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...

"Classic" –  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 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" vs "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 definition, 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!

Six Questions with Stephen Flaherty

This is the first in an occasional series in which I ask a bunch of theatre composers the same questions and see how similar and different they are. Stephen Flaherty (Ragtime, Once On This Island, My Favorite Year, Seussical, Rocky) was the first to reply...

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

The ideas of most of my projects have come mostly from others. I am good at finding musical worlds I am interested in exploring but the actual stories and underlying properties have come from others.

Does your writing process change with different collaborators?

I principally work with lyricist-librettist Lynn Ahrens and though we know one another very well and have certain ways of approaching material and ideas, our process can morph from project to project. It's never exactly the same.

I recently worked on a dance theater piece, an original, with director-choreographer Christopher Gattelli called In Your Arms and could not rely on the spoken word at all, so that process was very different for me and I flexed many new muscles.

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

It needs a heightened quality and the stakes must be really high. And it must have a protagonist that says "Make me sing!"

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

I don't believe in mistakes firstly. Stumbling block? Probably doing emails before I put out the first rough ideas of the day. Emails can kill you!

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?

I think work begets work and the more you write the more you discover what it is that you are writing about. So sure there are songs that lead you to the songs that ultimately stay in the score. But nothing is ever wasted. Every step enriches the next step.

As an opening night gift I make a book of all the “cut songs” from the show and give it to my partner, Lynn Ahrens. It is beautiful to see them all together; you can see the arc of the writing of each show, where you began and how you got to opening night.

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

I have always loved Jonathan Larson's work and I am always interested in seeing what Jeanine Tesori and Michael John LaChiusa come up with next.

Many thanks to Stephen Flaherty! More to come...

Long Live the Musical!

Ain't Nothin' I Can't Do With a Gun

There are so many interesting phenomena at play during our run of Bonnie & Clyde. First off, and perhaps strangest, we seem to be alternating every night between audiences that laugh a lot, and audiences that laugh only occasionally. Yet almost every night, our curtain call has been greeted with a standing ovation and cheering, even when the audience hasn't been all that vocal during the show.

I'm guessing here, but I think it's because it's an incredibly serious story, but there are also a considerable number of laughs in the show. I think sometimes the audience decides collectively to take the story very seriously, and other nights they take it less seriously (at least until the second half of Act II, when shit gets real). And I think it's connected to something I said last night at a cast party – that this show essentially has the content of a rock opera, very big emotions, very high, life-or-death stakes, but it takes the form of a musical comedy.

Maybe that's because the show changed so drastically between its tryout in La Jolla and its opening on Broadway, from love story to cultural tragedy. But maybe it's just a function of the story; like Sondheim says, content dictates form. Bonnie and Clyde were carefree kids who didn't really appreciate the gravity of their actions until it was too late, so it makes sense that the "carefree" form of musical comedy would tell their story, intentionally at odds with this dark narrative, exactly the way Bonnie and Clyde were at odds with the society around them.

And let's not forget that musical comedy was one of the America's dominant entertainment forms in the 1920s and 30s. Much of the pop music of the times came from musicals.

Interestingly, no matter the mood of the audience, once we get well into Act II, the laughs essentially dry up. The situation gets very serious very fast, starting with Clyde's murder of a cop in the second scene of the act. And as we might expect from good writers, the form of the show morphs somewhat and becomes more rock opera than musical comedy, with far more music in Act II than in Act I, more use of musical themes, and more ominous underscoring.

I was shocked when Bonnie & Clyde closed so quickly in New York (33 previews, 36 performances). I was glad I had gotten to see it. The night I was there, the audience leapt to their feet at the end, cheering for the show. Everybody as far as I could see absolutely loved it.

And then it closed. Just like The Scottsboro Boys, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other outstanding recent shows.

I've been thinking a lot, especially since we've been working on Bonnie & Clyde, about why it didn't do better on Broadway. It's definitely more adult than many more commercially successful shows. I think the particular curse of Bonnie & Clyde is that in its La Jolla Playhouse version, it was very good but perhaps a bit too bland to be commercial. After all, that story (their love story) has been told many times. The writers worked on the show a lot, they did an interim production of the new version in Florida, and they ended up with a vastly more interesting show, darker, smarter, more adult, more sociopolitical, but most significantly, morally ambiguous.

And that means not commercial. But also, in its final form, it's not the story we've seen before.

Now personally, I love moral ambiguity, because that's life. But I also know the tourist audiences at New York's commercial theatres may not agree with me. They certainly couldn't handle the moral ambiguity of Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson or The Scottsboro Boys.

Like Sondheim and Weidman's Assassins, Bonnie & Clyde doesn't judge these criminals; and it doesn't root for them either. There are voices of morality and reason in the show, but they are weak. What makes this show so fascinating – and so not commercial – is that it makes no moral judgment. In "Made in America," the Preacher makes the case for strict morality, even in the face of starvation poverty; but then the People make the opposite case, that in some cases, morality must be fluid, that Bonnie and Clyde's crimes are understandable, if not entirely excusable.

To that end, when they rewrote the show, Bookwriter Ivan Menchell was very shrewd in waiting until Act II for Clyde to shoot someone. There is one killing in Act I (of inmate Ed Crowder, who's been raping Clyde) but it's an offstage beating by Clyde. Because Menchell holds back the shooting, the audience isn't forced to confront the deadly side of Clyde's amorality in the first half of the story. It's easier for us to side with these charming outlaws in Act I, to not judge them, because "outlaws" seem less scary than murderers.

And we've seen them fight and argue like spoiled children all through Act I, so how scary can they really be...?

Throughout the show, we're forced to choose between Bonnie and Clyde's amoral Mad Max view of the world, on the one hand, and the dark, gray, miserable world of those who Play by the Rules, on the other. Of course, we choose Mad Max. It's just more fun! And then in Act II, we're presented with the repercussions of our choice. Like the public of 1933, we get seduced by Bonnie and Clyde.

I've always searched for a solid definition of what a concept musical is. I'm pretty sure the term was first used to describe Company. But everybody kind of has their own definition of what that means and which shows qualify. I think if the one-sentence central thesis of the show is directly about people, it's not a concept musical. If that one sentence is about culture, politics, art, war, or any other idea, then it's a concept musical.

Let's test that.

The central theme of Grease is that rock and roll and cars forever changed sex in America, and Sandy stands in for America. Over the course of the show, Sandy goes from the repressed early 1950s (Sandra Dee) to the more sexually (and otherwise) adventurous 1960s, just as America did. The central theme of Rocky Horror is that the Sexual Revolution (personified here by Frank) was met with equal parts enthusiasm (Janet) and terror (Brad). The central theme of Fiddler on the Roof is that tradition is important but it must change and adapt to changing times. The central theme of Cabaret is that doing nothing is also a political choice.

Bonnie & Clyde is the same. Bonnie and Clyde stand in for a beat-up America. It's not a rose-colored vision of America; instead, it's a rough, tough, uncompromising look at the damage and destruction of those times, much of which could have been avoided if only different choices had been made by our leaders. The central theme of this show is that a broken country creates broken people with broken values.

Yup, all concept musicals.

These are the things I think about as I sit up in the back of the theatre and watch our beautiful, rowdy, intense, deeply moving show every night, as I watch the characters get subtly deeper and richer every night, as I watch our audience connect so powerfully to our story every night and then thank us with a standing ovation.

There are other places in town to be entertained, but we'll give you that and a whole lot more. Just three shows left – come join us!

Long Live the Musical!

They Stole – Wouldn't You?

Maybe you could make this argument with some other shows too (Grease, Cry-Baby, Hair, Rocky Horror), but more so than in most, in Bonnie & Clyde, the times, the zeitgeist, is a character in the show. Not only do the writers spend a lot of time on this character, but it affects every other character in the show.

As I've said in other posts, I think the Big Picture point of the show is A broken country makes broken people with broken values. And if I'm right about that, the "broken country" part of that is the times – the Depression, the Dust Bowl, and Prohibition.

This wasn't true of the show's original incarnation at the LaJolla Playhouse. There the story was a love story, and though there was some attention to socio-political context, that wasn't the point. In the revised Bonnie & Clyde that played Broadway and now plays our stage, you couldn't tell this story without this context.

From the very beginning, the show's opening number has several short dialogue scenes interspersed throughout the song, and each of these scenes tells us something about these difficult times. Significantly, we're told in these scenes that Clyde is 12 and Bonnie is 10; we meet them at this age because this is where they will both remain, trapped forever at this age emotionally and socially.

When young Clyde asks why they have to move to West Dallas, his father answers, "I don't own the land. And it ain't worth it for them to have me work it no more." Wow. And then there's the less direct scene in which Clyde's mother is upset because he's shot their only chicken. For fun. At first the scene is a joke:
CUMIE: Clyde Barrow, look what you've done! I hope you know how to lay eggs.
YOUNG CLYDE: I hope you know how to fry chicken.

It is funny, but it also subtly reminds us that the chicken could have provided them with food (eggs) for some time, while Clyde's recklessness has cost them that. It also shows us there is no respect for authority or age here; this is a world turned upside-down. The Depression hovers over everything in the story, and that gets set up in this song and the scenes within it. We find out Bonnie has married some guy named Roy (who we never meet) because she thought that would get her out of her oppressive life (it doesn't). We find out Bonnie and her widowed mother have lost their home because her father died. There's no Social Security yet. We see Clyde and Buck arrested and imprisoned. And all this darkness is set up throughout the up-beat, period perkiness (and shallow immaturity) of the opening number, "Picture Show," juxtaposing Bonnie and Clyde's childish dreams against the harsh realities of living in the Dust Bowl.

The earlier version of the show set up Bonnie as a good girl who chooses the wrong guy. In this revised version, Bonnie is beat up by the times, though not as badly as Clyde is, and it's this dark social context that now propels her motivations and our story.

It's a grim life.

But not for our cluelessly upbeat heroes. We then get more social and political context is Clyde's "I Am" song, "This World Will Remember Me." He sings:
The men in this town
Live and die and are forgotten,
And it doesn't seem to scare ‘em;
I can't wait to get away...

Away from the drought,
And the homeless and the hungry,
Where they talk about foreclosures
Every hot and dusty day.

Once again, what a grim, horrible existence. No wonder Bonnie and Clyde want to bust out of there. Clyde paints this (arguably accurate) picture of the adult men in his orbit, whose lives mean literally nothing. They live, they die, and they're forgotten. Clyde will return to a similar theme in "What Was Good Enough for You."

But let's also pause to look at the craftsmanship in that lyric. There's the alliteration of seem to scare 'em; wait to get away; homeless and the hungry; and dusty day. There's not a lot of rhyme here because this is more an emotional statement than an intellectual one. Clyde's not really a deep thinker; this is just his visceral response to the world around him.

In the song "You're Goin' Back to Jail," we discover that all these women have husbands in jail – it's a pretty sobering situation if you think about it. This song establishes important socio-political context, though again, very subtly. Lots of men were jailed during the Depression, many of them for debts. Just as today the idiotic War on Drugs has incarcerated millions of black men, back in the 1930s the economic collapse threw so many of the working poor into jail.

But this song also delivers the theme of abstract, idealized morality bumping up against the harsh reality of 1930s America, the same theme explored in Blanche's and Bonnie's signature songs, "What You Call a Dream" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." The other point in this scene is that these women have found independence, which American women wouldn't taste again till World War II, and not again after that till the 1960s. These women are doing better without their men. But Blanche rebels against their proto-feminism – she really does want to be an old-fashioned housewife, and you can see it in her imagery in "What You Call a Dream."

The second act opens with the most overt characterization of the zeitgeist, "Made in America," in which the ensemble stands in for the American people. This is the song that complicates the story, that moves the simpler morality of Act I into more moral gray area. The Preacher starts the song with a straight-forward statement of morality, and the rest of the song ultimately makes that statement seem silly and shallow. Not only does this song characterize the times, but also American organized religion, which never did figure out how to grapple with the moral and social destruction of the Great Depression.

The number starts with a sermon from the Preacher.
I don't care how hard the hardship,
No one has the right to steal.
And you cannot buy your soul back;
God don't make that kind of deal.

Morality is black and white, good and evil, saved or damned. The Preacher is Bonnie & Clyde's answer to Inspector Javert. Neither the Preacher nor Javert would be caught dead within ten yards of nuance. The Preacher continues. He knows that religion is not serving these people, is not improving their lives, is not offering them solace, so all he can preach is some far-off, future salvation. Not now, not even soon, but someday, probably not till you're dead.
When your prayers all go unanswered,
And the dust is getting worse,
And you live near open sewers
With just pennies in your purse.

That is when the good Lord
will become your Savior;
He will lead you to the light.
We are all God's children,
His arms always open.
We must all do what is right!

But remember, you don't get that far-off, future salvation unless you "do what is right." And who gets to decide what's right? Javert? The scores of idiots who passed the Eighteenth Amendment, creating Prohibition and a national crime wave? The men who wrote the Christian Bible? The many men who interpreted the Christian Bible to suit their own (often financial) needs?

As a final reminder – and a sort of call-and-response (brainwashing?) – the Preacher repeats:
You may be in debt,
Wake up in a sweat,
But let's not forget
You were made in America!

America does what's right. America had made the world safe for democracy in the first World War. Americans are the Good Guys. But what does any of that mean to someone living in a tent who can't provide for for his children because there are no jobs?

When the Preacher sings "Let's not forget, you were made in America," he means you're strong and resilient, immigrant and pioneer stock, rugged individualists, and you can withstand these trials. But when the people in the breadline then repeat those four lines, now in the first person, the sentence takes on a darker color; when they sing, "Let's not forget we were made in America," it now means everything that's wrong with us was forged in the broken clusterfuck that is America right now. By the end of the song, the lyric will change slightly and they'll sing instead, "How can we forget we were made in America?" Wow.

Then there's a short scene with underscoring, with Clyde and Bonnie discussing Bonnie's first holdup. It's played mostly for laughs; Bonnie's nervous and Clyde's impatient. What a cute young couple, right? Now it's the people's turn:
You can't blame 'em, who could blame 'em?
Ain't their fault they turned to crime:
A bar of soap's a luxury;
Don't get much change from a dime.

You can't blame those kids for wantin'
To fill up their shopping bags.
City Hall is low on kindness,
But it don't run out of flags.

They both grew up hungry,
They were heading nowhere,
Thanks to good old USA.

Almost in response to the people's defense of Bonnie and Clyde, the Preacher steps back into the song before the people can finish their verse, steering them back toward the straight-and-narrow. He sings, with the people dutifully echoing behind him:
All who sin must answer,
And these two will answer;
They will face a Judgment Day.

It's an interesting meta-moment, because everyone in the audience already knows that Bonnie and Clyde will indeed face their Judgment Day. In fact, the show itself begins by reminding us that they will face their Judgment Day. The Preacher is right, but he's not the one the people are siding with. They are torn between understanding and judgment. They think they believe what the Preacher is preaching, but on the other hand...

As Buck says to his parents about Clyde in a short scene with underscoring, "Folks are callin' him a hero!" The people continue:
Sure they robbed some men.
And they will again.
Poor kids, ah, but then,
They were made in America.

They had holes in every shoe.
No dream can come true.
They stole - wouldn't you..?

This stanza finishes with an instrumental phrase. We don't hear the lyric and yet we do. We hear the melody and our minds fill in the now familiar words. They were made in America. Just like me. Now its your thought. These last seven lines lay it all in our lap, in a direct challenge to our own comfortable morality – what would we do in that situation? – and the instrumental phrase makes us fill in the blank. Yes, they had all this damage, and yes the world of the Depression and Prohibition in the middle of the Dust Bowl did it to them, or at least, did much of it to them. Can we really know that we would act differently in the same situation?

Aren't we too made in America?

So what does all this mean? What are we to take away from "Made in America"? Are Bonnie and Clyde's crimes okay then, because they've had shitty lives; or to paraphrase West Side Story, are Bonnie and Clyde depraved on account o' they're deprived? As those questions hang there, the song climaxes to a Big Finish...

...But as it gets to the final chord, we're left unsettled. Not only does it end on a dissonant, unresolved chord (an E♭m6+9, for our musician friends), but it hangs there a cappella until an ominous, Jaws-type beat appears in the bass, and the scene has changed and Clyde is robbing a general store, and the ensemble are now customers in that store. The show's writers have taken the phrase "made in America" and literally connected it to Clyde's robbery. This scene will end with Clyde's first shooting fatality, so there's no mistaking the point here – his criminality and his violence were "made in America."

There are even more examples of the times as a character in the story. When Clyde and Bonnie rob a bank, they find it's out of money because the bank has repossessed all the local farms and houses, but no one's left with any money so no one can buy them. But you can't steal farms. At least not easily. This is also the scene where a customer asks our heroes for an autograph and Bonnie happily complies (as they often did in real life).

All in one short scene here, we see the gloomy economic context, the pop culture that embraced the couple as folk heroes (at least, for a while), the big institutions that were failing all around us, and also the continued immaturity of the emotionally stunted Bonnie and Clyde, as they argue about whose name should go first. It's clear that these are still just cocky amateurs.

We find out later in the show about the Sheriff's budget problems, not having enough money to stake out the parents' homes and the necessity of "three deputies sharing two shotguns." The other problem law enforcement faced in the 30s was outdated technology when it came to cars, and no money to do anything about that. As Capt. Hamer explains in the show, "That's 'cause Clyde steals the fastest cars out there while you drive the heaviest cars built. Your police cars weren't built for speed, they were built for back roads. Which is why even if you caught him you couldn't catch him." Most sheriffs just didn't have the ability to do anything about that, so for much of the 30s, the gangsters had the cool cars and so they usually got away.

Many older musicals are at their core about community; maybe this is true because many of those shows were written by immigrants. In most classic musicals of the so-called Golden Age, the central conflict boils down to whether or not the Hero will assimilate into this established community or be removed from it. In Carousel, Pal Joey, and West Side Story, the outsider is removed because he or she can't (or won't) fit into the community. In The Music Man, Guys and Dolls, and Hello, Dolly!, the protagonist successfully becomes part of the community. South Pacific managed to do both: Nellie is assimilated into this exotic island community, but Lt. Cable can't overcome his prejudices and he is removed through death. The same is true of The King and I, in which the King is removed but Anna is assimilated. We also get both outcomes in Show Boat and Fiddler on the Roof.

In Bonnie & Clyde, our heroes can't assimilate so they must be removed. But here, that's not really the point. After all, that's how the show starts. No, in this case, that assimilation conflict is backstory, part of the given circumstances. Bonnie flirts with assimilation a couple times, but Clyde slaps and charms that our of her. Buck tries to choose assimilation, but Clyde won't let him.

After all, what is there to assimilate into? Misery and despair? As Bonnie says to Blanche, "Take a look around, Blanche. God's good Earth is dried up. It's dead." In other words, their choice is death or assimilation and death. That sucks.

This classic assimilation plot device has been refashioned for our times. Just as Hair short-circuited the Hero Myth story, by killing off the Hero just as he receives enlightenment; so too Bonnie & Clyde short-circuits the American myth of assimilation, by choosing a hopelessly broken community (Depression-era America) which our heroes must choose (or not) to join.

It brings back that line from "Made in America": "They stole – wouldn't you?"

No wonder this show didn't run longer on Broadway. It's way too cool and way too honest.

The more times I watch this show, the more I learn from it. As it should be. The adventure continues. Two more weeks!

Long Live the Musical!

Music Like This Can Really Throw Ya

We have opened Bonnie & Clyde. And so far, the response has been incredible. People are so surprised by the beauty of the score and the power of the drama. So many say, "It's not at all what I expected." It never is.

Several people have joked to me that they never thought New Line would do a Frank Wildhorn musical (neither did I), and the more I've thought about it, the more I've figured out why this Wildhorn show is different.

The more I work on Bonnie & Clyde, the more I think Wildhorn is a lot like Andrew Lloyd Webber, both unparalleled melodists (and Wildhorn's harmonies are as rich as his melodies, which is usually not true of ALW), who too often collaborate with lesser lyricists and bookwriters who not only sabotage the show they're writing, but who also require less from their composers. So though Wildhorn wrote beautiful music for Jekyll & Hyde and his other shows, he wrote that music to clumsy, awkward, generic lyrics – and significantly, I don't think he was ever challenged artistically in the way he was with Bonnie & Clyde. Lloyd Webber's gorgeous melodies were also more sophisticated and accomplished when the brilliant Tim Rice was his partner; but Lloyd Webber never again found a lyricist as strong as Tim Rice. With the possible exception of (the less acerbic) Don Black (Tell Me on a Sunday), who coincidentally has written the lyrics for Bonnie & Clyde.

As Tim Rice always did for Lloyd Webber, Black does for Wildhorn, challenging him with literate, subtle, rich, character-driven lyrics, to write some of his best theatre music yet, as beautiful and tuneful as his other scores, but much richer, more complex, more dramatic.

One of Bonnie & Clyde's real successes is Wildhorn's choices of musical languages. There's still that pop sensibility there which Wildhorn's fans love, but this time the music is so much more organic to the characters, the story, and the story's sociopolitical context. In this score, Wildhorn and Black write everything from haunting ballads to ironic social commentary, and Wildhorn's music always fits Black's lyrics perfectly, maybe most obviously in the angry, ironic "Made in America," every bit as catchy as any other Wildhorn tune, but even without the lyrics, you hear the emotions at play in the music and complex harmonies.

One of the devices Wildhorn uses throughout the score is the blues note, generally the 3rd, 5th, or 7th degree of the scale lowered a half-step. Back in the early days of jazz (and ragtime and blues), blues notes were a rebellion, a rejection of the mainstreaming and aligning of pitch in Western music, "wrong" notes that changed the color of the melody from major to minor (and happy to sad), even when (or precisely because) that creates a dissonance with the major chords underneath. (You'll be surprised to learn that even though we associate this with American jazz, blues notes had already appeared long before in English folks songs and then American folks songs.)

Jazz and then rock and roll were the languages of sex and of rebellion – against melody, against beauty of tone, against The Beat. That's why rock and roll had to be the language of teenage rebellion in the 50s and 60s (and the language of Jesus Christ Superstar, the story of a political subversive battling the establishment). The reason jazz and rock are so syncopated is that they're about freedom (often sexual freedom), spontaneity, and rebellion.

After all, syncopation is freedom from the rule of the beat.

It's why so much of the music in Bonnie & Clyde is syncopated. Now, don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that Frank Wildhorn sat down and thought to himself, Hmmm, I need a rebellious musical language for this story, and syncopation and blues notes have historically been cultural markers of rebellion, so I think I'll use syncopation in this score. I'm just saying this language felt right to him because it embodies the spirit of these characters, their period, and their story.

In fact, we're finding that in the majority of songs in the score, the beat has a decided swing to it, partly because there's a lot of country flavor to the score, including some gorgeous country waltzes, but because Clyde and Bonnie feel syncopated. Wildhorn always writes in his pop-rock vocabulary, but this score is far more syncopated than any of his others, and more interested in storytelling through the music.

Jeffery Carter, our new music director, luckily agrees with my rule for pop-rock scores: even when you're not singing the exact rhythms on the page, if it's written syncopated, syncopate it; and if it's not, don't. When we're working on a Sondheim or Adam Guettel score, I insist they sing every rhythm and note as written on the page. But when we're working on pop and rock music, it wouldn't work to do that. There has to be a freedom to a rock or jazz performance. So for pop-rock scores, I tell the actors they have to learn to sing what's on the page, as written, then they can have some freedom.

No bullshit American Idol vocal pyrotechnics, though, thank you. Jeremy Jordan's masturbatory performance on the cast album of "Raise a Little Hell" makes me want to slap him. Hard.

On the other hand, once the actors have learned a melody the way Jason Robert Brown, Andrew Lippa, or Tom Kitt wrote it, they don't usually want to change much. These guys notate really accurately a free, syncopated singing style. The Bonnie & Clyde score is that way too. Some composers write a more straightforward melody, expecting that the performers will make it their own, add ornaments, stretch or delay rhythms, etc., like pop singers do. The scores for Rocky Horror, Forbidden Planet, and Hedwig are like that.

But there's so much more to this score than just syncopation. Wildhorn's beautiful, sinewy melodies and rich harmonies already communicate emotion well, but in this score he also makes insightful use of musical themes and leitmotifs (musical phrases that connect to an idea or character).

For example...

We hear music I've labeled the Dream Theme several times throughout the show, in connection with Bonnie and Clyde's dreams for the future. We hear it first in the intro to "Picture Show," and it returns in "How 'Bout a Dance," "What Was Good Enough for You," and the finale. Also, at the end of the bank robbery scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the underscoring segues into the Dream Theme. as we transition to the hideout where Bonnie is trying to remove a bullet from Clyde's shoulder. The dream is damaged now. The next time we hear this theme, it's beneath the big shoot out in Act II between the gang and the cops. The scene freezes, and Clyde comes downstage to describe for us the act of shooting someone, while underneath the dialogue we hear "What Was Good Enough," which is built musically on the Dream Theme. It becomes the music of death. And just as this Dream Theme opens the show, it also closes it, with a similar tableau onstage. The dream has become death.

The Hell Theme (my label again) is connected with Clyde (or others) making dangerous choices. It's three low, open-fifth chords. We hear it first, in the intro to "Raise a Little Hell," and it shows up all throughout the rest of the show, in the instrumental underneath Clyde and Bonnie's first meeting, into Buck and Blanche's first scene, again transitioning from jail to the beauty salon, again when the Judge sentences Clyde to more jail time,

The Danger Triplets also show up all over the score. It's a musical phrase of three descending sets of triplets that warn us of danger ahead. The first time we hear a close variation of this motif, we probably don't even notice, because it's in the accompaniment of just two measures in the opening song, under Bonnie's lyrics, "...the picture show, like Clara Bow." We'll hear it a lot over the course of the show but we don't associate these triplets yet with danger in this opening number. The first time we hear the motif in its pure from is when Clyde is at Bonnie's house and sees out the window that Deputy Ted has arrived. Here, we recognize it as "danger music." It also shows up in the middle of "Raise a Little Hell," in jail with Clyde and a corrupt guard; at the opening of Act II, introducing "Made in America;" in the underscoring leading out of the robbery that will set off Clyde's first deadly shooting; and into the scene in which Clyde has to tell Bonnie he's killed a deputy.

Then in the next piece of underscoring, under the bank robbery scene, the melody of "What Was Good Enough" gets fractured into two keys at once, making Clyde's bravado less assured as, in the scene, Clyde discovers there's no money in the bank he's robbing. (In real life, they were fairly incompetent criminals.) At the end of the scene, Clyde kills the bank teller, and the danger triplets return, segueing into the Dream Theme. All these musical pieces come together at this incredibly pivotal moment in the story.

The Danger Triplets return to take us into the Sheriff's office, where the Governor shows up to shift the manhunt into high gear. Clyde's days are numbered. The scene ends with another quote of the Dream Theme. Now danger and their dreams are connected.

On top of all that, the beginning of Clyde's big crime spree at the end of Act I re-uses music from "The World Will Remember Me," in which he predicts his success in crime, while here he's beginning in earnest his crime career. Also, the end of Clyde's song "Bonnie" quotes the beginning of "How 'Bout a Dance?" (which is also awfully close to our Danger Triplets), because that's arguably the moment when Clyde falls in love with her, and that memory is inside him as he sings to her.

It's also interesting to note that the last third of Act II is entirely reprises, but they all take on slightly different meanings, colors, moods. For example, when Bonnie and Clyde sing "Picture Show" at the very end, it's lost the exuberance it had at the beginning. They're not those kids anymore, and those kids' dreams just don't cut it any more. It's still uptempo but there's something wrong with it now...

Likewise, the Preacher's "God's Arms Are Always Open" changes its meaning without changing its lyric, underlining a recurring theme of good and bad, light and dark, yin and yang – Blanche and Bonnie, Ted and Clyde, Emma and Bonnie, Henry and Clyde, "That's What You Call a Dream" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad."

In Act I, the "God's Arms" lyric is about salvation. God's arms are open to Buck because Buck has been baptized and he has been "born again." In Act II, at the end of the show, the same song sung by the same character in a new context is now about God's arms being open to Buck 'cause he's dead. Subtextually, this reprise reminds us that religion hasn't helped any of these people, making a trio of songs about morality, along with "Made in America," that frame this fable.

Context is everything.

God's arms may be open, but we know Buck ain't goin' to heaven.

I'm sure I'll discover even more as we run the show. I always do. It's pretty great that we always get to work on material this rich and interesting. We New Liners are very lucky.

Long Live the Musical!