New Line begins its 26th season...

This season is full of shows I've been wanting to work on for a long time. But I honestly didn't think I'd ever really get the chance to work on this first one...

Back in the late 1960s, with the profits from their hits The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!, lyricist/bookwriter Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt opened the Portfolio Studio in New York, in which they could experiment with the modern musical as an art form, away from the economic pressures of Broadway and off Broadway. Their first experiment there, in 1968, was a ritual based musical called Celebration, inspired by an ancient Sumerian ritual play (no kidding), an allegory in which the villain Edgar Allan Rich (not only a pretty funny pun of a name but also a parody of the widely despised producer David Merrick) and the hero, Orphan, go to battle over the not so angelic heroine Angel.

Schmidt and Jones had been working on the show off and on, since The Fantasticks had opened in 1960, but kept putting it aside for other projects. Two of their earlier projects, Ratfink and The Bone Room, "contained the genesis and inspiration for Celebration," according to Tom Jones. Full of masks and symbolic props, Celebration was inspired by Peter Brook’s work in England, combining ritual or “holy” theatre with street theatre and populist theatre.

Its reception was widely varied. Some found it pretentious, while others thought it was terribly sophisticated. It opened on Broadway in January 1969. John Chapman, in the Daily News, called it "a hapless, helpless, hopeless little musical charade. It tries to be cute and smart but it just isn’t. It is sticky and icky."

Critic Martin Gottfried wrote, "Though Celebration seems highly experimental when compared to other Broadway musicals, it’s not because the show is so fresh but rather because Broadway’s are so archaic that anything even eight years out of date will seem inventive."

But Clive Barnes in the New York Times gave the show’s creators credit for what they were attempting: "Once upon a time – for this is a fable – a man called Tom Jones and a man called Harvey Schmidt sat down and pondered. They pondered and they pondered. They pondered on what was wrong with the Broadway musical, and they decided (at least this would be my guess) that it lacked simplicity, magic and uplift. Last night the curtain rose on their Celebration, which might be thought of as unpretentiously pretentious fairy tale for adults.” Later in the review Barnes wrote, “Yet undoubtedly they do want to introduce a new look into the Broadway musical, and Celebration is a musical with a certain style of its own. Sophisticated – even knowing – perhaps is the best inclusive term for Schmidt’s music.”

But instead of moving from the 100-seat Portfolio to a mid-sized off Broadway theatre, the producers took the show straight to Broadway where it seems to have been accidentally transformed by its surroundings, and where it just could not sustain its magic. It closed after only 110 performances.

But the show still made its mark. The Portfolio was home to a very new process in creating musicals – the workshop process that would become more common a decade later after A Chorus Line found major commercial success using it. In fact, perhaps the only thing that killed Celebration was putting it in a theatre that was too big for it. Also, Celebration’s sense of style and look presaged some of the more successful musicals of the following decades, most notably Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. During the 1970s, the Portfolio financed (with profits from The Fantasticks) a series of small musicals, all minimalist, all happily free of the constraints and limitations of Broadway.

My personal relationship with Celebration starts in high school, when I saw the Webster Conservatory production of The Fantasticks. It Blew My Mind. I went out and bought my first full piano-vocal score so I could play those songs over and over. And a few years later, I discovered the cast album for Celebration and fell in love with it as fast and as deeply as I had with The Fantasticks. About that same time, I found the published script.

And really, though nothing could ever replace The Fantasticks in my musical theatre nerd's heart, Celebration is really more my kind of show, most adult, more cynical, more R-rated, and yet still so magic and so joyful.

There are lots of laughs, but they bite.

And I think I love it most because it's really about storytelling, about why we tell stories, why we need stories. It's about the most primal kind of theatre. The show starts with a monologue by our host, the Loki-like Potemkin:
In ancient days, in Winter,
When the sun kept sinking lower in the sky,
Men started to wonder if it could die.
"Look;" they said:
"The Day is being eaten by the Night!"
"Look," they said:
"The darkness is devouring the Light!"
And they were frightened.

And so the people gathered by the fire.
They drank and sang and made up plays.
They painted their faces, and in the blaze,
They waited –
Hoping for a sign.

We're like those ancient people, in a way.
We've gathered by the fire to do a play.
Our night is dark like theirs.
Our world is cold.
Our hopes seem frozen
Underneath the snow –
And yet, if you will just assist us
With your imagination,
We'll try to make this empty space
A place for Celebration!

I can't imagine a better description of what New Line Theatre does. Even with all his money, Mr. Rich still needs stories to survive. We all do.

In fall 2001 I went up to New York to see some shows and had the wonderful opportunity to see an early Schmidt and Jones show, Roadside, which they had done some more work on and the York Theatre was producing. Before the show, I saw them in the lobby, and went over to introduce myself. My intention was then to leave them alone, but they wanted to know what the theatre scene was like in St. Louis, and what kinds of work New Line did... They were both amazingly warm and friendly.

Fast forward to last year. I'll never know exactly why but Celebration was back in my head. Maybe it was the election. And New Line was back in a blackbox. It seemed perfect. Only now do I see the freaky parallel between our villain, now named William Rosebud Rich, and our Republican nominee for President.

One of my awesome theatre friends was able to hook me up with Tom Jones, and I told him we were going to produce his show, but I really wanted to talk to him about it. It's a weird show! And then he told me he had been working on a revision and would love for us to premiere this new version. It's not a radical departure from the original, but certain aspects are very different, including both the beginning and end.

So we started music rehearsals this week and what a joy it is to have this music swimming around in my head all the time. I really love this fucked-up, awesome show.

Fucked-up, you ask?

Well, yes.

Take away the artistry, Tom Jones' beautiful-ugly, deliciously smartass dialogue and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidt's luscious, rowdy, jazz-rock music, take away all the dressing, and at its heart Celebration is about a rich guy who can't get an erection. I mean, that's not exactly what it's about... no, fuck it, that's really what it's about.

That's the spine (if you'll pardon the pun) of our story.

Of course, along the way the show explores two fundamental worldviews, one focused on material gain and comfort, "success," power, control, safety; and the other focused on the joy and mystery of the journey of a human life, the surprise, the fun, the passion, the music, the life of a human life.

Celebration is a wonderful, though perhaps accidental, companion piece to our March 2017 show, Zorba, both shows about embracing all that life brings to us, not just the happy and the easy, but all of it, summer, winter, autumn, and spring. Both stories are about accepting our path for what it is.

Now that I've typed that, I realize the companionability between these two shows may not be an accident after all. Zorba opened in November 1968. Celebration opened on Broadway in January 1969. There must have been something in the air. The legendary concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (which New Line produced in 1997) explored many of the same themes, opening a year before Celebration. A few years later, both Pippin and, arguably, Follies, wondered many of the same things.

Maybe these times we live in are another of those periods in American history when unfettered capitalism has caused lots of collateral damage, and we wonder aloud as a culture if the love of money really is, after all, the root of all evil, if success might be defined better by measures other than dollars (as Michelle Obama argued at the 2012 convention), and if we have come to admire the wrong people for the wrong reasons.

After all, money is power, and power corrupts.

So yeah, Celebration is sort of about Erectile Dysfunction, but it's also about a lot more than that. Another incredible, wild, New Line adventure is ahead...

And meanwhile, we're still running Tell Me on a Sunday through August 27. If you haven't seen it, you really should. Sarah Porter is extraordinary.

Long Live the Musical!

I Predicted Hamilton

I did. I predicted Hamilton.

Okay, not exactly.

At the end of my 2005 musical theatre history book, Strike Up the Band, I mused on what the future of the art form might be. Here's what I wrote. It's how I closed my book...

Away from Broadway, in New York’s alternative spaces and also in theatres across America, hip-hop musical theatre is finally taking hold. These are musicals that use some of the conventions of American musical theatre but the vocabulary and style of hip-hop. To some, hip-hop and musical theatre seem as mutually exclusive as musical theatre and rock and roll once seemed, but as we know from history, the rules of musical theatre are made to be broken. So what are hip-hop musicals? Well, like concept musicals, hip-hop musicals are different things to different people. But at its core, it’s a musical that uses some or all of the elements of hip-hop culture: rap, break dancing, graffiti, and DJ’ing.

As just one example of many, two Jewish Canadians, Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil, created the wildly successful Job: The HipHop Musical, updating the Biblical story, with God and the Devil transmogrified into the record label president J. Hoover (Jehovah) and vice president Lou Saphire (Lucifer). Saibil said in an interview, “The whole thing is done through hip-hop. It’s sixty minutes of nonstop rapping over fresh beats. So it’s a musical, but it’s a hip-hop musical; and it’s a musical, but it’s also a Biblical tale.” It opened in Canada, then moved down into the U.S. The Vancouver Sun called it “so fresh and inventive that this truly marks the dawn of a new era in musical theatre.” Batalion and Saibil followed it up with an equally successful sequel, Job II: The Demon of the Eternal Recurrence.

Rodgers and Hart’s classic 1938 musical comedy The Boys from Syracuse was transformed, bridging the leap from old-fashioned musical comedy to new millennium hip-hop theatre. Two hip-hop versions of the show appeared, off Broadway in 1999 as The Bomb-itty of Errors, and at the London Fringe Festival in 2003 as Da Boyz. In December 2005, the New York Theatre Workshop opened a new hip-hop musical called The Seven, written by Will Power, based on a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, with choreography by the famed modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones. Once again, so many people are trying so many things that anything could happen…

So what is the future of musical theatre? Some of the "experts" will tell you it’s dying or dead, merely because it’s not what it used to be. But the world has changed so much since George M. Cohan, even since Rodgers and Hammerstein, how could anyone expect a living art form to remain stagnant when the world is changing around it? It seems musical theatre is such a part of America’s culture and history – even today – that it will probably never die.

Though movies and television can provide something close to the experience of seeing a non-musical drama or comedy, those forms cannot approximate the energy and magic of a live stage musical, so though non-musicals are doing less and less well commercially on Broadway and on tour, musicals are doing better than ever. We need what only musicals can provide, their brashness, their unique ability to mix reality and unreality, and most important, their music, their emotional muscle. The same extreme emotionalism that made musicals less “cool” in the cynical 1980s and 90s, makes them cool once again, even essential, in the new world of post-9/11 America, a time when public emotion is once again legitimate, even expected, and equally, in a world in which once again humans are asking many big unanswered questions about right and wrong, morality and immorality, who we are and how we are connected.

Today, we need music to tell our most important stories because words quite often lie in our culture, and the more skillful the lies become, the harder it is to recognize them. But music can’t lie; you always know what it’s saying, even without words.

If music has charms to soothe the savage breast – and it does – then aren’t these times in which we need, more than ever, to keep the music playing as we explore our individual and collective lives, as we tell our national story, as we tease out the complexities of being alive?

When I wrote this book, I was only beginning to understand that we are in a new Golden Age of the American musical theatre, and that Golden Age has brought with it four very important things.

First, the art form has reinvented the older forms, into the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical, remaking the devices and tools of the past for this new moment in our history and culture.

Second, the art form has reclaimed its position as a commentator and explorer into the political and social issues of the moment.

Third, the American musical is back at the center of popular culture, with lots of television musicals watched by millions, a genuine, active fan culture on social media, and stars of the pop music world clamoring to write for the theatre.

Finally, and most important in terms of the future, the musical theatre has reconnected to popular music at long last. Which brings us full circle. We wouldn't have gotten Hamilton without Rent, and we wouldn't have gotten Rent without Hair. All shows that ignored the rules and made up new ones. All shows that merged the artistry and intellectual content of our evolving art form with the visceral emotion and authenticity of rock and roll.

Maybe the real significance in all this is that the American musical theatre continues to evolve at a rapid pace, but now instead of running away from pop and rock music, it's running toward them. And that's such good news for those of us who see literally endless possibilities in our art form. We have lots of people to thank for that, but none more so than Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. As much as Sondheim and Prince did, Miranda is taking us into the future...

What a great time to be a musical theatre artist. I truly love my job.

Long Live the Musical!

Nothing Like You've Ever Known

Next week, we open Tell Me on a Sunday, Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-act, one-woman, pop musical. I haven't been blogging about it for two reasons. First, we've had a very short, very fast rehearsal process, compared to our usual. And second, I didn't direct this show.

Some of you reading this will think, Yeah, so? And others will think, Oh my god, holy shit, you must be fucking kidding me!

See, this show closes New Line's 25th anniversary season, and in all those twenty-five seasons, I directed every show. Sometimes I had an assistant director with me, but I directed every show. In large part, that's because New Line has a really specific aesthetic, that partly comes from me and partly from the way the company's work has evolved over time.

As we've explored all these brilliant, rule-busting musicals, I've learned so much from all of them. Each crazy weirdo show we produce – Night of the Living Dead, The Wild Party, Love Kills, Jerry Springer the Opera, The Nervous Set, Assassins, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Threepenny, Bukowsical, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Hands on a Hardbody, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... I could keep going – each show taught me things, opened up new possibilities to me, gave me new vocabulary and tools to use, and as each of these shows met with rave reviews, they each encouraged my fearlessness.

Not to say that nobody can direct as well as me – many people are better at it than me – but there aren't many in this area who can direct this kind of work as well as I can. I have a really specific niche, but it's all I've been focused on my entire adult life, so I'm pretty good at it.

That's why I've directed every New Line show. It's like I know the code.

But not this time.

For the last several seasons, Mike Dowdy has been directing most of our shows with me. He started with us as an actor, but he's got amazing instincts as a director. It started with him making suggestions to me when he was an actor (always in private, as it should be), about other possible staging choices, stuff like that. Some of the time, his ideas were good, but not exactly what I was trying to get at. But quite often, I'd run his idea in my head, no red flags would pop up, and I'd say, "Let's try it." Easily, nine times out of ten, his idea worked really well, and it was a clear improvement.

He has such a good eye for making a moment just a little clearer. Or just a little more tense. Or just a little funnier. His ideas always come from character and story, and since he and I have remarkably similar aesthetics, it almost always meshes with what I've done around that moment.

Hang on... I'm getting to the point...

When the Kranzbergs built us the Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, our board decided to expand our season from three shows to four, and at my suggestion, we decided to ask Dowdy to direct the fourth show each season.

So for the first time in my life, I'm producing a show, but not directing it. And you know what? I like it. Part of why I like it is that I have unwavering trust in Dowdy. For the past year, he's been calling me with ideas he's had for Tell Me on a Sunday. And you know what? Every idea was great.

The other reason for my calm and comfort is we've got New Liner Sarah Porter as the lone actor in this show. Sarah's one of my favorite actors. She joined us first in bare in 2011, and though she had a small role, she really impressed me. So we kept casting her, and we found that she can do everything, from the most honest, most heartfelt emotion, to the wackiest farce, to the most straight-faced meta-comedy.

We cast her as Maureen in Rent because I had seen the revival and was surprised at how funny and charming Maureen was, even as she was selfish and mean. It really changed the character for me, complicated it, and I liked that it gave more weight to her relationship with Joanne. All I had to tell Sarah was that I really wanted Maureen to be somebody you loved hanging out with. Sarah totally delivered, but also gave her a very subtle insecurity and vulnerability.

She made Maureen so real. And the result was that, by the end of the show, it was clear that Maureen and Joanne had the most solid of the relationships in our story. I loved that.

Beyond their obvious talents and skills, Dowdy and Sarah also went to college together at Lindenwood, under the great Larry Quiggins. They know each other so well, they've played across from each other on stage many times (as a married couple in Night of the Living Dead), and they really trust each other. It's been cool for me to watch them work. I've never had a moment of worry. And that's saying a lot for a control freak like me. But I trust them as much as they trust me.

Last night at rehearsal, we did a slow, methodical tour through the score, looking for any problem spots, tweaking things, finding different choices, connecting things, all that cool stuff. It was fun to watch them doing all that, along with our intrepid music director Nate Jackson, always so easy-going, and really nailing this beautiful, though sometimes tricky, music.

To my surprise, I noticed last night that Dowdy and I had completely swapped roles. Usually, I'm the one trying to put the machine together and get it running, while Dowdy's discovering beautiful little details, asking questions that make the actors think, getting me thinking about a line reading or a metaphor, that kind of thing. But this time, Dowdy is piloting this ship, and I'm just along for the ride, asking the "Dowdy questions," and hopefully giving him the support he needs.

Watching them work last night made me feel even more secure about our show. Dowdy knows exactly what he wants, exactly how much to push Sarah and how much to protect her. And Sarah really knows this woman she's playing.

All I've got left to worry about is box office, and I think the Andrew Lloyd Webber name will sell a lot of tickets. I've discovered that, among St. Louis theatre people, the Sarah Porter name is pretty powerful too.

I think people are going to love this show. The songs are great, catchy ALW songs, but there's also a darkness and depth to the emotion that's really compelling. Emma is one fucked up young woman, and it's really fascinating to watch her find her way...

I hope you'll join us. Tell Me on a Sunday runs only three weeks, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

It's a Feature, Not a Bug

Often, New York theatre people say to me, "Well remember, it is show business." To which I usually answer, "Perhaps, but I don't work in show business. I work in the theatre."

That's only partly a smartass reply. It's also the truth. I have never worked in show business. I have never worked anyplace where money was more important than art.

A nonprofit arts organization is not a business, though I will admit, certain aspects of operation can be similar. But honestly, what business survives only if people give it money with no expectation of return? What business can stay afloat with a product whose price covers only half its cost.

But that's exactly the point.

Or to put it another way, that fiscal model is not a problem with the arts; it's the purpose of the arts, the reason for the arts to exist, so that people without lots of money can also experience and participate in this fundamentally necessary human endeavor, supported by the community as a whole.

Or to put it another way, it's a feature, not a bug.

Every show we produce loses money, not because we're bad at budgets, but because that's our model. Making theatre is incredibly labor and time intensive, and there are no economies of scale, since every show is so different and starts from scratch.

But there's a more important reason. To quote from our website:
New Line Theatre, "The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre," was created in 1991, at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre being born across the country during the early 1990s, offering an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours. The New Liners believe in what Broadway and film actor Laurence Luckinbill once wrote in a letter to artistic director Scott Miller: “Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They will thank you for it.”

The only company of its kind in the country, New Line was founded to involve the people of the region in the creation and exploration of provocative, alternative, politically and socially relevant works of musical theatre – daring, muscular, intelligent theatre about politics, race, violence, drugs, sexuality, religion, art, obscenity, the media, and other contemporary issues.

If we produce commercial, guaranteed sellers, then we're not New Line anymore; instead we're a pale, lower-budget imitation of The Muny and Stages. And we no longer serve our community. By definition, New Line has to be able to produce shows that don't sell out, and once in a while, even shows that sell poorly, to fulfill our mission.

Without going bankrupt.

Likewise, if we charge for tickets as much as it all really costs, our top ticket price would be $50-60 or more, and most of our audience couldn't afford that. Plus, as we know from the New York commercial theatre, the more a ticket costs, the less the audience is willing to take a risk. And we often ask our audiences to take risks...

You'll notice that nowhere does our mission statement mention money or profit. New Line exists to share theatre with the public. Charging money for tickets is a necessary evil; we do it only because we must to survive. Money is not the point.

The public "owns" New Line, because it is a public nonprofit corporation. The New Line board of directors represents the public. I work for the public. And the public (both individually and collectively) subsidizes us because they know that storytelling is vital to the health of our community and our culture. The Supreme Court ruled decades ago that the arts should get the same tax breaks (essentially subsidies) as other institutions that serve the public good, because the arts are inherently valuable to human society. Storytelling is how we pass down our history, culture, values, knowledge, Great Truths, etc.

All that said, New Line is at a major turning point, and I want to take some time to explain to all our followers what our current challenge is, and how we plan to address it. Maybe some of you reading this will be able to help us.

New Line has always lived on the edge fiscally. Some seasons we end in the red a little; some seasons we end in the black a little. Once in a while, we end up in the red a fair amount. We always find our way back, but things are a little different for us now.

We've moved into the beautiful Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, and we love it there. But there are two problems that have resulted. First, we agreed to pay about 20% more in rent, to make the project work financially. That doesn't seem huge, but... Also, we were hoping to seat 150 for most of our shows, but that was overly optimistic. We can fit 150 chairs in our space, but then we have a pretty small playing area, and not all the rows would be on risers. For our first three shows in the Marcelle, we seated 120, 130, and 134.

So our rent went up but our capacity (and potential income) went down. Even though our first two shows, Heathers and American Idiot, sold out every night, they still lost money. (I keep thinking if only we'd had 150 seats for those two shows!) And those two big successes also partially masked the new fiscal challenge we're facing. It was only during Atomic that I saw the problem clearly.

On top of our new situation in the Marcelle, we also lost two grants this season, for $5,000 each (one of them because the funder will fund only children's theatre from now on; no idea why we lost the other). And also, we had been told by another funder that we were eligible for a new category of funding, and that our grant from them would likely go up $5,000-10,000. Then later they decided that we weren't actually eligible after all...

Our annual budget is only about $120,000, so losing all that is hard on us. We usually bring in about $30,000 in individual donations each season, which is pretty decent, but we have to do better now.

A couple seasons back, we started looking for two $5,000 sponsors for each show (eight per season), and we have made some initial progress. We got three sponsorships each of the last two seasons, but we have to do better.

Just in the last couple weeks, two of our donors stepped up with additional gifts beyond their usual, and only then were we able to pay everyone on closing night of Atomic. But the problem remains and we can't rely on unexpected miracles. We also can't operate on a model that requires every show to sell out.

New Line has risen to "the next level" (I usually hate that phrase, but it fits) and I believe we need to step up as a board and an organization. We need to find and cultivate large donors – which, for New Line's purposes, means gifts of $5,000 or more. If we could find five or six new donors who would each give us $5,000 or more each season, our budget would be essentially balanced for the foreseeable future.

That both sounds like a lot of money and also doesn't seem impossible. But we need help.

We need help identifying the folks who could support us at that level, getting them to the Marcelle to see New Line shows, and then getting them to make a donation. None of us on the New Line board really have those connections, so we need someone to take our hand and lead the way...

How can you help us? Are you able to sponsor a New Line show? Do you know someone else who could? Do you work for a company that makes grants to local companies, and can you influence that process?

Fundraising is mostly about connections, so we're asking you to help us connect. New Line has been around for twenty-five years, but we are growing. We're paying more people than ever before, and we now have the reputation and clout to get lots of local and regional premieres. We're also making plans to create a children's theatre arm of the company (which should be self-sustaining). But we need to balance the budget.

In the meantime, even if you don't have $5,000, you can still donate to New Line and help us along. Just go to the Contribute page on our website, to donate through PayPal or to send us a check.

Don't feel like you know enough about us yet to invest in us...? Watch this:

I hope this post helps explain some of the complexity of how a small regional nonprofit theatre keeps the lights on. For our younger colleagues just starting companies, I hope this helps you plan for the future. For our audiences and supporters, we want you to feel invested in us and our work, to feel you have ownership in New Line. So when we have a challenge, we'll tell you about it.

To everybody who sees our shows and sends us checks, we hope you're proud of what we've built and the work we've done over the last twenty-five seasons. We honestly do it all just for you.

So much cool theatre ahead for New Line – Tell Me on a Sunday in August, then next season, Celebration in October, Zorba in March, The Sweet Smell of Success in June, and Out on Broadway next August. We've also gotten the rights to open our following season with the rock opera Lizzie in October 2017. New Line's work has never been more exciting than it is right now...

Long Live New Line! And Long Live the Musical!

It's Time to Choose

One of the things I love about our process is that it's fairly leisurely, and we don't try to polish much at all early on. We don't really work scenes until we put the whole puzzle together. Many directors work the scenes individually till they're just perfect, then put them together; but I don't think that leads as easily to a sense of unity among all the scenes.

A painter wouldn't do a sketch of just one corner of the picture, then paint that, then do a sketch of the next little section of it, then paint that... They'd sketch the whole picture, then paint it, right?

The coolest part of New Line's process is that we can really change course midway through and still have enough time to reorient. That doesn't happen often, but it happens.

A piece of theatre is a living organism. It grows and evolves. I often don't really know what the end product will be until we get there. That was the case with Atomic. So it would be silly to insist that every idea at the beginning of the process must be preserved throughout. As the show changes, as its final form slowly emerges, some ideas may no longer fit comfortably. There's no shame in changing shit...

I once staged "And the Money Kept Rolling In," in our Evita, four times before I felt good about it. Kudos to the actors for putting up with that. I'm lucky my ego didn't prevent me from seeing that the first three attempts weren't terribly successful...

Oh, let's be honest, asking the actors to run in place to music in 7/8 was just mean...

We opened Atomic last week and we were lucky enough to have both writers, Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman, fly up from Australia to see the show. They loved our production and it was such fun having them here. After they had seen a couple performances, they asked me (very gently) for a few very small changes. In a couple cases, we had done what they were asking, but couldn't make it work, so we had changed it. But I was happy to try their suggestions. A couple took some pondering, but I think we ended up putting all but one or two into the show.

If those changes would have been big ones, I probably would have resisted. I hate doing that to actors after we open.

On the other hand...

A week or so earlier, before opening, we contemplated an arguably substantial change...

A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post analyzing Atomic's powerful Act II number, "Only Numbers," and the motivations of the three characters who sing it, our hero Leo, his girlfriend Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. I was convinced we had figured it out. But as we continued to run the show, I began to rethink my ideas about Tibbets in this scene. I don't think my earlier ideas are "wrong" and what follows is "right," but I think I have a better, and certainly different, grasp on it now...

The problem that surfaced was that Tibbets was one guy in the dialogue scene before the song (a characterization I really liked) and a totally different, darker, more mature, more thoughtful, more nuanced guy during the song. In working on the "Dialogue Tibbets," we had really found who this guy was, but that guy wasn't singing the song...

I decided: 1.) this would confuse the audience; and so, 2.) we needed to pick a road and commit to it.

Maybe my problem was initially thinking of "Only Numbers" as a Serious Song. That can be a deadly trap. It is that, but as soon as we impose Serious on it, it becomes melodramatic. The content should define the seriousness more than the delivery.

We were imposing an awareness on the lyric that Tibbets would not have. He doesn't know it's a Serious Song. We were approaching the song from the point of view of the entire story (or at least from the point of view of Leo and Trude), rather than from the point of view of this one hotshot pilot on this one mission, in his cockpit en route to Japan. Tibbets knew some details of the mission, but (at least in the show) he does not seem to have a real understanding of the power and magnitude of this weapon.

We can't impose upon him our judgment from 2016. What this guy knows are his orders, and that he's doing this for god and country. We shouldn't make him into a big tragic character – he's still a cocky smartass. It's our knowledge of history that makes his mission so tragic. But in that moment, he should still be the same guy who sang the jingoistic "Stars and Stripes."

Our first take on this guy was valid, but this is a much more interesting, much richer approach.

Maybe what makes "Only Numbers" so interesting to me, and so intense, is what Tibbets doesn't know, that dissonance between Leo and Trude's horror versus Tibbets' shallow patriotism; and between Tibbets' relative ignorance about this weapon versus the audience's knowledge of history. We all know the Enola Gay; Tibbets just knows it's his mother's name. Leo and Trude are all wrapped up in moral questions, but Tibbets has the (relative) comfort of moral certainty. He's giving it his all.

That contrast is so much more interesting, and also I think, more truthful – science versus military, always-questioning versus never-questioning, one of the themes of the story. This way, the song is an expansion and complicating of the contrast between Tibbets and Leo that we've seen in the two bar scenes.

Tibbets starts "Only Numbers" with this lyric:
Those people down below,
Just numbers.
Nobody that I know,
Just numbers
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all.

There's nothing inherently dramatic or grand in those lines. In fact, they're pretty shallow. It's our knowledge of the rest of the story (and hearing the other two characters) that makes it powerful and sad. That shouldn't come from Tibbets himself. In early rehearsals, we were talking about Tibbets as if he has lots of layers to him. I no longer think that's who this guy is. Not everybody has layers.

So how different is this from how we first approached him? The difference is very subtle, entirely interior, but it changes how Tibbets sings those lines.

Maybe the distinction between our two approaches is this: initially we weighted him down with the morality of killing people, but now what weighs on him is the importance of his mission, the responsibility to his country and comrades in arms, his part in moving the war effort forward (or ending it!), his fervent belief that if he doesn't do his duty, Hitler will invade America. In Tibbets' mind, the entire war effort is on his shoulders. But that's not the same as grappling with the moral questions behind the bomb.

That's just about winning.

I realized we shouldn't give Tibbets a moral depth that this guy would not have. Soldiers are taught to obey without questioning. Leo and Trude's verses are about moral grappling; I now think Paul's verse is about a lack of moral grappling. There's not one word that suggests otherwise.

We didn't decide to make him less human, just less mature, less interior, less self-aware.

In the dialogue leading up to the song, Tibbets declares that one kind of bomb is "more humane" than another kind of bomb. That's not a mature or serious statement. And the flippant way he snaps his fingers to show how fast the bomb will end the war – he thinks it will be "humane" because of how fast "they're gone," not killed or dead, "gone." He is not grappling with this. He is not thinking seriously about any of the consequences of this, just doing his duty and winning the war.

The difference in Jeff's performance is very subtle, but it's there. And it's a lot richer than if we hadn't re-calibrated. I think this is the part of my job I find the most fun and the most interesting. When you're working on a show this good and a story this human, there's always more buried treasure just waiting to be discovered...

Come see Atomic! It's totally blowing people's minds. Pun intended.

Long Live the Musical!

The Day We Don't Fight Is the Day That We Die.

There's a great song late in Act II of Atomic called "Only Numbers." It's a powerful and complex song that dives deep into three different mindsets.

Though these three characters, Leo, Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets, all sing the title phrase "only numbers" (usually together), it means something very different for each of them – and so the song itself means very different things for these three. And the lyric does a really good job of making that complexity clear.

Usually people singing together in a musical means they are connected in some way. If they sing in harmony, we hear that they belong together, whether they are a community, a family, or a couple of lovers. If they sing in unison, we know they are one.

But this is something else.

In "Only Numbers," Tibbets is in his plane, on his way to Hiroshima, while Leo and Trude are each in their own very personal, abstract space. The music to their verses constantly shifts back and forth between major and minor, embodying the moral and emotional chaos in these characters. Tibbets sings first, with a kind of desperate strength, trying hard to convince himself:
Those people down below, just numbers;
Nobody that I know, just numbers.
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war,
Then I'm giving it my all.

His verse is about consciously shutting down his empathy, shutting down his humanity, so that he can accomplish his mission without completely falling apart. His only salvation is in thinking of the people he's bombing only as numbers, "casualties," not humans, not men, women, and children. He has been trained to put on this mental armor, to shut down doubt and moral questions. He assures himself that he's only following orders... which takes on some chilling historical resonance...

But a close look at the music shows even more craft and complexity than is immediately obvious. For instance, in that first verse by Tibbets, the music is minor under "Those people down below," but it turns major for "just numbers." Then back to minor again... Within a single line of music, composer Philip Foxman has painted for us a clear picture of Tibbets' emotional ambivalence. And the whole song works on this level.

Further into Tibbets' verse, the music turns first major for "It wasn't me who made the..." then minor for the word, "call." In other words, "It wasn't me" is a good thought (major), but "the call," the decision to drop this bomb, is a bad thought (minor). Tibbets will not accept responsibility for this horror, though the guilt may be inescapable. And then the music turns major again for "But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all." Patriotism is Major. This music is so carefully built, that even though Tibbets' words obscure his emotions, the music still tells us the truth.

Then we hear from Trude, as she grapples with the scale of the Holocaust:
Count the dead in the road toll, just numbers;
Same as last year maybe more, just numbers.
It's one thing when a number's in the news;
Another when he's everything to you.

How does she deal with it? She sees the numbers in the newspaper, but unlike Tibbets, she can't let herself forget the people behind those numbers, her people (she's from Austria) being slaughtered. In Act I, Trude is horrified to read in the paper that "up to two million" Jews had been killed. She has no concept of the real scope of this horror, but even a fraction of the real number is horrifying, almost paralyzing.

Then Leo sings:
The seconds of a life, just numbers;
People always die, just numbers,
We lose so many when we fight;
Will one more number set things right?

As the music continues its dance between major and minor, Leo grapples with his decisions and his complicity and his failure to stop all this. Leo's verse is more ironic than the others. All around him, everything is reduced to numbers, neutrons, radioactivity, troops, dead civilians. mathematical formulas. Those first two lines of his are so nihilistic, and we can assume these are the things being said to him when he tries to stop the program, when he gets a petition to the President, when he argues for a "technical demonstration" of the bomb, rather than murdering so many.

In 1949, after the war, Szilard wrote a fictional piece for the University of Chicago Law Review, titled, "My Trial as a War Criminal," in which he imagines himself being convicted of war crimes for his work on the bomb.

But like Trude, he's also overwhelmed at the scale of it all. How could he think he could make a difference...? If everyone is just a number, then so apparently is he. And a number can't set things right.

All three sing the bridge together, but still in their three separate mindsets and spaces:
When you know what it is
You have to do,
Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Try and see it through.

Talk all you want;
Here at the end,
When it's life or death,
You or them,
Someone's got to lose.

Read that again. "Here at the end, when it's life or death, you or them, someone's got to lose." Damn. But that's the nature of war, right? Unless you want to argue for no war ever, this is the reality of it. Leo thinks it's immoral to drop the bomb? Well, war is immoral. Someone's got to lose...

But also, during this bridge section, the alternating between major and minor speeds up. Now the first two lines of each stanza are both minor and major within the same measure, then minor again for the next two lines, then back to major for the last line. But here, the connection between happy thoughts and major chords breaks down in moral gray area. The complexity of their cage leads us to a major chord under "Someone's got to lose."

We'll win. Patriotism is Major. And morality is up-ended.

The three of them keep singing the phrase "only numbers," as they each get solo lines in between...
Only numbers…

It's time to choose.

They’re only numbers…

Play or lose.

Only numbers…

We've got to try.

The day we don't fight is the day that we die.

Another really powerful moment in this song, though these three people are fighting three different things. Tibbets is fighting both the Japanese and his own humanity. Trude is fighting her feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Leo is fighting to end the war – or is he just fighting not to recognize that he is utterly powerless?

In fact, all three of these people are essentially powerless at this point.

Trude sings by herself for a moment, in a short, second bridge:
When the number has a name,
And the number has a face,
When the number is your life,
And it cannot be replaced...

Very sobering stuff indeed.

When you've done all
You can do…

Only numbers…

And said all you can say…

Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Blow a million dreams away…

And as they sing those last words, the music transitions to music we've heard before, music that earlier in the show accompanied the lyric, "Dreams can make you; love can break you." It's almost as if the instrumental music is replying to the last line of the lyric. But here, as it invokes that earlier lyric, maybe it's also a hint at the pain that these characters' human empathy has caused them. Love for their fellow humans is indeed "breaking" them...

It's also interesting that this song doesn't really end. It segues into underscoring. There's no release through applause for the audience, because our writers are building palpable tension from here to the end of the show. Denying an audience their release keeps them in tension...

This is real lyric-writing craft. The lyrics in Atomic are rarely poetic or expressionistic; that's not this show. These lyrics are mostly written in very ordinary, concrete language; it's the ideas that take precedence here, not aesthetic beauty. This is not a story about beauty. These people don't have time for metaphors.

But sometimes, in songs like "Only Numbers," the emotions and the lyrics rise to a kind of simple poetry of everyday people. When Leo, Trude, and Tibbets sing the phrase, "only numbers," in fierce three-part harmony, with a driving rock band behind them, we register the powerful emotion and conflict in these simple words, which none of them are articulate enough to fully describe – or even to understand.

Emotion is what musicals do best, because musicals have the abstract but very powerful language of music, which can convey emotion far better than the concrete language of words. (Which is why West Side Story works better than Romeo & Juliet.) "Only Numbers" is the proof of that. Reading the lyric on the page only hints at the power this song has in performance, particularly once we're this deep into this story and these moral questions...

Now that the show is staged and we move into the theatre on Monday, this is the kind of richness we'll explore for the next couple weeks. We get nine full run-throughs before an audience joins us, three of those run-throughs with the band and full tech.

So much still to explore here...

Long Live the Musical!

The Earth Can Shake

Rock and roll has changed more than just the sound of the American musical theatre.

In this new Golden Age of the art form, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical have become the new default forms, and rock has become the default musical language. While early rock musicals were about the rock (JC Superstar, Evita, Tommy, Hair), now rock is just the common language between writers and audience.

It always cracks me up when musical theatre fans complain that period shows shouldn't use rock and roll, because rock isn't period. Yeah? I wonder how many people in 19th century Siam were jamming to Rodgers & Hammerstein foxtrots... (And, BTW, lots of open fifths doesn't actually make the music Asian.) I'm sure Capt. Macheath and the Peachums wouldn't be singing Kurt Weill's dissonant 20th-century jazz, either. And so what? We can be pretty confident that President Andrew Jackson wasn't a rock and roll fan, but rock is still the only appropriate language for the rowdy, aggressive, smartass Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

As rock has taken over the theatre's musical vocabulary, it has also imposed its more fundamental value on our theatre: authenticity. No more the wink-wink bullshit of the Fourth Wall or the R&H Interior Monologue. Those are lies. The rock musical shares many values with German theatre artist and philosopher Bretolt Brecht. The most authentic act we can make is to admit the artifice, to admit that there is no Fourth Wall, and that the audience is sitting right there the whole time.

But contemporary audiences also want authenticity and honestly in the acting and the emotions, in the storytelling and its themes. Why does everybody enjoy Shrek so much? Because it admits the "lie" of Disneyfication and its cleaning-up of reality.

The great musicals of this new Golden Age reflect their times. They cut through the Cute, and whether comic or serious, they get at the unvarnished truth about how hard life is, in shows as opposite as Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottboro Boys, and Taboo, so many shows of the last couple decades demonstrating real authenticity and honestly about their stories. The emotions in these shows are overwhelming, yet in such different ways. The only thing they share really is a fierce honesty.

We've finished blocking Atomic, and I realize one of my initial fears was misplaced. The thing that's hardest for me to stage is a "clever" number. I need character and story to physicalize a song well. And though Atomic feels like an intense mashup of thriller and rock concert, that's not really what it is. It's a rock drama. I've found as I stage the show I essentially have two jobs: make the story as clear to the audience as I can, and traffic control.

This show moves like lightning, with instantaneous scene changes. Don't get me wrong; this is my favorite kind of show, what I like to call "a perpetual motion machine." There's so much story and it moves so fast. We literally move through three countries within the span of a few minutes, but I have to offer up some props to our writers – they really do make it work.

So I don't have time to think about clever. I have to get this story moving like a Swiss watch, and then make sure I get out of its way and let our actors and musicians ride it where it goes. Nothing but lean storytelling. There's too much plot to treat it otherwise. I'd get in its way. It really is a thriller, though I doubt that will register consciously on anyone.

We have to find the authenticity in Atomic's times and politics, in these moral arguments, in these complex emotions and relationships, in the pressure and freaky high stakes under which everyone is working. If we get at the truth of all that, everything will be richer, and the audience will be fully engaged – not just in the events and people, but in the moral positions. What if we had to make these choices? Which would we choose?

Ultimately, that's the point of the show – the enormity of what was expected and taken from these people, their uneasy place in our national history, and the terrible toll it took on them. They were just people, after all, not that different from you and me. How fucked up would you be after all that?

As in 1776, Atomic earns lots of authenticity points for painting these characters as real, flawed, fucked up people, who nonetheless achieve great things. In both shows, the accomplishments are all the more impressive considering how "human" and combative its creators are. Most of them really are not team players. Who could expect them to be (other than the military)...?

Or maybe the point of Atomic is really how gray it all is, how complicated, how not clear. How human. That's authenticity.

Authenticity is the most important thing an artist can have. Once you can fake that, you've got it made. Hee, hee.

Apparently, the internet can't decide whether I stole that from Jean Giraudoux or George Burns. Either way, the point of the joke stands. Since the 1960s, we judge a person by their authenticity. Nobody wants to be a phony or a poser. Before that, it seems, the main criterion was Decency. I prefer it this way. I value truth over nice.

You may not have recognized it as such, but you've made this distinction when you see a piece of theatre. You surrender yourself, or you don't, to the storytelling. You identify with, or you don't, the protagonist. You recognize your own experience, or you don't, in the events onstage. It all boils down to authenticity. Are the emotions and ideas being presented honest? Do they reveal truth about us and our world?

After all, that's why we tell and consume stories, to understand, or as Sondheim puts it, to make order out of the chaos of our lives.

It's why so many people like Bernie Sanders, who is so joyfully unpolished, over the rigorously trained and controlled Hillary Clinton. It's why they like the freaky chaos of Donald Trump over the obviously and overly practiced college debating skills of... [weighty dramatic pause] ...Ted Cruz.

I mean really, who wants to have a beer with a guy from the debating team?

And likewise, who wants to watch a phony, dishonest performance from an actor? Acting isn't about imitating emotions; it's about experiencing them. Don't show us what a sad person's face and body language looks like; feel sad and we will read it on your face and in your body, and we'll feel it too. We want to go on the journey with the actors; we don't want to look at vacation pictures later.

And that's particularly difficult in the inherently artificial world of the musical theatre, where people break into song, sing harmony, and dance in unison.

But difficult is not impossible.

Perhaps that tightrope is most treacherous when it comes to comedy. Great comedy is always two things, both a surprise and the truth. Cheap comedy is just a surprise. Too many directors and actors apparently don't think real life is very funny (they're wrong), because any time they want to create comedy (any time), they go for shameless, over-the-top, wacky, muggy, full-front silliness, along the way totally abandoning authenticity and honesty. They deliver surprise (which wears thin fast), but no truth.

People routinely ruin Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and other great shows this way, all of which work best when they are the most honest. Directors often cast comedians for these shows, when they should be casting really strong actors.

I think this fundamental lack of understanding is connected to the idea that audiences want "escape." That's not true. If it were, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. Humans tell stories for a really specific set of reasons, and none of those are escape. We want connection, not disconnection. From the seemingly most mindless zombie movies to King Lear, storytelling is fundamental to human existence and survival. We go see romantic comedy movies not to escape our lives, but to be reminded that we all face the same emotions, obstacles, setbacks, fears, etc. Seeing others confront and tackle the obstacles of life (even on Tatooine) helps us in our own lives. Seeing others find love keeps alive our hope that we can find love.

I think many storytellers in our culture today don't respect storytelling. They don't understand their place in our culture and how important it is.

Just look at the phenomenon of Hamilton, which is a genuine masterpiece, by the way. Look how powerfully that story – and in particular, Lin-Manuel Miranda's storytelling – connects to millions of us. Look at how Rent and Wicked and Hair and so many other shows have touched millions of people.

We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans.

We are the light.

No, most of us don't earn enough as theatre artists to live on, but neither have our artistic ancestors for the last several thousand years. Actors and other storytellers have never been well paid or well respected. We are on the outside, just like many of the characters in Atomic. "Normal" people can't really understand us or our art. And that's okay. That outsider status and lack of financial resources is part of what makes us the artists we are, and part of what allows us to stand back and observe the people and the world around us, with genuine insight and understanding.

And maybe other theatre people will disagree with me, but I can't complain about how little I make, about how hard it is to pay bills, because I love what I do. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet, getting to work on amazing shows like Atomic, with incredible artists, and then share them with big, enthusiastic audiences. I can't muster feelings of indignation that I don't make "a living wage" making theatre. Almost all my friends make more money than I do, but not one of them is happier than I am.

Nobody owes me anything. If anything, I owe the world something. No, strike that. I owe the world a lot.

We open Atomic in a few weeks. Ours will be the second production after off Broadway. As we've learned these great songs, and I read about the real world events behind our story, as we launch this new adventure, I can't help but feel so fucking lucky.

Long Live the Musical!

This New Battle For Our Soul

I've blocked a majority of Atomic now, and I'm feeling pretty good about where we're headed. Staging this show is a real balancing act between earnestness and irony, and between rock drama and concept musical. But I think I've got the hang of it.

Even in the moments that feel more naturalistic, our writers have paced this story like a thriller, and the energy from that pacing and from the rock music is what makes the show such an intense ride. When I talk to my friends about the show, they're always surprised when I tell them that in our story, we drop the bomb not at the end of the show, but at the end of Act I.

That's only the first half of the story Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman are telling. And splitting the acts where they do is part of their storytelling – if our audiences think the moral questions in Act I are complex, wait till we get to Act II.

Like any well-structured two-act show, Ginges and Foxman build to a climax at the Act I finale, let us have the intermission to process everything, then we come back for Act II, and they complicate the story in unexpected ways. I don't know how conscious all this was for the writers, but it's a brilliant way of keeping the audience off balance. They think they're seeing the story of the dropping of the atom bomb, but that's not exactly the story we're telling. We're telling a Science-Run-Amok, Frankenstein story.

(Interestingly, the Science-Run-Amok genre of movies, like The Fly and Tarantula! was born directly from the fear of the atomic bomb.)

And in a Frankenstein echo, both the style of the show and the style of the music are intentionally schizoid, delivering us both the raw drama of the history and physics, but also the raw human emotion of the psychic and moral toll this work took on its creators.

In concrete terms, I have to be careful about keeping these two styles in balance and following the blueprint that Ginges laid out for us.

We have a good-sized playing area for this show, with a long, narrow table down the middle, and a bar at one end. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the audience will be on two opposite sides of the stage, facing each other.

The table obviously limits what I can do with staging. But it's the kind of limitation that breeds creativity. When we did Rent, I asked Rob for a giant round platform center-stage, painted like the moon, raked, and large enough to seat our cast of sixteen around it. Talk about limitations. But ultimately, that moon platform divided the stage up into great, small playing spaces, and it provided an abstract space itself that allowed us to step out of the physical world and go inside. I found several ways to use that moon. I realized later that I had unconsciously used it as a place of isolation several times in the show. You can't be more alone than being on the moon...

Our big table for Atomic is similar, but less abstract, so less versatile. Most of the time, our table is a table, though often it's a table in Leo and Trude's apartment at one end, while it's a table in the lab at the other end. It really works to have two scenes onstage at the same time (which Ginges does a lot), sort of sharing space but not really. It's a split-screen, and it shows so clearly these simultaneous events.

I learned from watching bootleg videos of Dreamgirls and Nine and Grand Hotel how to use cinematic techniques (split-screen, close-up, focus pull, pan, over-the-shoulder, etc.) in staging theatre, particularly in musicals where staging can often be more abstract and more expressionistic. These devices all work so well because audiences are already used to them. And this script is written for those techniques.

One of the devices I want to use – but I have to be careful with it – is to make the table into a stage itself. One place I know I'll use it is late in the show, in the song "Only Numbers," when there are three characters onstage, one of which is in a plane. To help the audience understand, I think we're going to place a chair on the table and have our pilot sit up there. I think separating him from the other two actors vertically will help make this triple split-screen scene work.

It will isolate all three of them, which is key to their emotions here.

"Only Numbers" is a powerful song and a pivotal point in the drama. The pilot reminds himself not to think of those people down there as people as he drops the bomb, just The Enemy, just numbers. It's the only way his mind can survive this. Trude, meanwhile, grapples with the scale of the Holocaust, too massive, too inhuman to makes sense of it, and with her detachment from the horror (and resulting guilt) here in America. Leo, on the other hand, is unable to detach. He's too much implicated in all this. His part of this song decries the dehumanizing Other-ing of war.

At one particularly potent moment in this song, all three sing, "The day that we don't fight is the day that we die." It's a powerful line, because it means something different to each of the three characters onstage, in three different places, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. It's a smart, economical way to draw the thematic threads of the story together as we head toward the finale.

There's one other moment, early in Act II, in which Leo delivers a really impassioned soliloquy-song, "Greater Battle," in which Leo (our story's moral center) realizes he now has to fight an even bigger fight than creating the bomb; now he has to stop it. The song is built as a lengthy soliloquy, constantly interrupted by quick dialogue scenes. What's cool about the scene is that Leo tells us what he's thinking and feeling when he sings, and then we see him taking concrete action, based on those feelings, in the bits of dialogue. It's a great way to employ the still useful aspects of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, without being trapped by its more dated habits.

I think what I'm gonna do with that scene is put Leo up on the table, and keep all those quick spoken scenes on the stage, to keep Leo separate from the world around him. And also, to let him have a "rock star" moment for this rock anthem. But also in that song, the ensemble sings with him in the second half of the song. I've thought a lot about how to use "the chorus" (when that's what they are). I finally decided, at least for "Greater Battle," I wasn't going to try and impose some "clever" staging on the actors singing backup. Instead, I'm going to bring them onstage and let them just face the audience and sing. The rest of the cast aren't really "in" the scene; they really are just voices.

Yes, I think there's an argument to be made that having the whole cast sing this song does suggest dramatically that Leo isn't the only one who fears the further development and use of the bomb. But that's not really what we're doing onstage at that moment. The fact of the cast onstage is more a musical moment than a dramatic moment, and rather than try to bullshit the audience, we're going to let the actors just be music. No clever staging. Leo is the one and only focus here.

And even though I feel pretty good about these choices, I did tell Zak, who plays Leo, that if it feels really stupid being up on the table, we'll find a different choice...

At the beginning of the show, I have the whole cast standing on chairs at one moment, just expressionistic staging to ramp up the intensity a bit more. But once I did that, I realized I was creating a "rule" for our show that we were going to use this furniture as more than just furniture. That means I need to find at least a few other places in the show to do the same. I firmly believe that if we're going to break rules, that needs to be part of the vocabulary of our story, not just a whim.

It always bothers me when I see theatre in which an actor comes out in the house for some reason, early in the show, but then never again. The show sets up the expectation in the audience that the house is part of the playing space. But then it isn't. Theatre should never double-cross its audience.

Unless you're doing Brecht or Sondheim.

I believe in Sondheim's Ten-Minute Rule, that you can use any devices, any rules, as long as you set them up for the audience within the first ten minutes of the show, or preferably, within the first song. But directors have to do that as well as writers. I need to introduce the audience to our storytelling rules just as much as we have to introduce them to the characters and the plot.

Right now, I have actors up on the furniture three times. That may be enough. But I still have about two-thirds of Act II to block, so if I find one or two more places to use that, that would be nice. But only if it really enhances the moment.

The one challenge I see still ahead is keeping the whole story at a really high level of tension and energy, with only occasional moments of calm and respite, even if those moments of calm still hold all that moral complexity and frustration. Actors instinctively want to vary their performances and use all the "colors" at their disposal. But the stakes in this story are stratospheric, and the energy stays pretty high. No one is detached. No one is on the sidelines. Most of these characters are driven. And we understand why.

Leo is the lone voice of reason in 1950s Science-Run-Amok movies, the one guy who's right but nobody will listen to him. He has to save the world, yet the world keeps throwing obstacles in his way.

The key to this drama is that almost all these characters feel these high stakes, and most of them are in opposition to each other. They all think they know how to save the world, and that everyone else is wrong. They all think they should be in charge. This story embodies the metaphor of the unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. And the atom bomb is an apt metaphor for the explosions of emotion and anger among these characters. The bosses remove and add scientists to the project like they're experimenting with protons and neutrons, making the team and the project forever unstable, forever ready to explode.

I've seen some reviews and comments about Atomic that complain about how much the show "explains," but I think those critics miss the point. First of all, almost the entire story is an ongoing moral debate, so yes, these characters are going to explain things as they make their arguments. But also, in the second-to-last scene, including the song "What I Tell Myself," that explaining is motivated and dramatically legit. When people go through a trauma, talking about it, telling its story, is part of the healing process, part of making peace with the trauma. That's what's happening in this penultimate scene, but on a larger, more consequential scale than any of us ever encounter in our own lives.

No matter how you slice it, it's not hard to argue that these scientists killed millions of innocent people. That's a hell of a trauma to get past...

With this show, we have to keep the reality of this world and these events as palpable as possible for the audience, the stakes and tensions as high as possible, and the emotions as potent as possible. We have the tools to make all that happen. I'm more than halfway through the hardest part of my job – physically staging the show – and I'm feeling really good about everything. But we have lots of work still to do before opening night.

This is such great material...!

Long Live the Musical!

One Tiny Spark Will Set It All Ablaze

We were all taught in Drama 101 that conflict is the very heart of drama, and I always loved that metaphor. Without conflict, without its heart, drama dies. Drama is life, and life is conflict. Someone once opined to me that they wished the local news would do only good news stories, failing to grasp that everything being Just Fine isn't news. And it's not dramatic.

We're now about two-thirds of the way through blocking the first act of Atomic, so this material is really sinking in now. I realized on the way home from rehearsal tonight that the reason this show and its story are so great is because its fucking loaded with conflict.

But not just that.

What's the most valuable thing a writer can give an actor? What's the thing that makes conflict compelling? High stakes. Can you imagine higher stakes than trying to stop Hitler? Or trying to stop our President from starting a nuclear arms race?

History and our bookwriter Danny Ginges have thrown together a group of brilliant, opinionated minds, at the most intense moment in our national history. Deciding what to have for dinner among these folks would be a challenge, but here we're talking about the highest possible stakes imaginable. We're literally talking about blowing up the world.

It would be silly to think that all these brilliant, accomplished men and women, from so many different cultures, would ever agree on such complex, morally murky questions. One of the fascinating things to watch in the show is how Leo never really finds comfortable alliances with anyone. He's not scientifically pure enough for Fermi, and way too pure for Teller. He's in conflict with his girlfriend Trude in a sad, but recognizable home-vs-work triangle (which brings to mind George and Dot in Sunday in the Park).

And he's at odds with all his bosses, Compton, Groves, and Oppenheimer. He has an ongoing problem with authority, not unlike the doctors in M*A*S*H. In fact the story of Atomic sets up the ultimate odd couple, the marriage of independent scientists (exploration) and the military (control). Right brain vs. left brain. Inherent, high stakes conflict.

Even within songs in this show there is often conflict. Many of the songs in Atomic are really just musical dialogue, a conversation (usually an argument) set to rhyme and music. You can hear the same device in Rent, bareNext to Normal, and Heathers. Only a few of these songs are the usual kind of theatre song, each about one big idea, written in the form of a soliloquy.

And all that means two things for me as a director.

First, I have to be careful not to over-stage the conversation songs. When you give an audience a choice between words and images, they'll usually choose images. So the less movement there is during a song with a complex lyric or lots of plot, the more the audience will focus on the content. And that information will move them forward in the story and keep them engaged.

And yet we're working in an unusual configuration for our stage this time, with the audience on two opposing sides, facing each other. (We did this once before, in 2003, with Sunday in the Park.) But that seating arrangement means I can't have actors standing still very long, because in most places onstage, their back is to a slice of the audience. It's almost in-the-round. So, contrary to my usual staging, I do have to keep things moving. Then again, that works for this show because in some respects, it's a thriller.

I love the idea of Rob's set, to make the American people themselves the backdrop for this story of these scientists making the atomic bomb in our name. It makes everything so much more personal and human. But it requires a delicate balancing act, when so many songs carry so much information...

All this also means that everything about this show – the staging, the songs, everything – depends on the most honest, most in-depth, most fearless acting we can muster. In this story about moral complexity, conflicting duties, and crazy high stakes, the acting is everything. We're lucky to have a cast with great voices to sing the shit out of this rock and roll score, but what's more important, they're all very strong actors. I can't say it enough: The Acting is Everything.

That's usually true of the shows we produce, but lots of shows can survive shallow, clueless productions. I don't think this show could.

I've also realized that this is a very earnest show, with only periodic moments of irony. This isn't our usual kind of show in that respect, but it fits the story and it fits the time. That was not an ironic time in America. Ginges and his writing partner Philip Foxman could have come at this whole story with a hipster-ironic sensibility, creating a companion piece to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but that would trivialize these very serious people grappling with very serious questions during very serious times. literally with the fate of humankind in the balance.

On the other hand, the anachronistic use of emo rock for the score is a really insightful, bold choice. In this very somber, very serious show, the rock allows full voice to the fears and rage and frustration these characters feel. These very visceral emotions and sky-high tensions could not be adequately expressed by period music. This dark, powerful story needs the emotional wallop of rock and roll, and to speak this forcefully to audiences in 2016, it needs this contemporary sound of emo rock.

There is certainly some serious work ahead for us, but our New Line actors love sinking their teeth into meaty, complex characters and stories like this. All we have to do is trust the script and score, and go where they lead us. So far, that's been pretty easy.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!


I'm a deadbeat blogger.

We've already been rehearsing for two weeks and I have yet to post a blog about this show, the new rock musical Atomic.

New Line's production will be the show's fourth, after its premiere in Australia (where both writers are from), a short off Broadway run, big rewrites, and a production in Michigan.

I'm so glad we get to share this show with our audiences!

We finished learning the songs last night and we all love this score. The show received mixed to hostile reviews off Broadway, though I think the writers fundamentally reconceived the show after that. I read the off Broadway version and liked it very much, but the rewrites are excellent, and it's a much stronger show now, having lost some comic relief that really doesn't belong.

I realize as we work on this that it's a rare non-ironic show for New Line. There are moments of pretty dark irony, but overall, it's a very sincere, very earnest script, because these physicists take their work and the questions around it very seriously.

The reviews off Broadway often said this was a musical about the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but that's not really true. The show is about the morality and moral questions swimming around the making of the bomb and its eventual use. This is a morality tale, not a history lesson.

This is a show about Dangerous Ideas. Pandora's Box. Which is why it has to be a rock musical. This is a story about big emotions, big rebellion (in various forms), big questions, and big moral complexity. Rock is the language of rebellion, of danger and wildness. What other musical language could adequately portray these people, their emotions, their rage, and their fear?

President Truman thought he could keep the details of the work secret so no one else could make the bomb. But you can never control ideas...

In thinking about the show, big picture, I realize that it's not really a Hero Myth, as so many of our shows are. This is a Frankenstein story. Leo and his fellow physicists create a monster, which they lose control of, and it rampages through the world killing people. In 2016, that's a rock story. The energy and intensity of this story demand rock and roll.

Atomic is a concept musical and the show uses its songs in two different ways. Some of the songs arise naturally out of dialogue, as in any good musical comedy or Rodgers & Hammerstein show. These songs should be staged fairly naturalistically, as an extension of dialogue. These songs amplify emotion in this very high-stakes story. The other numbers are commentary songs standing outside the narrative. These can be staged more expressionistically, and I think, more like a rock concert.

I have not yet blocked anything (we start blocking rehearsals Monday), but I've figured out the "language" and "vocabulary" of the staging. For instance, a big table and chairs will always be centerstage, and for the more conceptual, commentary songs, we can use that table and chairs any way we want. We can turn the table into a stage, or a memory, or pretty much anything.

And I want to find as many places as possible in the script to use both naturalistic and conceptual staging at the same time, to allow a dialogue scene to play out while a commentary song is being performed by the rest of the cast. The show's writers have created a dual personality for this show, part Brecht, part contemporary drama. That duality is present in the story itself, in the battle between science and government, in the emotions of these characters, in our moral assessment of the atom bomb, as we watch this story. I want to make sure our staging underlines all that.

One of the challenges of this production will be Rob's set, which extends across the middle of our blackbox theatre, with audience on both sides. So each section of audience will watch this gripping, morally complex drama, with the other half of the audience and their reactions as backdrop.

Americans will be our backdrop. And right in the middle of a Presidential election.

Like 1776 does, Atomic takes these historical figures out of the history book and gives them full, rich, complicated humanity. I can't even imagine having to grapple with questions like this...

This isn't the kind of smartass, ironic story we usually tell, and I have to be careful not to fall back on habits that better suit a different kind of show.

As with every show, my job is to understand what Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman wrote, and then figure out how to make it as clear as possible to the audience. Not to impose a "vision" or anything on it, just to follow the script and score wherever they take us. This is good storytelling and we just need to trust it.

As we always do.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!