I'm Not a River or a Giant Bird

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

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

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

Changes that song for ya, don't it?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Here endeth my rant.

Long Live the Musical!

We've Got Magic to Do

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Diane Paulus, I love you. Keep making musicals.

Long Live the Musical!

I'm Mister Green Christmas

I've always felt that the Christmas holidays are the most New Liney time of year because so many of the Christmas specials are musicals, and because music is more an integral part of this holiday than of any other.

There are a few big screen Christmas musicals, like The Nightmare Before Christmas (brilliant!), White Christmas (old-fashiony, but still pretty great), Scrooge (not bad), A Very Harold & Kumar 3D Christmas... oh wait, strike that last one.

And there are some great TV Christmas specials that aren't musicals, like the totally awesome Pee-Wee's Playhouse Christmas Special, which includes a few traditional Christmas songs, but the songs don't help tell a story or anything. In a way, this show is a lot like the Bing Crosby and Perry Como Christmas specials from my childhood, just way more fucked-up. When I was a kid, back in the Dark Ages before VCRs and DVRs, I would grab the TV Guide every week in December and pore over the listings, making sure I wouldn't miss any of the Christmas specials – and there were a lot of them. And I loved them all.

In later years, they sort of lost their appeal for me. But after not seeing many of them for a long time, I discovered a few years ago that they're all wonderful again if I'm stoned when I watch them. In a weird way, being stoned recreates for me some of the wonder and fun and surprise of being a child, I start noticing cool little details as if I'm seeing it for the first time, the stop-motion becomes "real" again, and so these specials regain their lost magic for me.

As always, I can't resist sharing the joy I get from these wonderful shows. So here are, for your consideration, my personal Top Ten TV Christmas Musicals. I hope there are at least one or two here you haven't heard of before.

10. For years only seen on TV, the accidentally psychedelic 1966 Italian film The Christmas That Almost Wasn't (originally Il Natale che quasi non fu) is really wonderful. If you're stoned out of your mind. It's kind of like if David Lynch made a children's Christmas musical. If you're not stoned, you'll notice that it's spectacularly bad, a cavalcade of bad choices and mediocre talents. And that all the dialogue is dubbed; they filmed it without sound, so you're watching Italian actors and hearing American actors. So smoke a bowl or two before you watch. It can be intermittently mind-blowing and delightful. There are eleven songs by Ray Carter and Paul Tripp, veteran songwriters for children's records, but a few of the songs (like "Hustle Bustle") sound like they belong more in Hair than in this oddity. There's even a fansite for this weird flick.

 9. Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics is a 1999 episode of South Park, a weird meta-episode, in which Mr Hankey the Christmas Poo is sitting comfortably in a wing-back chair next to a roaring fireplace, Bing Crosby and Perry Como style. As South Park often does, here it takes an old TV form, the Christmas variety special, and slathers it in 21st-century irony and self-awareness. Mr. Hankey introduces a series of ten incredibly inappropriate songs, each funnier than the last. The soundtrack includes even more songs than the episode does. My favorites are Eric Cartman's really awful rendition of "O Holy Night" (made me think of Roseanne singing the national anthem), and Mr. Garrison's "Merry Fucking Christmas!" I really love this show.

 8. The 1970 animated special The Night the Animals Talked is a very odd but cool 25-minute musical, based on a children's recording, about a stable full of animals who are miraculously given the gift of speech for one night. But once they can talk like humans they start behaving like humans. And no one wants that! You may be surprised to hear that Broadway and Hollywood songwriters Jule Styne (Gypsy, Funny Girl, Some Like It Hot) and Sammy Cahn (High Button Shoes, Skyscraper) wrote three of the five songs. Sort of grafted onto this weirdly Deist Christmas special was the arrival of Joseph and Mary, who can't find a room at the inn. But really, change the pregnant woman into just any random women and the story doesn't change – it's about the individual's interests versus the community's, and obliquely about racism and other issues as well. There's virtually no explicit religion anywhere in the story. And from the perspective of 2014, it's a pointed commentary on our culture and politics today, selfish, exclusionary, without empathy, much like the zeitgeist in 1970. ABC broadcast the show only four times (maybe because of its implicit politics). Strangely, there's some issue about the copyright of this show, so it's never been released on video, but it has been uploaded to YouTube.

 7. Chuck Jones' wonderfully weird, 1966 animated special How the Grinch Stole Christmas!, is another really odd, 26-minute musical, with three songs and two reprises by Dr. Seuss and Broadway composer Albert Hague (Plain and Fancy). The story is narrated by Boris Karloff, who also does the voice of the Grinch, but the wacky title song was sung by the one and only Thurl Ravenscroft, the voice of Tony the Tiger. Grinch is so weird in so many ways. The action of the plot is entirely psychological. There are a series of events, the Grinch's harrowing trips down and up the mountain, the multiple thefts in Whoville, etc. But the central narrative isn't about what the Grinch does to the Whos; it's about how the Grinch changes. And that whole narrative happens inside the Grinch's head, so much so that the story needs a narrator to tell us a lot of this.

The powerful message of the story is that mean people aren't inexorably mean. Once an asshole, not always an asshole. Grinch reveals a lot about the culture of 1966 America, starting to reject the materialism of the 1950s for a new (often non-religious) spiritual quest. The Grinch learns that the trappings of Christmas aren't what Christmas is about – and apparently, neither is Jesus – it's about community and connection. It's sort of the same story as A Christmas Carol, but it's more complicated because the protagonist is the antagonist; the hero is the villain. And in the world of 1966 the Grinch doesn't need the supernatural to have his empathy activated. He just has to see what community and connection looks like, and he's sold.

 6. The 1985 Rankin/Bass stop-motion Christmas special The Life and Adventures of Santa Claus is incredibly weird but cool, a kind of pagan origin story for Santa Claus, based on a 1902 book by L. Frank Baum. It has a framing story about this council of Immortals who are deciding whether or not to grant Santa (who looks weirdly like Corey Feldman, BTW)  immortality because he's about to die, though this is something they've never done before for a mortal. So the Great Ak (voiced by Broadway veteran Alfred Drake) narrates Santa's life story to convince the council, and we go along on a really bizarre ride. As you might expect from Baum – and Rankin and Bass – we meet all kinds of creatures, the terrible awgwas, the knocks, wood nymphs, sleep fays, light elves, sound imps, wind demons, and other assorted fairies, etc. The 50-minute musical has four songs, all of which are really interesting. It's such a different story from what we're used to, thanks to Rankin and Bass' own classic 1970 Santa origin story (listed below at No. 4). I just saw this one for the first time this year, but I really love it. It's so different from the others.

 5. The 2008 Comedy Central special, A Colbert Christmas: The Greatest Gift of All!, was the first and only meta-TV-Christmas-special, so aggressively self-aware, even more so than Colbert's regular show, and yes, it's a musical, sort of, with seven new songs by the Cry-Baby team, David Javerbaum and Adam Schlesinger, plus one song by alt-pop singer-songwriter Nick Lowe, and one song by Colbert himself. The show is in the format of all those 50s and 60s Christmas specials, with guest stars "dropping by, and of course all in Colbert's signature ironic, meta style. His "drop-by" guests include Elvis Costello, John Legend, Willie Nelson, Toby Keith, Jon Stewart, and George Wendt. The connecting thread throughout the show is Colbert's quest for something to make Christmas really special, and in the show's most meta moment, Colbert finally realizes that special something is the DVD release of this show. Notice the infinite-DVD effect on the cover that conjures all this weirdness.

But wait, I hear you cry, you double-standarding bastard! If Colbert and Mr. Hankey are musicals, why isn't Pee-Wee? That's a good question. The real answer is that the songs in the Colbert special actually advance character, that is, Colbert's conservative TV host character Stephen Colbert. I told you it was meta. Which is why Colbert called in Javerbaum and Schlesinger, who specialize in meta. Likewise, the songs in the South Park episode comment on these characters, and on South Park itself, on our culture, on the holidays, on religion, on religious music and ritual, you name it. The subversion of Eric Cartman intentionally singing "O Holy Night" badly (okay, maybe you can argue it's only Trey Parker and Matt Stone's "intention," but still) is in its brash rejection of the usual respect that "polite society" affords to all things religious. In Mr. Hankey's Christmas Classics, Parker and Stone declare definitively that Christianity will be mocked along with everything else. Nothing here is scared. Including Christmas and Jesus.

The songs in the Pee-Wee special are just nice diversions, subversive only in their affectionately ironic echo of our childhood innocence.

 4. The 1970 Rankin/Bass stop-motion special Santa Claus is Coming to Town, inspired by the famous 1934 song, starred Fred Astaire as the narrator and Mickey Rooney as Santa Claus, with seven songs by Maury Laws and Jules Bass. The show created a whole new, comprehensive, secular origin story for Santa Claus, also explaining every other American Christmas tradition along the way, stockings, Christmas trees, all of it. This is another trippy show in a lot of ways, with a genuinely psychedelic animated sequence about three-fourths of the way through. It's also another Deist Christmas special. In one scene, Kris Kringle and Jessica (!) are getting married, and the animals have decorated the trees for the occasion; and the narrator says, "No church ever looked nicer." Jesus who?

 3. The 1964 Rankin/Bass stop-motion Rudolph the Red-Noised Reindeer, was based on the famous 1949 song, which was based on a 1939 poem. The show has nine songs by Johnny Marks, who wrote the original song. This was the first of the mega-hit TV Christmas specials and it set the model for many of the others. At its heart, it's just a Hero Myth story, with Rudolph's nose as his magic amulet. It's also a Christ story (a subgenre of the Hero Myth), with the young Rudolph going off into the wilderness and coming back to "save the world." It's interesting to see the story's celebration of misfits and nonconformists as the 1960s were dawning. Rudolph and Hermey learn what the Youth in Passing Strange learns: each of us has his own Real, and it's up to each of us to figure out what it is. This was a new American myth. Interestingly, after the first broadcast they replaced the duet "We're a Couple of Misfits" with a new song with a very different vibe, "Fame and Fortune."

Famously, in 1995 animator Corky Quakenbush made a stop-motion parody called Raging Rudolph, for broadcast on MadTV, transplanting the story and its animation style into the world of Martin Scorsese, to hilarious, ultra-violent results.

Fun Fact: Spencer Green (co-author and co-lyricist of Bukowsical) wrote Raging Rudolph with Mary Elizabeth Villano. Spencer also did the voice of Hermey in the parody.)

 2. The 1968 Rankin/Bass stop-motion holiday drama, The Little Drummer Boy, is probably the darkest of the holiday specials. It's a 25-minute musical with four songs, that starts quite surprisingly with our eponymous hero Aaron watching his parents murdered and his house burned down, turning the boy into the angriest, most damaged, most explosively violent stop-motion character you'll ever see. Doesn't sound like a kiddie Christmas special, does it? No wonder I always loved it. Then Aaron and his pets are kidnapped by a traveling carnival and forced to perform (shades of the Elephant Man!); and because Aaron refuses to smile, the carnival owner paints a smile on Aaron's face. This is some horrific shit. Finally, Aaron and his animals escape, his lamb is almost mortally wounded, and they accidentally end up crossing paths with the newborn Jesus. As bizarre and dark as this show is, I still find myself tearing up at the end when Aaron realizes the only gift he has to give is his music, the deepest part of him. So he steps up and he plays for the newborn baby. It's easily the most powerful moment in any of the stop-motion shows.

 1. The quirkiest and therefore coolest of all the musical Christmas specials is the 1974 Rankin/Bass stop-motion The Year Without a Santa Claus, based on Phyllis McGinley's 1956 book of the same name. Let's just start with the obvious – it's the coolest because of the Miser Brothers, Heat Miser and Snow Miser (voiced by Broadway veterans George S. Irving and Dick Shawn), who each get a vaudeville number. Irving is one of Broadway's great character actors, who was in the ensemble of the original production of Oklahoma! and in 31 other Broadway shows, only five of which were non-musical plays. Also in the voice cast are Broadway and film stars Mickey Rooney and Shirley Booth, as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. In 2006 they even made a live-action remake with John Goodman, Harvey Fierstein, Michael McKean, and Chris Kattan; and in 2008, they made a stop-motion sequel.

The show's bizarre premise is that Santa doesn't think anybody cares about Christmas anymore, so he decides to take a year off. Then two elves and a reindeer (who make a series of terrible choices throughout the show) go off on a wild misadventure to prove to Santa that people still care, and they end up in the American South. I would love to know what Phyllis McGinley was smoking when she wrote this book...

So there you have it. If you don't know some of these, I hope you'll give 'em a try. Until I started working on this blog post, I never thought of TV Christmas musicals as a genre, but they are. And it's been fun watching all these (and some others that didn't make my list) and seeing both how they're similar and also how the form changed over time.

Yet another storytelling form that is intensely, uniquely American. God bless Arthur Rankin Jr. and Jules Bass. We owe them so much.

Long Live the (Christmas) Musical!

We Need a Little Music, Need a Little Laughter, Need a Little Singing...

It's that time of year again! That magical time of year when people get really stressed out and bitter and mean... but not the New Liners! We can make your holiday shopping better and stronger and deeper and nearer and simpler and freer and richer and clearer...

So how can New Line make my holiday season better and all those other adjectives?, I hear you ask. Let me count the ways...

First of all, as you do your online holiday shopping, you can support New Line at the same time! Yes, you are that powerful. When you go to Amazon.com to shop, instead just go to the address http://smile.amazon.com. You'll end up in the same place, with one exception – the first time you go to Amazon Smile, the site will ask you to choose a charity. Do a search and choose New Line Theatre. Then every time you visit Amazon Smile from then on, New Line will get a small donation on almost every purchase you make. Pretty cool, huh?

Okay, so go set that up right now before you do anything else. I'll wait...
          (singing quietly to myself)
Haul out the holly;
Put up the tree before my spirit falls again.
Fill up the stocking,
I may be rushing things, but deck the halls again now!
For we need a little Christmas
Right this very minute...

Oh, are you back? Excellent.

What's that you say? You're not sure what to get for your favorite musical theatre obsessive? We've got you covered.

Take a trip to the New Line Bookstore (hosted by Amazon). There you'll find so many cool books, videos, and music related to the musical theatre – behind-the-scenes books, history books, analysis books, scripts and scores, biographies, novels musicals are based on, audition materials, documentaries, live performances on video, fiction about musical theatre, and so much more. We've made your holiday shopping so much easier! And all you have to do is follow our links...

And I would be remiss if I didn't also include here a shameless plug for my own musical theatre books. I've written six books about our art form – From Assassins to West Side Story; Deconstructing Harold Hill; Rebels with Applause; Let the Sun Shine In; Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals; and my history book, Strike Up the Band – and my seventh is in the works... And if you already own some of my books and have enjoyed them, some more customer reviews on Amazon would be really nice... hint, hint...

But some of the coolest musical-theatre-related gifts aren't on Amazon.

For the coolest shit, you have to go to the New Line Shop on CafePress. We've got all the usual cool stuff, t-shirts, mugs, flasks, Christmas ornaments, magnets, pillows, rugs, glasses, clocks, jewelry, bumper stickers, even dog t-shirts! But there are a couple extra cool things I want to point out -- our oversized New Line calendar of gorgeous production photos from our shows, our calendar of New Line posters, and my personal favorite, the New Line Fuck Clock.

But wait there's more... Have you ever visited the Alternative Musical Theatre Shop? As the shop itself says, "If you prefer Spring Awakening, Bat Boy, and High Fidelity to The Sound of Music and Beauty and the Beast, or if you have to periodically remind your other theatre friends that Rodgers & Hammerstein are dead, then you're in the right place. But just so you know, some of the items in this shop contain adult language. A fair amount of it. If that freaks you out, go away. Otherwise, take a look around. We'll keep adding new items as ideas occur to us, so stop by once in a while and see what's up..."  I can't decide if my favorite is the "Will Direct Musicals for Food" t-shirt, or the "What Would Moritz Do?" bumper sticker, or the "Fuck the Fourth Wall" shower curtain...

But  we can't forget the lessons of that classic, The Year Without a Santa Claus – it's not the trappings of Christmas that are magical; it's about what's on the inside. So instead of buying your friends more crap they don't want out of a misguided sense of obligation and/or enforced gift reciprocity, there's a better way, more in tune with the true spirit of the season – GIVE NEW LINE YOUR MONEY!

Oops, I'm sorry, what I meant to say was...  make a donation to New Line in the name of a friend, and give that friend the greatest gift you can give, the gift of spirit, the gift of art, the gift of the continued life and work of one of the coolest theatre companies in the country, and in fact, the only alternative musical theatre company in the country. Just click on this link to either donate online securely or for info on how to mail us a check.

Because it is more blessed to give than to receive... Was that too crass...?

In the meantime, you can also give a non-monetary gift to New Line too. After you've set up Amazon Smile for your donations to go to New Line, become a Facebook fan, if you're not already, and then suggest to all your artsy friends that they become our Facebook fans too. And then go to our FB page and rate New Line, if you haven't already. Unless you really don't like New Line; then you can skip this part...

How could anyone not like New Line...???

And if you want to prepare for our next auditions in June, you can get the cast album of the show we'll open our 25th season with next fall, the outrageous and brilliant Heathers.

This is the most New Liney time of year, of course, because most of the Christmas specials are musicals. So spread the New Line spirit, celebrate the incredible joy and endless invention of our art form, and if you can, bring some new friends into the cult...

This is a season of humanity, of connection, joy, and community – all the things the musical theatre is. Enjoy the holidays!

Long Live the Musical!

Into the Words

I like to pose questions about musicals on our Facebook page. One time I asked our fans to name a musical theatre character or couple who really needs therapy. We got some hilarious answers. Sometimes these questions get dozens of answers and hundreds of views, and it's such fun to read them all. Every once in a while, someone will reference a show I don't know, so I scurry over to Google and see what I can find.

A few weeks ago, I asked folks to quote a piece of a theatre lyric that makes a very wise saying. I was anxious to see what people would come up with. Of course, lots of people quoted "No day but today." It's amazing how many people connect with those four words; they must really feed something in us. We got so many great responses to my question, that I want to share them here. Feel free to add more in the comments section below.

I was gonna note after each quote what song and show it's from, but this is the Information Age. You know how to find all that. I also considered commenting on all or at least some of these, but I don't want to impose on you my interpretation of these words. That should be for you to do. Then I thought, even if I don't comment on them, maybe I could arrange them in some way, by topic or by show or...


I'm just going to leave you with them. See which of them speaks to you right now at this moment on your journey. Save them somewhere. Quote them on Facebook once in a while to share a piece of wisdom with someone who's having a bad day. They say laughter is the best medicine, but it's really musicals. And now I'll shut up...

The Quotes

Because crazy is perfect and fucked up is perfect, so I will be perfect for you.

Without a hurt, the heart is hollow.

You are young. Life has been kind to you. You will learn.

It's called flowers wilt, it's called apples rot,
It's called thieves get rich and saints get shot,
It's called god don't answer prayers a lot,
Okay, now you know.

Your mother's love might seem insane; that's 'cause she really knows everything.

Alone is alone, not alive.

Leave the judging to the judge who'll judge us all on judgment day.

To love another person is to see the face of God.

The price of love is loss, but still we pay. We love anyway.

Don't dream it, be it.

Change come fast and change come slow, but change come, Caroline Thibodeaux.

The choice may have been mistaken; the choosing was not.

At times, it does hurt to be healed.

If you become a teacher, by your pupils you'll be taught.

Measure your life in love.

It'll all go on if we're here or not, so who cares, so what?

The Real is a construct; it's the raw nerve's private zone.
It's a personal sunset you drive off into alone.

It's a very short road from the pinch and the punch to the paunch and the pouch and the pension.

You gotta have heart.

Rain will make the flowers grow.

People like the way dreams have of sticking to the soul.

As we travel on, love's what we'll remember.

A heart without a home is such a lonesome road to hoe.

Anything you do, let it come from you, then it will be new.

Children run so fast, toward the future from the past.

Look at what you want, not at where you are.

Life is a mistake that only art can correct.

Walk on the grass, it was meant to feel.

You can't stop the beat.

It's smarter to be lucky than it's lucky to be smart.

You've got to be taught to be afraid.

Life's not worth a damn till you can say: Hey world, I am what I am!

We all have our junk.

Don't deny your beast inside.

Pity the child, but not forever, not if he stays that way.

Everyone's a little bit racist.

Life is random and unfair.

Everything is rent.

Love changes everything.

Long Live the Musical!

Catching at Dreams

The legendary (notorious?) Merrily We Roll Along was a neo musical comedy (before there was such a thing) that just didn't work, opening just nine months before Little Shop of Horrors, the first neo musical comedy that did work, setting the tone for so many shows that followed, like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones, Heathers, and lots of others.

For those who aren't regular readers of this blog, a neo musical comedy is a show that uses the conventions of old-school musical comedy, but in an ironic, postmodern, self-aware, more political context. The neo musical comedy takes the already heightened style of older musical comedies, and raises the stakes even higher, to absurd proportions, creating a style the creators of Bat Boy called "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression," meaning the emotions and inner life are as real and honest as possible, but the style is greatly heightened. I described it in one of my books this way – "The canvas is bigger, the colors richer, the brushstrokes more expansive, but the image is no less true, the details no less real, the textures no less subtle."

And this is something a lot of actors and directors don't understand – you can't try to be funny in these shows. You have to play the characters as honestly as possible inside this heightened world. The funny will take of itself. The exaggerated high stakes combined with a fiercely serious performance will be hilarious. Believe me. I saw the original productions of Little Shop of Horrors, Bat Boy, and Urinetown, and I've directed a couple dozen shows like them. These shows aren't musical comedies; they're neo musical comedies. That straight-faced ├╝ber-earnestness is a vital part of the recipe; it's the ironic dissonance of serious and ridiculous that's so funny to the audience, particularly at this moment in our cultural history. But if you try to be funny, you destroy half the recipe.

This style is parallel to the style of The Daily Show, The Colbert Report, and The Onion.

The musical comedy essentially died in the 1960s, and as America entered the Age of Irony, shows like Company, The Robber Bridegroom, and Chicago utterly blew up the old form. Across the art form, the 70s were a time of very free experimentation, some of which was awful, some of which moved us forward. The ironic neo musical comedy was born in the 80s, during the Reagan Years, perhaps in response to a resounding national reversal of the ideals of the 60s. But musical theatre as an art form was pretty barren during that decade, so Little Shop didn't spawn many successful imitators. It wasn't until the mid-90s that the new Golden Age would begin, and the neo musical comedy would be reborn in Bat Boy.

A year after the premiere of The Daily Show.

Bat Boy composer-lyricist Larry O'Keefe said to me once in an interview, "We did set out to foil people's expectations of what a musical does – making the love story perverse, the ending unhappy and the moral absurd." It's a musical comedy that fucks with you. And that has something to say.

Little Shop of Horrors understood all that (or maybe we should say it invented all that?), and it ran for over five years. Merrily We Roll Along didn't understand any of that, and it ran 16 performances.

Merrily We Roll Along told the story of three friends losing their way and drifting apart, but it plays out in reverse, ending with the three friends meeting for the first time. This was a musical comedy that fucks with you. In interviews at the time, Sondheim often talked about how he had really written a musical comedy score for this show, but then he would point out that reprises happen before the songs they reprise, musical themes get quoted in the accompaniment before we hear them as songs, etc. The entire score operates traditionally but backwards. So no, Uncle Steve, that's not a musical comedy score; that's a neo musical comedy score.

But even though Hal Prince is a genius and one of my strongest influences as a director, I really don't think he understood this show. The production made so many mistakes.

First of all, the reverse structure was the only thing that was at all "alternative" about the show. The rest of the production was almost defiantly conventional and ordinary. And in my opinion, all the design elements were totally wrong.

The lighting was really dark, using lots of follow spots. When was the last time you saw a darkly lit musical comedy? I hope never. The sets were also really minimalist, like they were doing a low-budget show off Broadway, when they should have been big and bright, maybe even cartoony. Imagine "Rich and Happy" in a visual style similar to the original How to Succeed. If you listen to "Rich and Happy" on the original Merrily cast album, you can hear that the ensemble gets this dark cartoon style. (You might argue that the leads were trapped by some of the dialogue.) Finally, the costumes were a colossal blunder. All the characters wore t-shirts labeled with their relationship to Frank, "Best Friend," "Wife;" or sometimes, their character names; or sometimes they wore normal costumes. There had been normal costume designs at first, but Prince scrapped them for the church-basement-theatre look.

But the biggest mistake of all was casting kids in all the leads. The kids didn't know what feeling lost and middle-aged was like. But middle-aged actors do know what being young and hopeful (and clueless) feels like. The kids didn't understand the weighty irony of the material, or the compromises of middle age. The script and score came from the perspective of middle age, but the production didn't.

In 2011, I rewatched my bootleg video (shhhh!) of the original Merrily We Roll Along, and that's when I realized it was a neo musical comedy. So much of what didn't work originally now seems organic to the art form in this new Golden Age. The problem of an asshole as protagonist may have been (commercially) insurmountable in 1981, but today it fits right in alongside Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bonnie & Clyde, High Fidelity, and A New Brain.

So after seeing the video again, the show swam around in my head for a few days, and then I decided to write to Sondheim. Here's my letter:
Dear Steve,

I had the great fun tonight of seeing a bootleg videotape of the original Merrily We Roll Along. I’ve always loved the score but have seen only mediocre productions before now. I was really surprised to find that it feels so much like the new, more ironic musicals being written today. While I watched it, a word came to mind that I never thought I’d associate with Merrilyferocious.

And as a result, I’m writing to ask if you’d ever consider letting us produce the original Broadway version of Merrily. Though I like the revised version a lot, I was surprised at how intense and how subtle and ambiguous the original version was. Honestly, the nastiness of “Rich and Happy” has always delighted me, but seeing the original staging made it even funnier and nastier, but also sadder. More Virginia Woolf than musical comedy. And I really saw that the show rests entirely on its acting. It made me wonder how it would work with actors in their 40s in the leads…

I realized watching the show that the graduation scene is important because what the older Frank is saying is essentially true, and the kids tune him out. It asks the audience to choose sides – idealist or realist? And when the kids start asking questions of “Mr. Shepard,” they’re asking nearly every one of us in the audience. Most people give up their dreams, so Frank is normal. It’s the first time I realized the show isn’t about letting go of your dreams; it’s about why and how people let go of their dreams. It’s not passing judgment, just exploring. I really want to try the show with the graduation scenes.

I think today’s audiences – especially our audiences, who’ve seen a lot of Sondheim on our stages – are ready (perhaps more than ever before) for the strange but compelling original style of the show. Plus we’re in a 200-seat theatre, so that allows for some outstanding, subtle acting. I would love to get a crack at making that original version work, if you’d allow us.

I’ll absolutely understand if you don’t want to, but I hope you’ll consider it. And if it doesn’t work as well as I think it will, nobody will even know about it, way out here in St. Louis…

Thanks for all your generosity to us over the years and for giving us such remarkable art to work on.

Scott Miller

Sondheim wrote back to me:
Dear Scott

Thanks for the letter, and I'm delighted that you'd like to do Merrily We Roll Along, but I really don't want the original version to be presented on the stage. There were many reasons that George and I changed it, and I won't bother to go into them now. Suffice to say that George would agree with me. Please forgive us, and once again thanks for wanting to do it.

Your Sincerely,
Stephen Sondheim

I was a little disappointed but I can't be pissed. It's his show, and I think that original production was very painful for him in various ways. It was genuinely ahead of its time in form and content, but it suffered the same fate as High Fidelity, BBAJ, and Cry-Baby, being produced on Broadway when it belonged off Broadway, and with a creative staff who didn't know what it was. Sondheim learned his lesson; his next project was Sunday in the Park with George, off Broadway at Playwrights Horizons with visual artist Jim Lapine.

Maybe someday I'll get to produce and direct the original version of Merrily. Maybe someday they'll let me. I don't know for sure that I can make it work, but I really think I can. I'm getting pretty good at directing neo musical comedies.

We're opening our 25th season next fall with the neo musical comedy Heathers. Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

Six Questions with Andrew Lippa

This is the second in an occasional series in which I ask a bunch of theatre composers the same questions and see how similar and different they are. Composer-lyricist Andrew Lippa (The Wild Party, Big Fish, The Addams Family, john & jen, I Am Harvey Milk) recently agreed to go under the microscope..

Have most of your projects been initiated by you or by others?

Most by me.

Does your writing process change with different collaborators?

Always, gratefully.

What’s the most important element for a story to have to make a great musical?

Passionate feeling.

What’s your most common mistake or stumbling block when you write?

Caring what other people think. I've gotta just do what I think is good. I think the best work happens that way.

Do you write a lot of songs that don’t make it into the final score, and if so, why do you think it happens that way?

Sometimes yes, sometimes no. I think it happens 'cuz you learn more about your show as you write it. It's a living thing and needs to be heard and seen. Once you write a draft and show it off with actors playing the roles, you learn more than you'd ever be able to learn by just playing it over and over in your head.

Who’s your favorite post-Sondheim theatre composer (other than you)?

I love 'em all!

Many thanks to Andrew Lippa! More to come...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. See all my Six Questions with Stephen Flaherty.

May I Have a Definition...?

One of our actors recently committed the sin of mistaking soundtrack for cast album. Cue the audible gasp from all the gay men. Shit like that can be contagious.

And can we talk about all the "serious" musical theatre books that think through-composed means sung-through...? (Spoiler Alert: It doesn't.)

Makes me wanna slap 'em all with the score to March of the Falsettos. This is the Information Age, people.

Then again, thinking and writing about musical theatre hasn't always been taken seriously; and because neither music scholars nor theatre scholars want to claim the musical theatre (and fuck 'em), the study of musical theatre has always been more Wild West than Ivory Tower.

Cecil Smith wrote the first musical theatre history book back in 1950, called Musical Comedy in America; and then in 1981, Glenn Litton updated it. It's still an interesting book but there's nothing in-depth or particularly relevant to the art form today. During the 70s, the Broadway conductor Lehman Engel wrote several books about musical theatre, but he didn't understand and didn't respect the concept musical, the rock musical, or anything else that came after 1965. And really, just between us, he didn't write all that insightfully even about the kind of shows he had worked on himself. Ethan Mordden, on the other hand, wrote his first history book in 1976, and is still writing today, in a unique style that's half historian and half gossip columnist. His books are such fun to read, but unfortunately, he's another author who thinks the musical theatre died a horrible death in the 1970s. Drama queen.

When I started writing my musical theatre books in the mid-90s, combining background information, context, and textual and musical analysis, nothing else like that was available. Then several years ago, a university professor who had read my books emailed me, asking what's the best musical theatre history book to use for an upcoming class on the art form that he would be teaching. I began replying to his email, but wasn't sure what to recommend. There's Gerald Bordman's overwhelmingly complete American Musical Theatre: A Chronicle, first published in 1978, but updated several times since then. It's a cool reference book (I own a copy), but it's over 1,000 pages and it costs over $100, and it doesn't really explore anything in depth. And the only other history books are either hopelessly outdated, out of print, or similarly huge and expensive.

Eventually, that and one other thing led me to write my own history book, Strike Up the Band: A New History of Musical Theatre. The one other thing was that as I contemplated writing this book, as I thought about what's already out there, I realized every other history book I had ever read about the musical theatre worked from a base assumption that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the peak of the art form.

I heartily disagree.

All of this to say that, in this unrefereed, Wild West of opposing viewpoints, we don't always have uniform definitions of many musical theatre terms. And that's the point of this blog post, to try and nail down the definitions of the terms so many of us use regularly. You may not agree with all of these, but that's to be expected when we're talking about something as subjective as making and appreciating works of art. At least it's a start.

So here goes. Feel free to comment below and argue with any of this...

"Classical" –  pre-Rodgers & Hammerstein revolution (in other words, before the 1940s), including early musical comedy and American operettas. The American musical comedy was born at the turn of the last century, almost all its conventions created (or adapted) by the brilliant actor-director-writer-composer George M. Cohan, whose shows, including the hit Little Johnny Joneschanged everything. Meanwhile, the serious classic American musicals were really just European operettas, in almost every way except for content. But despite American settings and characters, it was still a European form and it wouldn't last far into the century. In the landmark Show Boat (which is way better than most recent productions would lead you to believe), Jerome Kern and Oscar Hammerstein combined the classic musical comedy and American operetta to create a hybrid form that would eventually become the Rodgers & Hammerstein model.

"Modern" – Rodgers & Hammerstein brought modernism to the musical theatre. In general, modernism showed up around the turn of the last century and blossomed between the World Wars, but musical theatre was still a young art form, so we didn't get to modernism till the early 1940s. Modernist musicals rejected many of the cliches and conventions of the classic shows. They were more serious, more complex, more reflective of real world issues, and in certain ways, occasionally experimental. But much of the mid-century morality of these shows is no longer relevant to our world, trapped in the past before Vietnam, the Sexual Revolution, Watergate, and the Age of Irony. We can't ignore the fact that R&H's last show was 55 years ago, and the last really successful R&H-style show of that era was Fiddler on the Roof just five years later. Like Show Boat, Fiddler was something of a hybrid, combining the R&H model with the concept musical, still in its infancy.

"Postmodern" – musicals that reject the faux naturalism of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, shows that admitted their artifice, in a new artistic "honesty" for the new Ironic Age that started in the 1960s. Stephen Sondheim, Hal Prince, Bob Fosse, Kander & Ebb, and others brought very Brechtian postmodernism to the musical theatre, rejecting the (arguably silly) "naturalistic" impulses of modernism, now more expressionistic in style, more realistic in content, less focused on linear narrative, more issue-oriented, less interested in answers than in questions, and far more experimental in form. The concept musical was the most obvious result of this movement.

"Concept Musical" – a musical in which narrative storytelling takes a back seat or disappears entirely, a postmodern musical theatre in which one over-riding idea or theme or metaphor is the central point. Sometimes concept musicals like Company and A Chorus Line use linear narrative, but that narrative is interior, psychological, not concrete. There were a couple concept musicals very early on, The Cradle Will Rock (1937) and Love Life (1948), and then The Fantasticks (1959), Man of La Mancha (1965), and Hair (1967). But the form really reached its zenith in the work of Kander & Ebb (Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Scottsboro Boys) and Sondheim and Prince (Company, Follies, Pacific Overtures, Merrily We Roll Along). The concept musical is still alive and well, in shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and If/Then.

"Neo Musical Comedy" – this is a label I created to describe shows like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Lysistrata Jones, Bukowsical, Cry-Baby, A New Brain, Spelling Bee, and many others, shows that use the devices and conventions of classic musical comedy, but in a dark, ironic, self-aware, meta-style that both comments on the form itself and also tackles social and political issues. (Note that many neo musical comedies are also concept musicals, and therefore, postmodern.) This is a more serious, more confrontational, more adult form than its ancestor, but the best of these shows are every bit as entertaining. I think there might be an argument that Company and Chicago were neo musical comedies way back in the 70s.

"Neo Rock Musical" – another label I created, to describe shows that use rock as their musical vocabulary, but unlike older rock musicals (JC Superstar, Hair, etc.), in the neo rock musical, the rock and roll is not the point; it's just the language of storytelling. In Hair and Superstar, the choice of rock music is intrinsic to the point of the story; a rebellious musical language for the political rebels at the center of the story. In Next to Normal, the musical language is never the point; it's just a common language between writers and audience, exactly like the foxtrot was in Rodgers & Hammerstein scores in the 40s. The Baby Boomers are finally old enough that rock and roll has become our culture's default language, and now it's become the musical theatre's default language as well.

And it's about fucking time.

I usually sub-divide this category into two. Some new rock shows are really neo musical comedies (BBAJ, Cry-Baby, Lysistrata Jones), while serious new rock shows essentially adopt the R&H storytelling form and structure, but with a rock language (Next to Normal, Dogfight). The rock neo musical comedy is generally not sung-through, while the serious rock musical usually is.

"Meta-Musical" – a musical that refers to itself or is aware of itself (explicitly, like Urinetown, or more subtly, like High Fidelity), and/or a musical that is about its own performance, like The Mystery of Edwin Drood. Some other examples... The Scottsboro Boys is a meta-musical because the premise is that we're watching a minstrel show that tells us this horrific real-world story of injustice. The form of its storytelling is part of the point of the show. Kind of like Chicago, which (in its original version) told us a story through a series of vaudeville acts, literalizing the show's central point that America turns crime into entertainment. Bukowsical is a meta-musical because its premise is that the life and art of Charles Bukowski is being told through the least appropriate storytelling form possible, an upbeat, musical comedy. In these musicals, as well as in Passing Strange, Hedwig ad the Angry Inch, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Bomb-itty of Errors, and others, the show is at least partly about its own performance.

Some contemporary meta-musicals, like Bat Boy and Heathers, are meta only in that they blow up the heightened style of classic musical comedy to epic and ridiculous proportions, to create a world simultaneously very serious and hilarious. We New Liners call it hyper-serious. It's both an embrace and reimagining of all the old conventions to better fit our times, but it does call attention to itself, either broadly (in less successful productions) or more straight-faced. As one of the Bat Boy writers put it, "the depth of sincerity, the height of expression." It's not an easy tightrope for actors or directors; too often they forget the first half of that.

The third kind of meta-musical is really just sketch comedy, where the punch line is meta references. [title of show] is one of the more successful, a musical literally about its creators writing it. This show, along with Silence!, Gutenberg, and too many others just make "meta" into a running joke, for no compelling point or purpose. They mistake reference for cleverness.

"Sung-Through" and "Through-Composed – Be careful with this one and its almost-twin. Sung-through means sung from beginning to end, with no (or almost no) spoken dialogue. Most pop operas are sung-through. A similar label, through-composed, often gets confused with sung-through, but they mean really different things. Through-composed means that no music ever gets repeated or re-used throughout a long piece of music. In terms of musical theatre, that would mean no two verses would have the same melody, no songs would be reprised, no melodies would be turned into underscoring, etc. I don't think I've ever seen or heard a truly through-composed theatre score (nor would I want to), yet people throw this term around a lot, thinking it means sung-through. It doesn't. I'll get down off my soapbox now. Briefly.

"Musical Theatre" and "Opera" – Throughout high school and college, I used to grapple with the Big Question: what's the difference between musical theatre and opera? It now seems silly to me. Why did I care so much? Sondheim says it's all about audience expectations; if you produce Sweeney Todd in an opera house, it's an opera, and if you present the show in a theatre, it's a musical. I'm not sure I totally agree. I have a similar but slightly different point of view. I think it's about priorities. If the music is the most important element, it's an opera. If the storytelling is the most important element, it's a musical. Like Sondheim's, my definition assumes that the same show could be different things in different contexts. And also, we need to stop caring about this...

"Realism" and "Naturalism" – these terms get thrown around a lot, and with various definitions and usages. After years of discussion, reading, internet searching, and informal surveys of my theatre friends, I've come to a confident conclusion. Realism is about content; naturalism is about style.

Realism is about portraying the world the way it really is, rather than as a fantasy world where poverty and death never intrude. Company is a realistic musical because it deals with human relationships the way they really are, no cliches, no shortcuts, no rose-colored glasses, but it's also very un-naturalistic.

Naturalism is about presenting (human) "nature" as it is, in other words, appearing natural, moving and talking the way people do in real life, with no heightened style or focus. Robert Altman movies are almost all naturalistic (his film M*A*S*H is my favorite example). It's rare that naturalism is called for in musical theatre because it's so unnatural to break into song, but there have been some New Line shows (Love Kills, Hair) in which a kind of modified naturalism (a naturalism that excuses singing) is the right style.

The problem with these terms is that in everyday language, realistic usually means naturalistic. In theatre, it doesn't.

"Brecht" and "Brechtian" – Bertolt Brecht was a brilliant German director and writer, whose most famous work is his musical with Kurt Weill, The Threepenny Opera (coming to New Line in 2015). He wrote plays and tons of commentary and philosophy on theatre as an art form. Brecht's big idea was, in short, that the audience shouldn't just feel something, but should be thinking as well about what's happening in the story. He called it Verfremdungseffekt; John Willlet translated that in 1964 as alienation effect, but it's now generally called a distancing effect or an estrangement effect.

Whatever you want to call it, it means admitting the artifice of theatre, and forcing the audience to acknowledge that artifice; by breaking the Fourth Wall, by directly addressing the audience, by physically invading the audience's space, by commentary songs, by self-reference and parody, and/or by various other "meta" devices (like the lawyer interrupting Bukowsical, or the entire premise of [title of show]). Brechtianism ( I don't even know if that's a word) replaced the Rodgers & Hammerstein model in the 1960s, with shows like The Fantasticks, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Hair, Promises, Promises, Dames at Sea, and others. But it was Hal Prince and Stephen Sondheim who most fully and most effectively embraced it, in Company, Sweeney Todd, Follies, Pacific Overtures, A Little Night Music, and Merrily We Roll Along.

Today there are more Brechtian musicals than R&H musicals (Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spring Awakening, Rent, Hedwig, BBAJ, High Fidelity, Wild Party, Spelling Bee, Reefer Madness, Scottsboro Boys, Spider-Man, Carrie, bare, American Idiot, Passing Strange) because today we live in the Age of Irony.

"Diegetic" – This is a label that connotes music or a song that comes out of the world of the story, rather than from the language of the storytelling, music that both the audience and the characters can hear. Maybe that's not all that clear. Usually in musicals, the characters are not aware they're singing. In Spring Awakening, we're not supposed to believe that inside this narrative, all these kids are actually singing in a circle around the couple having sex. Or in Guys and Dolls, when Nathan and Adelaide sing the hilarious fight-song "Sue Me," inside the reality of the story, the characters are not singing their fight on the street; they don't hear it as singing. We only hear it as singing because a musical is telling this story. Singing is just the language of the storytelling, the same way that iambic pentameter is the language of Shakespeare's plays.

But sometimes, the music is actually organic inside the story. For example, in Cabaret, many of the songs are being performed in the Kit Kat Klub, and all the characters are aware that they're singing. Likewise in Rent, when Roger plays and sings "Your Eyes," all the characters know he's singing. Same with Angel's "Today 4 U," and also "We Love You Conrad" in Bye Bye Birdie, "Be Like the Bluebird" in Anything Goes, "Sing" and "One" in A Chorus Line, "The Parlor Songs" in Sweeney Todd, and "Nicest Kids in Town" in Hairspray. These are all diegetic numbers. The music comes from inside the story.

"Soundtrack" and "Cast Album" – Movies have two tracks on the piece of film, the visual track and the sound track. So only movies can have soundtracks. Stage shows do not have soundtracks. Did you get that? Recordings of live stage performances are called cast albums or cast recordings. In David Dillon's stage comedy Party, there's a lengthy monologue about this. If you're gay, you can have your card taken away for not knowing this. Straight men are given a pass. Once. So let's review. There is no such things as a Next to Normal soundtrack because Next to Normal has not been filmed, but there is both a Rent cast album and a Rent soundtrack.

Just don't confuse them within earshot of me.

"Fourth Wall" – This is the long-standing convention in many plays and musicals of pretending the audience is on the other side of an invisible wall (it's the "fourth," since most realistic sets provide the other three). The idea of the fourth wall is inherently dishonest; it asks us to "believe" in the false reality onstage, yet we all know it isn't real. The pretense that the artifice of theatre (particularly musical theatre) isn't in fact artificial is just a big ol' lie. Why would an audience go on this ride with us, if we're lying to them...?

It's an even more problematic concept in musical theatre, because the act of breaking into song is such an unnatural act to begin with. The Rodgers & Hammerstein model relies heavily on musical soliloquy, or what we usually call an "interior monologue" – essentially just thinking out loud – behind that fourth wall. But in classic musical comedy, and in the new musical theatre forms of this new century, soliloquies are now just direct address to the audience. The characters tell the audience what they're feeling, rather than pretending to "think out loud" with the audience "eavesdropping." There is no pretense of the fourth wall in a lot of new musicals.

Let an actor play Carousel's "Soliloquy" directly to the audience and see how much more powerful it gets from that honesty. I'm no Shakespeare scholar but I know Richard's monologues in Richard III aren't about thinking out loud; he's talking to us. We're in the room with him. That's so much more honest, and I think it engages the audience even more than fake fourth-wall reality ever can.

"Cheat Out" – This means to turn an actor's body toward the audience a little, even if that's unnatural in the scene (hence the "cheating" part of it), usually so that the audience can better see an actor's face, or if there are no mics, so that the audience can hear the actor better. I usually refer to this as "sharing with the audience," just because I think that's a more accurate label – it's not about cheating; it's about including the audience.

Many actors are taught to always cheat out, or at least to always do it in a musical. But in this age of the new American musical, the convention of cheating out isn't always appropriate. At New Line, we often have a conversation about whether to share or not to share, depending on the style of the show. Sometimes, we consciously choose not to share, to keep intimate conversations onstage in full profile, to intentionally not include the audience, to make them feel like voyeurs. This has been true of bare, Next to Normal, and a few other intensely emotional shows.

"Reprise" – is a repeat of a song, sometimes in exactly the same form (in lesser musicals) or subtly changed (in great musicals) to take on new meaning, or to cast a different light on its original meaning. For the record, it rhymes with Febreeze, not despise. Interestingly there are two different words that are both spelled reprise, but they have different origins, different meanings, and different pronunciations. When it rhymes with Febreeze, it means a musical repetition or recurrence. When it rhymes with despise, it means to repeat a performance or an explanation.

"Entr'acte"– You've probably only ever seen this word in a theatre score or maybe cast album liner notes. It's really just the Act II overture. It comes from the French for "between acts." It's pronounced AHN-trahkt. You'd be amazed how many different ways people have found of pronouncing it. Drives me nuts.

"Eleven O'Clock Number" – This term sometimes has slightly different definitions, but generally the eleven o'clock number comes late in Act II, and it's usually a big revelation for a lead character, often also a showstopper. The label comes from when Broadway shows started later, so these numbers would come around 11:00 p.m. Some examples are "God Answered My Prayers" in Hands on a Hardbody, "Laura, Laura" in High Fidelity, "Work the Wound" in Passing Strange, "So Long, Dearie" in Hello, Dolly!, "Rose's Turn" in Gypsy, "Cabaret" in Cabaret, "The Brotherhood of Man" in How to Succeed, "Memory" in Cats, "There Are Worse Things I Could Do" in Grease... you get the idea...

"Underscoring" – music that plays behind dialogue. More and more contemporary theatre composers are using underscoring, often using it like film music. Sweeney Todd, Bat Boy, Passing Strange, and Bonnie & Clyde are all good examples of shows that use a lot of underscoring. Sometimes it's to create or enhance mood or tension, to allow for a short bit of dialogue inside the song, even though the song continues (a great example of this is much of Act II of Bonnie & Clyde), or to give the storytelling energy and momentum.

"Vamp," "Safety," "Jump Cue," & "Cue to Continue" –  These are all musical terms that are unique to musical theatre. A vamp is a piece of music that gets repeated until something happens in action or dialogue, usually two or four measures long, but sometimes as short as one measure or even one beat. It's the musical equivalent of treading water, a musical "loop" that's used for moments in shows that may be different from performance to performance, though usually after a show runs for a while, the vamps pretty much settle into the same length every time. A safety is like a vamp but it's optional, only to be used when something unexpected happens. Usually, the band doesn't have to repeat the safety, but it's there just in case.

cue to continue is just a line of dialogue that tells the band it's time to move on out of the vamp. Usually, when there's a vamp, the band plays the full phrase until the actors are ready for the next phrase, but a jump cue is when the band "jumps" out of the vamp, wherever they may be in it, without finishing the phrase, going on to the next musical phrase. It's often used when music exactly matches a piece of dialogue, like a dramatic "sting" on a particular spoken word, that kind of thing. A lot of contemporary theatre scores have a lot of underscoring, so we scrawl tons of cues into our scores.

"Sitzprobe" – the rehearsal(s), in which the cast and band play through the whole score for the first time, often while sitting in chairs (the literal translation of the German is seated test or trial). In New Line's case, this is usually also the first time the band plays through the score together. It's a chance for the musicians to hear the cast, any dialogue over music, etc., before we really run the show.

"Mark It"  – This is a phrase theatre folks use to mean just moving through a performance, but not doing it full-out, not worrying about character or emotion, just blocking and other practical details. We almost never do this at New Line.

The show is - or isn't - "working"  – This is one of those nebulous, vague phrases that people love to use and hate to hear. Because the act of creating musical theatre is such mysterious alchemy, it's not always clear what is making a show work well or not. This phrase is used a lot when people can feel instinctually that the show isn't right, but they can't articulate what's wrong. I don't use this phrase often, but sometimes, it's the only thing you can say...

What is Art?  Now there's a question. Artists have been asking that question since there have been artists. Personally, I think art is a human expression of something of value that connects with another person in a meaningful way. Art is how we make order out of the crazy chaos of life, how we try to understand ourselves and the world around us. And if you're making art strictly for financial gain or personal aggrandizement, then that's not art; that's masturbation. Art has to be about connection. A lyric from Sunday in the Park with George hints at what art is about –
Anything you do,
Let it come from you,
Then it will be new.
Give us more to see.

Art is personal. It's human. It's a gift. And we need it to survive.

So there you have it. As I said, you may disagree with some of these, but I've thought about most of these terms for a very long time. Feel free to suggest other terms that should be included. And promise me you'll never call a cast album a soundtrack.

Long Live the Musical!