.
And I'm tired of failing,
And I'm tired of all this trying.
I wanna do some living
‘Cause I’ve done enough dying.
I just wanna dance.
I just wanna fucking dance.

She may be uneducated and lacking the exact vocabulary to express what she's feeling, but this lyric captures her 21st-century discontent quite eloquently in the list of what makes her tired, including "all this trying." Her line, "I've done enough dying," rises above the show's gleeful crudity to a place of piercing truthfulness. We can feel how beaten down this woman is, how weary she feels, how desperate for escape. By the end of the song, dance is no longer rebellion; it's survival. This lyric sneaks up on us (as the show does from time to time) and surprises us with its gravity and its seriousness.

What music does best is emotion, which is why the most emotional stories make the best musicals. And here's a show that actually subordinates plot to emotion. Who's sleeping with whom is far less important or interesting (on the real show or in the opera) than what each character's individual quirk or fault or path may be. Like the TV show it's based on, this is a show not about story, but about betrayal, loss, triumph, love, rejection, dreams. It doesn't matter that the emotions are extreme, that they're exaggerated, even ridiculous; they also ring true.

It's almost a neo musical comedy.

And though narrative is not the show's primary agenda, each segment does give us a glimpse into someone's personal hero myth story, complete with obstacles to overcome and enlightenment to be attained (if they're lucky). And maybe that universal hero myth story is what makes us tune in to Springer. Storytelling is the foundation of each Springer segment, as Jerry welcomes the next guest and says, "So what's goin' on?" Humans need storytelling, to learn lessons, to connect with other lives, to preserve our history and culture, to feel less alone.

And in many cases, these guests are taking back their power. They are choosing the time and place for confrontation. They are choosing to change something in their life. We all relate to that too.

All the issues on the show (and in the opera) are moral ones – the guests' needs/desires are at odds with mainstream morality. But are the guests "wrong" or "sinful" while the mainstream is "right," or are they just different from the mainstream? Do these people have the right to construct their own moral universe? What does that do to the people around them? Do those people get to choose...?

I'm reading two books in my quest for understanding of all this. Richard H. Smith's The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature is really interesting and easy to digest. There's more to schadenfreude than the song from Avenue Q. The other book is Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows by Julie Engel Manga, a study specifically of how women connect with shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the others. Both books are giving me insight into all this, but I still don't have a really concrete grasp on it all. And I do think it's graspable.

In Talking Trash, Manga suggests that we generally judge Springer's guests by three criteria:
  1. impartial reason (does this make sense, is this rational, does it sound true)
  2. public/private distinction (where do we draw that line and why, where do the guests draw it)
  3. respectability (do these people act the way we think "respectable" adults act)
Since we've announced this show, people have been asking me if I think the TV show is "real." My best guess from people I've talked to, is that most of the episodes are not strictly real, but that the stories are more egged on and revved up than outright fabricated. But the truth is it doesn't matter for our purposes. In our show, these guests definitely have these real problems.

So much to ponder here.

I believe this show is really something special, and I don't want us to get lost in the considerable fun of the show's outrageousness and obscenity. We need to remember that though this show is truly hilarious, it's also a lot more. We've walked this tightrope before. We're good at this.

The other question we get a lot is, So is it really an opera? As you might know, New Line's June show, The Threepenny Opera is not really an opera, despite its title; it's a musical comedy. But Jerry Springer the Opera is really an opera, not just because it's almost entirely sung (though Jerry and Steve never sing), but also because several of the roles really can only be sung by classically trained singers. Of which we have several. The score also dabbles in jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway, but much of it really is contemporary opera music.

But as I said at the top, you'll really have no idea what you're getting into till you see it. And judging by the response we're getting already, you better get your tickets early...

Another wild New Line adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!

Sweet Understanding

We New Liners take our comedy seriously.

One of the disadvantages to this new Golden Age of musical theatre where we find ourselves, is that this is a massive transition in the art form (much like the massive transition in the culture at large), and many working in the musical theatre haven't yet found their way in this New World. We really are (mostly) leaving behind the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, and the 20th-century musical comedy model, for new, more interesting, more relevant forms, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical.

But a lot of actors and a lot of directors come at neo musical comedies as if these shows are old-school, 1950s musical comedies. They're not. And what's extra hard about this problem is that these shows can still be fairly funny, even when not done all that well, so the clueless don't even realize what they've missed, that their productions lack all the rest of what makes these such great shows, their bite, their irony, their subtext, their politics, and their very meta self-awareness. After all, they get laughs!

And so do babies and cats on YouTube. Is that really the only measure of theatre?

Too many directors of musicals don't even consider the writers' intentions when they stage a show. It doesn't even occur to them that a particular show may have its own unique style, tone, rules, etc., which are unlike those of any other musical. This is true of more and more musicals these days, thanks to the amazing experimentation going on in our art form today. These clueless directors don't read interviews with the writers. They don't read anything the writers have written about the show. To these folks, all funny is equal, all funny is wacky and cheap.

It's not.

There are directors and actors who will tell you that you shouldn't have to think about the writers' intentions, that everything should be right there in the script. Maybe you could make that argument about a play (although even then, I'm not sure I agree), but musicals are really complex, and it's just not possible to write down the spirit, the tone, the level of exaggeration and irony, etc. Some writers try to give us a hint. The Bat Boy writers shared with me their guiding mantra, "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a really great short essay at the front of the Little Shop script, but I've seen productions where no one involved read Ashman's piece. He wrote:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

Note that this is not a campy show, though many productions treat it that way. We're not supposed to be laughing at these characters; we're supposed to be emotionally involved in their story, despite the insanity of the premise. And let's look at that last sentence one more time, because it applies to so many contemporary musicals – "When Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable." I wish they would print that in boldface at the top of every page of the script... and the scripts of Urinetown, Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, etc.

Watch Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, sing "Somewhere That's Green." No matter how silly or absurd the content gets, her acting is subtle, committed, utterly inside the character. Audrey is a real woman, and her emotions are real, even if she lives inside a really fucked-up cartoon world.

Doug Wright wrote a short note like that at the beginning of the Hands on a Hardbody script that was really helpful. He wrote in part:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.

Not all writers do this for us, but it's not hard at all to find interviews, essays, and other pieces that will tell you how these writers built a show and how it should work.

So many newer musicals today are sui generis, each of them with a style and tone utterly unique to that show. In many of these cases, the only ways to fully understand what the writers intended is to see the original production (if in fact the writers liked it, which is not always the case), and/or to read what the writers say about their show. It's important to remember that the writers sometimes don't like the original production or the original director.

Here are some of the most abused shows, in my (only occasionally) humble opinion...

Like Little Shop, the characters and action of Bat Boy have to be taken totally seriously by the actors and director. Neo musical comedies are about irony, in this case the very funny juxtaposition of incredibly high stakes and powerful emotions against the fundamentally silly premise of the whole story and the rank hypocrisy of many of the characters. But for that to work, the acting has to be utterly honest and serious. Like the Bat Boy writers put it, the depth of sincerity, the height of expression. Honest and outrageous at the same time. If you're working on a well-crafted neo musical comedy, the more seriously the director and actors take the characters and story, the funnier the show gets.

Adding jokes, bits, schtick, gags, mugging, etc. to shows like these only hobbles them, and makes them half as funny as they should be. Nothing is less funny than the obvious effort to be funny.

Urinetown is similar but even more serious. Remembering the brilliant original production on Broadway, the show is incredibly funny, but it's not always funny. Many of the scenes are meant to be disturbing, scary, creepy. Again, just because a show is funny doesn't mean every second of it has to be funny. You have to follow the show, not your own agenda. Urinetown is relentlessly dark, over-serious, even condescending, and like the other shows mentioned here, the more seriously you take it, the funnier it gets.

Watch this clip from the Tonys, and see how totally straight-faced it all is, and how serious Officer Lockstock and Bobby Strong are.

There are lots of musicals that lots of directors and actors apparently don't understand. For the record... Godspell is not sketch comedy and it's not a revue; there is a through-line and character arcs. Hair is not Godspell; it is a dark Hero Myth story, not a playful romp. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a comedy and Hedwig isn't mean. You'd be astounded at the terrible wrong turns lots of musicals take in the wrong hands.

But I also want to point out that some of those directors and actors who fundamentally misunderstand contemporary musicals are working on and off Broadway. Director Walter Bobbie thought High Fidelity was a romantic musical comedy, but it's actually Rob's serious (sometimes very sad) coming-of-age story. The story is a drama (not many comedies involve abortions), even though there are a lot of laughs. Likewise, director Mark Brokaw thought Cry-Baby was an offensive comedy about mean kids, but it's actually a serious story about class and justice, again even though there are a lot of laughs. And the "bad kids" are actually our big-hearted heroes, something else Brokaw didn't understand. I can only assume he's never seen a John Waters movie.

You can't argue that this evolving form is entirely new and uncharted, since it arguably goes back to Little Shop more than thirty years ago, or at the very least, back to Bat Boy and Urinetown in the mid-1990s, but a lot of people still don't get it.

You wouldn't direct an episode of The Sopranos the same way you'd direct Saved by the Bell, but that's essentially what's happening in the musical theatre today. People are directing Bat Boy and Urinetown like they're The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.

They're not.

There are lots of different kinds of Funny. The musical theatre writers and composers of this new Golden Age are giving us the kind of Funny that matches our times, dark, uncomfortable, weighty, ironic; but also insightful and illuminating. We don't need the kind of Funny audiences needed in the 1950s; we need a musical theatre for today's world. We need Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Cry-Baby and Jerry Springer the Opera.

And lucky for us, that's what we have. Now if we can just get those clueless types to join the rest of us in the 21st century, we can charge ahead into the undeniably exciting future of our art form...
Yesterday is done.
See the pretty countryside.
Merrily we roll along, roll along,
Following dreams.
Traveling's the fun...

Long Live the New Musical!

Only Way to Make a Work of Art

As I said when I accepted New Line's special award from the St. Louis Theater Circle this year, all I've ever wanted to do with my life is make musicals. But you can't do that alone.

So I want to take a moment, as the new year begins and before we go back into rehearsal, to heap some praise on three people who have made my job so much easier this past year. As you can well imagine, running a small theatre company is really hard. And directing the kind of musical theatre we produce is also really hard. So anything that can make either of those two endeavors easier is a godsend.

I have three godsends to tell you about... call them my 2014 New Line Persons of the Year.

Flashback to 2009. We were less than a week from starting rehearsals for the Shakespearean rock & roll sci-fi musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet, when we found out one of the actors we cast had not just dropped out, but actually had moved to Denver, without saying a word. In a mild panic, I called some of my theatre friends, including Nick Kelly, longtime New Line actor and professor of theatre at Lindenwood University, to find a replacement who could handle Shakespearean dialogue and sing three-part, doo-wop backup. Nick had just the guy – a strong tenor and a strong actor named Mike Dowdy. I was so relieved I didn't even ask Dowdy to audition for me; on Nick's recommendation, I offered Dowdy the role and he accepted. And only then did he discover he'd have two Shakespeare monologues...

Which he nailed. And he was awesome to work with.

He was wonderful in RTTFP, already so at home with our straight-faced outrageousness, so we just kept inviting him back, to appear in Spelling Bee, The Wild Party, Evita, Two Gentlemen of Verona, bare, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Night of the Living Dead, and this past summer's Hands on a Hardbody. He's played everything from a grade school egotist to an incestuous gay theatre writer, to an aggressively creepy John Waters villain, to a romantic lead, to a stoner servant, to a damaged middle-aged husband... He completely inhabits every one of his characters and he's got this gorgeous tenor voice!

But Mike has taken a new day job, as stage manager for the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company, which requires him to join the actors and stage managers union, which means he can't perform on New Line's stage again for a while, because New Line is non-union.

But Dowdy's other talent, I discovered, is directing. He's great at it. Even when he was in a show, he often had such smart, interesting staging ideas (quite a few of which we used); so we eventually named him New Line's Associate Artistic Director, and now he's directing all our shows with me. And we're a hell of a great team. We have very similar tastes and opinions, and he's really in tune with my process. Quite often, Dowdy and I will be standing there, watching a run-through of a show, and at exactly the same instant, we'll turn to each other with exactly the same thought. Which then always makes us laugh. And yet, after that run-through, Dowdy and I will both have lots of notes for the actors, but the two of us will never have the same note. Weird, huh?

I've been directing musicals since 1981, but my work is better if Dowdy's directing with me. I'm a pretty great problem solver, but so is Dowdy, and as The Robber Bridegroom teaches us, two heads are better than one. Especially when both heads are on the same wavelength. He's a really wonderful artistic partner.

The most recent addition to the New Line family is Jeffrey Carter, chair of the music department at Webster University, who became New Line's resident music director with Bonnie & Clyde. And it's really wonderful having Jeffrey around. I had been New Line's music director for most of our history, but I handed that job off to our excellent bandleader Justin Smolik a couple seasons ago. But then Justin got another job. When I first met Jeffrey to talk about being our music director, I immediately knew this was going to work out. Jeff and I get along really well temperamentally, we have fairly similar tastes in music and theatre, he totally has a New Line sense of humor, and he's both really great at the job and really easy-going and fun to be around.

Our Bonnie & Clyde sitzprobe rehearsal was the easiest for me that a sitzprobe has ever been, thanks entirely to Jeff.

I'm particularly glad he's in the job right now, as rehearsals for Jerry Springer the Opera approach. That show is going to be extremely challenging in a variety of ways, but the music is very hard (it really is an opera), and I could not be more thrilled that I don't have to teach it! When we held auditions for Springer, trained opera singers showed up, and Jeffrey was able to talk to them in opera-speak, which is not among my skills. I was a good music director, but I was never trained in that job. Jeffrey is a serious pro.

And he's awesome.

One of our luckiest hires lately was the one and only Rob Lippert. After our last set designer Scott Schoonover (High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, BBAJ, Bukowsical) left to take a position with Stages, we put the word out, and Rob was one of the first to respond. Not only did he have lots of experience, and some really cool set designs in his portfolio, but he's also a lighting designer; and our resident lighting design Ken Zinkl was taking "maternity leave" for our fall show, Night of the Living Dead, so Rob ended up designing both lights and the set, which he did again for Rent. So, to our great delight, Rob is now our resident scenic designer, and Rob and Ken both are our resident lighting designers.

But the real gift was that I saw on Rob's website that he had created a truck for a production of The Grapes of Wrath, and we had just been offered the American regional premiere (the first production after Broadway) of Hands on a Hardbody, which requires a full-sized, real pickup truck onstage. Though it ended up taking Rob and his crew about 400 man-hours, he delivered our truck.

And let's be clear about this – Rob gave us a real, full-sized, red pickup truck (minus the engine and most of the innards), in the middle of our set, in our second-floor theatre, which has only regular-sized doors. He literally deconstructed and reconstructed an entire Nissan pickup. He also built us a cool Nissan billboard through which you could sometimes see the band behind it.

Rob has also delivered for us a totally realistic looking, creepy old farmhouse for Night of the Living Dead; a beautiful urban landscape (and a 16' raked moon!) for Rent; and a surrealistic dreamscape for Bonnie & Clyde. I'm sure he thought I was nuts when I said to him about Rent, "I don't care what you do with the rest of the set, but in the middle, I need a giant, raked, circular platform, painted to look like the moon, and big enough to seat sixteen." But god bless him, he gave me my moon.

And the topper is that Rob is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, super smart, super dependable, incredibly creative, and so hard-working!

When we started New Line, back in 1991, I was director, music director, set designer, costume designer, graphic designer, piano player, house manager, and other assorted jobs – partly because our budget was really tiny, and partly because I'm a world-class control freak. But over the years, I've let go of all those jobs except director (and now I'm sharing that one!). And the control freak in me is okay, as long as my collaborators are people like Dowdy, Jeffrey, and Rob. We have a pretty small budget for the kind of work we do, and yet we need truly outstanding artists at the top of their game, to pull off shows like Next to Normal and Jerry Springer the Opera.

New Line and I are both very lucky that these guys have come to work with us, that the work is more important to them than the size of the paycheck, and that they give us their very best every time. New Line is known all over the country for the quality of our work, but the art can only be high quality if the artists are high quality.

And they are.

Soon another wild adventure begins. Fasten your seat belts.

Long Live the Musical!

525,600 Minutes

When I sit down to write my last blog of the year, I always look back with a big, goofy grin on my face. 2014 was wonderful, but really, most years are pretty terrific in Miller World. After all, for the last twenty-five years (holy shit, that's half my life!), I've been doing exactly what I've always wanted to do literally since before I can remember. When other toddlers were learning "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," I was singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" in what I thought was a full-out cockney accent, or "Why Can't the English?" in fully indignant, upper-class dudgeon. I memorized Harold Hill's "Trouble" speech at age nine just because it seemed to me like something I should have in my head. No idea why. But I still know it. And I often recite it to myself just because I can.

So I'm pretty much livin' the musical theatre dream. And most years for me are chock full of musical theatre awesomeness. 2014 was no different. There were two big surprises/honors for New Line this year. First, in March, the St Louis Theater Circle honored us with a special award for our body of work over the years.

Then in June, Rob Weinert-Kendt, a writer for American Theatre magazine, flew out to see New Line's Rent, and to interview me and some of the other New Liners about our company and our work. This was a really huge honor for us. American Theatre is the national magazine for serious, professional theatre artists, and though they have run quite a few short items over the years about our projects, they had never done a feature story like this.

Rob wrote, "There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. You'll probably never see The Music Man at New Line, in other words." To read the whole article about New Line, click here.

We also launched this year the first annual New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge, in which we challenged our friends to either sing a show tune on Facebook or donate to New Line. It was quite a success for our first time, with forty people making videos! I believe we'll do it again next November.

One other cool thing – we had been an Amazon Associate, so that when you bought items on Amazon through our links, we got a kick-back. But then Missouri changed some tax laws and we got kicked out of that program. But now Amazon has created Smile, a new program where you choose your favorite charity, then every time you visit and buy something, New Line once more gets a donation from most items you buy. Pretty cool, huh? So go get that set up now, so you don't forget...

In terms of performances, we started in January with the second of our Off Line Cabarets, this time New Liners Ryan Foizey and Marcy Wiegert in "What the Hell Are We Doing Here?", music directed by Justin Smolik, and directed and produced by Mike Dowdy, who runs New Line Theatre Off Line. It sold out and was really wonderful.

New Line's 24th season continued in March with our very different take on the now classic rock opera Rent.  This was a show I had resisted directing for a long time; the original seemed so perfect to me and that was a real obstacle for me for years. I'm glad now that I waited. It's been almost twenty years since I had the thrill of seeing Rent for the first time on Broadway, and three years since I saw the outstanding off Broadway revival. That distance – and Rob's incredibly inventive set – allowed me to come at the story with some real freedom. At my request, Rob's set centered on a giant raised, raked "moon," and that massive set piece (16' across) really restricted what I could do in staging. And as most artists know, the more restrictions you have, the more creative you'll be. To an artist, restrictions are like steroid shots.

We cast a very young cast (our two leads were 19 and 20), and we had newcomers in eight of the show's nine leading roles. (We love giving leads to people who are new to us.) The critics and audience all went wild for our production, and many of the reviews mentioned how much we departed from the conventional staging of the show. Paul Friswold in The Riverfront Times called our show, “sharp, incisive and viscerally moving. . . a masterpiece of stagecraft, a composition as visually stunning as it is sonically powerful. . . packed with unforgettable moments.” Chris Gibson wrote in BroadwayWorld, “If you think you've seen Rent before, you really haven't.” Judith Newmark in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “intimate and raw.” Christopher Reilly at Alive magazine called it “a powerhouse evening of theater.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway, said it "brings stunning characters furiously to life, in all their contradictions.”

Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote in his American Theatre article, "Miller's Rent is youthful, movingly raw, and unfailingly intimate; it doesn't smooth over the original work's odd, form-bending structure. It feels almost as if it's being made up on the spot, and that gives it a kind of immediacy it probably hasn't had much since its debut at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop." I could not be more proud of our production, and "La Vie Boheme" will never again look right to me on a long, straight table.

New Line has done a lot of crazy things over the years, but I'm not sure we ever approached the crazy that resulted in a full-sized, actual truck on our stage for Hands on a Hardbody. It was a crazy show for Amanda Green and Doug Wright to want to write (a musical based on a documentary about people standing around a truck for five days?), and it was incredibly crazy of us (well, me, really, but I'm gonna spread the crazy around) to think we could get a truck into our small, second-floor theatre. It wasn't until blocking rehearsals started that I also realized how crazy I was to think I could stage a musical around a full-sized truck.

But you know what? Rob delivered the truck (the first time I saw it on our stage, I just started laughing at the immense absurdity of what we were doing), we got a killer cast of strong actors with great voices, and I figured out that staging the show wasn't all that different from any other show. After all, a few months earlier I had staged a whole show around a 16' moon! And once again, audience and critics couldn't find enough superlatives. Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called our show "brilliant and captivating. . . exhilarating." Lynn Venhaus of the Belleville News-Democrat called it "a must-see. You might not have heard of this show, but you definitely won't forget it." Kevin Brackett from ReviewSTL called it "the surprise hit of the year. There’s something in it for everyone." Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it "a fresh and invigorating experience. Go see Hands on a Hardbody now!" Jeff Ritter of The Trades called it "regional theatre gold, featuring so many of the top voices in the St. Louis theatre scene today."

The coolest part was that lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green flew out to see our production on opening night. She had also come to see us in 2008 when we were the first to produce High Fidelity after its aborted Broadway run. She loved our Hardbody, stayed for our after-party, and she said so many nice things about our show and our cast. My favorite comment of hers was "He can pretty much do anything, can't he?", referring to longtime New Liner Jeff Wright, who had played Rob in Hi-Fi and now Benny in HOHB. We also heard a story from an audience member who was sitting behind Amanda – this woman says to her friend that she'd love to come back and see the show again, if she only had another $20, and with that, Amanda turns around, hands her a twenty-dollar bill, and tells her to come back and see the show again. How awesome is that.

And almost as awesome, several of us got to be Facebook friends with some of the real-world contestants in the documentary! The real Benny Perkins was so cool about talking to Jeff Wright (who played Benny) and me, about the contest and about himself. And I think Jeff's portrayal was a lot richer because of that.

Back in 2011, I had seen Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway and, to my admitted surprise, loved it. Unfortunately, the critics don't like Frank's shows and they were just itching to hate this show, which they all did, which meant it closed after only 33 previews and 36 performances. Despite the reception in New York, I knew how strong it was, both book and score, and so the minute they'd let us have it, we snatched up the performance rights. And what a joy it was to work on. I fell so in love with every song in the score, and we assembled an exceptionally kick-ass cast, including newcomers in three of the four leads (as New Line often does). We came at the show pretty differently from the original. For example, the song "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" was a small, intimate, emotional scene in our production, rather than the big American Idol moment it was in the original. But both bookwriter Ivan Menchell and orchestrator-arranger John McDaniel flew in to see the show and really loved it.

Once again, the critics totally embraced our show. Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "If you live in New York or London, you enjoy lots of opportunities to see new shows. . . In St. Louis, we have those opportunities as well – mostly because of New Line Theatre." Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called it "a joy ride of infectious music . . . crackling chemistry. . . an evening of engaging and thoughtful entertainment. . . buoyant, captivating." Kevin Brackett wrote in ReviewSTL, “New Line has once again seen the potential in an unappreciated show, and has given it a new and glorious life!" Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it “brilliant . . .You’ll be blown away.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway called it “a reckless kind of delight.” And Steve Allen of StageDoor St. Louis called it "a fast-paced, toe-tapping romp . . . an evening full of surprises and multiple magic moments."

We also started something new this year with Off Line, talk-backs onstage with the designers and production staff, hosted by associate artistic director Mike Dowdy, on one of our dark nights during each run. Our crowds have been small-ish the first few times, but we're going to keep doing them, so come join us this season! We've also started videotaping the talk-backs so you can see them even if you can't get to the theatre that night.

All three of our shows in 2014 were greeted as full-out artistic triumphs. New Line was the first company to produce Hardbody after its Broadway run, and we were one of the first companies to produce Bonnie & Clyde. And next fall, we'll open our 25th season with the regional premiere of the new rock musical Heathers, by the creators of Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. We can't wait.

Meanwhile, the rest of this season will include Jerry Springer the Opera in March, and the classic musical comedy satire The Threepenny Opera in June. And before that, on January 31, we'll present the third Off Line Cabaret, with Jeffrey M. Wright, Zachary Allen Farmer, and Todd Schaefer in "Shootin' the Shit," another very adult evening of cabaret. Come join us!

It's been such an amazing year, and so much more amazing is on the horizon. But we can never forget that all these things are only possible because of you. A performance isn't a performance without an audience, and a theatre company doesn't amount to shit without an audience. To everyone who comes to our shows, who donates to our company, who follows us on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, we owe you everything.

I owe everything to New Line, and New Line owes everything to the people of St. Louis. So many, many thanks, and Happy New Year!

Long Live the Musical!

Information Age of Hysteria

I see the whole world through the lens of musical theatre. But you already knew that.

And if you're my Facebook friend, you know that my second great love is politics, the way we decide collectively how to live together. I think I love politics so much because it's really just human interaction in macro – and because it's marco, it's easier to observe and understand. And mock. And of course, as someone who's chosen to spend my life as a storyteller – and relentless mocker – understanding human interaction is part of my job. A big part.

We're at this profound pivot point in both the evolution of the musical theatre and the cultural history of our country. But change is scary and confusing for a lot of people. Combine all that with the dawning of the Information Age, which has served the musical theatre mightily and also made our politics far more toxic and fucked up, and our media landscape a (temporary, I think) Wild West.

All these things are coming together at this moment in our history in response to the partly real and partly imagined failure of all our institutions – government, religion, family, education, justice, journalism, the social safety net. So many New Line shows in the last few years have been about those failures, including Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody, Rent, Night of the Living Dead, Passing Strange, bare, Cry-Baby, and of course both our next two shows, Jerry Springer the Opera and The Threepenny Opera.

It's not that hard, if you squint, to see parallels between our political divide and our musical theatre divide. In politics, Republicans yearn for a return to the 1950s, while Democrats want to finish the work of the 60s (which was about finishing the work of the New Deal in the 30s). With musical theatre, some folks want to stay back in the Rodgers & Hammerstein era, where half of every score was foxtrots; while other fans (like me) are bored with those shows from 60 and 70 years ago, and we want our art form to keep moving forward, to keep surprising us, to continue the wild and wonderful experiments of the 60s and early 70s (which followed from the experiments of the 30s), so our art form will keep getting better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer...

Sorry 'bout that.

I honestly can't fathom anyone still preferring the now quaintly irrelevant Carousel to the richness and immense artistry of Floyd Collins or Lippa's Wild Party or Next to Normal or High Fidelity. To me, that would be like preferring Dynasty to Dexter. Who would choose the less interesting, the less exciting, the less relevant, the less surprising? But I also can't fathom anyone trying to keep Americans from voting or keep women from making their own healthcare choices. Who would prefer anything about the 1950s to today's amazing, fast-changing world?

The answer is some people fear change and others love change. Some find it impossible to change position on any topic, and others embrace that as part of the adventure of life. My own greatest thrill in life is discovering a cool new musical I didn't know about before, especially if it's a show we'd want to produce and it's a show we can produce...

As much as I once enjoyed Rodgers & Hammerstein shows (and I did), seeing those shows over and over has made me hate them. No, that's too strong a word. I don't hate them; I just don't see any value in them today. Their music is dated, their morality is dated, their theatrical devices are dated, their fake naturalism is dated, pretty much everything about them is dated. So why keep bringing them back? Partly just the comfort of the familiar, for the more risk-averse theatre-goers.

And let's be clear, I'm not saying never produce older shows. I'm saying only produce the very best of the older shows and only once in a while. We don't have to ignore the past, but we also don't have to wallow in it.

This summer, I was at the Muny and ran into Denny Reagan, the Muny's President. I told him how wonderful it was to have a full summer of Muny with no Rodgers & Hammerstein to be found anywhere! He smiled and told me that, as much as I may like that, the box office always does better with Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. Which, I have to admit, kinda bums me out.

Why do audiences still cling to these shows?

Well, partly because a big part of the Muny audience skews older. And partly, I have to admit, because young drama kids just starting to explore the art form for the first time probably do enjoy seeing the R&H shows they've never seen before. Once. Also, partly because these are very dangerous and difficult times, so for some people, it's reassuring to cling to the familiar and the past in the face of the chaos of massive cultural change in our world today.

And maybe that also explains our politics right now. Why would the American electorate give Congress back to the Republicans in 2014 after the ridiculous amounts of abuse the GOP committed against our country over the last six years? Maybe because Obama and the Democrats represent our fast changing country, and change is terrifying right now to many people; so they voted against change. (Also, significantly, two-thirds of voters stayed home in 2014, and we know that historically, the smaller the turnout, the better the chances are for Republicans.)

Also, because it's still so early in the Information Age, too many people still haven't learned how to distinguish good information from bad information on cable news and on the internet. So it's really easy to bamboozle them, especially when the bullshit they're being fed reinforces all their darkest fears and misconceptions. (Read the brilliant book The Republican Brain for more about all this.)

In a time when Republicans in our Congress are openly trying to take healthcare away from millions of Americans, it's hard to care whether Curly will take Laurey to the box social. In a world where nutcases Vladimir Putin and Li'l Kim in North Korea hold considerable destructive power, it's hard to care about King Mongkut and how big Siam is on a map. The R&H shows don't really address our fears and problems in 2015. In contrast, today's shows are about the breakdown of institutions because that's a topic we all grapple with every day, in the form of a crippled, dysfunctional Congress, failing schools, crumbing infrastructure, hypocritical religious leaders, broken families, a possibly permanent American underclass...

Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson connects powerfully with its audience because we're going through so many of the same things today that we went through in the 1820s, and the story is told through the morality and culture and language and music of today. High Fidelity sold so well for us because there is a callousness and a selfishness in our culture today that Rob Gordon personifies, a generation (or two) of people who grew up during the incredible prosperity of the 1950s and 60s, in relative comfort and financial security, who have a more inwardly directed view of the world, seeing things only in terms of how those things affect them. Rob stands in for that selfish generation who needs to learn to grow up emotionally. Cry-Baby connected powerfully with our audience because we see that kind of bigotry and class warfare every day in today's politics, and at least in this fable, love beats fear. And rock beats the foxtrot.

Almost everyone has been one of the five main characters in bare, but how many of us have been Anna or the King? Not many. We tell stories because storytelling helps us understand ourselves and the world around us – not, you'll note, the world around our great-grandparents. At New Line, we're not interested in Flower Drum Song; we're interested in Jerry Springer the Opera.

Some musicals may comfort you. Some may give you a warm feeling in the cockles of your heart. Not ours. Our musicals will grab you by the throat and challenge you. But we think that's way cooler and way more fun. And we think it serves you and our community better. So in March, we will bring you the incredibly outrageous, gleefully offensive, and totally brilliant Jerry Springer the Opera; then in June we'll bring you one of the greatest social satires of all time, the darkly hilarious musical comedy The Threepenny Opera; and in the fall we'll open our 25th season with the new rock musical Heathers, from the creators of Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. We'll announce the rest of next season soon.

What a year ahead...

Long Live the Musical!

'Twas a Year Full of New Line 2014

‘Twas a year full of New Line, and all season through,
The New Liners kept doing just what they do;
Just murder, some sex, lots of F-words got cursed,
Conjuring us at our best and our worst;
Bohemians, Texans, and crooks – all the same,
Just looking for meaning, a truck, or some fame,
Or justice, if that’s not an order too tall,
Or maybe just human connection is all…
So that's what we gave you, from springtime through fall.

Bohemian Nineties New York was the time,
And Jonathan Larson's great spirit, the rhyme
That paved the path forward for us and our Rent,
To bring his show back to what Larson first meant.
With a fearlessly passionate, joyful young cast,
Our show was so powerful, sold out so fast;
A transcendent experience we got to share,
And with each note we sang, we knew Larson was there.
He's the reason our musical art's grown a pair.

The New Liners never dreamed they'd ever get
A full-size red truck dominating their set
(And Rob prob'ly thought the exact same thing too),
But Hands on a Hardbody made it come true.
As the first nationwide (post its NYC run,
Where they closed it before it had barely begun),
We reclaimed its honor amid rave reviews,
To prove, once more, Broadway's where art goes to lose.
But Broadway can't tell us what shows we can choose.

The romantic and amoral Bonnie & Clyde
(A show that had opened on Broadway, then died),
Re-opened at New Line to killer acclaim,
This cautionary fable of fortune and fame.
We showed those New Yorkers how strong the show was,
And helped it rebirth itself (as New Line does).
This show just needs love (much like actors and flowers),
To prove that its noir-ish adventure has powers
To tell us as much about that time as ours.

'Twas another amazing adventure we took,
Inside a marathon, junkie, a crook,
And once again digging the deepest we can,
Deep into the micro and macro of Man,
Making such sense of our world as we dare,
Exploring down deep, and then partying there.
So from every designer, musician, and singer,
We thank you for sharing this annum humdinger!
Have a Happy New Year and we'll see you at Springer...

Long Live the Musical and New Line Theatre!

To read last year's year-end poem, click here.

2014 New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge

We're always trying to think of clever, engaging ways of both raising money and increasing awareness of our company and our work. I think the secret to both in this brave new world is crowd-sourcing, but we're all still figuring out the terrain in this new Information Age.

After the ALS Ice Bucket Challenge dominated Facebook for so long, I started thinking about what we could learn from that. Obviously we'd never pull off anything on that scale, but why did it work?

Mostly because it was a good cause, I think, and because it momentarily satisfied our unquenchable thirst for seeing human humiliation on the internet. Since New Line's cause is less dramatic, I thought the challenge should be something people like doing anyway. And what do theatre people like doing? Performing. Even those of us who aren't performers anymore.

And I remembered an interview with Tim Burton that I saw back around the time Edward Scissorhands was released, in which Burton described what he thinks is one of the great crimes of our culture. At a certain age, we tell children that if they don't draw well, they should not draw; and if they don't sing well, they should not sing. Yet drawing and singing are two of the most enjoyable of human pursuits. We all knew that as children, but it's shamed out of most of us at some point.

Luckily, most theatre people resisted such shaming.

So I thought, what about singing show tunes? Not only would it be fun, but it would directly link to our company's identity. So here were the rules we set up, for the first annual New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge:
Film yourself singing a show tune, a cappella, with the cast album, with a karaoke track, with live accomp., whatever you want. Then post your video straight to Facebook or upload it to YouTube and post that link to Facebook. Then write something in your post along the lines of…

I accept the New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge [make sure you tag “New Line Theatre” so all our followers see it], and I challenge [insert your lengthy list of tagged friends] to sing a show tune on Facebook within 24 hours (or so) or donate $50 to New Line Theatre, or BOTH! And don’t forget to tag New Line when you make your video.

Initially, it didn't ever occur to me that I would have to do this. I'm just the artistic director, after all, not an actor. But then I thought, some people might be a bit hesitant at first to do this, to sing publicly on Facebook, and I should lead the way. Even if it means making an idiot of myself. It's for a good cause. So I did.

You'll notice I kept checking the lyric off to the side. Now I remember why it's so hard for actors to put down their scripts in rehearsal.

I started by emailing a whole bunch of New Liners, laying out the Challenge, and asking them all to do videos right away, to launch it fairly big, so it would grow quickly. So initially, twelve of us posted videos on the first day. Before it wound down a couple weeks later, forty people had made videos! Not bad for our first time out!

To see all the videos, just type this into the Facebook search window at the top –

posts about "new line theatre show tune challenge"
(include the quotes)

Pretty cool, huh?

Now, you shouldn't feel bad if you missed the fun this year. We're gonna try again next November. And in the meantime, you can still make that $50 donation and assuage your guilty conscience. Just click here for info on making a donation. Surely you could use a year-end tax deduction, right?

Anyway, I want to thank the dozens of people who participated in our first Challenge! It was such fun seeing all the videos, particularly because a lot of them came from people I don't know.

Happy Holidays!

And Long Live the Musical!

I'm Not a River or a Giant Bird

I'm still thinking about Pippin, several days after seeing the immensely entertaining and powerful revival production on tour. Also, I was talking to someone the other night about Andrew Lippa's brilliant jazz musical The Wild Party, which we produced in 2010. And those two topics intersect for me.

That intersection is about interpreting songs as cheery simply because they're uptempo and the singer hasn't thought to really read through the lyric. Examples are legion, but the most egregious is "Send in the Clowns." Now, I can understand someone not getting the central metaphor (I didn't until it was explained to me), and I can even understand someone not finding out the song's narrative context (though they should be slapped for that), but I can't understand someone reading and singing the lyric to "Send in the Clowns," and thinking it sounds happy.

Even a casual read of the lyric is clear -- We're ridiculous and we'll never get it together. We're fucked and it's too late to do anything about it. Why do so many people completely miss irony in musical theatre? It's everywhere! Is it that still persistent myth that musicals are all silly and naive that makes otherwise intelligent people totally miss the irony? If these singers would expend any effort in finding out why the damn song is called "Send in the Clowns," (it's the Information Age, kids!) they'd learn that in a circus, they send in the clowns when a circus performer is hurt or killed, to distract the audience while they carry the body out.

Changes that song for ya, don't it?

Now you can see the genius in Glynis Johns' original performance.

Lately, we've had a lot of college girls singing "Life of the Party" from Lippa's Wild Party, for New Line auditions. They sing it all happy happy joy joy, utterly clueless that the entire lyric is ironic and coming from a self-loathing, aging drunk. She's inviting us to be like her, but we find her horrifying. Probably means you shouldn't wear the scrunchie to the audition.

But I think what drives me the most batshit of all is actors missing the point of "Corner of the Sky."

So many people hear this admittedly beautiful song as a straight-forward anthem of individuality and drive. But it's not. In context, it's the shallow bullshit of an immature, self-involved kid with zero self-awareness. Babies get everything they want; adults don't. There's a cluelessness about this song, a too-earnest, almost cocky vibe about it that could come only from youth. In Fosse's original production, Pippin's heartfelt anthem is met with sarcastic applause, muted laughter, and rolling eyes.

At the end of the show, Pippin himself will come to see just how silly these declarations are, when he sings:
I'm not a river or a giant bird
That soars to the sea.
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

Life is complicated and contradictory, he now knows. And he's just a man. Freedom doesn't come from a lack of responsibilities; it comes from enjoying the journey. And joy comes from connection, not from disconnection.

Pippin is not going to find complete fulfillment. The Players know that. We know that. Pippin's not extraordinary (in fact, sometimes he seems more than a bit below average). He's just a kid, and life is just life, and as Spelling Bee teaches us, "Life is random and unfair." His dreams are no different, no more interesting, no more potent than every other kid he knows. He's at that moment in life when we all have these sudden revelations about how the world works, and we think we're the first ones to achieve this kind of enlightenment. (Exhibit A: the musical Glory Days). But we're never really the first to achieve that kind of enlightenment, and as we age, most of us figure that out.

What I think a lot of young people miss about Pippin is that the song "Extraordinary" is not a song about how extraordinary Pippin is; it's a song about not extraordinary he is, and that merely declaring it doesn't make it so. The real point of the song -- like much of the score -- is in the subtext. There's no evidence anywhere in the story that Pippin is extraordinary or that he ever will be. "Corner of the Sky" has to be bullshit.

And really, "Corner of the Sky" is a lot richer for all this complexity, and a lot more emotional. Almost everyone in the audience is older than Pippin and we all know what it feels like to think those things and we also know how little we understood of life at that age, and how anxious we were to Get Started. The show's original audience in 1972 also knew how the confusion and chaos of the times made that all even harder. We could make the argument that the same is true today. But life isn't a race to a destination; it's an adventure. When you reach your destination, it's already over. The fun/scary/interesting part is the journey. Pippin hasn't learned that yet when he sings this song.

And that brings us to the structural, narrative reason why Pippin has to start the story shallow and annoying. This is a Hero Myth story, in which our hero must grow up. He must go through a series of obstacles with the help of a Wise Wizard, do battle with an Evil Wizard (which is sometimes the hero himself), and gain new enlightenment. The reason we love Star Wars and The Wizard of Oz is that the Hero Myth is a human life in miniature, and though we don't usually register that consciously, we learn from these experiences, even though they're fictional.

Unfortunately for Pippin, in this postmodern concept musical, his Wise Wizard and Evil Wizard are the same person! Sucks to be Pippin. Though I guess you could argue that Berthe is also a Wise Wizard figure, a randy Obi Wan Kenobi who helps set him on his journey.

For Pippin to go through that Hero's ordeal, for him to change and finally grow up (or at least start to) by the end, he has to start out young, stupid, and self-involved. Very much like Luke Skywalker and Dorothy Gale, and also Rob Gordon in High Fidelity and the Youth in Passing Strange.  (Back when we produced Passing Strange, it hit me how much it is a companion piece to Pippin.) Our hero will not achieve any of what he describes in "Corner of the Sky," not because he's a failure, but because the dream is wrong and the ambition misdirected. He was dreaming of what he could get for him, how he could best showcase his extraordinary awesomeness. By the end of the show, he's thinking about what he can do for Catherine and Theo.
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

The reason Leading Player and the gang fail at getting Pippin to do the Grand Finale is because Pippin has been changed over the course of his Hero Myth, and the Players are still playing to the former, more selfish Pippin. True, Pippin almost succumbs to the seduction here, because he's still in transition; he's not grown up, just growing up. But ultimately, the flashy emptiness they offer doesn't grab him like it once would have. He's starting to see it for the bullshit it is.

The Players appeal to Former Pippin's dissatisfaction with his life, but this is New Pippin. They appeal to his desire for attention, but he's changed. They remind him of his dreams, but those dreams seem childish to him (and us) now. The Players even quote "Corner of the Sky," but he's just not that Pippin anymore. He's been through too much to not have been changed by it. Which is the whole point of the Hero Myth. And a human life.

At long last, he has some self-awareness. He can see where's been...
I wanted magic shows and miracles,
Mirages to touch.
I wanted such a little thing from life;
I wanted so much.
I never came close, my love;
We nearly came near.
It never was there;
I think it was here.

He knows now that those things were illusions (didn't Leading Players promise those at the beginning?). Pippin also knows that wanting "complete fulfillment" ("such a little thing") from life is too much to ask. Life is good and bad, easy and hard, yin and yang. He also understands for the first time that alone is alone, not alive. He knows that he couldn't find happiness alone ("I never came close, my love"), but with Catherine he found something close ("We nearly came near.").
And if I'm never tied to anything,
I'll never be free.

He knows now that fulfillment was never in what the Players offered or in what he was seeking ("there"), but it might be with Catherine ("here"). Now that he recognizes that he was on the wrong path, he can also see that what the Players were offering him wasn't real. Everybody has to find his own path, his own Real; and their path isn't his.
They showed me crimson, gold, and lavender,
A shining parade;
But there's no color I can have on earth
That won't finally fade.
When I wanted worlds to paint
And costumes to wear,
I think it was here,
'Cause it never was there...

The real color and light is in human connection. And what are we left with at the end (in the original version, anyway)? Literally nothing but human connection. Nothing in the way. By taking away all the artifice of theatre at the end, both inside and outside the narrative, Fosse, Hirson, and Schwartz (sounds like a law firm!) made Pippin one of the most honest musicals ever written. We leave the musical and return to the theatre at the end, even before we return to the theatre at the end.

And no, I don't expect a singer to communicate all of this through the way they sing "Corner of the Sky" in an audition, when they're already nervous and their mind is racing.

But I do expect in a theatre audition that they act the song they're singing for us, and when it comes to "Send in the Clowns," "Life of the Party," and "Corner of the Sky," if they give it to us all cute and chirpy with a self-congratulatory money note at the end, I'll just think they're lazy. Might as well sing "Old Man River" or "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" all happy happy joy joy too.

Yes, I can be a curmudgeon sometimes when people don't respect great musicals. So sue me. One of the things that makes this tour of the Pippin revival so extraordinary is the acting. Serious, subtle, intelligent, insightful acting. It's what great writing deserves. These folks know that theatre is the noun; musical is just the adjective.

Here endeth my rant.

Long Live the Musical!

We've Got Magic to Do

Last night, I saw the touring production of the recent revival of Pippin, directed by the genius Diane Paulus. She's one of my true heroes of this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre, a really smart, skillful, artful, fearless director who understands the texts of her shows really deeply and fully. She directed the masterful revival of Hair in 2009. I was so thrilled when I saw her Hair because she got everything about it so exactly right in every way. And that thrill was equaled last night when I finally saw her Pippin. I already knew this was one of the great works of our art form (despite what its detractors might think), and it made this musical theatre lover's heart swell to see that proved to an audience, with this brilliant, inventive, powerful, wildly entertaining production.

Like her production of Hair, this Pippin is very faithful to the original in a lot of ways, with just enough of Bob Fosse's original choreography sprinkled throughout; but it also very much reinvents the show for our times. In Paulus' hands, Pippin still feels so relevant and so Now.

On top of that, this may be the best touring production I've ever seen. The cast includes several of the Broadway cast, but everyone on the stage is at the peak of their powers, giving 110%, and clearly having a blast. I've never seen a tour with such an extremely high level of commitment and artistry. And what an incredible treat to see the original Pippin, John Rubinstein (who I got to interview!), as a really delightful, powerful Charles; and the incandescent Lucie Arnaz as Berthe, doing a trapeze act!

Diane Paulus has finally proved to the world that Pippin is as extraordinary as I always knew it was.

I realized, the first time I worked on the show in college (directed by my buddy, now Broadway arranger and conductor David Chase), that the entire show takes place inside Pippin's head. The second time I worked on the show, when I directed it for New Line in 1994, I wanted our audience to understand that too.

In our production, we built a runway from the stage, out through the audience, to the back of the house. To open our show, the house went to black, and a pinspot appeared on Pippin, out on the runway. He slowly raises his hand and we see a pistol in it. He raises the gun to his temple, takes a breath and holds it... and then he hears that famous tone fade in and the opening vamp begin. He lowers the gun as he turns around to face the stage, and the Players drift out of the darkness and into the light, as they sing to him...

I think our opening did shock a lot of people, but that wasn't the appeal for me. The appeal was that the audience would then have this in the back of their minds for the rest of the show. The idea of suicide would hang over everything and then payoff powerfully in the finale. And because the Players drift into Pippin's consciousness, because they were clearly there for him, not for us, the audience spent the whole show (still without an intermission, back then) having at least a sense that the Players aren't "real," that Pippin's family isn't really Pippin's family (we reinforced this further by casting the same Player as both Charles and Berthe), that something's going on here...

This is a world in which a severed head holds a conversation, Charles can give Pippin his knife back, and Catherine can ask them to hold her light. This is the chaos and random connections of a man's subconscious mind.

When Leading Player says to the audience during the final sequence, “Why we're right inside your heads,” the implication can only be that the Players have all been right inside Pippin's head this whole time. In retrospect, so much of the show's surrealistic moments then make more sense if the whole thing is happening in Pippin's head. And if we accept that premise, then Pippin is making himself fail at everything, and Pippin is convincing himself to commit suicide by self-immolation. In other words, the entire show happens in the moments just before he kicks the chair out or pulls the trigger. But like Pippin, the audience gets caught up in the literal images we see and we forget the metaphorical and symbolic significance of the characters and events in the show – until the finale.

If all this is happening in Pippin's head, so many of the characters and events in the show leap into sharper focus. Pippin's mind has created this world, and all its crazy dangers and temptations, in his own internal struggle. His subconscious has invented all this, including the Grand Finale. Notice that Pippin's family is made up entirely of stereotypes. Notice which stereotypes Pippin's subconscious chooses.

For a father, Pippin's troubled mind picks Charlemagne, a father so high on a pedestal Pippin could never hope to measure up, the impossible role model, the Emperor of the Holy Fucking Roman Empire! And really, who else but a college grad would dream himself into the Holy Roman Empire. Would you? Charles is the ultimate suffocating authority figure, whom Pippin describes as the most powerful man in the world. By choosing Charlemagne for his father, Pippin has guaranteed that he can never be as smart, as powerful, as successful. He can only fall short.

For a stepmother (read Bruno Bettelheim's The Uses of Enchantment for more on stepmothers), Pippin's brain conjures up Fastrada, an oversexualized, young stepmother, famously dressed in the original production in a red fringe cocktail dress. She's scary to Pippin because she's sexy, and that's Wrong and Oedipal-ish (we're seeing her through Pippin's mind's eye, after all), which maybe explains why Pippin conjures up Fastrada and Lewis' incestuous relationship, this forbidden sexuality he fears in himself. But Fastrada also comes from the fairy tale archetype, the evil step-mother who loves her own son Lewis more than her stepson Pippin.

For a stepbrother, Pippin's mind again chooses a male he can't measure up to. Lewis is dumb, pure id, pure appetite, but he's also everything Pippin isn't, and everything a man needed to be in the eighth century. Maybe Pippin is our modern idea of a "better" man than Lewis, but Pippin lives in the Holy Roman Empire.

Leading Player is Pippin's own Devil on his shoulder, but he's not only that. (I use "he" for Leading Player because that's how "he" was written, even though both productions I worked on in the 80s and 90s had women in the role, like this revival.) Leading Player is that most interesting of dramatic character types, the untrustworthy narrator. He has an agenda and it's not about helping Pippin. Then again, Leading Player is Pippin. As players in this troupe, Pippin's entire family is part of the plot to sabotage his quest and to encourage him to kill himself, and yet they are all inside his own head. Why has he created such a monstrous family in this hallucination of his?

Or maybe the real question the show asks is why do so many of us do much the same thing, playing destructive mind games with ourselves?

How often does a piece of theatre take you down an awesome rabbit hole like this? Pippin is deceptively complex, a classic hero myth story loaded up with the cultural baggage and confusion of the times, both then and now.

Still, as much as I think this revival tour is really, really wonderful...

I just don't think the revised lyrics in a few songs (which I believe predate this revival) are as good as the originals. The new lyrics don't match the playfulness or brashness of the lyrics around them. And while I sort of like the show's new ending, it changes what kind of story this is. The original ending (I'm tempted to call it a Beckettian "non-ending") said that life is a series of compromises and disappointments, but the truly extraordinary person understands that it's okay to be ordinary. Most people are. Pippin finally proves himself extraordinary when he gives up his childish demand for complete self-fulfillment, and for the first time thinks about what those around him need from him. He grows up and the sees the value in a normal life. It's not necessary to be extraordinary, to get attention, to stand out. He's never going to be the emperor of the Holy Roman Empire. This is a story about Pippin finally learning to be a man and finding that there can be joy in an ordinary life. (Leading Player told him he needed to find some simple joys, and he was right!) But growing up is a quiet thing. It's not a moment that needs a last song. It just is. Fosse's non-ending was about real life, at the end of a show about real life.

In the revised ending, Pippin and Catherine walk off hand in hand, apparently happily ever after. Pippin has found what he wanted: fulfillment. A loving family. Sure, Theo may have to go through a similar misadventure, but heck, all boys do, right? And Pippin got through it okay, right? Family is So Good.

I don't know, maybe that's not such a terrible message for these times, but to me, that's not really Pippin.

The original ending is so much more honest (which is kind of the point of the whole show, deep down), less obviously manipulative. The original Pippin was one of those early neo musical comedies with high style but genuinely realistic themes. Originally it was about that Vietnam Generation, lost in so many ways; and it documented quite honestly the fact of all our failing institutions, politics, religion, war, even the nuclear family. Does that sound familiar? What Fosse, songwriter Stephen Schwartz, and bookwriter Roger Hirson may not have realized back in 1972 was that there will always be Lost Generations from time to time, and Pippin will speak to all of them. It speaks to us today so powerfully because we're in another time of great crisis and transformation in our country, like the early 1970s, when Americans have lost faith again in almost all our institutions.

The majority of New Line's musicals recently have been about that theme.

Still, last night was amazing. Sometimes I see productions, often on tour, sometimes on Broadway that really just don't understand the show – or don't even try very hard – and it breaks my heart because I picture hundreds (thousands?) of people walking out at the end of the show thinking, well, that was okay, I guess, kinda funny, not bad...when I know the show is really great, maybe even brilliant.

So it thrills my little musical theatre heart when I see a production, particularly on Broadway, get a show so exactly right that I know everyone who sees it will see every bit of brilliance the show has. I felt that way when I saw Diane Paulus' production of Hair. I had directed the the show three times already, and had written a whole book about it, so I was one tough, fucking audience. But everything about it was perfect. Paulus and everyone involved understood Hair down to its wild, psychedelic core – and it's a really complex show! – even borrowing certain pieces of staging from the original. Their production was brilliant and beautiful and authentic and emotional and powerful...

It was really one of the great experiences of my life.

And now she does it to me again. I had that same experience seeing Pippin. I've music directed the show once, directed the show once, and wrote a chapter about it in my first book. I love this show deeply and wasn't sure how well I could handle such a drastic change in the fundamental concept. But you know what? It's not that fundamental a change. Paulus obviously, overtly respects Fosse's contributions to this iconic show, while making it entirely her own at the same time, giving it an entirely new vibe, but one that feels like an evolution of the original, not a replacement.

I've been listening to the original cast album (singing along with John Rubinstein!) since junior high, and I've been watching the commercial video of the 1981 remounting of the Broadway production since high school. Still, with all that baggage and famously strong opinions, I drove home last night one truly happy Pippin fan.

Diane Paulus, I love you. Keep making musicals.

Long Live the Musical!