It's Today!

The Top Ten Reasons Why Musical Theatre Fans and Artists Should Be Glad They're Living Right Now...

10.)  Amazon. You could spend hours browsing cast albums, videos, documentaries, scripts, scores, histories, analysis books, behind-the-scenes books, biographies, you name it – and most of that stuff you can get used really cheap. And we we set up the New Line Bookstore on Amazon to gather all that coolness in one place for you.

And then there's the Pre-Order button! The most awesome and most dangerous button on the internet. But I love it because once a month or so, I search Amazon to see what's being released in the coming months, when I see something cool, I pre-order it. When it's released, they mail it to me. What's not to love? I love that every once in a while a new cast album arrives in my mailbox!

(And while we're talking about it, Amazon has this new deal – if you go to instead of, a portion of everything you buy is donated to charity. And you pick your charity. So if you wanna help New Line out a little, shop through, and when you first go there, tell them you want your donations to go to New Line Theatre. Commercial over.)

9.)  There are more books about musical theatre being published now than ever before. Some are so-so, but some are really wonderful. Musical theatre scholarship is booming! Both music and theatre scholars are finally taking our relatively new art form seriously.

8.)  There's never been more film and video footage available of the history of musical theatre than there is today, and almost all of it is online. When I first wanted to see film footage of the original Follies, I had to go to Lincoln Center and get permission from Sondheim and James Goldman's widow. (The first time I asked, she turned me down, so the second time, I asked Sondheim to intercede, and she said yes.) Now all that footage is on YouTube. The history of our art form is being preserved and democratized, perhaps like no other art form has been before.

7.)  St. Louis now has two touring houses booking musicals, in addition to The Muny, Stages, and New Line. Plus Stray Dog is doing musicals every season now and there are new companies in town like The November Company and Next Generation Theatre Co., who are also doing musicals.

6.)  We're getting to watch the evolution of our art form in real time. And it's really interesting and unpredictable. Who could have predicted new work like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Passing Strange, Spelling Bee, Natasha Pierre, The Scottsboro Boys, Next to Normal, Urinetown, Bat Boy...? Nobody saw these amazing, rule-busting shows coming...

5.)  There's a whole new generation of musical theatre fans and artists today – and I think we may have Glee (as much as I hate it) and High School Musical (which I thought was decent, although admittedly it wasn't made for me) to thank for this resurgence. These young people really know and love the art form, past and present; they buy cast albums and come to see New Line shows; and they're writing new musicals and starting new theatre companies. Some of these new companies are dedicated to only new musicals. That kind of company couldn't have existed ten years ago; there wasn't enough product. Now there is.

4.)  The musical theatre has finally, at long fucking last, fully embraced rock and roll as its musical language, maybe even as its default language now. Thank you, Jonathan Larson, Larry O'Keefe, and Tom Kitt.

3.)  As has been happening for over a century now, every new generation of artists raises the bar in terms of skill, artistry, innovation, and balls, from Cohan to Porter to Rodgers & Hammerstein to Sondheim to Jason Robert Brown to today's brilliant new artists.

2.)  Musicals are mainstream again. The movie musical is back (or on its way), and the indie movie musical has been born. TV is now producing both musical theatre-related programming and also musicals. Two live-on-TV musicals have already been announced for 2015. We live in a world now in which a broadcast TV network thought there might be an audience for Smash. That's good news. And a lot of mainstream pop and rock artists are now writing stage musicals. Who'd've ever thought we'd get musicals from Sting, Cyndi Lauper, Billie Joe Armstrong, Edie Brickell, John Cougar Mellancamp, and Tupac?

Musical theatre is populist again!

And the Number One Reason Why Musical Theatre Fans and Artists Should Be Glad They're Living Right Now...

1.) We're in a period of innovation and creativity that has been equalled only by the late 60s and early 70s. Our art form has never been more adventurous, more vigorous, or more exciting. We're in an honest-to-god Golden Age of the American Musical.

As regular readers here know, I argue that the last Golden Age (1943-64) was really just one era in our evolution, not necessarily a golden one. But regardless, we're in a Golden Age now, one that began in the mid-1990s, with Rent, Noise/Funk, Floyd Collins, Hedwig, Songs for a New World, Violet, and others, and it continues today. Just in the last few years, I've seen some of the coolest new musicals I've ever seen – Next to Normal, American Idiot, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, The Blue Flower... Which is not to say the commercial theatre is embracing them all, but very cool new work is being written.

Yes, we New Liners still often look to New York for new shows, because that's where many of the best writers are still struggling to get their work seen. If they hit the jackpot there, they might make a living at this. But we also know that commercial success in New York rarely has any relation at all to the quality of the material. Brilliant shows like Next to Normal can succeed modestly, and brilliant shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson can fail miserably. And brilliant shows like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby can be ruined by incompetent directors and designers.

Maybe that's one of the reasons it's a Golden Age and so many experiments are happening, because there isn't only one place for a musical to succeed anymore. And commercial success is no longer the only measure of success. The musical theatre has been democratized, just like the music and film industries.

I know that Broadway is still a dream for many young writers and actors, and I have my own love-hate relationship with it, but there is exciting musical theatre happening every day all across our country, amateur and professional, traditional and not. It's a great time to be a musical lover.

In this partitioned, digitized world, maybe they'll never be another time like the 20s and 30s, when theatre music was pop music. But maybe no element of culture will ever be that pervasive again. Cole Porter didn't have to compete with TV, cable, satellite radio, iTunes, iPhones, or YouTube.

But the flip side of that is connection. I grew up without the internet. I didn't know anyone who knew as much as I did about musical theatre. Or who loved it as much. By happy accident, my college roommate did and did. But now I know dozens (hundreds?) who know well more than I do, and love it just as much. And I'm connected to them all and I can learn from them all.

Sometimes I think back on my early days as a musical theatre lover and budding scholar, and it seems like Abe Lincoln reading his schoolbooks by candlelight. What I would have given as a 12-year-old musical theatre freak to be able to talk to others like me, to have a seemingly endless ocean of information available to me. I know there are 12-year-old me's out there today. And let's be honest, in certain ways, I'm still 12. That's why New Line created our YouTube Online History of Musical Theatre (and a lot of other really cool content on our YouTube channel), and why we keep many of my analysis essays on our website for your use.

There will always be those who think Brigadoon is a better show than Next to Normal. And we'll just leave them to their dusty LPs. Meanwhile, the rest of us can swim in the awesomeness of all the cool new musical theatre being written for us.

It's a great time to be doing what I do. I'm very lucky. And so are you.

Long Live the Musical!

Meet Me in St. Louis

For more than ten years, we've kept a page on the New Line Theatre website, listing all the upcoming musicals in the St. Louis area, and that page gets a lot of visits! Sometimes it's quite inspiring to see how much musical theatre is going on, and what a variety of work we get to see here in The Lou, from the many incredibly cool companies here.

Here's a pretty comprehensive list of musicals we'll get to see in the year ahead...

Always... Patsy Cline, Stages St. Louis, through Sept. 1
Porgy and Bess, The Muny, July 7-13
Spamalot, Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, July 9-19
Joseph / Technicolor Dreamcoat, Ozark Actor's Theatre, July 10-20
The Addams Family, The Muny, July 14-20
How to Succeed..., Stages St. Louis, July 18-Aug. 17
Sweeney Todd, Family Musical Theater, July 18-27
Shrek, Take a Bow Showcase, July 18-27
Dirty Rotten Scoundrels, St. Charles Community College, July 22-27
Seussical, The Muny, July 22-28
Funny Girl, Stray Dog Theatre, July 23-Aug. 8
9 to 5, Alton Little Theater, July 24-Aug. 3
Tarzan, Take Two Productions, July 25-Aug. 2
9 to 5, Hard Road Theatre, July 25-Aug. 3
The Wizard of Oz, Insight Theatre Company, July 25-27
Grease, The Muny, July 31-Aug. 8
The Drowsy Chaperone, Ozark Actor's Theatre, July 31-Aug. 10
The Wiz, Hawthorne Players, Aug. 1-10
The Sound of Music, Clinton County Showcase, Aug. 7-10
Hello, Dolly!, The Muny, Aug. 11-17
Into the Woods, Brass Rail Players, Aug. 15-25
The Spitfire Grill, Insight Theatre Company, Aug. 21-31
The Last Five Years, Alfresco Productions, Aug. 22-24
Ring of Fire, Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, Aug. 23-Sept. 4
Great American Trailer Park Musical, Dramatic License, Sept. 2-21
Fiddler on the Roof, Stages St. Louis, Sept. 5-Oct. 5
First Lady Suite, R-S Theatrics, Sept. 5-14
Purlie, The Black Rep, Sept. 10-21
Annie Get Your Gun, Monroe Actors Stage Company, Sept. 12-21
Cotton Patch Gospel, Arrow Rock Lyceum Theatre, Sept. 24-28
The Addams Family, Looking Glass Playhouse, Sept. 25-Oct. 5
Assassins, The November Theater Co., Sept. 26-Oct. 5
Spamalot, Alpha Players, Sept. 26-Oct. 5
Bonnie & Clyde, New Line Theatre, October 2-25
Nice Work If You Can Get It, Peabody Opera House, October 10-12
Little Shop of Horrors, Clinton County Showcase, Oct. 10-19
The Rocky Horror Show, Family Musical Theater, October 17-26
Grease, KTK Productions, October 17-26
Dirty Dancing, Fox Theatre, Oct. 21-Nov. 2
Little Shop of Horrors, Alfresco Productions, October 24-26
Smoke on the Mountain, Act Two Theatre, Nov. 7-16
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Washington University, Nov. 14-23
All is Calm, Mustard Seed Theatre, Nov. 14-Dec. 14
A Funny Thing / Forum, St. Louis University, Nov. 15-24
Motown the Musical, Fox Theatre, Nov. 18-30
Spring Awakening, Webster Conservatory, Nov. 19-23
Ghost Brothers of Darkland County, Peabody Opera House, Nov. 29
Annie, Fox Theatre, Dec. 2-7
Ring of Fire, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, Dec. 3-28
Always...Patsy Cline, Alton Little Theatre, Dec. 4-7
Great American Trailer Park Christmas Musical, Stray Dog Theatre, Dec. 4-20
Pippin, Peabody Opera House, Dec. 10-14
A Christmas Story, Fox Theatre, Dec. 16-Jan. 4
Urinetown, Next Generation Theatre Co., Jan. 9-10
The Book of Mormon, Peabody Opera House, Jan. 13-18
Cinderella, Fox Theatre, Jan. 20-Feb. 1
Young Frankenstein, Looking Glass Playhouse, Jan. 29-Feb. 8
Snoopy, Brass Rail Players, Feb. 20-28
Million Dollar Quartet, Fox Theatre, Feb. 27-March 1
Phantom of the Opera, Fox Theatre, March 4-15
Jerry Springer the Opera, New Line Theatre, March 5-28
Shenandoah, Alton Little Theatre, March 19-29
Kinky Boots, Fox Theatre, March 24-April 5
Honk!, Webster Conservatory, Mar. 27-29
The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Stray Dog Theatre, April 2-18
The Last Five Years, Webster Conservatory, April 3-5
Once On This Island, The Black Rep, April 22-May 3
Thoroughly Modern Millie, Kirkwood Theatre Guild, May 1-10
Mary Poppins, Looking Glass Playhouse, Sept. 25-Oct. 5
My Mother’s Lesbian Jewish Wiccan Wedding, New Jewish Theatre, May 7-31
The Threepenny Opera, New Line Theatre, May 28-June 20
Grease (school version), Alton Little Theatre, July 9-19
Spellbound, Stray Dog Theatre, Aug. 6-22

And remember, this is only the musicals...!

When we first started keeping this list on our website, the list wasn't nearly this long. Our theatre community is so much more vibrant and adventurous today than when New Line was founded in the early 90s.

Some cool things I notice right away. First, for a list that long, there aren't a lot of repeats. And yes, there are the shallow sure-sellers like Spamalot, Millie, and The Book of Mormon. But notice how many lesser-known, lesser-produced shows are on this list, like Shenandoah, Once on This Island, Cotton Patch Gospel, Purlie, Edwin Drood, First Lady Suite, and The Spitfire Grill. And we'll get a decent overview of the history of musical theatre from Porgy & Bess and Threepenny Opera, to late-middle-20th century shows like Forum, Pippin, Grease, to more recent shows like BBAJ, The Last Five Years, Urinetown, Spring Awakening, to the brand new show Ghost Brothers of Darkland County at the Peabody and the world premiere of Spellbound at Stray Dog.

But also notice that there are virtually no Rodgers & Hammerstein shows, only the Cinderella tour at the Fox and The Sound of Music at Clinton County Showcase, across the river. I'll also note that the Muny has no R&H shows on its schedule. I love that. Yet we'll still get some classics, like Fiddler, Dolly, Annie Get Your Gun, and Funny Girl, and newer classics like Little Shop and Into the Woods.

Also notice how many of the shows on this list are rock musicals, even at The Muny. The times, they are a-changin'...

American Theatre did a really wonderful article about New Line in their current issue, and one of the points the article makes is that when New Line was founded in 1991, there wasn't much new musical theatre being created that fit New Line's mission statement – but today, there's a ton of challenging, rule-busting, genre-busting, relevant new work being created, and you can see that represented in this list. There are more shows here written in the last 10-15 years than shows from the so-called "Golden Age" (1943-1964). Granted, some of that is because of national tours of new shows coming through town, but only some of it.

And the New Liners are doing our part, bringing to St. Louis the regional premiere of Bonnie & Clyde, the St. Louis premiere of Jerry Springer the Opera, and the classic comic satire The Threepenny Opera.

I guess I've always been optimistic about our art form and about St. Louis theatre – I've been living in the middle of a renaissance for both for quite a while. And both are now blowing my mind on a regular basis. There's so much cool new musical theatre being written by a wide community of young writers all over the country in this new Golden Age, and so much exciting theatre going on all year long here in The Lou...

Over the years, people have often asked me why I'm not working in New York.

Why would I, when I have so much here...?

I have no interest in working in "show business" in New York and trying to appease a commercial audience of tourists and their children, many of whom don't speak English. I work in the theatre, where the only goals are to make great art and to challenge and connect powerfully to our audience. And as anyone in New York could tell you, I couldn't do this kind of work in New York, and I sure couldn't keep a company like New Line afloat up there.

Once upon a time, New York was the only place to do/see world-class theatre. Not anymore.

Long Live the Musical and the St. Louis Theatre Scene!

Cave City, Comma, Capital K, Capital Y

I don't just love research. I swim in it.

Sometimes people ask why New Line doesn't have a dramaturg. The answer is that research and analysis are among my favorite parts of the job of directing. And because pretty much my whole waking life is about my work, I don't need any help with dramaturgy.

Back in 1999, when we were working on Floyd Collins, a few of us took an amazing trip. Troy Schnider, who was playing Floyd, my co-director Alison, and I drove to Cave City, Kentucky. We were all in love with this beautiful show, but we wanted to really understand that time and place.

And we wanted to see that cave.

So during our rehearsal process, we drove to Kentucky. Our first stop was the Floyd Collins Museum, more kitschy than thrilling, but the lady who ran the place was really nice and she told us where the cave is in which Floyd had been trapped way back in 1925 (which is what the entire show's about), and where his gravestone is. We drove further down the road and found a small sign by the side that said “Sand Cave,” so we parked. There were no arrows, no map, no directions.

We started down this dirt path on foot, and after a few wrong turns, we finally found it – Floyd Collins’ Sand Cave. The actual place where Floyd was trapped and died, where people had argued over rescue theories, where thousands of gawkers and onlookers had assembled seventy-four years before, creating America's first media circus. We found the tiny opening to the cave through which Floyd had squeezed. And I do mean tiny. It was hard to imagine an adult man squeezing through there – and head-first! It really changed how all of us felt about the show's opening sequence, in which we see Floyd descend into the cave. Now we understood it on a whole different level.

Also, the entrance to the cave was in this natural fishbowl, so that all the gawkers and press were literally surrounding Floyd's family and friends from above, like an arena. We could just imagine how scary that must've been when the crowd grew to large numbers.

It was totally overwhelming emotionally. I couldn’t believe we were there. Floyd had died here. We always knew that this story we were working on was true, but now it was suddenly so real. (When we got back Monday night for rehearsal, our scenic painter Karl had pained a backdrop for us that looked exactly like the view from the opening of Floyd's cave. I mean, exactly. It was kinda creepy.)

After imagining all the events of the show on the landscape around the cave opening, where the vendors must've been, where the Feds had put their tent up, all that, we returned to our car. We drove up the road further to find Floyd’s grave, and an elderly couple who had been driving by stopped when they saw us in the graveyard. The man had been a cave guide many years before and he had helped carry Floyd’s coffin when they had moved it to that cemetery. They told us so many great stories and then told us how to find the unmarked Crystal Cave, which Floyd had opened to the public before his death in 1925.

The next day, we found the small dirt road the couple had described, behind a locked gate. We parked and walked several miles down this road, not knowing for sure if it was even the right road. Eventually, the road ended at a couple small buildings which we thought might be a house and the ticket office Floyd had built. While Alison and Troy took pictures, I found a footpath and ventured down it. I came across homemade stairs and a railing leading down to an entrance into the rock.

I had found Crystal Cave and I screamed myself hoarse running back up to them. The entrance was sealed off with a big iron door, but when Troy pushed on the door, it opened, and to our great surprise we were able to walk inside the first chamber of Floyd’s cave, to stand on the floor he had smoothed, to breathe the air he had once breathed. It was an experience I’ll never forget.

And the next time Troy as Floyd sang these words about preparing a cave for the public, they meant a whole lot more to him –
Time to git to work,
git to work.
Comin' back with Homer and all the others;
Git a cavin' banker
to front us the money.
Hey, hey!
Move the rocks,
an' make some trails,
an' smooth the floors,
build the stairs.
An' set up some big signs out on the road!
There's a ticket office,
an' a curio shop,
an' refreshment stand
open seven days a week!

From then on, the show was different for us, as if we were telling the story of someone we knew and it was important to get it right. Troy had already been doing a great job but now he reached deeper depths and richer emotions. And after struggling with the show's many challenges, Alison and I were reminded of the real people behind this story, the real despair, the real grief, the real love.

Research is awesome.

Later on in 2007, we were working on Grease, which I had already directed twice before, but this time I dove into my research and learned so much more than I had the other two times. It was the first time I ever created a "source rock" mix CD for our New Line actors – in this case, a collection of the actual 1950s songs that were the obvious (or probable) models for the songs in Grease.

There's actually a song called "Eddie My Love." Same beat, same chord progressions, different melody.

I've also made "source rock" CDs for the casts of Return to the Forbidden Planet and High Fidelity (more on that in a bit). It's really helpful when we're trying to capture an authentic historical sound.

I also found on Ebay a copy of the book club edition of the Grease script from the early seventies, and reading through it, I discovered the official licensed version of the show that everyone produces has been substantially changed. There are 46 obscenities and other vulgarities that have been cut from the script. I was delighted to discover this original script, but it was also depressing to see how much the licensing agents had cut the balls off of my favorite show. So I made a chart for the actors of all the changes, so we could put the balls back on Grease.

One potent example: at the end of the show right before the finale, Danny says to Sandy, "Hey, I still got my ring! I guess you're still kinda mad at me, huh?" In the standard rental version, Sandy replies, "Nah, the hell with it." In the original script, Sandy says, "Nah, fuck it." That's a different Sandy. And I like the original a lot more.

But then my research got even cooler. I had also found out that our choreographer Robin's dad Skip had been an honest-to-god Greaser in the late fifties. He was the closest thing I'd ever find to a real-world analog to the Burger Palace Boys. For four hours one day, we sat in BreadCo. and he told me amazing stories, about drag racing, about cruising, about running from the cops, about what they wore, what they smoked, how they spent their time, their crazy nicknames for each other.

It was an amazing crash course in Greaser-dom, and together with my "source rock" research, it convinced me, more than ever, of the authenticity of Grease, that this is not a silly, shallow show about nostalgia, that this is a show that captures a moment in our social history with incredible clarity and insight into how profoundly cars, drive-ins, and rock and roll changed our culture and changed the way Americans talk and think about sex. I wrote one of my chapters about Grease as we worked on it, and to my great surprise, it turned out to be one of the longest chapters I'd written. Once I understood that the show had changed a lot over time – in subtle ways, but to great effect – I wanted to change it back. I wanted people producing Grease to understand how smart and truthful it is.

I've often found that research can fundamentally change what I think about a show. It can reveal to me things I couldn't otherwise see. It can sweep away convention and complacency.

I was after a different kind of authenticity with High Fidelity, but it was just as central to the show. With the High Fidelity score, it's so organic to the narrative that all these songs sound like the songs of Rob's Rock Gods, since we spend the whole show inside Rob's obsessive head. These songs are original, written for the show, but solidly in the musical vocabularies of Bruce Springsteen, The Who, The Beatles, U2, Neil Young, Beastie Boys, Coldplay, Talking Heads, Pat Benatar. It's a dramatically powerful device, but it's also such a cool trick to pull off.

Once I realized what composer Tom Kitt was doing with his score, I asked him if there were specific rock songs that inspired his Hi-Fi songs. And within a couple hours, he sent me a list of the songs (or sections of songs) that were in the back of his head while he was writing. And with that knowledge, the trick he pulled off seemed even more amazing to me. He utterly captured these various sounds, but without imitating or parodying – and our actors studied the source rock to make sure they really felt what Kitt was going after in each song.

I'll always be so grateful that he took the time to give me that information. It was so helpful.

The first time I had a really immersive research experience was the first time (of three) New Line produced Hair, in 2000. Initially baffled by the script, I stumbled upon a national online discussion group about the show. And among the members of this group were members of the original cast and other casts, the Broadway producer Michael Butler, the show's resident historian, and so many other cool people. So I bombarded them with questions and they were all so nice about explaining things. One of them actually wrote out for me a very long, detailed description of the original choreography for "Aquarius" (some footage of which is now available in documentaries), and so all three times we produced the show, we've used a slight adaptation of that original staging, and it really connects us back to that original Hair tribe (the 2009 Broadway revival did the same). Members of this group also steered me toward Allen Ginsberg's poem "Wichita Vortex Sutra," which is the source for much of the lyric in the Hair song "3-5-0-0."

The ultimate result of all that help they gave me, all the reading I did, all the things I learned, was a book I wrote, called Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of HAIR, collecting all of that accumulated knowledge together. I hope it helps folks unlock the magic of this show.

Most recently, as we worked on Hands on a Hardbody, we found some of the real people the show is based on, on Facebook, and we struck up some cool friendships. They were really nice about talking to us about the contest and the culture of that time and place. And that helped us immensely.

I love research. While we rehearse a show, I only read books that relate to the show, usually history books that help me understand the cultural and political zeitgeist. Right now, as we get ready to start work on Bonnie & Clyde, I'm reading two very cool books – Go Down Together, a very detailed account of their year-and-a-half murder and crime spree, and Public Enemies, a book about the creation of the FBI, and the regional crime spree of 1933-1934, of which Bonnie and Clyde were a part.

The more we understand the world of our story, the better we'll tell that story, the more interesting, more truthful choices we'll make, the more honest and organic the acting will seem.

More than that though, the more I read, the more I come to understand how much our time is like Bonnie and Clyde's time, especially economically, and also in terms of our own fight today against the prohibition of pot, and how that shapes our perception of law enforcement. Maybe today, social media is the steam valve that keeps those left behind from rising up and violently rejecting all our institutions like Bonnie and Clyde did. Or maybe it's not – it seems we hear of another shooting every week!

And the more I understand all this, the more the actors understand all this, the more the audience will understand, just by watching our actors living truthfully in this fully realized imaginary world.

That's why research matters. It helps get you to the truth. And the truth is why we tell stories. And why I direct musical theatre.

Long Live the Musical!

This World Will Remember Us

I turned 50 a few months ago. No big deal. I remember that turning 30 hurt quite a bit, but I hardly noticed 50. Maybe because my life is really good right now. (Although if anyone out there wants to be my patron and subsidize my artistic life, that would be okay too.) But it's not just how old I am. We're also about to start New Line's 24th season, and I'm already starting to think about what shows we'll do for our big 25th season.

And that's just crazy!

Twenty-five seasons? I was barely older than that when I started the company. So yes, New Line's age is considerably freakier to me than my own age. How have we survived, when so many other companies have come and gone? Was it merely a happy coincidence of history? I was just a smartass, know-it-all, 27-year-old way back when I struck out from the community theatre I was working with, to start New Line Theatre. Our company was officially incorporated with the state just a couple weeks before Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins opened at Playwrights Horizons in New York, the kind of show that New Line's future repertoire would be built upon, and arguably one of the earliest rumblings of the new Golden Age of Musical Theatre that would soon feed New Line's artistic appetite like Seymour feeding Orin to the plant.

My timing, while accidental, was also impeccable.

As hard as it still is to run an alternative nonprofit theatre today, it was a lot harder in the early days. Today our annual budget is around $100,000. And while that's considered by most to be "shoestring," the budget for our first season was only $1,100. No, I didn't forget a zero. Yet still, we often had a three-piece band, the work we did attracted really outstanding actors, and over time we developed an aggressive, fearless style that made a virtue of minimalism. Luckily for me, that was where my taste was already heading and where the art form's most exciting writers were heading. These writers were writing non-commercial musicals, much more personal pieces of art. This was the beginning of something genuinely new for the art form. Because these musicals were not commercial, and not meant to be, the writers knew that their shows would be produced only if they were physically and conceptually minimal (i.e., inexpensive). So a whole new kind of musical theatre was born, one based on deep, personal, emotional connection rather than comforting, commercial appeal. Many of these shows had no dance and no spectacle, and they were written for small, intimate theatres. You couldn't put Floyd Collins or Songs for a New World on the Fox stage; they were built fundamentally differently.

And that was perfect for us. These new writers were writing for us. And on top of that, I started to understand that the original Broadway production of a show didn't always reflect the writers' intentions. I'll never forget reading an interview in which Sondheim said that he had always intended Sweeney Todd to be a small, scary, chamber musical. And I thought, we can do that!

In the early days, I benefited from a kind of clueless confidence. I never thought to stop and wonder if we could pull it off, before announcing that we would produce Sweeney Todd. And then Passion. And Floyd Collins and Songs for a New World. And the more of these challenging shows we did, the less I worried about whether we were up to it. I finally came to realize that every show is just words and music, it's just a story, and all we have to do is get on the right road and stay there. Figuring out which is the right road is hard sometimes (Bukowsical, The Nervous Set), but once we're on that road, we New Liners know how to do this. Just browse through the list of shows we've produced over the last 23 years, and you'll see what I mean.

We know how to tell a good story.

Still, sometimes, standing in the theatre days before we open a show, it terrifies me. It's so all fragile. If even one show really tanks, we go deep into the red. It's only happened twice in our 23 years, but it's scary. I have to be able to pay everyone on closing night, even when ticket sales are low, and I have to keep this whole ridiculous enterprise afloat from one show to the next. But that weight on my shoulders is a price I'm willing to pay for the freedom to do the kind of work we do, the way we want to do it.

The other day, on a whim (or possibly because I was stoned), I re-sorted the list of New Line shows into chronological order by when the shows originally debuted, to get a look at how we've explored American musical theatre history, and also how the art form has changed over time. And it's kinda cool to see...
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
The Nervous Set (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Camelot (1960)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Man Of La Mancha (1965)
Cabaret (1966)
Hair (1967)
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (1968)
Company (1970)
Grease (1971)
Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Pippin (1972)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
Chicago (1975)
I Love My Wife (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1978)
Evita (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)
March Of The Falsettos (1981)
Sunday In The Park With George (1983)
Into The Woods (1987)
Assassins (1990)
Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1990)
Return To The Forbidden Planet (1991)
Attempting The Absurd (1992)
Passion (1994)
Rent (1994)
Breaking Out In Harmony (1994)
Hedwig And The Angry Inch (1994)
The Ballad Of Little Mikey (1994)
Songs For A New World (1995)
In The Blood (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
Woman With Pocketbook (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Urinetown (1999)
Reefer Madness (2000)
The Wild Party (2000)
Bare (2003)
She’s Hideous (2003)
The Amberklavier (2004)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Johnny Appleweed (2006)
Bukowsical (2006)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2006)
Jerry Springer The Opera (2007)
Love Kills (2007)
Passing Strange (2008)
Cry-Baby (2008)
Next To Normal (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)

Note the obvious pockets of creativity in the 60s and 70s, and then starting again in the mid to late 1990s. Also notice the absence of shows from the 40s and 50s – the Rodgers & Hammerstein era. Also, notice that once we get to the nineties, none of these shows follow the R&H structure anymore. Admittedly, other shows did follow the R&H rules during this period, but look at how many didn't. W'e're in a post-R&H era. Woo-hooo!

For many years, we've kept an online History of New Line, with full production details and links to the individual shows' webpages. We do this partly because we hope other adventurous companies like ours might get some cool ideas about shows to produce by seeing what we've tackled (I look at other companies' schedules all the time. That's how I found Night of the Living Dead); and to make it easy for them to find good, show-related resources once they are producing a show. But also because no other company has ever done what we're doing. (So far.) No other company is devoted solely to socially and politically relevant, alternative musical theatre. Some companies do a little of this work, some do quite a bit, but as far as we know, nobody else does only this. And we want there to be a record of our work.

A couple years ago, the local theatre reviewers created the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, and earlier this year, they honored New Line with a special award for our body of work over the past 23 years. It was a very nice compliment, a real honor coming from the people who see almost all the theatre in town (some of them, for many years), and it was way better than "winning" something "over" someone else. It was one of the few times I've spoken in public and wasn't nervous and didn't write anything down. I knew what I wanted to say:

And then, this month, American Theatre magazine (which I've been subscribed to since high school) did a really long, really smart, really wonderful feature story about New Line, our work, our history, and our relationship to our art form, as it continues to evolve. I could not imagine a cooler portrait of our company. American Theatre has run short items about our shows before, but never anything like this. And it's not just complimentary, it's really respectful. It takes us New Liners and our work seriously. It treats us like we have something of value to say with our work, and with our approach to contemporary musical theatre. That's very cool validation.

Soon, we launch into a new season. Our 24th season! As thrilled I was by the three shows we produced last year (Night of the Living Dead, Rent, Hands on a Hardbody), this season is every bit as cool – Bonnie & Clyde, Jerry Springer the Opera, and The Threepenny Opera. I can't wait to get to work on all three. And I think our audiences are going to be bowled over by all three. All of them are so unique and it's going to be fun unlocking them and exploring inside. We're cast the first two shows, and I am beyond thrilled by the talent we've assembled, including some amazing new folks. I still have a few weeks before we jump back into rehearsal, but I've got a lot of prep to do for Bonnie & Clyde.

Yet, as much recognition as we get, as successful as our shows are, it's always still hard to balance the budget (we had to raise ticket prices for the coming season, for the first time in six years), and we still don't have a longterm space, which is a problem we have to solve.

But all in all, things are good. The adventure continues and awesome people keep wanting to work with us. And that's pretty much all I need.

But if you wanna throw $10,000 our way, we would not object...

Till next time...

Long Live the Musical!

JD and Benny's Excellent Adventure

One of the greatest theatre experiences of my life was producing and directing High Fidelity in 2008. It's such a smart, sophisticated, and emotionally serious piece of theatre, but it was treated in New York like a cookie-cutter, romantic musical comedy – believe me, I saw it, and it was awful. As far as I know, the show's writers Amanda Green, Tom Kitt, and David Lindsay-Abaire (talk about an all-star team!) assumed their show was dead and might never be produced again. Lucky for me, they still made a cast album, and once I heard that brilliant, inventive score, my little musical theatre heart almost burst out of my chest. Also lucky for me, Tom Kitt's band has a website, so I could find Tom.

I've already blogged about the rest of the story, the joy of putting the show together, sold-out houses, repeat customers, rave reviews; and then we brought it back in 2012, and had the same experience. Because the show's just that good. Yes, we really understood its special nature, and we created two excellent productions. The material is extraordinary, and we had the great honor of showing the world that, and bringing this incredible show back to life. It's now being produced all over the country. The greatest thrill of the first production was a visit from Amanda Green, who wanted to know if the problem in New York was her show or that production. It was that production.

I bring all this up because we New Liners get to have so many wild, wonderful experiences, working on extraordinary material, sharing that material with our adventurous, engaged audiences, and sometimes getting to meet my true heroes, the writers. American Theatre magazine is running a very cool story in their current issue about New Line and our excellent adventures.

Hardbody was another one of those New Line experiences like no other. It was one of those shows that, though the cast didn't immediately understand how it would work, they trusted me and followed me wherever I took us. We were very lucky to cast our show with serious, fearless actors with fabulous voices. There was only one actor in the show who hadn't worked with us before (and that's unusual for us), so Hardbody was one of those "New Line All-Stars" shows, like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead.

And Amanda Green came back to see us again, and she loved our production.

Every one of us working on Hardbody came to realize how much deeper and more profound this show was than we first assumed. And then we opened, and every night our audiences were so engaged, gasping at the contest's surprises, cheering after the power anthems, audibly moaning when their favorite characters dropped off, even wiping away tears, particularly the men during "Stronger."

And then we started getting emails, notes, FB messages telling us how deeply affected our audience had been by our story, how much it meant to them, including messages from audience members who were from Texas, telling us how exactly right we got it.

We always bring our A-game, but this time it felt like we all stepped it up even more. Our scenic designer Rob Lippert sure did. He's done some cool sets for us, but this time, he gave us the truck. Without Rob agreeing to figure out and create our truck, we could not have produced this show. And he had to get it up to our second-floor theatre through single door frames. He also did us all the awesome favor of recording every step of creating the truck, on his New Line blog.

And our actors dug into these characters with such intensity. These are endlessly rich, complex characters and relationships, maybe partly because they're based on real people, but also partly because Doug Wright is a Pulitzer Prize winning playwright. Just sayin'. So much subtlety, so much subtext, so much reality.

And at every performance, the cast and band were at their peak, so much emotion pouring out of the actors and the musicians, so much playfulness, irony, rage, despair. We don't just hire awesome actors; we hire awesome musicians too. It's not just about notes; it's also about expression.

Some directors stay for opening night, then go on to their next project, That would kill me. I have to see every performance because every performance and every audience is different. Even over our relatively short run of twelve performances, the show settles, gets richer, gets more nuanced, more detailed, more insightful.

And on that topic, I have to brag on two of our actors, members of our unofficial repertory company. This whole cast was exceptional, but these two deserve a special shout-out.

Todd Schaefer has been acting with us – and sometimes also designing and building sets – since 2001. We first cast him as Cliff in Cabaret, because he had a really nice singing voice and my gut told me he was a really serious actor, which that role needs. My gut turned out to be right (it usually is), and I realized we had found one of those actors I really needed to the do the kind of work I wanted to do. His work in Cabaret was heart-breaking.

No matter what we throw at Todd, he nails it, funny or serious, naturalistic or outrageous, tenor or bass. He went on to play the Zen-like Roger in A New Brain, then the nervous, nerdy Brad Majors in The Rocky Horror Show, in which his jump into "The Time Warp" was physical comedy genius and his soulful rendition of "Once In a While" gave the show some real weight), the wacky-tragic Edgar the bat boy in Bat Boy (twice), the dramatic title roles in Sunday in the Park with George, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and Man of La Mancha, the freewheeling but troubled Claude in Hair, the confident, powerful, romantic Juan Peron in Evita, the ridiculous but earnest Alvin in I Love My Wife, and now the world-weary JD Drew in Hands on a Hardbody.

Todd is a director's actor. He's open to absolutely anything. He absorbs everything I say to him, synthesizes it all, and then his characters emerge over the rehearsal period, at first just a sketch, then more and more detail, more nuance, then the subtlety and subtext. He has a very natural acting style, even in the most outrageous shows, so that the Bat Boy seems as real and human as JD Drew. He's a true virtuoso onstage, able to handle the multiple levels of reality in La Mancha, while still making Cervantes, Senior Quijana, and Don Quixote all equally real and alive; and able to go from George Seurat to Hedwig Schmidt with equal authenticity. He's a joy to work with, and I always know his performance will be wonderful and truthful and quite often, laugh-out-loud funny. (His partner Brian sometimes calls him "Dick Van Dork.")

One of the things I love about going to shows at The Rep is being able to see the same actors in different shows and different roles, to see the professional chameleon at work. And I think the same is true for our New Line audiences. I've heard many times over the years from our audiences how cool it is to see a usually comic actor take on a heavy drama (as Nick Kelly did, as Valentin in Kiss of the Spider Woman), and vice versa.

Jeff Wright is another of those chameleon actors, and it's always such fun watching him excavate and discover and consider his characters over the rehearsal process. He always comes up with something interesting, insightful, and most of all, totally fucking honest; and it's always exactly right in terms of style and tone. He first joined us as the cut-up, Roger, in Grease; followed by his shattering John Hinckley in Assassins (when Hinckley started to cry, alone in his basement, it was so terribly sad); the charming asshole Rob Gordon in the American regional premiere of High Fidelity, and then Rob Gordon again four years later; the lost, powerless Dan Goodman in Next to Normal; and now, the irascible, hilarious, heart-breaking, wise man, Benny Perkins in Hands on a Hardbody.

Some people said they think this was the best work Jeff's ever done.

The first time we did High Fidelity, when Amanda Green came to see it, she walked out with me at intermission and told me how much she loved Jeff in the lead role. (I waited till after the show to tell Jeff.) Then a few weeks ago, when she was back to see Hardbody, I saw her again at intermission and she said to me, "Wow, Jeff really can play anything, can't he?" (Again I waited till after the show to tell him.)

I remember the first blocking rehearsal for Grease. It was so important to me that we strip the show of the cartoon style we're all used to, and Jeff and Scott Tripp had the first dialogue scene. I made them start it over four or five times, and kept asking them to strip off the style. Eventually they did, and they got to complete, naked naturalism, and they found the gray, working-class reality of this world and these people. From there we rebuilt the original style back, angrier, uglier, more aggressive, more offensive, almost Brechtian in its anti-R&H-ism, clearly a conscious descendant of Hair, whose style is an intentional lack of (conventional) style. Jeff had never worked with me before, but he was open to anything I asked or suggested. He accepted whatever road I put us on. And he also found the honesty at the heart of the Burger Palace Boys, who after all, are based on real people.

Jeff comes at every role with the same seriousness of purpose, whether it's the creepy coward Wally in the sex farce I Love My Wife (his and Todd's scene smoking hash remains one of my all-time favorite memories), or the clueless, pathless Rob Gordon in the coming-of-age drama High Fidelity, or the tragic Dan Goodman in Next to Normal. In both Hi-Fi and N2N, Jeff had to play breakdowns, and in both shows he accessed such raw, honest emotion that tears welled up in my eyes at every performance. Sometimes it was hard for him to get through the scene it was so emotional for him. That's the kind of fearlessness that makes New Line shows so powerful.

One of Jeff's great strengths is that when I suggest something in rehearsal, that suggestions is fully integrated into his performance the next time we run it, and we're able to see if it works or not. That's such a gift for me. And there's something special about him, so that even though he only ever plays the dickheads, the audience can't ever hate his characters. The same was true of Benny in Hardbody. Because how could you hate Jeff Wright...? He fully accesses the darkness, and yet there's something about him that makes us dive in there with him.

As I often say, none of my ideas, my insights, my experiments mean anything, unless smart, skillful, fearless actors like Jeff and Todd bring those ideas to life. We're lucky that New Line has quite a few actors like that working with us. It's the only way we could do the work we do. More than any other art form, musical theatre is intrinsically collaborative. None of us can do this alone.

I'm just grateful I have people like Jeff and Todd and the rest of New Line's "repertory company" to work with...

And I'm grateful that I get to spend my life in the musical theatre of the 21st century. We're in a new Golden Age, and it's a thrilling ride...

Long Live the Musical!

Brains, Women, and Rain

There's so much going on in this rich, amazing show...

As we've been swimming in the weird reality-unreality that is Hands on a Hardbody (it's based on a real event and real people, and a lot of the lyrics come from things actually said in the documentary, yet most of these characters' backstories in the show are fictional, and only some of these characters are based on the real people in the film, and oh yeah, several of our actors are playing real people, some of whom we're in contact with through Facebook), I'm seeing this contest differently. And it's cruel.

Benny says it in Act II: "Cruel game, people. Damn cruel game." But I always heard that line as a justification for the mind fuck Benny's just pulled off. The more I think about it, the more I see the truth in that line. And then I connect it to the interview Frank Nugent does with Dr. Stokes, when we're told that sleep deprivation is a torture technique used by the Chinese government and by our own government under Bush-Cheney.

Holy shit. Way to kill my buzz! Maybe all that doesn't really hit home for the audience til Act II, when we're faced with the struggles of Jesus, Kelli, Greg, Benny, et al.

We know the creation of this contest is purely cynical. This is just a promotional gimmick, and we hear Mike and Cindy talk about how many cars they sold during the contest last year. As Mike puts it, "You give 'em a circus, they buy souvenirs." Does that make the contestants circus animals? Cindy comes right out and tells us that they're doing it "as a service to the dealership." Go, capitalism! And the contest only works if there are enough suffering people desperate enough to stand for ninety hours in order to win a truck. Sounds Orwellian now, doesn't it? It hadn't occurred to me before, but it's pure exploitation of those least able to protect themselves.

And then there's all the manipulation and even cheating within the contest itself.

Why do I mention all this? Because it's intensely, inherently dramatic. People wonder how standing around a truck can be dramatic, and that's how. And it's why this show doesn't feel like just a song cycle or a "concept musical." It feels like a book musical. There's a lot going on here. And in a real way, as the American middle class falls further and further behind, this show is an insightful microcosm of our country, which is why I think audiences respond to it so very powerfully. Almost everybody has been feeling the pinch over the last six years. No wonder they cheer so loudly every night when the winner finally wins... It's about fucking time somebody wins...!

So why is it so dramatic? Because the stakes are really high. Norma's husband is at the unemployment office when the contest beings. Jesus needs the truck to pay for grad school. Heather's car has been repossessed. But it's not just the contestants who have high stakes. The show's creators took care to give Mike Ferris (the sales manager) and Cindy Barnes (the PR manager) both very high stakes as well. Cindy tells Mike at one point that her kids sleep on a sofa-bed and eat oatmeal for dinner. The tough times hit all of us. By Act II, we find that Mike's confidence is all bullshit and he's in danger of losing the dealership – which would in turn means Cindy loses her job too.

Musicals are about emotion, and emotion is about high stakes.

To that end, this score is a study in the 21st century, postmodern American musical, dominated by songs about big emotions, but far more sophisticated than is immediately apparent. Its easy-going style and casual-sounding lyrics give all the songs a sense of simplicity and spontaneity, but there's a lot going on inside.

Hands on a Hardbody – much like High Fidelity, Bat Boy, Lippa's Wild Party, Next to Normal – is an endless fount of subtle little surprises. As many times as I've seen the show now, I still keep hearing new alliterations, new interior rhymes, new subtleties of harmony, new details of foreshadowing.

It reminds me every night of a lesson I learned long ago, working on Hair for the first time. You wanna be a good director? Just remember that everything comes from the text and the music. You can extrapolate, but you shouldn't impose or, worst of all, rewrite. You'll ruin it and you'll also show everybody what an arrogant asshat you are. (See: the Broadway productions of High Fidelity and Cry-Baby.)

I get to swim in this beautiful score every night and I keep understanding it on a deeper and deeper level as I live with it. I realize now that the score is basically separated into two types of songs, those that move the story along; and those that explain the character's "stakes," which musical comedy folks used to call "I Want" songs. The plot songs are the show's spine, its structure, and the "I Want" songs are its guts, its drama.

There are essentially four plot songs, positioned at the beginning and end of each act, like bookends inside of bookends.

The opening, "A Human Drama Thing" both introduces all the characters and also puts the plot in motion, so it's both types of songs at once. Or maybe more accurately, it's both types interwoven. (Much like the opening of High Fidelity.)

In "Hunt with the Big Dogs," Benny is established as the "villain" of the story (if there is such a thing in this story), intentionally provoking his competitors into letting their emotions overtake them, and therefore losing control. Just as in any reality show. It's all a mind game with Benny, as we see later with the conversation about the highway to Kelli's house. It also signals one of the contestants' symptoms of fatigue – being quick to anger – that gives us a psychological arc to this test of endurance and the toll it takes on its contestants.

The Act II opener, "Hands on a Hardbody," finishes off the conceit that the show's intermission is just one of the contest's fifteen-minute breaks, even going so far as to have Mike Ferris and Frank Nugent directly address the audience, something which otherwise happens only in the opening and finale. From this point forward, the audience plays a role too. We're in "the bleachers." Benny even refers to us, pointing out to J.D. how the bleachers are filling up. As in Cabaret, we're part of the story now, playing a role simply by observing the ordeal, making it public.

The show's finale, "Keep Your Hands On It," works much like the opening, in that it's both a plot song and a thematic statement. We tie up every character's storyline and the show offers us its lesson. All these characters have followed their own Hero Myths, and they've all learned something. This is what they've learned. This song is a companion piece to "Children Will Listen" or "Being Alive."

You might argue that the two versions of "It's a Fix" are plot songs as well, and I'll deal with them in a minute...

The rest of the score is made up of "I Want" songs, which makes sense, since in this show, plot takes a back seat to character.

"If I Had This Truck" starts us off with the group's collective "I Want" song, giving us more details about these people but also showing what they all have in common. The writing here is so economical. So much information is imparted in so few words, even as Amanda Green keeps up her multiple rhymes...
Benny: No, I won't leave 'til I win...
Greg: And my life can begin...
Heather: Sweet Jesus, I hate my Schwinn...
Norma: I know to covet’s a sin...
All: But picture me driving in
My brand new truck.

These folks all want something different, but they also all want the same thing. In Janis and Don's song, "If She Don't Sleep," we learn that what this couple wants most is to be together – they want connection. In Ronald's "My Problem Right There," we see all he really wants is love (or at least, connection) and pleasure. Ronald's a hedonist, the wrong type of person to be in a contest of endurance and sacrifice. Listen closely to this lyric; it's one of the funniest, most insightful character songs you'll ever hear, even though this character has very little self-awareness. In "Burn That Bridge," we learn that what Mike and Heather want are sex (connection) and money. Or are they both just using each other, Mike to sell cars, Heather to finally gain some independence, some control over her life? At the end of the show she'll tell us that she finally won the contest the following year, "only this time, fair and square." She finally took control of her own destiny. She finally found her independence. Likewise, in Kelli and Greg's "I'm Gone," all they want is escape (and also connection), and the freedom to reach their potential, which is not possible (at least so they believe) in Longview, Texas.

In Norma's "Joy of the Lord," we see that all she wants is joy, plain and simple, and connection to her god. This number also works as a plot song, rousing everyone's spirits midway through the contest, keeping them going through the ordeal. In Chris' song "Stronger," we learn that all he wants is for all those promises that were made to him to be true; he wants to be actually stronger, because he knows he's not. Or more to the point, he has learned to be strong in certain ways, but not in other ways, and he longs to be a whole person again. And he desperately wants the connection to other people, most notably his wife and child, that his nightmare experiences and memories prevent. Maybe if you drill down to the core, Chris wants meaning in his life, some way to explain the horrors he seen and the hurdles he faces.

In Jesus' "Born in Loredo," he tells us quite directly that all he wants is respect, dignity, the same regard given to the rest of this nation of immigrants. And he wants people to fucking stop being racist.

In "Used to Be," we learn that J.D. and Benny – and really, everyone present, to one degree or another – want things to stay the same (quite an ironic sentiment in this story about standing still). Perhaps they seek a connection to the past, in this time of turmoil and uncertainty. Like most folks, they fear or at least dislike change. But change is the only constant. In "God Answered My Prayers," Benny just wants absolution. He's asking for change now, change within himself. He has self-knowledge for the first time. You might say he has achieved enlightenment, he realizes what a dick he's been, and he accepts his humbling. Even his final wrap-up in the finale is about him being humbled by life, and starting over again. When Jeff Wright (our Benny) and I became friends with the real Benny Perkins on Facebook, his advice to Jeff was to capture Benny's cockiness. The real Benny can look back and recognize how cocky he was, just as the fictional, onstage Benny comes to that realization during this song.

The other interesting aspect of this score is the sophistication behind the use of reprises. The best, most effective reprises are the ones which take the original lyric and music and re-fashion them for a new, or even contradictory, purpose which gives both this moment and the earlier moment new resonance.

In Harbody, there are three songs that get reprised in really interesting ways.

Both versions of "Alone with Me"  are "I Want" songs. But in the first one, Ginny is accusing J.D. of not wanting to be alone with her. In the second, J.D. is finally alone with himself, and he's not crazy about the company. Again, these are both songs about longing for connection.

With "It's a Fix," both versions are plot songs but again, the pair is so interesting in relation to each other. In the first version of the song, the point is that everyone is cheating, so the contest is fixed. In the reprise, Mike Ferris isn't cheating after he promising he would, and so that's why the contest is "fixed." Because it's not fixed. And it was supposed to be. Which shows you what extreme fatigue and the wrong drugs can do to your brain.

And how good writing can reveal character and tell a great story.

The two versions of "Joy of the Lord" are also fascinating. In the first iteration, the song is about Norma's connection to her god. In the reprise, Norma has "lost" her connection and it's up to Ronald and Chris to give it back to her. Interestingly, Ronald (the selfish hedonist) and Chris (the damaged loner) become the nurturers toward the end, and they learn something about themselves in the act of being selfless.

People are consistently amazed at how good this show is, how emotional it is, how deeply it affects them. And there's one reason for that – brilliant, skillful, artful writing. It all comes down to the text and music. We're just lucky that writers like Amanda Green, Trey Anastasio, and Doug Wright keep creating beautiful, interesting shows like this for us to work on. It's a real privilege.

We have two performances left. I will miss this show and this score so very much. And I hope our success will prompt many more productions around the country.

Long Live the Musical!

The Spark is Lit

Hands on a Hardbody is open.

We call the last week of rehearsals leading up to opening night, "Hell Week." I'm not sure how that started; I think maybe that's what we called it in high school and the label just stayed with me over the years. In New Line's early days, Hell Week was often hellish. We'd move our set in on Sunday, we'd have no sitzprobe rehearsal with the band, we'd have no lighting cue-to-cue rehearsal, and we'd have just three rehearsals in which we'd throw (untested) lighting, costumes, props, set, and band into the mix as we were careening into opening night. No preview back then either – the first night we had an audience, we also had critics.

I don't know how the hell we pulled it off all those years, not just getting the shows open, but somehow polishing them and getting them to awesome in three, very stressful days.

These days (and really, for the last decade or more), it's way easier. We get two and a half weeks to work on our set now before we open. We get a sitzprobe and cue-to-cue. We add props and costume pieces over time. And we get a preview. Hell Week is almost never hellish anymore. (The one exception was The Wild Party in 2010, in which I fired our pianist/conductor a week before we opened and had to step in myself, to play that massively complex, difficult score. Luckily, I had been playing rehearsals, so it was scary but not impossible.)

Today, Hell Week is still hard on the actors because many of them have day jobs, so they get pretty worn out, physically, mentally, and emotionally. But artistically, we're always in such great shape by then, that all I have to work on is really small, subtle adjustments that will make things clearer, easier to see, etc. I give notes about moving a foot upstage to clear the sightlines to another actor, or about entering slightly earlier so as not to distract from another moment across the stage, or sometimes I'll ask actors questions about lines to get them to consider other interpretation possibilities.

With Hands on a Hardbody, Hell Week was a breeze for me. Every night the show got deeper and richer and more human. Even Monday night, the first time the actors had to deal with all the elements of our production, the show was looking great. By the time we got to our final dress rehearsal on Wednesday, I was thrilled by what we had created.

We had our preview Thursday, and it couldn't have gone better – a big house, great response from the audience, and an excellent performance. There were little bitty fuck-ups, but nothing major. It always changes a show to put it in front of an audience, so it's nice that we have this one preview before the critics see it, to let the actors adjust to this last piece of the puzzle, this last partner in our collaboration.

And opening night could not have been more amazing.

Not only did we have a big, incredibly tuned-in and responsive audience Friday, but the show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green flew in to see the show. I told the actors she'd be coming during the run, but not which night. The show was on fire that night, and Amanda really, really loved it. She stayed for our after-party so the New Liners could all meet her. She paid so many compliments to all our actors, to our staff and band and designers, and to our show as a whole.

She said that during intermission she texted composer Trey Anastasio and bookwriter Doug Wright to tell then how great it was. She had come to see our High Fidelity (for which she also wrote lyrics) back in 2008 and was so complimentary and so gracious, and I just knew she was going to love Hardbody just as much. And for the record, she is a huge fan of Jeff Wright, who was brilliant as Rob Gordon in Hi-Fi and now plays Benny in Hardbody. At intermission I talked to Amanda briefly and one of the many nice things she said about our show was, "Jeff can really play anything, can't he?"

And at the risk of embarrassing Amanda, I have to share this story that one of our patrons, Katie Molinaro, emailed me –
I came to the show with Adam Rosen and we realized we were sitting behind Amanda Green. At intermission we were talking about how wonderful this show is and I said if I had another $20 I would see it again. Without missing a beat Amanda turned around and gave me $20 and told me to see it again. I will see it again and bring a friend. Thank you for this beautiful show.

I can't imagine a cooler opening night.

But then Saturday night's show was just as wonderful and the audience loved it just as much. It's so much fun to hear them audibly gasp and moan when certain characters lose the contest, and then burst into applause when the winner finally wins. The audiences are so tuned in, so engaged, so invested in these characters, and surprisingly invested in who wins.

This show has a humanity and authenticity that is almost overwhelming. As many times as I've seen it now, I still get choked up at certain moments and I still tear up during "Stronger," the reprise of "Joy of the Lord," and "God Answered My Prayers." As funny and cynical as the show often is, it's also powerfully emotional.

And it's all I can do not to sing along with those glorious harmonies. When all the contestants burst into that full, rich harmony in "If I Had This Truck," I just wanna run down onto the stage and join them.

I could tell Monday night that this was a show people were going to fall in love with. But they seem to love it even more than I expected. More proof, if we needed it, that what people love isn't special effects or video walls or helicopters or chandeliers; they love truthful, emotional storytelling. And Hardbody has that in spades.

All through our first weekend, the comment I heard most often was "What an amazing cast!", often followed by "And where did you find these musicians?" It's true; our cast is phenomenal. Theses are the best voices you'll hear in local musical theatre, not just powerhouses on their own, but with the ability to blend seamlessly, like they've been singing together all their lives. But more importantly, the acting in this show is stellar, so honest, so thoughtful. The actors never "comment on" or mock these characters. The writers and our actors come at these characters with such respect – which they deserve. And this kickass band of ours sounds just amazing playing these killer arrangements by Trey Anastasio and Don Hart.

New Line has an advantage lots of other small companies usually don't have. We do such wildly interesting, utterly unique shows – and often we're the first in the region or in the country to produce them – that the finest theatre artists in the region want to work with us, despite the shitty pay. One early review from Jeff Ritter says, "Of course it’s easy to enjoy a production featuring so many of the top voices in the St. Louis theatre scene today." But we wouldn't attract artists of this caliber if we were producing Xanadu or 9 to 5. People this good want to do work worthy of their skills and talent; they want a challenge, an Everest to climb. Every single member of the Hardbody cast fully rises to the challenges of this beautiful show.

I could not be prouder. We're already getting emails from audience members telling us how powerfully the show affected them. What more could we ask? And we're also getting requests to rent our truck from other companies that now want to produce this show.

The reviews will start trickling in now and I think they're almost all gonna be raves...

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

It's More Than a Contest

As all my friends know, I fall in love with almost every show we work on – partly because I get to pick which shows we work on, and we produce only really cool shows.

But Hands on a Hardbody is special. It's one of those shows that I knew was really unique and really well-crafted, but because we're coming at it differently from the original production on Broadway, I didn't really know exactly what it would be like in the end.

I'm happy to report that it's extraordinary. Rich, emotional, funny, insightful, intense, suspenseful, and chock full of human truth and complexity. Watching the final dress rehearsal last night, I got chills a number of times and got really choked up a number of times. And this is after living with the show for months. The finale choked me up just because I felt so overwhelmingly happy at what we've created.

With some shows (Bukowsical, Love Kills, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, etc.), I really have no idea what our audiences will think. With Hardbody I know. People are going to fall in love with this show and this cast.

I knew from the beginning that this would be a show about acting above all. And the acting is remarkable. Everybody's been on the right road from the get-go, but just over the last three rehearsals, the characters and relationships have gotten so much richer, so much more detailed, so much more honest. Our actors really disappear inside these amazing characters.

There are a lot of laughs, but there are also moments of incredible intensity and power. There are moments that are wild and rowdy, but there are also moments of silence and really subtle acting.

My creative process – to just follow the script and score wherever it takes us – has been proven again. We imposed nothing on the material. Our only goal has been to tell this story as clearly and honestly as we can. People often ask me what my "approach" to a particular show will be, and I always answer the same way – just to tell the story. I'm incredibly lucky as a director that I get to work with artists and musicians and designers like these folks. We have such fun in rehearsal – we laugh a lot – but we also work hard. Everyone involved has done such extraordinary work on this show.

I predict not only amazing word-of-mouth and great reviews, but also lots of repeat customers.  There are so many actors onstage for much of the show and there's always something wonderful going on, however subtle, no matter where you look.

And then there's the truck. God bless Rob Lippert. He said he could make this truck for us, and he fucking did it. We have a goddamn truck onstage. I want to just stand and watch audiences as they come into the theatre and see how they react when they turn the corner and see our truck sitting there. We've already gotten requests from two other theatre companies to rent our truck, after we close.

We all make shitty money doing this, but every single person gives 150% and it shows onstage. Opening a show always reminds me quite vividly how collaborative my art form is. We need so many great people doing great work to bring a musical to life, particularly an unconventional musical like this one.

I've tried to explain to the cast just how powerful the experience of seeing this show is. I can't even imagine what it will be like for someone who comes in knowing nothing about the show, having never heard these remarkable, beautiful songs.

Ticket sales are already really good; our presale is the second-highest in our history, second only to Rent. This run is going to be awesome. I hope you'll all come join us. Hands on a Hardbody is everything I think theatre should be. I've never been more proud.

And I cannot get these damn songs out of my head, no matter what I do. But I'm okay with that.

The adventure continues!

Long Live the Musical!

Do You Feel the Power?

Now shit gets real.

We have a pretty leisurely rehearsal schedule, and lots of run-throughs, but everything speeds up now. Yesterday we had our lighting cue-to-cue, today we had our sitzprobe (in which we run through the whole score with the band for the first time), then the next three days we have full run-throughs with the band and all the tech. We preview Thursday and open Friday.

I'm not at all worried – we're in great shape. By this point in our process, most of my notes for the actors are really subtle, nitpicky stuff, but as we all know, the reality is in the detail.

It was so wonderful finally hearing the band play the Hands on a Hardbody score today. We've got seven musicians, the biggest band we've ever had – Sue Goldford conducting and on piano, Joel Hackbarth (who also acts in a lot of our shows) on second keyboard, Mike Bauer as always on guitar, Clancy Newell on percussion, Nikki Glenn (who also acts with us) on violin, and two new New Liners, Emily Ebrecht on cello, and Andrew Gurney on bass. Trey Anastasio's instrumental arrangements and the vocal arrangements by Carmel Dean are just extraordinary, and today we got to hear it all together for the first time. Now I love this music even more.

Tomorrow night will probably be the hardest for the actors. We've had a lot of run-throughs, but all at once, they get lights, costumes, props, mics, and the band added to the work they've already done. By definition, all that changes their performances. Sometimes it bums them out because they feel like they took a step backward, but that's not what it is – it's just about getting their sea legs. It's a step we have to go through.

Because we block fairly quickly, we don't focus a whole lot on character, motivation, backstory, etc., in blocking rehearsals. But then we put the pieces together and run the whole show usually nine times, And as they settle into it, get comfortable with it, see the big arcs, understand how they fit into the larger whole, then the acting gets deeper and more subtle. Actors start making really interesting, unexpected choices that delight the rest of us. I start to see the characters' interior lives come alive. I see relationships develop and change. It's the time when the actors start noticing single words in lyrics that change or expand their understanding of the character or the moment.

As I've often written here, I love actors. I love to watch them work and create and explore and play. I was in shows in high school and college, but the last time I played a character onstage was my dream role, Cornelius Hackl, back in 1988. Yes, I know some of you reading this weren't born yet. Shut up.

I know the incomparable high of acting in a musical with an audience that's tuned in. I know the ridiculous amount of work spent memorizing and practicing. I also know the magic of getting truly inside the character, really living as that character onstage, even though the style may be big and exaggerated.

It has been a real pleasure the last couple weeks to watch this cast work. Every rehearsal the acting gets better, the characters richer, everything realer and more honest. Everyone is doing such a good job. Everyone is really inhabiting these wonderful, complicated, flawed, beautiful people.

The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green is flying in during the run to see us, and I'm so glad. I know she was very happy with the original Broadway production, but I think she'll really love ours too. I think the show is pretty different now, maybe mostly in subtle ways, just because we're in a 210-seat house. When no one is more than seven rows from the stage, the actors can't cheat and they can't phone it in. But they also don't need to show us anything; they just have to live honestly in this imaginary world, and this close-up, the audience will believe them and go for the ride.

We've had writers come to see us before – Mark Savage (The Ballad of Little Mikey), Annie Kessler (Woman with Pocketbook), Adam Schlesinger (Cry-Baby), Gary Stockdale and Spencer Green (Bukowsical), and Amanda Green back in 2008, when we were bringing High Fidelity back from the grave, with a production light years away from the original. I think, more than anything, Amanda wanted to know if that show worked, if the problem in New York was the material or the original production. I'm happy to report it was the original production. She loved our Hi-Fi. And now companies across the country are producing it.

As Hardbody has taken shape, we've all been talking about how audiences are going to react to the show. I can't count the number of times I've heard one of us say, "I think people are going to fall in love with this show." I think so too. There's an honesty and fearlessness about the emotion in this show that really knocks you back in your seat. It's going to be yet another New Line show after which we'll always hear, "It's not at all what I expected!" (We hear that a lot.) But let's be honest, what could you expect? A show about a contest where everybody just stands around? And it's a musical? How the fuck you gonna do that?

Come find out. Ticket sales are pretty decent already, but I think this show will be like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby. Once we get through the first weekend, word-of-mouth will be incredible and we may start selling out. Wouldn't that be nice? Our bank account would be so happy.

Even though our show seems on the surface like it could be kind of a downer – desperate people in desperate times put themselves through hell – it's really a joyful, life-affirming piece of theatre. But it's also a very adult, realistic piece of theatre too. No candy-coating, no spoonful of sugar. In Judy Newmark's preview piece about our show, Amanda Green says, “I love these characters, who are based on real people. They need a truck for work, to take their kids to school, to start a new life someplace else. They are all too human, with their fears and insecurities, but they put the best face on things. They are determined to find a niche where they can survive and even thrive. There is something heroic about that. Even if the contest is silly, their needs are real and serious. That spoke to me in small ways and big ones.”

I think the miracle of this show is that it confronts our tough times head on, and at the same time, suggests that tough times can still be full of joy, if you choose to be joyful. Like another of my favorite shows, Zorbá, Hands on a Hardbody argues that you can't just embrace the good parts of life; you have to embrace it all. It's all beautiful. It's all worth it.

I used to think "If I Had This Truck" was the show's anthem, its statement of purpose. But maybe it's really "Joy of the Lord." Norma chooses to see good. She chooses joy. And so do Doug Wright, Amanda Green, and Trey Anastasio. And we're mighty thankful to 'em.

I knew this show was gonna turn out cool. I didn't know it was gonna turn out this cool. Come see us.

Long Live the Musical!