Crazy for the Red, Blue, and White

So what does the Fourth of July mean to me?

Well, first off, I love America so deeply. I love our Constitution and our system of government. I watch C-SPAN for fun. I love that we really are "the world," made up of every nationality on the planet, because that gives us the richest culture the world has ever known. And I love our national character – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted – which is exactly the same as the character of the American musical comedy.

Composer Leonard Bernstein described musical theatre as “an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our way of moving.”

Lots of people argue that the American musical theatre evolved from the older European forms – British authors think England invented it, while German authors think Germany invented it. But neither is really true. Sure, operetta and ballad opera had some marginal influence on the new art form, but the American musical was born right at the turn of the last century, invented by the great George M. Cohan. Yes, he borrowed certain things from vaudeville and minstrel shows, but his musical comedies were genuinely something new. The language, the energy, the pacing, the plotting, everything about these shows was uniquely, intensely American – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted.

Check out the Act I showstopper from Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, in this recreation of the original 1904 production. Notice how slangy it is – that was genuinely radical...


No European show ever felt like that. Not even close.

Historian Cecil Smith described Cohan as “the apostle of breeziness, of up-to-dateness, of Broadway brashness and slang. Speed, directness, and ‘ginger’ were the chief ingredients of his musical plays.” One of Cohan's famous directions to his cast before the curtain of a musical was, “Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Above all, speed!” Cohan gave the musical comedy its tempo, its attitude, its fierceness, its sheer, aggressive American-ness.

From its birth, the American musical theatre has been a form that could have emerged only from a culture like ours, a massive mashup of all (well, mostly Western) human culture, and the art form evolved as America evolved. The casts onstage became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) as American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values in America. No, No, Nanette in the 1920s was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes in the 1930s was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity, particularly criminal celebrity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1940s was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism.

And the American musical could have evolved this quickly only in a culture like ours, in which we're always searching for the new and exciting, and relevant. Notice the wild acceleration of that evolution since the 1990s, when this new Golden Age began, as the musical theatre has become less shackled by commercial constraints than ever before.

Only America could have birthed Little Johnny Jones, Hair, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Rent, The Cradle Will Rock, Chicago, Floyd Collins, Assassins, Hedwig, BBAJ, Violet, Noise/Funk, Avenue Q, American Idiot, Something Rotten... I could keep going. In the November 2003 issue of American Theatre, performance artist Tim Miller wrote:
As I watched the national Tony broadcast last June, savoring the folks singing and dancing their way through numbers from the nominated musicals, I was struck by how cheerfully utopian it all felt. These shows and the people who made them seemed to manifest a clear, alternative political vision of our country – one where gay couples are smoochingly visible; where the short fat girl wins; where people of different races boogie together; where progressive politics is everywhere you look. The Tonys conjured up an America I wish actually existed.

It’s easy for people, even theatre people sometimes, to malign musicals as a kind of guilty pleasure – superficial, reactionary fluff; a bad habit, like bingeing on bonbons. But I believe the legacy of the musical theatre is infinitely more complicated and subversive and admirable.

Miller declared that musicals taught him everything he ever needed to know about life, love, politics, and America itself. The musical theatre is America’s mythology, a chronicle not just of America’s times, people, and events, but even more of America’s dreams, legends, national mood, politics, and its extraordinary muscle and resilience. As Ian Bradley writes in his book You’ve Got to Have a Dream, “Is it escapism or is it rather their strangely spiritual, almost sacramental quality which makes musicals deal in dreams, possibilities, and visions of what might be if only we lived in a better world?”

In the December 2003 issue of American Theatre, director Molly Smith wrote,
The seriousness I embraced in dramatic form during my early career, I have now rediscovered – to my delight – in the content of musicals. For me, this robust, craggy art form is in the bones of American culture. It is unpretentious, earthy, forward-looking and optimistic. At the same time, it is full of conflict and contradiction. As you can tell, I’ve been smitten by my rediscovery of this most robust of American art forms. Moreover I envision a future in which the American musical is the ‘serious’ theatre I so revered beginning in my twenties.

Modern American musical theatre is what opera composer Richard Wagner meant when he talked about Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total theatre” using all the art forms to create a powerful, unified work of art in an accessible, populist form. American musical theatre has grown as much in one century as other art forms have grown in several centuries. What other art form could have produced something as mature as Show Boat in the third decade of its existence? It’s as if the art form was born almost fully grown, as if it shot from infancy to adolescence overnight. And its success and its sophistication is due not only to the brilliant artists, some of them geniuses, who move the art form forward but also to the American audiences who were – and still are – adventurous enough to embrace the experiments, to buy the tickets and encourage producers to keep trying new things.

In fact, musical theatre is one of the few indigenous American art forms. Some scholars believe the only truly American art forms are American musical theatre, comic books, the murder mystery, and jazz, all forms that have impacted nearly every corner of the civilized world. American musicals overshadow British musicals even in London, even though the British have contributed mightily to the art form over the years. In Germany and other parts of Europe, as well as in Japan, audiences give standing ovations to even the most run-of-the-mill American musicals simply because they are American. They just can’t get enough of that muscle.

And neither can I. Bring on Heathers.

Happy Independence Day! I'm off to watch The Music Man, 1776, and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

And Long Live the American Musical!
Scott

I Had a Dream, A Dream About You, Baby...

I had a dream...

Some TV producer came to me and wanted me to do a reality show. (In retrospect, I have no idea why they wanted me to do a reality show. I'm only interesting artistically.) Of course I said no. What a horrifying idea. And he pushed and pushed, and I said no over and over. Then he said, "Name your price." And I said "$10 million an episode and I'll only do thirteen episodes." And he said "Done."

And I don't remember the rest.

But last night, smoked up on God's Goofy Green Goodness once again, I remembered the dream and thought about how cool it would be to have $130 million. I have often in the past pondered through the green haze (or perhaps more accurately, because of the green haze) that if someone would just give me one million dollars (and what the hell is taking so long, y'all?), I could live off the interest, without ever touching the principal, and still nearly triple my standard of living.

No, don't do the math. It will embarrass me.

So $130 million? Holy shit. That might be worth doing a reality TV show for. I know, I know, you'll end up looking like an asshat and they'll exploit you. Not if I get a hotshit Hollywood lawyer to get me a sweetheart deal, with all the right protections. (Can you tell I watch Entourage?)

And then it hit me – I would have, not just that one million dollars I fantasize about, but 130 pots of one million dollars. What that one million would do for me, it could do for my theatre friends, who have to hold down bullshit jobs so they don't starve on how little we small theatres can pay them. And it could do the same for the small theatres, who could then pay their actors much more money.

Holy shit. Think about this. (And keep in mind I was stoned.) I could set up some kind of trust (New Line actor and board member – and financial advisor by day – Keith Thompson could set this up for me) for each of my theatre friends and each of my favorite companies, and they'd get monthly checks, drawn only on the interest. And I'd make sure I set it up so that I can't un-do any of it, in case I get pissed off at one of them. No, of course, I'd never be that petty. One would hope.

If we get an interest rate of 5-7%, which the internet tells me is reasonable (Keith will be sure to tell me if it's not), that means my friends would be getting an extra $50,000-70,000 a year. (I hope I'm doing the math right.). And maybe I could set up $2 million trusts for the companies, so they'd each get $100,000-140,000 a year.

That would be really nice for The Rep and The Muny, but think what it would mean to New Line and Stray Dog, R-S Theatrics, Upstream, STL Shakespeare, Tesseract, Theatre Lab, the list goes on. Maybe I could even put a stipulation on it that half (more? all?) of the money had to go to paying actors and musicians...?

Actually, now that I type that, it would have to be even more income to seriously impact what a company pays its actors, especially since a company like New Line hires 40-50 actors each season (though that includes some repeaters).

What the hell, I'm getting 130 million, right? I'll give each company five million in principal. So that would mean at least $250,000 a year in income, divided by, let's say, an average of 50 actors a season (so I don't have to reach for my calculator), means each actor gets $5,000 more per production.

I like that. And I'd still have a shitload of money left over.

So none of this is going to happen. We all know that. But isn't it fun to dream a little...?

Long Live the St. Louis Theatre!
Scott

Welcome to the Renaissance

I've been on something of a crusade for a while now, a crusade to end comedy abuse in our lifetime.

I find myself in an interesting spot in the theatrical space-time continuum right now, coming off the uber-dark, creepy-funny Threepenny, and thinking about its many descendants that we've produced, Chicago, Cabaret, Bat Boy, Urinetown, La Mancha, Company, Sweeney, Floyd Collins, BBAJ, and so many others, and now moving on to Heathers and American Idiot. Here in the midst of this Golden Age for the musical theatre, as the neo musical comedy evolves, I've been thinking a lot about comedy.

I recently re-watched a bootleg video of the original production of Urinetown, which I first saw from the tenth row center, right after its transfer to Broadway in 2001. And although I always think of that show as an outrageous, laugh-out-loud comedy, it's not only that. In fact, much of Urinetown isn't really funny at all; much of it is pretty horrifying, just like Threepenny. Mr. Cladwell is ridiculous, but he's also intense. The same is true with Bat Boy and Hedwig. And back in the 80s, I saw the original off Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors when I was in college (with that amazing original cast!), and the same is true of that show too.

These are not old-school musical comedies. They're a much more interesting, more complex, new form, the neo musical comedy, shows that use many of the devices of old-school musical comedy, but for more serious, more ironic ends.

And yet still, many young actors and directors treat these new Golden Age shows like they're all Nunsense. These folks operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again.

First, there are many kinds of Funny, even within the musical genre, each requiring its own style and tone, ranging from pure silliness (Silence!, Toxic Avenger), to farce (Something Rotten, I Love My Wife), to gentle comedy (Fiddler on the Roof, Hands on a Hardbody), to dark comedy (Bukowsical, Rocky Horror, How to Succeed), to political comedy (Cry-Baby, Passing Strange, Hedwig), to what I'll call "serious realist comedy," tackling serious, real-world issues (Chicago, BBAJ, Bat Boy, Urinetown), and of course, lots of gradations and combinations in between.

In response to the second misconception, unless the show itself sucks, the best approach to comedy is always to get out of the way, to trust the material, and not to impose your own Funny on it. Comedy requires both surprise and truth. If a show is jam-packed with sight gags and physical schtick, the truth gets lost, and it stops being a surprise real fast.

If a show involves you, makes you laugh and then horrifies you, then makes you laugh again, then makes you tear up, that's some confident, skillful storytelling.

Actually, that's Bat Boy.

Too many actors and directors don't understand that the key to Urinetown (and many other shows like it) is honest, straight-faced, highly intense acting and emotions, coupled with ridiculously high stakes. The more serious the actors take their characters and the story, and the higher they raise the dramatic stakes, the funnier the show gets. I'm not talking about over-acting, or melodrama, or any other phony style. That puts up a wall between the actors and audience. I'm talking about a heightened, more exaggerated physical and vocal performance, with a genuinely honest acting performance, which comes entirely from character and situation, without commentary or a wink from the actor. Intensity and honesty together are very powerful – and/or very funny. It's about connection, not disconnection.

Audiences don't want to see the actors working at being funny, begging for laughs. That kind of nonsense just gets between the audience and the story. And it's less funny.

You'll notice that most people who really love Evil Dead the Musical are usually not longtime theatre-goers. What appeals to them about the show is the anarchy and subversion of the "rules" of musicals. More experienced theatre-goers find shows like Evil Dead less funny because they know all those conventions were exploded, subverted, discarded, and reinvented back in the 60s, and then all over again in the 90s. Evil Dead and Silence! are rebelling against a musical theatre that doesn't much exist anymore. But if you don't see many musicals, you don't know that.

What was so damn funny about the original production of Urinetown was content, not performance. And the content was only that hilarious because the actors all took it so seriously, and they got out of the way. Check out the original production on YouTube, and notice how utterly straight-faced Jeff McCarthy plays Lockstock, never the slightest wink. He knew he didn't have to "help" the material. If he were mugging to the audience, if he were Being Funny, he would have destroyed the show. Effort isn't funny. The same is true of John Cullum as Cladwell. He never winks at the audience or comments on his character; he just lives fully and honestly within this dark cartoon world.

It's the world that's funny. The actors are Bud Abbott and the script and score are Lou Costello.

All that directors and actors have to do is make that world real to us. When they also try to make the performances funny, they cock-block the comedy. They make it about the performance instead of the story; and sure, that can be diverting, but it leaves the audience with nothing when the show is over. Which do you think is more fun for the audience to leave with, after seeing Urinetown, some funny faces and pratfalls, or the devastatingly funny and truthful message Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis want to share with us? Or should that be "slap us with"...?

There's so much more to Urinetown than funny.

Our art form has evolved so much in the last twenty years, more than during any other period in its history. But it often seems that many actors and directors haven't evolved with the art form. They approach neo musical comedies like they're all Damn Yankees. But musical comedy changed, grew up, in the mid-1990s, with Bat Boy and Urinetown, among other shows. Once upon a time, rock musicals used to be about the rock; today, rock musicals just use rock as their default language. Likewise, musical comedy used to be about the laughs; today, the neo musical comedy uses comedy to raise political or sociological issues.

The outrageous Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson sets up an hilarious premise – our seventh President as a moody, selfish, emo teen – to make a bigger point about Jackson's limitations and the evolving view of our Federal government in the 1800s. The equally outrageous Cry-Baby sets up this metaphorical battle between old-school musical comedy and the neo rock musical, between the "good kids" (who are really the bad guys) and the "bad kids" (who are really the good guys). Not surprisingly, considering its John Waters pedigree, Cry-Baby's humor comes from the ridiculous, but very serious, morality at the center of the story. That upside-down morality is responsible for most of the laughs in the show, and it also delivers a message through those laughs about class and justice, a message we all recognize as truthful.

The scripts and scores for these shows are incredibly well-crafted, truly well-oiled storytelling machines, lean, economical writing, with nothing in there that doesn't have to be. Try to impose your own Funny on these shows, and it's like sticking a tree branch into the spokes of a bicycle. Chances are you'll go over the handlebars. (I speak from both literal and metaphorical experience.)

So why do so many theatre artists make this fundamental mistake? After twenty years of this style, why do they still not understand it? Partly because it's a hell of a tightrope to walk. When we're working on a neo musical comedy, and New Line does a lot of them, I always tell the actors the same thing: if you think of an idea that's really funny, please discard it; but if you think of an idea that really reveals character or story, please give it a try. When we know the material is great, we should follow it, serve it, not compete with it.

Check out this scene from the original off Broadway production of Bat Boy. Despite the incredible silliness of a woman teaching a half-bat-half-boy to talk (and the extra silliness of his meteoric progress), Kaitlin Hopkins as Meredith takes the scene totally seriously. She's fully living inside the story. And Deven May, as Edgar the bat boy, also fully inhabits Edgar's reality, crazy as it may be. And because they both take it seriously, we see how much Edgar is just a sweet, innocent, easily distracted child, how much he's normal, and we connect with him here. If we don't make that connection, if the actors aren't taking the characters and story seriously, then when the story turns tragic, it's far less intense, far less powerful. I'll always remember, when we did Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, that we'd have much of the audience crying at the end of the show, after an evening of belly laughs. Because the show is just that good, and we really understood it.

But again, a big part of why this often hilarious story so moved our audiences is that we all took it as seriously as the writers did. Though the show is a laugh-out-loud comedy, like Urinetown, it's not only that. It's also frequently scary, disturbing, sad.

Here's part of what I wrote about Bat Boy in my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
On Halloween 1997, Bat Boy made its world premiere at the Actors’ Gang Theatre, perhaps the only place where this show would be understood and properly nurtured. The Actors’ Gang is Los Angeles’ premier repertory theatre company, creating original works and reinterpreting classics, through the prism of The Style, a performance method derived from commedia dell’arte, from the work of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, from vaudeville, from the political agitprop theatre of the 1930s, and from the off off Broadway movement of the 1960s, particularly the work of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The Style is artificial and presentational, yet insists on deep truthfulness and high emotional stakes. All the authors agree today that The Style was instrumental in both the writing and the execution of Bat Boy: The Musical.

O’Keefe says, “The Actors' Gang is a hyperactive and politically committed theater company that teaches if you show an emotion, always make it a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. People pay money to see a show portray terror, rage, despair and joy, so we might as well sell it in megadoses. We were consciously trying to dig up the deepest and most volcanic emotions, the most inflammatory questions in Bat Boy – what is it like to be a scapegoat? what is it like to be loved by one parent and hated by another? What is it like to have no idea who your parents are? What is it like to have an insatiable hunger for blood?”

Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of Bat Boy. Both Deven May (as Edgar) and Kaitlin Hopkins (as Meredith) were in this first production in L.A. and, together with Farley, they found the extremely sincere approach that this outrageous musical demands. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” a style of truthful acting that marked all the work at the Actors’ Gang – something the cast took to heart and something which guided them throughout the L.A. and New York productions. Brain Flemming says of his partner, “Keythe's major contribution to Bat Boy has gone largely unmentioned, but it was great and permanent.” Unlike musicals in which the goal is to be as silly as possible (The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), with Bat Boy, the goal is to be as serious as possible within the context of an utterly silly universe.

To be fair, I'd call Little Shop the first neo musical comedy, way back in 1982, but as it was with Show Boat initially, outside forces conspired to keep commercial theatre from following Little Shop's lead. It really wasn't till Bat Boy and Urinetown that the new form took hold. Musicals first had gotten ironic in the 1960s, along with the rest of our culture, but in the mid-1990s, that irony got turned up to eleven, and it launched this new Golden Age.

The musical comedy has taken on a more aggressive, more activist role today, trading in the kind of socio-political commentary that used to be reserved only for musical drama. Today, the musical comedy Hairspray can take on the same issues as South Pacific, with every bit as much (or maybe more) impact.

Which brings me to Something Rotten and its (hack) director Casey Nicholaw, whose desperate, anything-for-a-laugh approach made both Rotten and The Book of Mormon less than they should have been. That much effort at trying to be funny makes everything less funny.

Something Rotten is one of Broadway's biggest hits, but before I saw it, I wasn't sure what I would think. I loved The Producers, but I saw that the night after it opened, and really, that was more about that superb original cast and the insane high energy and joy of that original Broadway production. But I was under­whelmed by The Book of Mormon. I did find much of it funny, but I found the rest not at all funny and often cliched. Plus, while it's true that most of the shows New Line produces include the word fuck and often several others like it, The Book of Mormon uses four-letter words only to shock, not because that's how these characters talk. The four-letter word (or its approximate equivalent, i.e., "scrotum maggots") is often the joke. I think that's both lazy writing and not all that funny. Maybe that was funny back when no one used four-letter words in public, but now most (or at least many) people do. So falling back on that old "shock" feels pretty boring, unless you're from Kansas and attend a megachurch.

As I've quipped more than once, The Book of Mormon is just a 50s musical comedy with Tourette's.

Still, all in all, I really enjoyed Something Rotten. About 80% of it I love, and the rest is still very good. It's very smart. It's full of self-awareness, but always coming organically out of the premise of the story. By setting up a soothsayer who can see the future but often incorrectly, the writers gave themselves a rich device for the self-awareness of contemporary musical theatre, but also lots of humor that comes from our shared culture, specially our knowledge of how much Shakespeare is part of our everyday lives.

Though I was already aware of this, it's staggering how many dozens of Shakespeare quotes and references the show goes through, almost all of them incredibly common and well-known. It's an interesting, almost subliminal statement about Shakespeare's impact on our literature and culture. And the show works hilariously against that underlying statement by making the character of Shakespeare not just a dick, but an artistically faltering dick. That's really clever and really subversive.

But I think the material is much better than its Broadway production, despite the stellar cast. Those are all strong actors, but there are few genuine, honest moments in the show, and it's not the material's fault. They play the whole thing like Mamma Mia!, no doubt at Nicholaw's insistence. This is one of those shows that would be so much cooler, richer and funnier, if it were played straight. They don't need Beauty and the Beast joke costumes for their big production number to be funny. Give the audience a little credit! The material takes care of the wacky – it doesn't need more imposed wacky. And it sure doesn't need every laugh underlined with joke costumes and joke props and joke scenery. It's like director Casey Nicholaw thinks the audience is just too dumb to get it – Shakespeare is hard! – unless he bludgeons them over the head with each gag, frantically flashing that metaphorical LAUGH sign over and over.

This show should be directed like Urinetown.

Nicholaw is a perpetrator of accidental Brechtianism. He keeps the audience from getting emotionally involved by continually slapping them with gags that come from outside the story. It's like he's terrified that if the schtick stops for more than a second, the audience might notice that he can't direct. Maybe he thinks he's just doing old-school musical comedy, but he's not. That kind of mindless distraction is not something the legendary musical comedy director George Abbott ever did. Abbott's rule was Honest, Direct, and Clear. Nicholaw doesn't seem capable of that. He substitutes reference for wit, and desperation for energy.

Sadly, Nicholaw is not alone. Don't even get me started on Walter Bobbie ruining High Fidelity or Mark Brokaw ruining Cry-Baby. Those shows were neither old-school nor musical comedies, but these directors thought they were both. C'mon, keep up, guys!

Maybe it's just going to take a while for some musical theatre artists to catch up with our fast evolving art form. The wait may be a bit painful now and then for some of us, but we'll survive, and so will these brilliant new musicals. Still and all, what a great time to be working in the musical theatre!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

The Most Interesting Musicals Throughout History

Back in 2005, a college theatre teacher emailed me and asked me to recommend a good musical theatre history book he could use for a musical theatre history class he would be teaching the next semester. He had read my books, and I guess he generally shared my point of view. To my surprise, it was very hard to recommend anything. There aren't a lot of books on the history of our art form to begin with, and quite a few of them are out of print, and so old that they don't know about rock musicals, much less the ironic musicals of this Golden Age.

We needed a new musical theatre history book. But that felt like a project way bigger than I wanted to take on, so first, I suggested to my editor that she find someone to write this new history book. Still though, the idea percolated in my head, and twenty-four hours later I was deciding maybe I would do it. I had already written several books, all divided up into discrete essays. I realized I could approach a history book the same way, as a series of essays on the evolution of the musical theatre, one decade at a time. That seemed way less intimidating. What would be different this time is that my history book would not be built on the premise that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form, like every other history book is, but instead look at our history from the point of view of where we are right now in the art form.

When I first started work on my book, eventually called Strike Up the Band, I began by making a list of every show I wanted to include, though ultimately I could have never included them all, without making it a two-volume set (which was discussed, briefly).

My first draft was more than twice as long as the limit they'd given me. So I had to cut out a lot of shows I wanted to write about. I got my editor to raise my word limit, but I still had to cut about half of what I had written. (Yes, I kept everything I cut.) But that original list of shows is still such a great chronicle of the most interesting work our art form has produced, from a few not-quite-but-almost modern musicals in the late 1800s, up to the early 2000s, when I wrote my book.

It occurred to me recently that no one has seen this full list but me, and it's such a cool list. So I've decided I should share it. For some of my readers, it will be a test to see how many of these you already know, and which sound like they're worth exploring. For others, it will be an eye-opening excursion through an American musical theatre you maybe didn't know existed. If you don't understand why a particular show is on my list, you might find the answer in Strike Up the Band (shameless plug).

So here's the original list. BTW, the years sometimes refer to the show's original debut, not necessarily its Broadway opening.

OVERTURE: PRE-1900

Evangeline (1874)
The Brook (1879)
A Trip to Chinatown (1890)
In Town (1892)
A Gaiety Girl (1893)
Clorindy (1898)
A Trip to Coontown (1898)
Florodora (1899)

AN ERA EXPLODING: 1900—1919

The Governor’s Son (1901)
Little Johnny Jones (1904)
The Wizard of Oz (1903)
Babes in Toyland (1903)
In Dahomey (1903)
The Shoo-fly Regiment (1906)
The Pink Lady (1911)
The Whirl of the World (1914)
Watch Your Step (1914)
Very Good Eddie (1915)
Oh Boy (1917)
Irene (1919)

I WANT TO BE HAPPY: THE 1920s

Shuffle Along (1921)
Lady, Be Good (1924)
No, No, Nanette (1925)
Dearest Enemy (1925)
The Cocoanuts (1925)
Deep River (1926)
Peggy-Ann (1926)
Show Boat (1927)
Strike Up the Band (1927)
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
Chee-Chee (1928)
Whoopee (1928)
Deep Harlem (1929)

ANYTHING GOES: THE 1930s

Brown Buddies (1930)
Singin’ the Blues (1931)
Of Thee I Sing (1931)
Love Me Tonight (film, 1932)
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (film, 1933)
42nd Street (film, 1933)
Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933)
The Jolly Fellows (film, 1934)
Anything Goes (1934)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
On Your Toes (1936)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
Pins and Needles (1937)
Volga Volga (film, 1938)
The Boys From Syracuse (1938)
Too Many Girls (1939)

OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: THE 1940s

Pal Joey (1940)
Cabin in the Sky (1940)
Lady in the Dark (1941)
Oklahoma! (1943)
Carmen Jones (1943)
Carousel (1945)
St. Louis Woman (1945)
Carib Song (1945)
Annie Get Your Gun (1945)
Finian’s Rainbow (1947)
Love Life (1948)
Kiss Me, Kate (1948)
South Pacific (1949)
Lost in the Stars (1949)

SOMETHING’S COMING: THE 1950s

Musical Comedy Time (TV, 1950-51)
Guys and Dolls (1950)
The King and I (1951)
Paint Your Wagon (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (film, 1952)
Threepenny Opera, translation by Blitzstein (1954)
The Pajama Game (1954)
Jamaica (1956)
My Fair Lady (1956)
Candide (1956)
shinbone alley (1957)
West Side Story (1957)
The Music Man (1957)
Flower Drum Song (1958)
Expresso Bongo (1958)
The Nervous Set (1958)
Gypsy (1959)
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Once Upon a Mattress (1959)

LET THE SUN SHINE IN: THE 1960s

Bye Bye Birdie (1960)
Camelot (1960)
How to Succeed in Business…(1961)
Black Nativity (1961)
No Strings (1961)
Oh What a Lovely War (1963)
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
Marat/Sade (1964)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Man of La Mancha (1965)
Promenade (1965)
Sweet Charity (1966)
Evening Primrose (TV, 1966)
Cabaret (1966)
Viet Rock (1966)
Hair (1967)
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967)
Hallelujah, Baby! (1967)
The Believers (1968)
Jacques Brel (1968)
Joseph and the Amazing… (1968)
Zorbá (1968)
That’s Life (TV, 1968)
Promises, Promises (1968)
Celebration (1968)
1776 (1969)
Oh Calcutta! (1969)
Tommy (1969)

IN COMES COMPANY: THE 1970s

Purlie (1970)
Company (1970)
Godspell (1970)
The Me Nobody Knows (1970)
Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1970)
Stag Movie (1971)
Follies (1971)
Grease (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971)
Cabaret (film, 1972)
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972)
Pippin (1972)
Rainbow (1972)
Candide (1973)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
Let My People Come (1974)
Lovers (1974)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
Mack and Mabel (1974)
A Chorus Line (1975)
Chicago (1975)
Boy Meets Boy (1975)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
The Club (1976)
Annie (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1977)
Zoot Suit (1977)
Runaways (1978)
Evita (1978)
I’m Getting My Act Together… (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)

DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?: THE 1980s

Cats (1980)
Les Miserable (1980)
March of the Falsettos (1981)
Dreamgirls (1981)
Pennies from Heaven (film, 1981)
Nine (1982)
Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
Sunday in the Park with George (1983)
La Cage aux Folles (1983)
The Gospel at Colonus (1983)
A…My Name is Alice (1984)
Big River (1985)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985)
Absolute Beginners (film, 1986)
Phantom of the Opera (1986)
Into the Woods (1986)
Sarafina! (1987)
Miss Saigon (1989)
Grand Hotel (1989)

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD: THE 1990s

Cop Rock (TV, 1990)
Jekyll & Hyde (1990)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990)
Once On This Island (1990)
Assassins (1991)
The Secret Garden (1991)
Jelly’s Last Jam (1992)
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992)
Wings (1992)
Rent (1993)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1994)
Passion (1994)
The Ballad of Little Mikey (1994)
Avenue X (1994)
Violet (1994)
Songs for a New World (1995)
Splendora (1995)
Faust (1995)
Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Everyone Says I Love You (film, 1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997)
The Lion King (1997)
Ragtime (1997)
The Capeman (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Heading East (1998)
Dream True (1999)
South Park (film, 1999)
Bright Lights, Big City (1999)
Urinetown (1999)

AN ERA EXPLODING, A CENTURY SPINNING:
THE NEW MILLENNIUM

bare (2000)
Bamboozled (film, 2000)
The Wild Party (x 2) (2000)
The Producers (2001)
Moulin Rouge (film, 2001)
Big River (Deaf West, 2001)
The Visit (2001)
The Last Five Years (2002)
Bombay Dreams (2003)
Chicago (film, 2002)
Zanna, Don’t! (2003)
Avenue Q (2003)
Hairspray (2003)
The Light in the Piazza (2003)
Radiant Baby (2003)
Amour (2003)
Spelling Bee (2004)

Cool list, isn't it? My book was released in 2007, so my list stops mid-2000s. But there are so many wonderful shows since then that I would add to the list now:

Caroline, or Change (2004)
Taboo (2004)
Spring Awakening (2005)
Jersey Boys (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Bukowsical (2006)
Love Musik (2007)
Passing Strange (2007)
In the Heights (2008)
Next to Normal (2008)
Love Kills (2009)
The Story of My Life (2009)
American Idiot (2010)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010)
The Scottsboro Boys (2010)
Matilda (2010)
Fela! (2010)
Night of the Living Dead (2010)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
The Blue Flower (2011)
Follies (2011 revival)
Rent (2011 revival)
Lysistrata Jones (2011)
Kinky Boots (2012)
Fortress of Solitude (2012)
Hands on a Hardbody (2013)
Here Lies Love (2013)
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2013)
Holler If Ya Hear Me (2014)
Atomic (2014)
If/Then (2014)
Fun Home (2014)
Hamilton (2015)
Something Rotten (2015)

I know, I know, I'm leaving out Wicked and Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder and [fill in the blank]. Yes I am. Those are perfectly good shows and many people love them, but this is a list of what I personally think are the most interesting – usually the most artistically interesting, but sometimes interesting for other reasons, like their impact on the art form or the sheer audacity of their conception. No judgment implied against shows not listed.

And it really is all just my opinion...

What would you add to the list?

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Stage Grok

During the run of New Line's Jerry Springer the Opera in March, I decided to leave my post as co-host of the radio show Break a Leg: Theatre in St. Louis and Beyond, which I hosted with New Liner Deborah Sharn for fifteen years.

(Okay, the truth is, she hosted the show solo for a few years first, then asked me to join her, but we're not exactly sure when that was. We started keeping a list of our guests in mid-2001, so all we know is that we teamed up sometimes before that... So we're kind of guestimating that "fifteen years"...)

It was a blast co-hosting Break a Leg all that time, and we got to talk with so many very cool people, including Amanda Green, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt, Stephen Schwartz, Adam Guettel, Larry O'Keefe, Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Henry Krieger, Rupert Holmes, Jeanine Tesori, Bill Russell, Barbara Cook, Eartha Kitt, Ted Neeley, Ken Page, B.D. Wong, Marin Mazzie, Norbert Leo Butz, Liz Callaway, Jason Graae, Judy Kaye, Steve Ross, Rocco Landesman, Jhett Tolentino, Anne Bogart, Frank Rich, I could keep going...

But I was burning out. Over the next few weeks after I left, the idea started percolating in my head of doing a podcast. That way I could keep doing what I had been doing, but with almost complete freedom – all the fun, almost none of the hassle. I did some research and discovered it's really easy to set up and maintain a podcast. And you can put your podcast on iTunes for free!

If you don't know what a podcast is, think of it as a radio show that's only on the internet, a radio show that is "on the air" whenever you choose to listen. You can even subscribe to it (on iTunes, for instance), and get it delivered automatically to your phone or computer. Like Netflix for the radio.

The more I thought about all this, the more I liked the idea. I found that with a fairly small investment, I could record my podcasts on my iPhone, and edit them on my computer with Audacity. I found that there are podcast phone apps, microphones, hosting websites, the whole bit.

Because I could do it with my iPhone, I decided to make it a "roaming podcast," going to my guests, instead of them coming to me, talking to them in their environment, where they're comfortable. I thought about several categories of interviews I could do, really in-depth, step-by-step analysis of people's jobs and/or creative process, pairs of interviews with both the artistic and business heads of the same company, exploration of an organization or event, in-depth discussion of a single play or musical. Thanks to Facebook and the fact that New Line often redeems shows that fail in NYC, I have a fair number of theatre friends working in New York, so I'll be able occasionally to get a "Broadway" guest.

I decided I'd have as few rules as possible for my podcast. No exact time limit, though I'll aim for 20-30 minutes. No regular structure. And the best part will be no fundraising drives, no restrictions on my language, no prohibitions against covering New Line shows, no deadlines, etc.

I'm calling my podcast Stage Grok. I did an informal survey on Facebook and discovered way more people than I expected know the word grok, as in, to understand in a deep, fundamental, intuitive way.

And so I launched Stage Grok April 21 with Denny Reagan, president and CEO of The Muny; and with Judy Newmark, theatre critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch. Both interviews turned out really well and both are still getting traffic.

My favorite interview so far has been composer-lyricist Bill Finn (Spelling Bee, A New Brain, Falsettos, Little Miss Sunshine), who really let me dig down into the details of his writing process. It was so much fun!

In the short time my podcast has been online, it's already gotten more than 2,300 visits. Not too bad for a start-up theatre podcast in the middle of the country.

So come visit my podcast at wwwStageGrok.com, and please help me spread the word...!

Long Grok the Musical!
Scott

Happy Ending

This has been quite the adventure. We've learned more and more about this show as we've run it. And it's not over yet.

The audience for our one preview performance was very quiet. We weren't sure if they were baffled or bored or horrified. But then on opening night, you would have thought we were performing Spelling Bee or Cry-Baby. Big laughs, all night long, from an amazingly responsive and big audience.


The following night, the audience was totally engaged, lots of them leaning forward all night long, and laughing fairly often, but mostly very low, very dark laughter. And we could tell from their laughs that they were following our intricate plot perfectly. They knew who everybody was, and who had what to gain.

At first, the lack of those big laughs freaked out the actors because they thought something had gone "wrong" from Friday to Saturday night. But all the rest of the performances have been like that third one. Apparently, opening night was a comedy false-positive. I think the response we've gotten from later audiences is probably the "normal" response to this show. I had been thinking about it as this outrageous comedy, but I don't think it really is (for normal people, anyway).

I think really it's more like Sweeney Todd (duh! I've been calling Sweeney "Brechtian" my entire adult life), a very dark tale that has dark humor to (barely) leaven it. It's grim and morally bankrupt, and carries the extra weight of being truthful still today (though hopefully exaggerated), and everybody knows it. They find the Peachums really funny and really horrifying. Same with the vaudeville-comical but murderous gang, etc.

If you think about it in those terms, the audience's response has been perfect.

So many people – a couple dozen maybe? – have used the word "wonderful" to me after performances. Several have sincerely thanked me for letting them experience Threepenny. They love the overall experience of it, even if they're not laughing as much as opening night.

Of course, some people have really struggled with the show, for various reasons.

Considering the thousands of different productions of this show throughout the last century, in many styles, in many languages, it's funny to me that some reviewers become Instant Brecht Experts (just add water) when they review Threepenny, telling us what we did "right" and "wrong," where we were sufficiently "Brechtian" and where we fell short. A couple of them scolded us because our actors actually play the characters, rather than standing outside them, commenting on them as Brecht's theories would dictate.

I think these folks misunderstand something basic about making theatre. There's no fun or challenge in imitating other productions. Anybody can do that. And there's never only one way to do a show. It's rare that a New Line production resembles a show's original production. In most cases, we completely discard the original production, and start from scratch. I'll always remember, in the early 1990s, reading an interview with director Jerry Zaks, talking about the revival of Guys and Dolls, and how he approached it not as a classic, but as a new, untested piece. And the quality and artistry of that production is a testament to that approach.

In the case of Threepenny, I had no interest in reproducing Erich Engel's original Berlin production. What spoke to audiences in 1928 Berlin is different from what speaks to audiences in 2015 St. Louis. Our cultural markers are different, storytelling conventions are different, the role of women in society is different, conversations about rape are different... even though some economic and moral issues may be the same.

Brecht knew that. In 1941, he made plans for an "all-Negro" Threepenny set in Washington DC during a Presidential inauguration, though the production never happened.

So we New Liners created a Threepenny that is a blend of Brecht's theoretical ideas, what we can know about Engel's original production and the original 1954 production of this translation, the New Line house style, and the neo musical comedy style that has evolved from Threepenny over the last century. This is not the production Brecht would have staged. This is a New Line production of Brecht and Weill's material, for our audience in 2015. We're not Brecht's employees; we're his collaborators.

And besides all that, I don't know that these reviewers understand that what Brecht wrote about theatre was often pretty different from what Brecht actually did in the theatre. Throughout his career, Brecht worried because people enjoyed Threepenny too much, they got engaged more than he thought they should, they cared about the characters too much, etc. And all that is true because Brecht was a great writer, and he couldn't help but write engaging, emotional, truthful human drama. Just like Mother Courage and his other plays.

My job in directing Threepenny was not to adhere slavishly to abstract theories of theatre. Our job is to honor the text and music, understand the story the writers have given us, and tell that story as clearly as we possibly can. And that's what we're doing. And it's working...
"The Threepenny Opera is the oldest show New Line Theatre has ever staged. It might also be the hottest, the sharpest and the best." – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"New Line Theatre's near-perfect production of The Threepenny Opera."   – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Fresh, vital and deliciously subversive" – Mark Bretz, Ladue News

"Sinister and sizzling . . .New Line Theatre gives us this stage noir classic with all its wickedness intact. It's a pitch-black masterpiece that sucks you in with its nightmarish charms." – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"This 1928 show, one of the highlights of the German Weimar period, seems to have snapped out of hopelessness and morphed into the first rebellious musical of the 'post-Ferguson' era." – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway

Though we usually get rave reviews across the board, this show split the reviewers, and their reactions were fascinating. One reviewer was sure we got most of it wrong. One reviewer wrote that "it felt as if the music had been altered to be easier but flatter." It felt that way...? No, the music was not altered. We don't rewrite music to make it easier. Another complained that we weren't using accents, and she declared confidently that the show's humor all depends on cockney accents. I pointed out to her that this translation of the show was written by an American writer for American actors in an American production that did not use British accents.

Why would someone just make up something like that...?

One of the reviewers decided that Threepenny's "happy ending" is a cop-out. On the contrary, Mack's pardon from the Queen is perhaps the most morally disturbing moment in the show. When the rapist-murderer-bigamist-thief gets a pardon, cash, and prizes, that's no happy ending. Which makes the "Mack the Knife" reprise at the end so much darker and more ironic:
Happy ending, nice and tidy,
It's a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday,
Happy endings are the rule.

If you think about it even for a second, you recognize that this ending is not happy, it's not nice, and it's definitely not tidy. It's a dark parody of a happy ending. The murderer-rapist will be back on the street, richer and safer than ever. The second line of the stanza may be the most ironic in the show. Brecht has subverted every rule he ever learned, every convention. It's only a happy ending for Mack, who once again has escaped real justice and will be getting his pension payment "every Friday."

But these four lines are also saying something else. They're also saying your happy ending isn't the same as our happy ending. From the point of view of the world of Threepenny, a happy ending means you don't starve or freeze out in the cold. It means food and shelter, which requires money. It doesn't mean love and romance. Think of the last two lines this way: "[As long as you] get your money every Friday, [then] happy endings are the rule." Nice and tidy.

It's like Brecht is saying, You want a happy ending? Okay, I'll give you a really fucked-up happy ending that will offend every moral teaching you know. Money buys happiness. After all, this is Brecht's moral horror story. He wants to horrify us into making our world a better place. The end of the story is a happy ending for Mack, but it's horror for the rest of us.

Not exactly a cop-out, is it?

A couple reviewers thought Mack should be more "charming" and "charismatic," and another thought he was too charming and he needed to be more passionate. In other words, they wanted Mack to be a more conventional musical theatre hero.

But that is a fundamental misreading of the character and the show. This story is about the banality and the ubiquitousness of evil. If it's obvious why women would be attracted to Mack, or even more to the point, if we are attracted to him, that lets the female characters off the hook. The whole point is that all these people want to be in Mack's orbit, despite the fact that he's a complete, unrepentant asshole, with no redeeming qualities at all. Maybe these reviewers (all women, BTW) don't want to believe that women fall for assholes. But they do. That's part of the story's intentional ugliness, and if you short-circuit that by making the women's motivations more rational, by making Mack "attractive," you also short-circuit the story.

Pamela Katz writes in her wonderful book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink:
Even less compatible with American theater was Brecht’s refusal to invoke the Aristotelian concept of empathy with the main character and the attendant comfort of catharsis. In Aristotelian theater, the hero’s ability or inability to overcome his weaknesses determines his fate. In Brecht’s epic theater, man is not defined by his psychological or spiritual condition but instead is elevated or defeated by his society. In order to change the fate of men, men must change the society that determines their fate. The epic theater provokes action, Brecht contended, while Aristotelian theater encouraged passivity. Attendant upon this redefinition of the building blocks of drama is a transformation of the dramatic experience. Rather than suspending the audience’s disbelief, Brecht made sure that as they became aware of the social structure, they simultaneously became aware of the apparatus of the theater itself They had to be able to judge the events onstage with the full recognition that these events are being consciously performed for them. They had to judge the presentation and the presenter simultaneously.

The silliest of the reviewers praised the acting, the songs, and other things, but he declared at great length the show itself no longer worthy. He ended his review with "You'll find much to enjoy in New Line's Threepenny Opera, but if you're looking for shattering, revolutionary theatre, this isn't it." What the fuck is he talking about? Who said it was? I doubt seriously that anyone bought a ticket to our show because they were in search of "shattering, revolutionary theatre." We certainly didn't promote it that way. We're producing a 1928 musical in a 1954 translation. We weren't expecting any shattering.

So much of this guy's review was all about how the show's not what it was a hundred years ago. Well, no, Einstein, it's not. It's something different now, for different audiences in different times. The miracle is how much it still entertains and speaks to audiences. But he was too wrapped up in his narrow, weirdly eager condemnation to see that. Pretentious hack.

I think most people are buying tickets because they're hearing that it's a great, funny, dark, wild ride, and a great stage classic that most people have never seen before. Musical theatre fans are coming because they know this is the ancestor of Sweeney Todd, Cabaret, Chicago, Urinetown, Bat Boy, and so many other great shows we all love.

Pamela Katz writes in her wonderful book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, "The possibility of misunder­standing Threepenny was part of its charm." That may sound really strange, but how having worked on it, and watching people react to it, it's true. Maybe that's the most cynical thing about Threepenny – it doesn't give a shit if you get it or not.

Despite what the pretentious hack thinks, part of why this show has gotten so many great reviews and is selling so well, is that it still (or maybe once again) speaks to the choking economics of our times and the corrupting power of money in our government, both of which are already becoming major themes in the 2016 Presidential election. More than at any other time in recent memory, Threepenny speaks to post-2008 America.

This is one of our best selling shows and there's a reason for that. It's really entertaining – though admittedly in a different way than we initially thought – and it's really, really insightful.

And that's enough.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Of Course I'm Telling You the Truth

The cynicism in Threepenny is almost overwhelming. It makes Sondheim look like Hammerstein. All the way to the Act III finale, the show double-crosses us, then triple-crosses us.

Director Brian Kulick says, "America didn't fully understand Brecht's black humor until Vietnam and Watergate, and in a way we've caught up with his humor. It was always there, but we couldn't hear it. His ironic, one might say cynical, outlook just didn't fit with a Rodgers and Hammerstein world. And now, post all these horrible things that have happened in the twentieth century, we've learned how to laugh the way Brecht laughed."

But to be fair, it's cynicism in the service of idealism, Brecht's horror tale to urge us toward a better future. Still, along the way, it's sure a dark, cynical slog. If not for the quirky songs and the black humor, it would be too much.

And maybe that's why it's a masterpiece. It nimbly walks that artistic tightrope like no other show ever has. As Kulick puts it, "Brecht is a smuggler. He knows that if he tells a joke, or has a song, in between the joke and the song, a message can come through. That, to me, is black-market dramaturgy."

After two and a half hours of watching Mack act like an epic dick to everyone, his time finally runs out. He's going to hang. Oh, whoops. Nope, Brecht and Weill are gonna double-cross us, with an aggressively ridiculous, last-minute deus ex regina, a dramatic coitus interruptus right at the climax of the show. Why? Because life is pandemonium, as the Spelling Bee kids would put it.

And then our 3PO writers double-cross us again and make it even worse. Not only does Mack escape punishment; he gets money and presents. And perhaps most cynical of all, he gets respectability.

At first it all feels like a fuck you to the audience. But it's not really. It's a fuck you to storytelling that doesn't tell the truth, to shallow operas and operettas, to fantasy and romantic comedy. Many bad deeds do go unpunished in real life. And life is rarely resolved, all nice and tidy. It's also a fuck you to tolerated public corruption. Of course this is wrong!, Brecht is screaming at us. Whaddya gonna do about it?

Mostly, Brecht is always asking us: What good is storytelling if we don't learn from it? If it doesn't move us to act?

So just as Natural Born Killers and Chicago become the thing they're commenting on, to make their point (and to implicate us, along the way), so does Threepenny. It becomes the cynicism it argues against. It becomes the ugliness to make us see the ugliness. This 1928 show still feels more adventurous, more cutting edge than any of the shows that descended from it – Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, BBAJ, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, Company...

I think our audiences have really been surprised – and often delighted – at how challenging a piece of theatre this is. It really is ugly, and at the same time funny, quirky, outrageous, charming...

And damn, is it cynical...

Look at this lyric in the Act I finale:
Oh, sad to say, he tells the truth:
The world is mean, and man uncouth,

That's a hell of a broad and dark statement. But these two lines aren't just describing two facts about the world. They are drawing a conclusion. This lyric isn't saying, "The world is mean, and also man is uncouth." It's saying, "The world is mean, and so, man is uncouth." The world is a jungle, and so, man is an animal. Not just coincidence, but cause and effect.

The same point is driven home in the Act II finale, "What Keeps a Man Alive?", which in some translations is called "What Keeps Mankind Alive?" I mention that because this isn't a song about the morality of Mack or any other single person. It's about the morality of all of us, of our collective humankind.
What keeps a man alive? He lives on others;
He likes to taste them first, then eat them whole, if he can;
Forgets that they're supposed to be their brothers,
That he himself was ever called a man...

This is Brecht's central theme, that it's impossible to be a moral person and also survive, in modern capitalism. Same idea as "A Little Priest" in Sweeney Todd (also a rousing act ender). The right-wing press called Threepenny "literary necrophilia" and "a political horror ballad." Well, yes, it is.

Those last two lines of the stanza are the real meat of it. In less poetic terms, it's saying that we all (man, mankind) do not treat others with common humanity (we "forget" that they are "our brothers"), that we're all the same underneath. And in the last line, they're telling us that we've also forgotten our own humanity; we've lost our empathy. In other words:
[He] forgets that they're supposed to be his brothers,
[And he forgets] that he himself was ever called a man...

Of course "He" is us. In other words, we fall down on both ends of the compassion equation. How could we have a moral society under those circumstances?

One of my favorite (and among the more subtle) running jokes in the show is the last line of each of Mrs. Peachum's verses in "Ballad of Dependency" and its reprise. Both times she sings it, the song is about how Mack (as a stand-in for all men) thinks he's strong, independent, powerful, but he's literally addicted to women, and utterly at their mercy. The lyric is littered with sexual references. She describes his bragging about his strength and self-control, then each of her verses ends with night coming ("then dusk descends," "appears the moon," "comes stilly night"), and Mack fails to control himself  ("and once again, he's lying").

He's lying, as in not telling the truth, because he swears he's not addicted, and his actions prove otherwise. But also, he's lying, as in lying down, because he fails the test every night by ending up back in bed with another woman. In other words, Mack is lying about lying – and that will prove to be his ultimate downfall.

As with much of Threepenny, these lines are saying two things at once, both very revealing of character. One of the surprising character traits revealed here is Mack's complete lack of self-awareness. We see it again, perhaps most blatantly, in "Tango Ballad." It hasn't even occurred to Mack that Jenny's experience throughout their relationship has been less than positive. He can see nothing but his own interests. And sure, he's a monster, but we made him.

Maybe what keeps an audience engaged in Threepenny (against Brecht's wishes?), and they really have been engaged, is how fascinating and complex these people and their relationships are, endlessly tangled and interconnected. Just like real life. Even though 1838 London is a long way from our lives today, we recognize these people and their economy. Mack belongs on Springer.

Maybe what keeps people engaged is that today we're really just as cynical as Macheath and the Peachums. Certainly parts of our culture are, anyway. J.J. Peachum is surely close cousin to Rupert Murdoch. We all see truth in this show. And that, above all, is what audiences want. Tell them the truth and they'll go anywhere with you.

It's so amazing every night, watching audiences connect to this nearly-century-old show, which feels as contemporary and unconventional as anything being written today. It's been such a fun adventure so far, and our run is only half-over...!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

So Learn the Simple Truth from This Our Song

Even geniuses have moments of doubt.

On the morning of Threepenny's opening night in 1928, Bertolt Brecht was in a panic. Would people like Threepenny? Would they understand it? Would they ponder its issues the way he wanted? In a move of pure desperation, he told the set designer, he needed a life-sized, mechanical, metal horse for the Queen's messenger to ride in on, at the end of the show.

It was built, they couldn't get it to work right, time was ticking away, and they had other tech issues still to work out before opening a few hours later. Begrudgingly, Brecht agreed to cut the horse. After it fell off the stage into the audience...

But he was still terrified that his great experiment would fail.

New Line does a lot of shows about the failure of our institutions – the justice system, the government, religion, the family, education, etc.

Threepenny is about much of that as well. Though it's obvious why recent shows tackle those subjects right now in these turbulent times, it's fascinating to see shows from other periods of cultural tumult do the same. But Threepenny is also about the failure of one institution the others don't address – the theatre.

Brecht and Weill were both utterly disappointed in the theatre they saw around them and they wanted to change it all, to lay siege to all that came before and start fresh. And that's pretty much what they did. Perhaps that same impulse led us into this new Golden Age for the musical theatre, starting back in the mid-1990s. What were Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, Floyd Collins, Noise/Funk, Songs for a New World, if not the rejection of the bombast and superficiality of musical theatre in the 80s?

Threepenny was the first commercial success to employ Brecht's famous (infamous?) distancing effect. More than most, this is a piece of theatre that demands you think about what you're seeing and hearing.

Here's a freaky, satiric scene that was cut from Threepenny, which was supposed to happen after Mack's march to the gallows, right before the finale. (In the final version, all this dialogue is replaced by a short speech by Peachum.)

ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Well, what happens now? Do I go off or not? That's something I'll need to know on the night.

ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: I was telling the author only yesterday that it's a lot of nonsense, it's a heavy tragedy, not a decent musical.

ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: I can't stand this hanging at the end.

WINGS RIGHT, THE AUTHOR'S VOICE: That's how the play was written, and that's how it stays.

ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: It stays that way, does it? Then act the lead yourself. Impertinence!

AUTHOR: It's the plain truth: the man's hanged, of course he has to be hanged. I'm not making any compromises. If that's how it is in real life, then that's how it is on the stage. Right?

ACTOR PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right.

ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Doesn't understand the first thing about the theatre. Plain truth, indeed.

ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: Plain truth. That's a load of rubbish in the theatre. Plain truth is what happens when people run out of ideas. Do you suppose the audience here have paid eight marks to see plain truth? They paid their money not to see plain truth.

ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: Well, then, the ending had better be changed. You can't have the play end like that. I'm speaking in the name of the whole company when I say the play can't be performed as it is.

AUTHOR: Alright ladies and gentlemen, you can clean up your own mess.

ACTOR PLAYING MACHEATH: So we shall.

ACTOR PLAYING PEACHUM: It'd be absurd if we couldn't find a first-rate dramatic ending to please all tastes.

ACTRESS PLAYING MRS PEACHUM: Right, then let's go back ten speeches...

Pretty wild, huh? And this is 1928!

In her book The Partnership: Brecht, Weill, Three Women, and Germany on the Brink, Pamela Katz writes about this section of the show:

“Brecht's hope was that the audience would engage in just the kind of critical commentary he had written into the epilogue. But in those final hours [before opening night], the prospect of losing it invoked the very same fears that had inspired the mechanical horse. Did he respect the audience enough to cut the ending? Threepenny's story of love, betrayal, and crime had intentionally activated the usual theatergoing senses, but would the precise tension between sincerity and irony – especially in the songs Brecht had created with Weill – force the spectators to synthesize the disparate elements in an entirely new way? What if they walked out humming those seductive melodies instead of analyzing the play's actual meaning? Finally Brecht was forced to admit that if he needed the epilogue, he had failed. It had to go. With this decision he challenged The Threepenny Opera to confirm his deepest belief: that the audience doesn't have to hang up 'its brains in the cloakroom along with its coat' when they come to enjoy an evening in the theater.”

What he didn't understand is that audiences will take from the show what they need. If they are deep thinkers, they will find oceans to ponder here. If they themselves feel oppressed by the government and other social forces, they will find here a forceful critique of the status quo. If they're musical theatre lovers, maybe they'll see the line of evolution that stretches back from some of our most powerful contemporary musicals, all the way back to Threepenny.

And if they've just had a really bad day, Threepenny will allow them to laugh at the darkness we all encounter to one degree or another, every day.

Because more than anything, Threepenny does tell the truth. It's an ugly truth, but that doesn't make it any less true.

There's just so much there...

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

The Living Tool of Satan

One of the surprises audiences discover when they see Threepenny for the first time, is how different the original "Mack the Knife" is musically from the pop versions we're all used to, and also how much darker the full lyric is. Sinatra and Bobby Darin didn't sing about Little Susie's rape.

So I thought it would be fun to dig down into this amazing lyric, the English version by Marc Blitzstein, translated from Brecht's original, the version New Line is producing. It starts by introducing the main character and the themes of the show.
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

On a purely technical level, I love the sh sound repeated in the first two lines, and the ABAB rhyme pattern that's set up, though the lyric won't follow that consistently.

These first four lines accomplish so much, in terms of content and structure. First of all, the show's basic rules are set up right away. The Fourth Wall will be broken, the actors will directly address the audience, there will be story-songs, and there will be lots of dark, dark, dark irony.

Significantly, this very first image of the show is a shark. That tells you a great deal about what you need to know – this is a story about predators. But notice that the first line also invokes the idea of attraction with the word pretty, which acts as a hint at Mack's seductive powers. As we watch the story unfold, we'll remember this metaphor of Mack as a deadly predator.

The song then compares that deadly predator to our (anti-)hero for the evening, Capt. Macheath, in a bit of delicious irony. We're told that Macheath is less dangerous – he "just" has a jackknife, i.e., a switchblade, as if that's not scary enough – and also that Mack is more discreet. Than a shark. He's sort of bourgeois (and we'll see more of that in the wedding scene). He doesn't flaunt his weapon the way the shark shows off his. It's the word just that gives this stanza its irony. There are lots of predators in the world, the lyric is saying; Macheath is the least of your worries...

But his discretion makes him all the more dangerous. You know the shark will get you. You never know when Mack will...

Before we go on, I want to look at other translations. Here is the first verse from John Willett's 1970s translation:
See the shark has teeth like razors,
All can read his open face;
And Macheath has got a knife, but
Not in such an obvious place!

This one is fairly faithful to the original German, but it's a really terrible theatre lyric. How on earth do you read the face of a shark? And what does it mean for a shark to have an "open face"? And why put the unimportant word but on such a strong beat? Plus you have to add a note to make "obvious place" work. That's not very good translating.

Eric Bentley's 1964 translation is just as awkward:
And the shark he has his teeth and
There they are for all to see.
And Macheath he has his knife but
No one knows where it may be.

Again, the unimportant words and and but (and others) are set on heavy beats. Set to the music, it sounds like Mack has a knife-butt, whatever that might be. The lyric just isn't strong enough, aggressive enough to introduce this story. "There they are" is about as passive as it can be. Notice that in Blitzstein's version, it's "and he shows them." It's active rather than passive. The shark has awareness. It's also weak for Bentley to start the first song of the show with "And..." Blitzstein starts with "Oh," an exclamation.

In all fairness, Brecht's original also starts with "And..." and is in a more passive voice. Bentley's translation is the closest to Brecht's, but it's also the weakest English version. Blitzstein is true to Brecht's images and ideas, while also writing an excellent song lyric.

Michael Feingold's 1989 lyric adds a new idea that isn't in Brecht's lyric –
Oh the shark's teeth, you can see them
Always ready to attack;
But you won't see Mackie's knife blade,
Till you feel it in your back.

Jeremy Sims' 1994 version retains that extra idea:
Though the shark's teeth may be lethal,
Still you see them white and red;
But you won't see Mackie's flick-knife
'Cause he slashed you and you're dead!

But it doesn't totally makes sense. The shark's teeth may be lethal? They both get to the same idea as Blitzstein, that you won't see Mack commit the crime, but they make it a little funnier by adding that the main reason you won't see him is he's already killed you. But wouldn't that also be true of the shark...? And how could you see it once you feel it in your back, anyway? Also, weirdly, Feingold makes it sound like sharks swim on the surface of the water with their mouths forever agape. You can see why we chose the Blitzstein translation.

Blitzstein's second stanza continues the images of the first, and it starts to reveal the song's structure...
When the shark bites with his teeth, dear,
Scarlet billows start to spread.
Fancy gloves, though, wears Macheath, dear,
So there's not a trace of red.

Again, Mack is discreet. He doesn't make a mess. He's positively genteel. For a rapist-murderer.

But take a look at this verse in the Willett translation:
See the shark, how red his fins are
As he slashes at his prey;
Mack the Knife wears white kid gloves which
Give the minimum away!

The first line may look okay on the page, but in rhythm, it goes, "See the shark how... red his fins are..." Also, it's hard to sing "white kid gloves" that quickly. And once again, Willett, sets the unimportant which on a really heavy beat, and he places minimum across a half-measure rest, so in rhythm, it goes, "Give the mi-ni... mum away." That's terrible.

Back to Blitzstein...
On the sidewalk Sunday morning
Lies a body oozing life.
Someone's sneaking 'round the corner.
Is the someone Mack the Knife?

As I said above, it's that discretion that is his deadliest weapon. You never see him coming, and neither does anyone else. "He keeps it out of sight."

And in terms of craft, this stanza is so great. First, there are all those S sounds – "On the sidewalk Sunday morning, lies a body oozing life. Someone's sneaking round the corner. Is the someone Mack the Knife?" And there are two Z sounds in there that contribute to the effect. It almost makes Mack subliminally snake-like..
From a tugboat by the river
A cement bag's dropping down.
The cement's just for the weight, dear.
Bet you Mackie’s back in town.

Once again, the word just lends the verse a satiric casualness, as does the word dear throughout the song. But beyond the words, there's a very smart structure here too. The first verse introduces the killer. In the second verse, he attacks someone ("when the shark bites"). In the third verse, the victim dies ("a body oozing life"). In this fourth verse, the body is disposed of, in the river. None of this is concretely tied to Mack, but we know it's him.

Now the song gets more specific in its violence. Now, it's not just "a body" – it's women. Once the song starts mentioning names, making it personal, it gets more unsettling.
Sloppy Sadie was discovered
With a knife wound in her thigh.
And Macheath strolls down on dock street,
Looking dreamy at the sky.

Now the attacks become sexual. Beyond the knife wound, are we to believe these last two lines describe Mack's satisfaction after a rape? Is he that stone-cold? We don't have to wonder long...
There was rape down by the harbor.
Little Susie caused a stir,
Claiming that she'd been assaulted.
Wonder what got into her?

Notice that she's only "claiming" that she's been assaulted, Notice also in the last line the implication that her accusation will not be taken seriously. It's a hint at the role of women in this community.

Why won't she be taken seriously? Because it's Mack the Knife. So we repeat the first stanza to end the song, creating musical and narrative bookends. Mackie just has a switchblade, after all. And he keeps it out of sight. Which is a big metaphor (though a first-time audience won't know it yet) for Mack's far-reaching political corruption. Keeping his knife "out of sight" represents, among other things, the deal he's made with Tiger Brown to keep his offenses out of the public record.
Oh, the shark has pretty teeth, dear,
And he shows them pearly white.
Just a jackknife has Macheath, dear,
And he keeps it out of sight.

But wait, there's more.

The script provides us four more alternate verses, that we could use if we want. There are no guidelines about using them. Judging from the music, my guess is that if you use one of these, you're supposed to replace one of the others. Though apparently, the original had eleven verses. For our production, we added one of these, but we didn't drop any of the others.

Here are the alternates:
Louie miller disappeared, dear,
After drawing out his cash.
And Macheath spends like a sailor.
Did our boy do something rash?

Sukey Tawdry, Jenny Diver,
Polly Peachum, Lucy Brown –
Oh, the line forms on the right, dear,
Now that Mackie's back in town.

Hey, what happened to that hackie
Used to take drunks home for free?
He was last seen driving Mackie –
But says Mackie: "Why ask me?"

Big explosion at the market.
Twenty people blown to death.
In the crowd stands wide-eyed Mackie,
Only slightly out of breath.

This first of the alternates expands on Mack's criminal enterprises, but it doesn't set up anything important. The second alternate (which we used) is a list of Mack's multiple women, which is a core element of the plot, and references Mack's mysterious appeal to women. The third stanza here is like the first, interesting, but adding nothing of value. The last one is really brutal, and does add some narrative value. I considered using it too, but the song was already long enough...

I read five different translations of Threepenny before deciding which one we'd produce. I'm told Blitzstein's lyrics are tamer than Brecht's, but they are also far and away the best stage writing and the best storytelling of all the versions I read.

The other translations of "Mack the Knife" mostly just list a different crime in every verse, some of them rape-murders, some just robberies and other crimes. (Though again, in all fairness, so did Brecht's original.) None of them does what Blitzstein does, introducing the character and establishing Mack's preoccupation (what Mrs. Peachum calls his "dependency") with women, which is both Mack's tragic flaw and the primary driver of the story.

And none of them capture that playful, smartass charm that defines the show, nearly as well as Blitzstein. It's Blitzstein's version that schooled theatre artists like Sondheim, Hal Prince, Kander & Ebb, and others, on how to write an opening number for a concept musical – something which didn't exist yet when Blitzstein translated Threepenny.

Maybe the most disturbing thing about "Mack the Knife," though I'm not sure anyone registers it consciously, is that his horrific litany of crime and violence represents a kind of stable balance at the beginning of our narrative. After all, this opening song essentially sets up Macheath as Jack the Ripper. This is the "balance" that the Peachums will upset, which will propel the action.

Unpunished rape and murder is the "order" in this universe. And ultimately, when balance is restored at the end of the story, it restores Jack the Ripper and his unpunished rapes and murders. And that's the fierce, pitch black social satire at the center of all of this.

And it's all there in the first song of the show. All before we even meet Mack.

But "Mack the Knife" returns at the end of the show for two more verses:
Happy ending, nice and tidy.
It's a rule I learned in school.
Get your money every Friday.
Happy endings are the rule.

What is the song saying here at the end of the show? That we can leave the nightmare world of Macheath's SoHo and return safely to our homes? That we can go back to our routines, safe in the knowledge that everything ends well? Well, not exactly. That's what we think we'll do. But like the rest of the show, nothing here is that simple.

That's related to what Brecht's final verse said, though different. Here's a literal translation of the original ending:
And now comes the happy ending,
All are reconciled.
Is the money on hand?
Is the end mostly good?

But then Blitzstein adds another stanza that's not in the original:
So divide up those in darkness
From the ones who walk in light.
Light 'em up, boys, there's your picture.
Drop the shadows out of sight.

What's the point here? The lyric is referencing Isaiah 9:2, "The people that walked in darkness have seen a great light: they that dwell in the land of the shadow of death, upon them hath the light shined." We're the ones who've seen the great light, the sociopolitical enlightenment that Threepenny has given us. This final verse is talking about leaving behind the time of darkness and finding redemption. The show is telling us, like Scrooge on the third night, that this darkness is not inevitable, that it is in our hands to take ourselves out of the darkness, to "drop the shadows out of sight."

It's invoking a kind of existential redemption, which also connects to all the Christ references throughout the show, but it's a redemption that relies on us, not on a savior.

Blitzstein's final verse steps out of the world of Threepenny. Brecht's final verse stays inside that sly, dry, capitalist satire. I'll admit it, I think I like Blitzstein's more. Maybe you could argue that Brecht's final verse was in tune with 1920s postwar Germany in the same way that Blitzstein's final verse was in tune with 1950s postwar America, heading toward the tumultuous 1960s.

Set consciously in the second-person imperative, this last lyric calls on us to "divide up those in darkness," those who are trapped in this dark fable, "from the ones who walk in light," those of us who will do something to change the world for the better. Like "Let the Sun Shine In" at the end of the very Brechtian Hair, this is a call to action.

What an amazing, complex piece of theatre, and what a privilege to get to share it with all of you.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott