We Can Be Beautiful

One of the many things that are cool about Heathers the musical, is that the target of its satire, random violence in a culture without empathy, has evolved with the times. When the film came out in 1989, that target was a more generalized deterioration of the social compact in America, a loss of empathy in our politics and culture, born out of a deep-seated fear in conservatives of losing "their" country to the ever increasingly diverse and more tolerant culture of the 1960s and 70s.

But today that target of the satire is much narrower and much more pointed. After so many shootings in schools and other public places, and such open, visceral hatred of "The Other" (including our President) in today's culture, now the story becomes more about how that lack of empathy leads to acts of random, senseless violence. Because of the additional emotional impact of music, we understand these kids better and more fully in the stage show, and their darkness becomes much realer.

When the film debuted, the trench coat that Christian Slater wore as JD wasn't yet a reference to Dylan Klebold and Eric Harris, and nobody knew where Columbine High School was. The movie was a cautionary fable about what could happen. The musical is an exploration of what is happening.

Now in truth, there have been school shootings in America for hundreds of years, but it wasn't till 1999 and Columbine that we really sat up and noticed as a culture, for the first time really, recognizing societal issues in the horror.

The musical's original director and production staff in New York tried to work against all that extra post-Columbine weight, but they shouldn't have. Despite the many laughs, no one can watch this show without thinking of Columbine. The weight is there, and the show's writers, Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, have embraced that aspect of their story. They allow us, with songs like "Life Boat," "Seventeen," and "Kindergarten Boyfriend," to engage emotionally, rather than holding us at a satirical arm's length.

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

For a while during the late 90s and early 2000s, I wrote for In Theatre magazine, a very cool magazine covering New York commercial theatre and regional theatre across the country. I wrote several articles and reviews for them, while they lasted. My review of Lanford Wilson's Book of Days at the Rep even got quoted on the back of the published script!

The other day, I came across this piece I wrote In Theater about Steve Woolf at the Rep. I love so much what he's talking about here, and I feel like it directly relates to why we produce shows like Hathers. Here's the article...

St. Louis' Vibrant Rep
IN THEATER, August 30, 1999
by Scott Miller

Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, sees pretty much everything he does as interactive, as a discussion with the community. "We are the repository of things live," he says. "Entertainment is getting less and less live these days, but every night seven hundred people come together in our theatre to celebrate things live."

He smiles and adds, "It's civilizing."

That it is. And it might come as a surprise that in a major metropolis like St. Louis, the Rep boasts a subscriber base larger than the St. Louis Blues hockey team and even Mark McGwire's world-famous St. Louis Cardinals. A decade and a half ago, when Woolf came to St. Louis, the Rep had only 9,200 subscribers. Today, it's more like 21,000. What's the secret to his success?

The Discussion. He sees each season as an ongoing conversation with the community about all the things that need discussing in our modern world. "We have a high responsibility to have a conversation with the community," he says. But the wonderful back-and-forth between actor and audience that only live theatre provides is only part of the conversation. There’s also the four-page subscriber letter Woolf writes and sends out to the 21,000 before every mainstage show. There are post-show discussions and Monday night "Talk Theatre" background talks. The program book for each Rep show contains historical and background notes, notes from Woolf, and notes from the director, all designed to help the audience better understand and better enjoy what they're seeing.

But Woolf also knows the importance of developing our future audiences. The Rep's WiseWrite program, co-sponsored with Springboard to Learning, goes into fifth grade classrooms, guides students on a year-long process of writing and refining short plays, then puts those plays on the Rep mainstage, with professional actors, sets, lights, and costumes, and each young playwright at a place of honor at the side of the stage to watch his or her creation come to life.

The other part of the Rep's success is programming. Backed by a devoted staff and a courageous board, Woolf programs the most fascinating work the theatre has to offer – hits directly from Broadway and off-Broadway, the best of Shakespeare, Miller, Albee, Stoppard, and Sondheim, alongside premieres by the most exciting up and coming writers working in the theatre. Not every new piece is a success but Woolf accepts the risk philosophically. "We'll go down in flames every once in a while. It’s art."

And not only does the Rep bring to St. Louis America’s top theatre artists at the top of their game, Woolf also takes audiences on multi-season journeys, creating exciting programming arcs over the course of two or more seasons. In recent years, successive seasons have included Oscar Wilde’s An Ideal Husband followed by Gross Indecency: The Three Trials of Oscar Wilde, first a look at Wilde’s work, then a look at Wilde himself. We've seen Stephen Sondheim’s Sweeney Todd, A Little Night Music, and coming next season, Into the Woods, a chance to explore the themes that Sondheim returns to over and over in his work. This season we've seen Shakespeare’s Taming of the Shrew, a play which Woolf sees as a kind-of workshop version of the Bard’s later, more sophisticated take on similar themes, Much Ado About Nothing, which we'll see next season.

In this time when true repertory companies are scarce, the Rep has created what Woolf calls a "national company," a diverse group of actors from across the country, who come back, season after season, to try new things and tackle roles they might not otherwise get to try. It's a great opportunity for the actors, but it's also a treat for Rep audiences to see these men and women move from role to role. Two members of the "national company," Anderson Matthews and Chris Hietikko, have appeared in recent Rep seasons in Arcadia, A Question of Mercy, Betrayal, Death of a Salesman, and next season, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, each time their relationships different, and each time the chemistry between them even more remarkable.

Next year's season will include the first full-scale production of Lanford Wilson’s brand new play Book of Days, Much Ado About Nothing, Into the Woods, the Broadway hit The Beauty Queen of Leenane, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf, and one more play still to be announced, as well as a three-show studio season which won't be announced until summertime.

There are outstanding regional theatres across America, but the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is having the kind of discussion with the community that all theatre companies should aspire to, the kind that makes it clear why live theatre remains so vibrant and alive in the heartland.

# # #

I still believe now what I believed when I wrote this piece – if we're not having a conversation with our audience about things that matter, what's the point of making theatre? The audience aren't just observers; they're a part of all this.

The great Joseph Campbell once said, "Anyone writing a creative work knows that you open, you yield yourself, and the book talks to you and builds itself. To a certain extent, you become the carrier of something that is given to you from what have been called the Muses – or, in biblical language, 'God.' This is no fancy, it is a fact. Since the inspiration comes from the unconscious, and since the unconscious minds of the people of any single small society have much in common, what the shaman or seer brings forth is something that is waiting to be brought forth in everyone. So when one hears the seer’s story, one responds, 'Aha! This is my story. This is something that I had always wanted to say but wasn't able to say.' There has to be a dialogue, an interaction between the seer and the community."

Heathers is very entertaining, and you'll laugh at things you probably never thought you'd find funny, but this show is also a serious conversation with us about some of our darkest problems. We lost our national empathy and we need to find it again. The kids tell us in the finale, "We can be beautiful." The question is: will we choose to be?

The conversation continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Freeze Your Brain

I have to admit, as much as I love Heathers and as much as I wanted to direct it show, I didn't think it was a particularly political show. I guess you could argue that any serious show is political in some way. But a lot of our shows are very explicitly political, and this didn't seem to be that.

I was wrong.

Heathers is about a clash of irreconcilable worldviews, and that's exactly what our national politics have been since 1964. My last blog post was about the issue of selfishness vs. community, which sits at the heart of this show, with Westerburg High as a stand-in for our American culture and politics as a whole.

Heathers isn't just set at the end of the 80s. It's about the 80s. The three Heathers are the 80s. Maybe what the film and stage show are saying underneath is that America was acting like a bunch of spoiled, selfish, mean teenagers during the Reagan years.

One of the things I've learned about politics in the last few years came to me through a brilliant book called The Republican Brain, which summarizes all the current and recent brain research (there's so much of it now!), and demonstrates that science can partly explain the incompatible worldviews of our two major political parties. In brief, recent research shows us that different areas of the brain tend to be larger in conservative and liberal brains. Now before you dismiss this, let me say again that this comes from scientific research, but they're still in the process of figuring much of this stuff out. The research shows certain things to be true in general, but not in every specific case. Human behavior is too complex to be reduced to any single cause. Also, they don't know if people are born that way, or if their environment affects brain development in this way.

But in general, the brains of conservatives tend to have a larger amygdala, where we process fear, fight-or-flight, but also bonding, tribalism, family, some of the most basic, primal human urges. And in general, brains of liberals tend to have a larger prefrontal lobe, where we process curiosity, desire for adventure, nuance, openness, and most importantly, impulse control and empathy. The amygdala wants to protect us. The prefrontal lobe wants to explore and connect to the world. Those two impulses are fundamentally at odds with each other. With that in mind, our national politics suddenly make sense. Fox News and its audience make sense. The fact that liberals gravitate toward science, academia, journalism, and the arts, makes sense.

But it also means that half our country genuinely perceives the world differently from the other half. Many conservatives see the world as fundamentally dangerous and scary. Many liberals see the world in terms of connection and discovery. So when politicians discuss the recent nuclear deal with Iran, it's easy to see why the two sides can't agree. They literally are talking about two different deals with two different Irans in two different global contexts. Of course they can't agree. Republicans are terrified of Iran, while Democrats want to bring Iran (and Cuba, by the way) into "the community of nations." These two worldviews are fundamentally incompatible and that prevents any agreement on most big issues.

So what does this have to do with Heathers?

Heathers is also about two competing worldviews. Is the goal in life to "win" the social game by climbing the ladder higher and higher? Or is the goal to connect to the people around you and be part of a community? The Heathers are a part of this community, since they are physically inside it and they rule it, but they're not really of it. And they don't want to be. They're above it all.

One of the great divides between the political parties in America is exactly the thing that propels the plot of Heathers: a lack of empathy, the inability to imagine what the other guy feels like, or to feel what the other guys is feeling. Empathy resides in the prefrontal lobe, so if that part of your brain is smaller, it's harder for you to feel empathy.

Some studies have shown that if a baby is not given enough physical affection in the first few years of life, his prefrontal lobe may not develop properly. So when that baby grows up, if he's lacking empathy and impulse control, it's really easy for him to be mean to people, to rob a convenience store, to shoot the guy behind the counter, or to be Rush Limbaugh and Glenn Beck. When you can't imagine how your "enemies" feel, that can be very freeing.

Sound like anyone in Heathers? Yes, the three Heathers (Chandler even more than the other two) and J.D.  Veronica is trapped between two terrible choices. I'm tempted to also add Ram and Kurt to the empathy-free list, but I don't know if they belong or not. Maybe they're just the kind of clueless that many teenage boys are; and yet, on the other hand, we witness what could well have escalated into a rape, if not for the uber-creepy comedy song that follows...

We also meet some of these damaged kids' parents in the show, and we have to wonder what kind of childhood they had... whether they had physical affection in their formative years...

I doubt that writers Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy consciously decided to write Heathers in order to mirror our national politics, but the zeitgeist surely must have made this story seem richer and more immediate to them.

The central action of the story is Veronica's journey from one terrible worldview to the next, each with its own perverse incentives, power, love, sex, violence. It's only when she returns "home" philosophically, when she returns to empathy (in the person of Martha), that she finds balance again, and our story can end. It's kind of an existential version of the classic story of the man who travels the world to find his true love (or the meaning of life), only to return home and find it was there all the time. (Same story as The Wizard of Oz.)

You might argue that Heathers is a sociopolitical fable.

When they made the movie in the late 1980s, they couldn't have known that Columbine and so many other school shootings would follow. Like Spielberg did with his films in the 80s, Heathers took us to a safe place, the American suburbs, and showed us that we're never really safe.

And that's our fault.

Off Broadway, the Heathers producers and production team treated the show like a wacky comedy. It's not. It's a very serious story, if you just summarize it. Today's new musicals are rarely just funny or just serious; most of the great ones are a wild, precarious blend of the two. But the directors and designers in New York's commercial theatre still don't understand these new shows. They still think funny has only one speed. Their instinct is always for high-speed wacky and for lots of gags. Most of these new shows deserve better.

As you can see if you've been reading my blog posts about Heathers, this is a show full of substance and serious insights into our culture, despite its many outrageous laughs. But despite its NYC production, not every moment of this show is meant to be funny. Some of it is disturbing, and some of it is very genuinely emotional.

It's an incredibly well-written piece and it's so cool working on it. We start blocking this week!

Long Live the Musical!

Ahh-Ahh, Heather, Heather, and Heather!

The Heathers and Ronald Reagan are actually the same people. Think about it  have you ever seen them together?

Okay, they're not literally the same, but they are substantially the same. I'm reading a great book called Morning in America, about Reagan and his influence on the culture.

Heathers is so clear to me now.

Reagan and the three Heathers all succeed/ed primarily through personality and force of will, not intellect, talent, or achievement. All of them "perform" their lives (like Sarah Palin also does). There's a lack of authenticity, a calculation, a self-consciousness to everything. They all "play their roles" more than live authentically. We see in the show the considerable toll that constant performance takes on Heather McNamara in Act II, in her song "Lifeboat." Also – and this is important – neither Reagan nor the Heathers had/have any empathy whatsoever for anyone who is "Other." (Read The Republican Brain for more on that topic.) They are fiercely tribal. And they attack what/who they fear to maintain their power and position.

I've told our actors that in every scene, they should think about where's the fear and who's being selfish. Those two things will tell us so much. Every character – like every person – fears something. And most of them have grown up being selfish without consequence.

Maybe the American musical theatre faltered in the 1980s because it fell out of sync with the culture at large in Reagan's America. Musicals had always been about community, and until 1970, almost every musical had a chorus, which represented that community. But the economics of commercial theatre in New York in the 70s made it harder and harder for a show to break even. So the chorus started to disappear from our musical stages, just as our long-held ideal of shared community started to come under attack in the culture at large. Once Reagan was elected, America was on a trajectory away from community and toward individual selfishness, cleverly re-branded as "rugged individualism." And the American musical just didn't connect to that idea.

It wasn't until the 1990s that our art form found its way back into the mainstream culture, as musicals caught up with the culture and started telling much more individual, more personal stories, with shows like Floyd Collins, Hedwig, Rent, Violet, Songs for a New World, Noise/Funk, Avenue X, and so many others.

And the new Golden Age was born.

Today, the musical theatre is in the perfect place in its evolution to look back on the 80s with clear eyes, and explore what a culture of selfishness did to our country. Heathers is entirely about that friction between the needs of the community and the wants of the individual. The showstopper "The Me Inside of Me" portrays the entire school celebrating their own selfishness, as if it's some transcendent gift Heather Chandler left them all, as if selfishness is some kind of noble, higher consciousness. What could be more 80s? The lesson Veronica must learn is that healing only happens with the recognition that we are all connected, that it takes a village, that "No One is Alone." Of course, Sondheim got there ahead of everyone else, exploring that idea with Into the Woods in 1987.

Even teen movies got darker and more complicated in the 80s – Heathers, The Breakfast Club, Footloose, Fast Times at Ridgemont High, The Lost Boys, Risky Business, The Outsiders, Dead Poets Society...

Maybe musical theatre faltered in the 80s because musicals must be, by definition, communal in their creation. It's essentially impossible for one person to put on a musical. It depends, more than any other art form, on collaboration – on community.

You'll notice, if you watch the news, that this idea of community vs. individual is front and center right now. The "Black Lives Matter" movement is entirely about community. So was the marriage equality movement. Only communities can solve our current problems because the problems are just too big.

You'll also notice that the two major political parties are split along this same divide. It's the same political fight Americans have been waging for close to fifty years, the battle between a mythical, individualistic 1950s culture, in which everyone takes care of them­selves (they didn't), "pulling them­selves up by their own bootstraps;" versus a more communal, more inter­connected, inter­dependent 1960s culture, in which we take care of each other. The Democrats are all about helping "the least of these" (as JC put it), justice, and equality. In other words, they are about community and empathy. Republicans are about personal freedom, accumulation of wealth, and no (or few) protections in the Free Market. In other words, they are about the individual fending for himself. Rugged individualism.

The problem with the Republican position is that we are a community, of 321 million people. None of us lives in a bubble. Everything each of us does affects many other people. As Sondheim put it, in Woods, "Careful – no one is alone."

Maybe bullies like the Heathers (and, many would argue, Reagan) are the ultimate anti-community types, thinking only of themselves and not about how their words and actions impact others. Though ironically, bullies can only be bullies if they have a community in which to find victims.

We learn in Heathers that community is the answer to bullying, that empathy is the answer to selfishness. In fact, it's the solution to almost everything. This is a lesson America knew but forgot, and had to learn again after 9/11. We're all in this together, but we tend to ignore that fact sometimes, and modern technology makes that easier now than ever before.

Though perhaps social media will eventually reverse that trend...

Ultimately, Veronica and the students of Westerburg High have to learn what America had to learn in the 80s and 90s – selfishness is a cancer on community. Gordon Gekko was wrong; greed is not good. Empathy is good. A capitalist system that is amoral will inevitably oppress those in the middle and at the bottom. Any workable democracy must be built on empathy.

But that was lacking in 1980s America and 1989 Sherwood, Ohio. That was the decade of Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, Dallas, Dynasty, and Falcon Crest. America and Westerburg High both had to learn to care about others again. Which is the whole point of the musical's opening and closing numbers, "Beautiful."

Heathers will be a blast and you will laugh like crazy. (Wait till you see Robin's choreography for "Blue.") But Heathers is also about something important, and we would be doing the show's brilliant writers Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy, a great disservice if we ignored that substance. Like O'Keefe's incredible Bat Boy, this is a serious, intelligent piece of theatre, slyly disguised as a vulgar, sophomoric, gross-out comedy.

Well played, gentlemen!

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!


Heathers is about selfishness, and the moral and emotional damage that come from it, the inevitable result of the 1980s Me-First Reagan Revolution, which was a reaction to the turmoil and cultural upheaval of the 1960s and 70s.

If the hippies believed in community, community must be suspect. If the hippies condemned greed, greed must be good.

Heathers is about the resulting breakdown of institutions in 1980s America – the family, the community, the educational system – as Reagan convinced many Americans to distrust government and other institutions, as he successfully turned "government" into a dirty word. Americans had always believed that We the People are the government, but Reagan changed that, portraying our government – our collective act of democratic self-governance – as a massive, scary giant who's out to get us, in the process severing the sacred connection between The People are their government.

In the 1980s, with no trust in our government, no trust in community, and a growing suspicion of The Other, Reagan as architect of the Me Decade turned individualism into a cult and delegitimized the responsibility to community that had always been such a cornerstone of American life. The myth of "rugged individualism" that played such a role in the settling of our continent was revived and deified, partly in response to the communalism of the 60s and the universal distrust Reagan nurtured in his followers.

This shift away from responsibility to the community, and instead toward individual selfishness, was also the central theme of Stephen Sondheim's Into the Woods in 1987. Often it takes historical distance to see important insights into a period, but both Heathers and Into the Woods (and Fast Times at Ridgemont High, while we're it) captured the 80s zeitgeist so perceptively, even while they were right in the middle of it.

Can we blame the kids in Heathers for being self-centered? Look at the world surrounding them, clueless teachers, ineffectual and/or absent parents, no role models, no responsibility to others, no empathy for others. Now that I'm thinking more seriously about this story, I realize it's (metaphorically) America of the 1980s that J.D. and Veronica want to blow up, the whole cold, callous, selfish Reagan Era, a time and place that could produce the Heathers.

I graduated high school in 1982. We didn't have Heathers.

In most teen comedies, one of the lead characters goes from outsider status to insider over the course of the story. In other words, most teen comedies are about conforming. If that character is unable to conform, they have to be "removed" from the community. This is also a common device in many musicals, in which the protagonist must either assimilate into the community (as in The Music Man, Brigadoon, La Cage aux Folles, Hello, Dolly!) or be removed (as in Cabaret, Sweeney Todd, Man of La Mancha, Bat Boy, Urinetown).

But in Grease, Cry-Baby, and Heathers, it works in the opposite direction. In these stories, the protagonist goes from insider to outsider; but also at the same time, from outsider to insider, because both Grease and Cry-Baby present two conflicting communities. So in Grease, Sandy could be a mainstream insider with Patty, but she rejects that mainstream world for Danny; so from the Greasers' perspective, Sandy goes from outsider ("Sandra Dee") to insider. The same thing happens to Allison in Cry-Baby. In Heathers, Veronica goes from outsider to insider, and then back to outsider again. In the world of Westertburg High, being an outsider is way better than being an insider.

Is that backward structure a reaction to 80s culture? It seems that in the conforming 80s, much of our storytelling was about just that – to conform or not to conform – and after the turmoil of the 60s and 70s, many people were choosing conformity. Heathers is a cautionary tale about the dark side of "fitting in," arguing that "fitting in" is an inherently selfish act. Veronica goes from being empathetic (which is the whole point of the first part of the opening number, "Beautiful") to being fairly callous and selfish, then finally back to empathetic again.

There is a clear morality at the heart of the story. The meanest people all die, after all. Selfishness and lack of empathy are punished. It's a more lenient version of the classic slasher movie morality, in which sex is always punished by death. Here it's only those who hurt others who must die.

But Heathers is also a Faust story. Early in the show, Veronica makes her Faustian bargain with the Heathers, selling her soul for popularity and power. Unlike most Faust stories, here Veronica eventually recognizes the cost of her compromise and she's able to reverse the usual ending. It's not hard to see a parallel between Little Shop's "Feed Me" and Heathers' "Candy Store," both such delicious Faustian seductions. (And while we're on the subject of Little Shop, I'd also suggest a clear parallel between Audrey's "Somewhere That's Green" and Martha's "Kindergarten Boyfriend.")

What's so surprising and so cool about Veronica's journey over the course of the story, is that even when the "elites" reject her, she retains her power. That doesn't happen to Faust or Seymour Krelborn. This is a new model for the Faust story.

It's such good storytelling, so smart, so clever, and like Bat Boy (also by composer-lyricist Larry O'Keefe), it so beautifully walks its artistic tightrope. At times, it's so vulgar, so outrageous, so ugly, that it's easy to hold the characters at arm's length, to judge and laugh at them, to see them as Other. But at other moments in the show, characters bare their souls so fully and honestly, that it's impossible not to be moved, and impossible not to see ourselves (past or present) in these kids. Again, like Bat Boy, this is a show that would not (could not?) have been written before this new Golden Age. There's a Brechtian mix here of cold comic irony and authentic emotional connection that's very potent.

Yes, all this is going on in Heathers. Surprised?

Though the stage musical is very faithful to the original film, the show does go a little deeper and gets a little more serious. I think the Broadway production tried to work against that, but I think it's part of what makes the show so rich – and not just another paint-by-numbers movie adaptation. Heathers is a really well-crafted, original, insightful piece of musical theatre.

At our first rehearsal, I gave the cast (more than half of them newcomers!) my oft repeated discourse on The Style. I learned about The Style the first time we produced Bat Boy. It was born at the Actors Gang in L.A., but New Line has adopted it as our own. One of the Bat Boy writers, Keythe Farley, coined the phrase that has since become my mantra: "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Utter honesty on the inside, even though the surface style may be exaggerated. 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.

If we spend the show indulging in sight gags, mugging to the audience, and "commenting" on the characters and action, if we focus on laughs instead of character and story, we'll lose much of what makes this show so good. So we won't do that.

Many otherwise excellent actors have tanked in musicals because they were unable to walk the treacherous acting tightrope that musicals require. Acting well in a musical, particularly in this kind of 21st-century musical, is a very special and very specialized skill that is often under-appreciated and misunderstood. It’s much tougher than it looks. Just sayin'.

This is going to be another wild ride, for us and for our audience. We've assembled a kick-ass cast to bring to life this fucked up but very honest story, which has only gotten more relevant over time. Unfortunately.

Another adventure begins.

Long Live the Musical!

We Got Nothing to Hit But the Heights

It's always been important to me not only to promote New Line and our work, but also the art form itself, and the rest of the St. Louis theatre scene. We keep pages on our website listing all the theatre companies in town, and all the upcoming productions of musicals in town.

It's no secret that St. Louis loves its musicals. How many of us grew up on The Muny? But it still impresses me each season when I update our list and see how many musicals get produced here, and what a wide variety of work we get to see, everything from Anything Goes to American Idiot. And there aren't many duplicates...

July 17-Aug. 16 – Anything Goes, Stages St. Louis
August 6-22 – Spellbound!, Stray Dog Theatre
August 10-16 – Oklahoma!, The Muny
Aug. 28-Sept. 5 – Singin' in the Rain, Next Generation Theatre Co.
Sept. 3-6 – Chicago, Curtain's Up Theater Co.
Sept. 4-Oct. 4 – The Full Monty, Stages St. Louis
Sept.; 11-20 – Footloose, KTK Productions
Sept., 18-27 – Guys and Dolls, Monroe Actors Stage Company
Sept. 25-Oct. 4 – Oliver!, Alpha Players
Sept. 30-Oct. 11 – Dogfight, Webster Conservatory
Oct. 1-24 – Heathers, New Line Theatre
Oct. 8-24 – Dogfight, Stray Dog Theatre
October 9-18 – Company, Washington University
October 15-18 – The Addams Family, Alfresco Productions
Oct. 21-Nov. 1 – Matilda, Fox Theatre
Oct. 23-31 – Spring Awakening, Take Two Productions
Oct. 29-31 – Legally Blonde, Lindenwood University
Nov. 6-8 – Mamma Mia!, Fox Theatre
Nov. 6-15 – Urinetown, Act Two Theatre
Nov. 6-15 – Nunsense, Hawthorne Players
Nov. 12-15 – Footloose, Missouri Baptist University
Nov. 17-22 – White Christmas, Fox Theatre
Dec. 4-6 – Nuncrackers, Alfresco Productions
Dec. 9-Jan. 3 – Wicked, Fox Theatre
Dec. 26-27 – Elf, Peabody Opera House
Jan. 19-31 – Newsies, Fox Theatre
Jan. 20-Feb. 7 – Georama, Rep Studio
Jan. 28-Feb. 7 – Avenue Q, Looking Glass Playhouse
Jan. 30 – Million Dollar Quartet, Peabody Opera House
Feb. 19-27 – Violet, Lindenwood University
Feb. 19-28 – James Joyce's The Dead, St. Louis University
Feb. 23-Mar. 6 – Beautiful: The Carole King Musical, Fox Theatre
March 3-6 – Cotton Patch Gospel, Missouri Baptist University
March 3-26 – American Idiot, New Line Theatre
March 11-13 – Beauty and the Beast, Fox Theatre
March 15-27 – If/Then, Fox Theatre
March 19-20 – A Night with Janis Joplin, Peabody Opera House
March 31-April 16 – Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Stray Dog Theatre
April 5-17 – The Bridges of Madison County, Fox Theatre
April 7 – Joseph / Amazing Technicolor Dreamcoat, Scheidegger Center
April 18-19 – Ragtime, Peabody Opera House
April 20-24 – The Pajama Game, Webster Conservatory
April 26-May 8 – The Sound of Music, Fox Theatre
April 29-May 8 – The Addams Family, Kirkwood Theatre Guild
May 5 – Bullets Over Broadway, Peabody Opera House
May 5-15 – Fiddler on the Roof, Looking Glass Playhouse
May 8-22 – Jersey Boys, Fox Theatre
June 2-25 – Atomic, New Line Theatre
July 26-31 – The Addams Family, Center Stage Theatre
Aug. 4-20, 2016 – Bat Boy, Stray Dog Theatre
Aug. 11-27, 2016 – Tell Me on a Sunday, New Line Theatre

And remember, this is only the musicals...! It comes out to an average of four musicals per month. And that doesn't even include next summer's Muny and Stages seasons, which haven't been announced yet. And it doesn't include the many musicals produced by high schools and church groups.

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

It's a fun list to unpack. There are many classics here, including Oklahoma!, Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, Fiddler on the Roof, The Sound of Music; quite a few "newer classics," including Wicked, Chicago, Beauty and the Beast, Ragtime, Avenue Q; but also some new shows, including Heathers, Atomic, If/Then, The Bridges of Madison County, Georama, and Spellbound. Notice that there are only two Rodgers & Hammerstein shows on the list (and really, one of them actually closes this past season), although the Muny hasn't announced their 2016 schedule yet. Last year, there were also only two R&H shows on the list. We're making progress...

St. Louis is getting two world premiere musicals this season, Spellbound and Georama, but also many shows that have never played or been produced in St. Louis before, including the American regional premiere of the off Broadway rock musical Atomic, in its first production in the country since its New York run.

Also, other local companies are starting to mine the New Line repertoire. Three shows New Line has produced are returning in productions by other companies this season, Urinetown, Bat Boy, and Hedwig and the Angry Inch. There are also some pretty obscure shows most of us thought we'd never see, including James Joyce's The Dead, Dogfight, and Andrew Lloyd Webber's one-act Tell Me on a Sunday.

I see only two pairs of dupes, Dogfight (the two productions actually overlap) and The Addams Family.

The St. Louis metro region now has two big active touring houses, the Fox and the Peabody; along with full musical theatre seasons from the Muny, Stages, and New Line; and and other musicals from both the professional and community theatre groups in town, as well as Webster Conservatory and the other college theatre programs.

Pretty much every weekend from now through next August, St. Louis offers you as much musical theatre as you can take. And that's awesome.

The musical theatre is in a new Golden Age, and so is the St. Louis theatre scene.

Long Live the (St. Louis) Musical!

White People Are Crazy and Dangerous.

They say the winners get to write the history books.

But I was wondering, what if the antagonists got to describe the central themes of their musicals? What would Baldwin Blandish say is the point or central theme of Cry-Baby? How would Audrey II describe what Little Shop is about? We view the story from the protagonist's point of view, but there's never only one side to a good story, right?

So light up a fat one and follow me into my fevered imagination, as I ponder what "the other side" would think about our favorite musicals...

Baldwin Blandish on the central theme of Cry-Baby – Just when America is on the brink of destruction, decent Americans unite to take our country back from the radicals and commies.

Audrey II on Little Shop – Nobodies can't stand in the way of progress, no matter how hard they try.

Mayor Shinn on The Music Man – A foreigner comes to town to cheat the good folk of River City out of their hard-earned money by exploiting their children.

Billy Flynn on Chicago – Win or lose, the only real winner is the guy who gets paid.

Inspector Javert on Les Miz – Lawlessness run rampant inevitably leads to tragedy.

Mr. Peachum on Threepenny – A light-hearted family comedy about the importance of protecting the ones you love.

Frank N. Furter on The Rocky Horror Shows – Two intruders try to ruin the best party ever.

Riff Raff on The Rocky Horror Show – The worst part of having a kids' party is cleaning up afterward.

Patty Simcox on Grease – The terrifying story of a teenage girl's descent into madness, as her whole life is destroyed by sex, rock and roll, and drive-ins.

Horace Vandergelder on Hello, Dolly! – Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools, and the rest of us are in great danger of contamination.

Sgt. Krupke on West Side Story – Bad kids always get what they deserve.

Charles Guiteau on Assassins – A patriotic pageant about the indomitable American spirit and the power of one man to change history.

The Kralahome on The King and I – A disturbing morality tale of cultural arrogance and imperialism, and its dark effects on the court of Siam.

Willie Conklin on Ragtime – Real Americans want to take our country back. To the 50s. The 1850s.

Dr. Parker on Bat Boy – Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Lt. Brannigan on Guys and Dolls – The only protection from a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Baroness Schraeder on The Sound of Music – A fable for older women: learn to play the guitar.

Lucy Van Pelt on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown – You have to be nice to losers, because they can't help it.

Caldwell B. Cladwell on Urinetown – The People are too dumb to govern themselves, and when they try, it just ruins it for the rest of us.

Benny on Rent – A cautionary fable about the sad fate of slackers who contribute nothing but expect much in return.

King Herod on JC Superstar – A political drama about the limitations and inevitable decline of populist movements.

Jud Fry on Oklahoma! – Nice guys finish last.

The Emcee on Cabaret – Life is a cabaret. Unless you're a Jew.

Parthy Ann Hawks on Show Boat – The wages of sin is death.

Vera Simpson on Pal Joey – Boys will be boys.

Miss Hannigan on Annie – When children run wild, everything goes to hell.

Gaston on Beauty and the Beast – Uppity bitches always end up with the ugly guys.

Kate on Kiss Me, Kate – Men are the best argument for being a lesbian.

Fastrada on Pippin – Never pass up an opportunity.

Bud Frump on How To Succeed – The ends always justify the means.

Dr. Sanson Carrasco on Man of La Mancha -- Madness can be catching.

Chip Tolentino on Spelling Bee – Life is pandemonium.

J.D. Dean on Heathers – Nietzsche was right.

Charles Bukowski on Bukowsical – Fuck this fucking bullshit.

Bloody Mary on South Pacific – White people are crazy and dangerous.

This was a fun exercise, and it was more illuminating than I expected, trying to imagine the opposite point of view of all these stories I know so well. Some of them were easy; some I really had to ponder.

What a good exercise this would be for actors – to articulate a show's central theme as their character would see it. Everybody's point of view is a little different, after all.

If nothing else, I hope you found this entertaining, and maybe if I'm lucky, a little illuminating too.

Long Live the Musical!

Time and Music Make a Song

These are the things a musical theatre freak does between shows for fun.

With our big anniversary approaching, I organized all of New Line's shows, over our first twenty-five seasons, in the order in which they first debuted. In a few cases, that debut was the New Line production.

I'm sharing this list because I think it's interesting to get a sense of the wide range of work we've done, going back almost to the beginning of our art form. We produce the most current works of the musical theatre, often in their first productions after Broadway or off Broadway; but we also produce shows spanning most of the history of the musical, including four shows from before 1960 (going back to 1928!), six shows from the 1960s, thirteen from the 1970s, only three from the 80s, and sixteen from the 90s. You can see from our repertoire when the revolutions happened – the mid 60s into the mid 70s, and again starting in the mid 1990s and still going on today.

People often use the phrase "a New Line show" (as in "Bukowsical is such a New Line show!"), meaning a musical that has the qualities we look for – fearless, smart, intense, outrageous, relevant, rule-breaking. It's cool to see that there were "New Line shows" in the first half of the last century, even before the Prince-Sondheim revolution. And as we just saw in June with Threepenny, some of those older shows pack as powerful a wallop as the more recent works.

So take a stroll through New Line's and the musical theatre's history...

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)
Tell Me on a Sunday (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)
   –[ New Line founded in late 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)
American Idiot (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)
Heathers (2014)
Atomic (2014)

Tell the truth – Isn't that an impressive list?

There are so many trends in the art form that you can see illustrated in this list. You can see how personal the art form got in the 1990s, when for the first time, people wrote musicals not just in hopes of a Broadway production, but instead for the same reasons any other artist makes art.

More through happy accident than by design, New Line Theatre was founded in 1991 just as the idea of more purely artistic musical theatre was starting to take hold across the country. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her outstanding book Directors and the New Musical Drama, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.”

Last summer Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote a really wonderful feature about New Line in American Theatre magazine, and he noted, "What's interesting about New Line's early years is that the kind of musical the company has become identified with – essentially, shows stocked with varying proportions of the ingredients Miller celebrated in his 2011 book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,. and Musicals – was not thick on the ground in the early '90s. At the time, the form was still in a post-'80s, post-British-megamusical doldrums. When Rent came along in 1996, the new American musical got its biggest youthful shot in the arm since Hair. In the ensuing decades, and especially in the years since 2006's Spring Awakening, the number of rock musicals – and, more important, musicals with a distinctly post-Rodgers & Hammerstein moral sensibility – has grown to the point that Miller's wish list is longer than a Cole Porter patter song."

At last in the 90s there were other places (like New Line) to have a new musical produced. And that meant a musical could be a very, intensely personal work of art, with no commercial agenda whatsoever, shows like Passion, Rent, Hedwig, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, A New Brain. Of course, I'd argue that Sondheim got to that party about a decade ahead of schedule, with Sunday in the Park with George.

Notice how many of these shows in the list are directly political – Threepenny, The Cradle Will Rock, Camelot, La Mancha, Cabaret, Hair, Jacques Brel, JC Superstar, Pippin, Evita, Assassins, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Urinetown, Johnny Appleweed, BBAJ, American Idiot, Bonnie & Clyde, and of course, Atomic, coming to New Line's stage next June.

You can also see in this list the early evolution of the neo musical comedy starting in the mid to late 1990s, with shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Reefer Madness, Spelling Bee, Bukowsical, BBAJ, Cry-Baby, and of course my own showsAttempting the Absurd (several years ahead of Bat Boy) and Johnny Appleweed.

There are several shows here about our never-ending battle between the 1950s and 1960s, including Grease, Rocky Horror, Cry-Baby, The Nervous Set, and The Fantasticks. And you can see in recent years, so many musicals about the breakdown of social institutions, like Cry-Baby, bare, Bonnie & Clyde, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, Jerry Springer, Passing Strange, Night of the Living Dead. Although, that was also a topic in the 60s, in shows like Hair, La Mancha, and Cabaret.

You can see all through the 2000s that once again the art form isn't just breaking rules, it's making up all new ones. Look at the titles in these last 15 years – every one of these shows is like no other, every one utterly different from all the rest, and every one comes with its own set of rules.

We, the artists of the American musical theatre, have learned so much from Prince and Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, but we're going further now. Those guys got us a long way on our journey. They brought us to the musical theatre's New World, but now it's up to us to explore this endlessly malleable art form even more deeply than they did, to try even more daring experiments, find new forms of musical storytelling, find new ways of using music to tell stories.

New Line's last twenty-five years outline almost the entire history of our art form. That was never my conscious agenda, but it makes sense that it has happened. Storytelling is how we make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Life is pandemonium, as Mr. Barfée likes to remind us, so we need storytelling. And the American musical in particular tells the American story, our dreams, our fears, our ideals, our mistakes, our progress, our politics and culture, all of it, all explored and preserved in the musicals we all love so much.

Judy Newmark always writes really thoughtful reviews of our shows for the Post-Dispatch, often discussing them in the context of our past work, and in the context of our art form's history and/or trajectory. (This, by the way, is what makes Judy a theatre critic, and not just a reviewer.) As an example, in her review of New Line's I Love My Wife, she wrote:
New Line has done well with Hair, which it has mounted several times. It’s also staged strong productions of Grease and Chicago, the beat musical The Nervous Set, the slacker musical High Fidelity, and Return to the Forbidden Planet, set either in the 1950s or the future, maybe both. Put them all together, and it's an era-by-era look at changing American mores. Miller’s anthropological twist on musical theater gives New Line a distinctive point of view, brainy and bold.

I'm so proud of New Line and of the hundreds of New Liners who've worked with us over the last twenty-five years, for so many reasons. But one of those reasons is that alongside our agenda of producing exciting musical theatre, we're also charting the history of our country, our politics, and our culture.

As Mark Twain reportedly said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Exactly. I learned so much about 21st-century politics from working on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and I learned so much about race working on Passing Strange.

So the New Line adventure continues, as we soon open our 25th season, in the beautiful new Marcelle Theater. An anniversary is a cool time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed. I wonder what the next twenty-five years will bring...

More misadventures!

Long Live the Musical!

Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous

I've written nine musicals, book, music, and lyrics. All but one have been produced, and New Line has produced four of them, Attempting the Absurd (1992), Breaking Out in Harmony (1994), In the Blood (1995), and Johnny Appleweed (2006).

Now, as we approach New Line's 25th season, as I look back on New Line's work and my own life in musical theatre, I realize that the shows I wrote were my own unconscious, accidental master class in the structures, forms, and styles of the American musical theatre. By writing very different kinds of shows, I learned how all the various forms worked, by actually building them from the ground up and then directing and staging them. It's like an auto mechanic taking a car apart and putting it back together again.

I don't usually talk about my own shows a lot, partly because in retrospect I look at most of them as worthwhile exercises or experiments that I would not produce again.

Still, even though most of them will not see an audience again, I'm really glad I've written so many different kinds of shows, and that I've almost always had the luxury of audience feedback. So many talented people write musicals but never get them produced. I've been very lucky. Seeing my shows live onstage, seeing what works and doesn't, has taught me so much; and I think I can analyze and understand other people's work better because I've had the experience of writing book, music, and lyrics. On top of that, I think it makes me much more hesitant to change someone else's writing. I never insert my own lines into a show. You'd be surprised how many directors do.

I think I direct better because I was an actor in high school and college, and I understand the process and the obstacles of creating a performance; and I think I direct better because I really understand the writing process.

I recently interviewed Broadway composer-lyricist Bill Finn for my Stage Grok podcast, and a musical theatre friend later told me she never would have thought to ask the questions I asked. I think that's because I know what it is to write a show – and also because I've directed Finn's shows March of the Falsettos, A New Brain, and Spelling Bee for New Line, so I know those shows up close and personal.

So here's a brief stroll through the musicals of Scott Miller...

Affton High School, 1981
At the end of my junior year in high school, my drama teacher Judy Rethwisch declared to our theatre arts class that it sure would be nice to do a student-written show. It was like lightning had hit me. I had never even considered writing a musical before, but suddenly I was going go do it. I wrote all summer, and in August, I brought Judy my script and score (lead sheet only) for Adam's Apple, a very old-fashioned, romantic musical comedy, with a debt in equal parts to George M, Cohan, George Abbott, and Jerry Herman. She read it over and committed to producing it that fall.  The story centered on a hapless high school Everyman, who lusts for the school pump, but ultimately opts for the nice girl instead, with song titles like "The Children of Izod," "The Administrative Waddle," and "I'm Different, Unique, and My Own Person." I had written a song called "Pushers and Dealers Are People Too," but the principal made us cut it. Along the way, our hero has a falling out with his best friend Charlie, and since I hadn't yet figured out I'm gay, the friendship at the center of the story was much gayer than I or our audience understood in 1981. The show sold great, audiences loved it, and the TV news magazine PM Magazine came out and filmed a segment about Adam's Apple. We even made a cast album and sold it on LP!

Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1983
Musical was my high concept meta-musical about some college kids putting on a musical, but halfway through Act II, our hero and narrator confesses that he's been writing this show as we've been watching it, and he doesn't know how the story ends, because he's run out of ideas. So the characters have to find their own path to the finale. Brecht would have been so proud. My music was definitely more interesting for this show because I had begun to take music theory class, and in retrospect I can see that I was experimenting here with subverting traditional musical theatre conventions, experiments that would continue. (My producer enjoyed telling people she had been working on Working, then doing a musical called Musical.) By this point I had seen the original productions of Little Shop of Horrors and La Cage aux Folles, and I was moving beyond the safety of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Jerry Herman. With my next show, I would toss out linear plot altogether and obliterate the Fourth Wall.

Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1984
Topsiders was my musical about coming to Harvard as a freshman and the huge freak-out I had that first fall (I almost transferred). I wrote songs about binge drinking, sex, missing home, getting dumped, the last episode of M*A*S*H, cramming for finals. And I wrote an opening number modeled on the opening of Company, with lots of different voices and fragments, creating a musical tapestry. Sondheim's is better of course, but mine was pretty good. Topsiders marks the start of my romance with 1960s and 70s concept musicals. I hadn't discovered the Company cast album until '82, so this came soon after that. My models were Company, A Chorus Line, Working, Hair, and other experiments of the period. Ultimately, Topsiders was more song cycle than concept musical, but it was both; through most of the show, the characters didn't interact, but on occasion they did. The title came from my realization that the vast majority of the other students I knew at Harvard were hard-core over-achievers, they were all valedictorians in high school, and most of them had SAT scores higher than mine (and mine were pretty good). I saw for the first time that kind of scary, raw ambition in many of these fierce over-achievers. How many Harvard pre-meds does it take to change a lightbulb? Two – one to change the bulb and the other to kick the ladder out from under him. Also, during this period, I wore topsiders everywhere I went...

Affton Alumni Theatre, 1985
The Line was my Brechtian political musical drama, based on an actual 1982 case of book banning, Island Trees School District v. Pico, in which students sued the school board (including their own parents) over the removal of "objectionable" books from the school library. Eventually the kids appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. This was the first time I wrote a fundamentally serious show, and the first time I based a show on a true story. I fictionalized much of it, but I used actual quotes and actual events from the case. This was the first time I wrote music that I still find genuinely interesting. I think I was finding my musical voice as a composer, as I worked on this fourth show. But I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is in narrative structure, so basing this show on a true story helped with that.

never produced, 1986
I took a truly wonderful class in college on the history of astronomy, taught by two amazing professors, Owen Gingerich and David Latham. On the first day of class, they told us we'd have a final paper, but it could come in virtually any form, as long as they agreed to it in advance. Past projects included computer animation, paintings, poetry, so I told them I wanted to write a one-act musical for my final, eventually titled Astro Turf, and they were thrilled. So I set to work on one of the hardest projects I ever took on. I had to synthesize everything we had learned, distill it down to its essence, make it rhyme and fit to the music. That was really hard! And astronomers were going to be judging it! The show was essentially a 20-minute song cycle. Each of five influential astronomers – Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler – sang a song about their theories on motion and the heavens. I got an A. Here's a taste of the opening song, sung by Aristotle:
All bodies are capable of moving,
As my friends have seen me proving,
Either straight or around.
Air and fire tend to move straight up: it's
In a way, a lot like puppets.
Earth and water move straight down.
Each heavenly body can
Find its way, quite unrehearsed,
To the center of the universe –
That's Earth – and go around.

The primary body of ev'rything is heaven,
Made the first day of those seven,
It's both perfect and complete.
It can never be increased or diminished
Since a sphere's innately finished.
It's a sphere elite.
All things tend toward the
Center of the universe.
Great distances they all traverse,
And Earth is where they meet.

The stars, the planets,
The sun, the moon, and ev'rything,
Are fixed in space, just hovering,
On crystalline spheres.
Sure, I know my model has a few problems.
You can't expect perfection in 350 BC.
After all, you know, the world's not perfect,
But it's all I've got to work with. Q.E.D.

New Line Theatre, 1992
Attempting the Absurd is one of my favorite things I've ever written, a wacky story about this guy Jason, who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical and doesn't really exist, because he has "the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom." Of course, everyone in his life thinks he's crazy, because they think they're all real – until he meets a group of community theatre folks. Because this was the first show I wrote after figuring out I'm gay, I created Chaz (a grown-up Charlie from Adam's Apple), a gay best friend for Jason, who ends up with as solid a Happy Ending as Jason – which was pretty subversive in 1992, six years before Will & Grace. The show's title comes from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." I didn't know it when I was writing it in the late 80s and early 90s, but Absurd is a textbook neo musical comedy, very traditional in its form, very subversive and very meta in its content. I literally spent years working out the central concept. I remember discussing it many late nights with my college roommate David, in 1986 at college. I had to figure out the rules of this universe I had constructed. If Jason knows he's only a character in a musical, he knows he's singing. But the characters who think they're real don't know they're singing, because they don't know they're in a musical – singing is just the language of the storytelling. When Jason breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, the "real" characters must actually see that Fourth Wall, so they think Jason is literally talking to a wall. I also had to figure out how to resolve the central conflict – my solution was that Jason's mother would try to have him locked up, but he finally convinces everyone that he's right (and of sound mind) by producing the script to Attempting the Absurd. Conceptually, this was a big step for me, but I also wrote music for Absurd that was a definite step forward for me. This is a show I'd enjoy bringing back, maybe with some minor rewrites. Here's the Act I finale:

Fun Fact: In Attempting the Absurd, Chaz meets, falls in love with, and marries a guy named Danny. In the one non-musical play I've written, Head Games, Chaz and Danny are now a couple.

New Line Theatre, 1994
After Attempting the Absurd, for the first time in my life, I wanted to go back to something I'd already written, The Line, and take another stab at it. A decade later, I was a much better writer and composer. So I did some massive rewrites, cut songs, changed songs, added songs, wrote new accompaniment, and changed the town name from Strawberry Spring to the more ironic Harmony. The only fatal flaw was that Breaking Out in Harmony is a Big Show, with a student chorus and a parents chorus, and ten leads. So it was really hard to cast the show adequately in our early years, and we ended up with a mixed bag, some great performers, some weak ones, and we never had a cast the size I had written the show for. I think it was just too big a show for New Line, especially this early in our history. But it was still a really interesting experience, rewriting an old project. I learned a lot. And I came up with one of my all-time favorite characters names, a guy named Sebastian, who everybody calls Bash.

New Line Theatre, 1995
In the Blood was my attempt at a serious, Rodgers & Hammerstein-style musical romantic tragedy, though in this case, the doomed romance was between a vampire and an HIV+ hematologist, who discovers that there's something in the vampire's blood that counteracts the HIV virus. In the last scene of the first act, the hematologist asks the vampire to turn him, so he won't suffer and die of AIDS, and the vampire is left with a monster of a moral dilemma. I wrote my best song ever for the Act I finale, when the vampire Zach explains his own origin story, a 10-minute soliloquy called "The Tale of Zachary Church" (see the clip below, recorded at a New Line concert), built very much on the model of R&H's "Soliloquy" in Carousel, and another big step forward for me as a composer, managing to keep such a long piece both interesting and unified. I was proud of this show, and I think it may be the best score I've written, but certain parts of the show really didn't work. Maybe it would be worth trying a rewrite, but I think I'd need a collaborator, at least on the book.

New Line Theatre, 2006
Johnny Appleweed, subtitled An American Odyssey, was my adventure into the contemporary neo musical comedy, or as I usually refered to the show, my "stoner political satire," my response to the re-election of George W. Bush. It was about that same time I started smoking pot every night. (Thanks, Dubya!) I made myself a rule from the get-go, that I would never work on the Appleweed script without being stoned. I also found great value in writing lyrics not stoned, but rewriting them stoned. Quirkiest, most inventive lyrics I've ever written. The friendly, itinerant stoner-philosopher Johnny Appleweed drives what little story there is, as he collects a bunch of misfit friends (including Jesus and a thinly veiled Tammy Faye Bakker) to journey to Washington DC, to tell the President (a thinly veiled Dubya doppelganger) that he's fucking up our country and should stop that. I wrote my shortest song for this show, the five-measure-long "Fucking Up America," in which Johnny plans what to say to the President:
Mr. President,
Please stop
Fucking up America.
You're fucking up America.
Thanks for your time.

The show also included some genuinely strange songs like the mystical "Cannabis Dei;" the President's song about Ann-Margret, "I Tapped That Ass;" and a Presidential campaign song for Jesus himself called "What Would Jesus Do?" Maybe the weirdest thing in the show was a small inset scene early on, when "The Three Stoners" entered, very stoner-Brechtian, to explain the experience and culture of marijuana. The first part of the sequence was choral slam poetry, which segued into another really weird song called "The Scheme of Things." (Here's that full scene.) I realized toward the end of the run something that I hadn't understood when I wrote it. Johnny Appleweed is designed to make the audience feel stoned, even those who weren't (many were). It was intentionally disorienting, nonsensical, silly, poetic, free-flowing, and our heroes spent the entire first act just sitting in one place, talking about going...  Here's the show's finale, "A Great Big Cloud of Smoke."

I don't think I ever wrote a more personal lyric than the very end of the show:
Johnny lives in you,
All the things you’d love to do,
Twice the wisdom, twenty times the fun.
(So much more fun!)
Live like Johnny lives,
Give the gift that always gives,
And don’t believe in everything you read.
And thank the Lord for
Johnny Appleweed.

I haven't written any new shows since Appleweed, though I keep getting great ideas, including several ideas for Appleweed sequels. But a few months ago, after seeing the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company do a very funny children's version of A Christmas Carol, it made me think about writing something for kids myself. So I went home and started writing a children's musical, We Saved the World Today. As the story opens, a little girl is pissed off because there's a very big, busy road next to her favorite park, and it's dangerous. She assumes there's nothing she could do about it, until her Congressman happens by, and the two of them go on a whirlwind tour of Washington DC, taking their new bill through committees, through a filibuster, and finally to the President's desk. It's sort of an expanded "I'm Just a Bill," but it's also, weirdly enough, a companion piece to Johnny Appleweed, and I even used some Appleweed music to really connect the two pieces... though I doubt the two would ever be done together.

Writing shows is very hard work, and it's truly terrifying to put your work in front of an audience of strangers. I guess I do that as a director, but it's much more intense as the writer.

But I'm always glad I've written musicals myself when I'm working on someone else's show. It keeps me from being tempted to rewrite other people's work. It makes me respect the writing in a way that many actors and directors just don't. And it's made it waaaay easier to analyze shows, because I really do understand the nuts and bolts of musical theatre deep-down. And all that makes me a better director.

In the early days of New Line, the company needed me to write new shows, because there weren't that many shows being written in the early 1990s that fit New Line's aesthetic. But now there are tons of new shows being written, seemingly just for us. We don't need me as a writer now, because people like Larry O'Keefe, Amanda Green, Andrew Lippa, Tom Kitt, Pasek & Paul, etc., all are stronger writers than I will ever be. There is a shitload of wonderful, intelligent, new material out there now...

It's such an amazing time to work in the musical theatre. I hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane...

Long Live the Musical!

Muny 101

The Muny season I propose...

I know, the 2015 season is already underway, but I'm playing the long game here.

I remember, shortly after Mike Isaacson was named the Muny's new artistic director, I was in his office at the Fox, and I said, only half kidding, "You know, Mike, I have a list of shows I wanna see at the Muny now." And he smiled and said, "Scott, New Line can afford to have 75 people in the audience; the Muny can't."

Fair point.

But there are quite a number of very cool older shows that were written big and probably can only be done big. In other words, only community theatres and the Muny can afford anymore to do these shows as they were intended. Being the obsessive musical theatre freak I am, you can assume correctly that I have pretty strong ideas about what shows I'd like to see at the Muny in coming years.

Okay, before I go any further, let me first sing the praises of Mike Isaacson and the New Muny. I've been going to the Muny since before I can remember. For my entire childhood, my family saw at least one Muny show every summer, and as an older kid, I spent many evenings in the free seats. I also ushered out there for eight seasons (1980-1987).

But for much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Muny wasn't what it could (should) be. The artistic quality was marginal and the programming was one big fuckin' snooze-fest. (Tell us what you really think, Scott.) Paul Blake was an artistic director without much taste or much respect for the musical theatre, and the Muny suffered greatly for it.

But Isaacson is a different kind of cat. First off, he loves the musical theatre as much as I do (though he has more traditional tastes), he's super-smart, and he's incredibly insightful about what makes a show work or not work. I can't imagine anyone better suited for this job. Second, he's produced a number of shows in New York, so his rolodex is a wonder to behold, which means he can lure the very top talent in New York and around the country, to direct, choreograph, design, and perform in Muny shows. The artistic quality has skyrocketed the last couple seasons.

Lost in an artsy stoner's haze the other night, I thought wouldn't it be cool for one Muny season to chronicle the history of American musical theatre! Then I immediately thought, no, too big a project for one season. Okay, how about the history of the musical comedy? Now you're talking...

Okay, so a Muny season usually includes seven shows. Here's my season:

Little Johnny Jones (1904)

No, No, Nanette (1925)

Anything Goes (1934)

On the Town (1944)

Guys and Dolls (1950)

Mack and Mabel (1974)

The Will Rogers Follies (1991)

Some well-known crowd-pleasers, but also some rich, lesser known shows that Muny audiences would love.

Now if I could have more shows (when I started ushering, the Muny had an eleven-show season!), I might also include Very Good Eddie (1915), Sweet Charity (1966), Bat Boy (1997), and/or Something Rotten (2015). You'll notice that my picks trace the history of the art form, but also, in a very real way, the history of American culture and politics during the 20th century. That shouldn't really be a surprise, because musicals have always mirrored our culture and politics.

Okay so then let's have a second season that chronicles the history of musical drama...

Show Boat (1927)

Pal Joey (1940)

Carousel (1945)

West Side Story (1957)

Zorbá (1968)

Follies (1971)

Grand Hotel (1989)

I understand that Muny audiences have more mainstream taste than New Line audiences do, but still, I've included some well-known crowd-pleasers again, alongside some really rich, lesser known shows. And yes, I would beg Isaacson on my knees to let me direct Follies.

And again, if I could have an eleven-show season, I'd also add The Cradle Will Rock (1937), The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Dreamgirls (1981), and Jelly's Last Jam (1992). Another really great line-up.

I can just picture myself as a 17-year-old drama kid, having an artistic orgasm over these two seasons.

So how would you program a season at the Muny...?

Long Live the Musical!