Let Others Make That Decision. They Usually Do.

Here's another glimpse inside the world of running a small nonprofit theatre...

We apply for government grants every year and two of those grantors, the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, use citizen review panels to help judge the applications. After all the decisions are made, and they tell us how much our grant is (we got a raise from MAC this season!), they also send along a list of comments from the panelists.

Which can be both encouraging and maddening.

Quite a few of these comments are awesome. One MAC panelist this year wrote "The large variety of extraordinarily positive reviews, along with the pictures illustrating high production values, clearly illustrates artistic merit." Another wrote, "New Line has intelligently and clearly established and carries out its specific purpose as a company committed to producing high-quality, socially and politically relevant musical theatre. It exhibits a savvy reliance on social media to provide an interactive educational component."

Another one wrote, "Has distinct unique niche (adult musicals between the avant garde and mainstream rep) in community arts scene. Heavy involvement with community via volunteer efforts, working with local businesses, etc. Actively pursuing greater diversity inside and out." Another wrote, "The theatre you deliver is important to the community!" And another wrote, "Your product is strong. It is a welcome part of the scene in our community! Thanks!"

Wow! Thanks, folks!

We also get a lot of very weird comments. For years we used to get some vaguely derogatory comments from some MAC panelist in outstate Missouri, who apparently didn't think St. Louis deserves its Big City reputation. This person once commented that New Line isn't "avant-garde" enough because we were planning to do Spelling Bee that season, and he had already seen it in Springfield.

Sorry, dude, but New Line doesn't do avant-garde theatre. Never has.

We often get weird reactions to our use of the word alternative when we describe New Line as an "alternative musical theatre company," or when we describe our work (as we do on our website) as "daring, provocative, muscular theatre about politics, sexuality, race, religion, the media, and more, offering an up-close-and-personal alternative to the big, commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours, since 1992." In other words, New Line's work is an alternative to other, more conventional approaches to musical theatre. Not avant-garde, not "cutting edge," just different. One MAC panelist once complained that New Line wasn't "avant-garde" enough to use the word alternative. They all need to look up the word alternative. The relevant dictionary definition is "employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment: an alternative newspaper; alternative lifestyles."

Or an alternative musical theatre company.

This year, one panelist complained that Rent is too "standard." If he'd just read the reviews I submitted with our application, he'd see that our Rent was anything but standard. Weirdly, he complimented us and dissed us at the same time: "The musicals vary in quality, as do the productions. When they are good, they are very good. When not so good, average." Ouch! Okay, opinions are like assholes, right? He goes on, "The material, considering they are characterized as 'alternative,' provides an opportunity to see work that is rarely done although Rent is pretty standard." Well, he's right that our programming frequently gives our audiences a chance to see new or obscure musicals, but that's really not our primary agenda – our mission is to present politically and socially relevant musicals. If Rent doesn't fit that description, I don't know what show would.

I keep adjusting our descriptions in our application from year to year to address these misconceptions, and last year I revised it heavily to explain exactly what we do in really clear terms. Here's part of the main essay I wrote about our company for the application:
Now in our 23rd season of professional, alternative musical theatre, all of us at New Line still believe live theatre is one of the most important and effective forums in American life for exploring the issues and events that most deeply affect our lives – and for personalizing those issues through our stories. We believe that artists owe it to their community to address these issues, and New Line was founded on those principles.

Our twenty-two seasons of success prove that we produce work that is accessible to a wide audience, while focusing on challenging, adult material that explores political and social issues, sometimes more obviously, sometimes more subtextually – mostly shows that The Rep, Stages, and The Muny will not produce. We are not an avant-garde company and we do not generally consider our work controversial. Since there are plenty of local companies producing family-friendly musicals, we do not duplicate that effort and we keep New Line's focus on the adult work that our audiences love so much. Every season since our founding has included at least one world premiere or regional premiere, often more than one. We produce brand new works, as well as older works reimagined, and radical reinterpretations of the classics, all of them socially or politically relevant in some way. New Line has produced 68 musicals over the years and five world premieres in just the last seven seasons.

That's pretty clear, isn't it? And now that you've read that, does Rent seem out of place in our repertoire?

Maybe it's hard for some people who like to put the world into nice, neat, little boxes, because New Line just doesn't fit into any existing category, which is probably why there aren't any other companies doing exactly what we do (though there are quite a few now who partly do what we do). Our mission statement says we produce politically and socially relevant works of the musical theatre. That's not all that hard to understand, is it?

But it can get even crazier than that. Imagine my frustration when I read comments from the RAC panel a couple years back, and came across this – "Everything about this organization is quite exciting with the notable exception of the work on stage, which is subpar compared to most other organizations in St Louis doing similar work."


So "everything" about New Line is great except we make lousy theatre...? And where are the "other organizations in St. Louis doing similar work"...? There's no other company in the whole country that does what we do, much less in St. Louis, and the national press and the local press understand that. And even more frustrating (but probably good) is that the comments are all anonymous, so I can't ask what he meant, and give him the information about us that he lacks. Still, I can't get too upset by stuff like this because it's so silly; if our work was really "subpar," we wouldn't have oceans of rave reviews to quote and we wouldn't be thriving after twenty-two seasons. So this person doesn't like the kind of work we do. That's fine. They won't be the first. To paraphrase Frank N. Furter, "We didn't make it for you!"

And the bottom line is that MAC gave us an almost 50% raise this year, and RAC gave us a 10% raise, and that's pretty great. All that really matters is that our audiences keep buying tickets to see what the mad geniuses at New Line come up with, and that our donors keep supporting our work.

As much as shit like this annoys me, I have to take a step back and realize that I chose this Road Not Taken for myself. I chose to forge (or at least adopt) new rules for making musicals. I chose not to travel down the expected path, and I have to accept (even embrace?) that the world isn't always comfortable with that. Rather than getting pissed, I just have to understand where the resistance comes from; after all, we are asking people to change how they think about musical theatre and theatre in general. Like Mother Jones, New Line's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

While singing.

And when all is said and done, the only opinions that really matter to me are the audiences' and the writers'. The rest is just noise.

Long Live the Alternative Musical!

Not Just One Singular Sensation

In a recent blog post, I admitted to a love-hate relationship with Broadway.

Kinda like an ex you wanna break up with, who used to be awesome but is now just lazy and nihilistic and annoying, and who smokes all your pot and empties the fridge. Sure, you remember the good times, the joy and the fun, but then you remember how long ago that was. Is it time to move on?

Well, I can't really.

Despite the fact that commercial Broadway success no longer has any correlation to quality or artistry, still most of the most serious, most talented, most ambitious musical theatre writers still gravitate toward the Big Bad Apple, partly because Broadway used to be The Place for new musical theatre, and partly because if you can succeed commercially in New York theatre, you might be able to make a decent living making musicals. So I understand why writers often head there.

But these writers (and, I'd argue, actors and others) are in an abusive relationship. They keep thinking they can change Broadway, by producing work like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys, but Broadway doesn't change. Not anymore. At least, not for the better. Can you picture the young tourist couple at the TKTS booth wondering what shows they and their eight-year-old would all enjoy? They see Next to Normal on the board and the wife says "Look, a rock musical! You enjoyed Jesus Christ Superstar at the Fox..." Or better yet, "Oh look, honey, a funny musical about Andrew Jackson! It'll be educational...!"

One word: PTSD.

So that tourist couple's taste becomes Broadway's taste. And Broadway isn't going to change as long as they're serving that audience and as long as Broadway musicals cost north of ten million dollars to produce. Which makes the ticket price crazy high, which makes theatre-going a Special Event, not a habit – and not the time to Try Something New. For many people, it's a Special Event you attend only when you're On Vacation. It's all a big, fat Catch-22. So Broadway isn't going to change.

But as long as so many of our best writers live and work there, I'll keep an eye open and an ear to the ground. Still, I'll be careful not to ignore the rest of the country, or I'll miss gems like The Ballad of Little Mikey, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead. As far as New Line is concerned, Broadway and off Broadway are good conduits for us to find strong new work, but we don't care if Broadway or off Broadway gave the shows their Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or not. They're not a reliable judge of quality, for two reasons. First, the only measure of success in New York is ticket sales. Success means financial success. Second, too often, unconventional material is sabotaged by its Broadway production team who can't escape their narrow view of what a musical is.

Not that I have strong opinions about all this...

Lest I get too ranty, let me stop and admit that when I was young, Broadway was as magical and magnificent to me as it is to young people today. In college, I spent more time in the cast album section of used record stores than in classrooms. But two things were very different then. First, there weren't regional theatres all over our country in the numbers they exist today. St. Louis didn't have dozens of theatre companies like we do now. The only place I could see new shows was on tour and that was expensive. Second, when I grew up, most of the people seeing Broadway shows lived in the New York area, so the artists could be much more adventurous for this more sophisticated audience who went to the theatre regularly. It's different today. According to the Broadway League, in the 2012–2013 season, tourists purchased two-thirds of all Broadway tickets. International tourists, many of whom don't speak English, made up a quarter of the audience, the highest percentage in recorded history.

So how could a Broadway producer really be fearless...? No wonder they make lots of terrible choices with a financial Sword of Damocles hangin' over their heads.

Of course, those who still worship Broadway (I was once one of them) give me epic shit for my less enthusiastic position. And I do feel a little guilty, like I broke up with Broadway, but I still love her... but she's also a crazy bitch and I still have a scar from when she threw that shoe at me (let's just call that a metaphor for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark)...
Broadway: How can you just leave? How can you give up on us?
Scott: I just don't feel as close to you as I used to.
Broadway: But why? We're so comfortable!
Scott: Exactly.
Broadway: Can we still be friends?
Scott: Sure. Of course.
Broadway: Wanna have dinner Friday night?
Scott: Gee, I'm really busy this month... I'll call you.

But there are also those on the other side, those who reflexively reject Broadway, who think commercial success is a disqualifier, the ones who think theatre companies should only do the newest, most aggressive, least accessible work, preferably only work by local writers. That's not what we do.

In a recent Facebook conversation, someone said that they weren't aware that New Line ever did new work. So I told him that New Line often does new work and we have done three new musicals in just the last five seasons, which I think is pretty cool. But then this guy replied with (I may be slightly paraphrasing), "Yeah, but you just did Rent."


Producing Rent cancels out other shows we've produced? How does that work? So Rent is evidence of artistic apostasy just because it connected to a wide audience? Sure it ran for twelve years on Broadway, but it's also one of eight musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, right along with Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Both good and bad shows can be popular, usually for different reasons. Popularity comes from a strong connection to the audience. And great art creates a strong connection with the audience. Sometimes, they overlap; other times, they don't.

I encounter a similar thing on a personal level with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love early ALW shows. I mean, I love them. New Line has produced both JC Superstar and Evita, both of which I think can be outstanding pieces of theatre when done right. And I have great affection for Joseph, which is really smart and clever, and just enough ironic and smartass to keep me happy. I also really like Tell Me on a Sunday (I'd like New Line to do that someday) and I must admit I really loved Cats the first time I saw it, and I still love listening to the score. But I hate pretty much everything ALW wrote after that. And so I've been branded my whole life as a Lloyd Webber hater, when my actual opinion is much subtler.

We choose shows for New Line to produce based on a lot of factors, but nothing is ever more important than good storytelling and a good score. We also consider the physical, financial, and casting demands. And because we do have to keep New Line alive, we are aware that we can't fill a season with three weird, difficult shows no one's ever heard of. So to that extent, we do think, last, about ticket sales – even in our somewhat insulated world, complete commercial failure does cause us problems.

But while it may cost you $400 for an orchestra seat to a Broadway musical, it only costs $25 to see a New Line show. So it's much easier to take a chance on an unknown musical. It's much easier for our New Line audience to be as adventurous as they are, with only $25 at stake.

I'll continue with my love-hate relationship until musical theatre writers can make a living writing for regional theatres, and I don't know when or if that will happen. Until then, we'll keep our unholy alliance with commercial New York theatre, but we will never bow to its limitations and narrow boundaries. We are artistic and emotional adventurers here at New Line. We're not interested in what's familiar and comforting. We'll leave that to others.

We'll just keep doing the best, most exciting musical theatre this new Golden Age has to offer. Sometimes it'll come from Broadway (though it will almost never originate there); sometimes it won't. We just hope you'll keep coming to share it with us.

Long Live the Musical!

It's Today!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Musical theatre is populist again!

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Meet Me in St. Louis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cave City, Comma, Capital K, Capital Y

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

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

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

And we wanted to see that cave.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Research is awesome.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

This World Will Remember Us

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

And that's just crazy!

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

My timing, while accidental, was also impeccable.

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

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

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

We know how to tell a good story.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Till next time...

Long Live the Musical!

JD and Benny's Excellent Adventure

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!

Brains, Women, and Rain

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Long Live the Musical!