Everything That Lives is Holy

Rehearsals for Jerry Springer the Opera are going really well, and I think I've pretty much figured out every big practical issue that needs figuring out. We're well on our journey. From here out, we just run the whole show at every rehearsal. Our actors will settle into the physicality of the show and then they'll have time to dig down into the interior lives of these characters.

So now my brain turns to more artistic, more esoteric matters, like what's the Big Picture point of Jerry Springer the Opera? Why did Richard Thomas and Stewart Lee write this wildly unique show? It's clearly more than just an elaborate goof. There's real weight tucked away amidst the vulgar, high-energy lunacy.

At one point in Purgatory, Baby Jane tries to save Jerry from going to Hell, by telling Satan:
Wait, Prince of Darkness, punish him not.
Jerry is not to blame.
With or without Jerry's show,
We'd all end up the same.
Men and women, black and white,
Transsexual girls and boys,
The burned and crippled, blind, the maimed.
Distorted, destroyed.
For society has an ugly face,
Contorted, smeared with shit.
Jerry did not make it so.
He merely holds a mirror to it.

It's a legitimate argument, right? Does Jerry create that culture or just pander to it? Or is it really some of both? Satan clearly thinks Jerry controls his guests and his show, but the real Jerry would be the first to admit he's just a ringmaster, not God. In another of the show's quirkier moments, Jerry takes his show back, despite being on enemy turf, and he gives Satan, Jesus, God, and the others a good talking-to, just as he might on his real show:
You're never gonna agree about everything. And what’s so bad about that? Satan, you're never going to get your apology. God, you just don't get a shoulder to cry on. And Jesus, grow up for Christ's sake and put some fucking clothes on. Haven't you people heard of yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion? It's the human condition we're talking about here.

Energy is pure delight. Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. And everything that lives is holy.

The cast then repeats those last few lines as a chorale. It's a beautiful piece, but it's there for a reason. After an evening of such crazed, vulgar, wackiness, there is a serious point to be made here about it all. We've given the audience two hours of crazy people to look down on, and then we call them on that judgment. Doesn't seem quite fair, does it...? The writers elevate Jerry to wise man here at the end, as he quotes poet William Blake in those last lines. Maybe it's not till this moment that we realize Jerry is the Wise Wizard of a whole bunch of Hero Myth stories in this show. Jerry is Ben Kenobi to all his guests, including Satan. Of course, the Wise Wizard figure doesn't usually survive to the end of the story...

In his Final Thought at the end of Act III, Jerry says, "I've learned that there are no absolutes of good and evil, and that we all live in a glorious state of flux." Nothing is wrong and nothing is right. Life just is. Accept it on its own terms, Jerry's telling us. It's all beautiful. Everything that lives is holy. These people who come on Jerry Springer are not less deserving of our respect or consideration just because they have different values and live different lives from us. Who are we to judge, after all? Dwight, Peaches, Tremont, Montel, Baby Jane, Shawntel, Chucky – they're all "holy" merely because they live, because they're human, because they're here. Because energy – life – is pure delight.

Here in the latter part of the opera, the writers invoke the English poet William Blake and his eighteenth-century work The Marriage of Heaven and Hell (which is also the title of one of the songs in the opera), another literary work in which the author descends into Hell, in imitation of Dante's Inferno. In the show, the cast sings:
Let poets through the ages tell
How Springer united Heaven and Hell.

How did he do that? In Blake's poem and in our opera, Heaven and Hell are united simply by the realization that the bright dividing line between good and evil is arbitrary and doesn't really exist. Jerry unites Heaven and Hell by erasing the line between these artificial constructs, by showing them/us that good and evil are just parts of the same whole. Only Jerry has the wisdom (like the Wizard of Oz) to show us what we already know deep down inside. We are all both Heaven and Hell. To live fully, we must embrace both the Heaven and Hell within each of us.

According to Wikipedia, "Blake's theory of contraries was not a belief in opposites but rather a belief that each person reflects the contrary nature of God, and that progression in life is impossible without contraries. Moreover he explores the contrary nature of reason and of energy, believing that two types of people existed: the 'energetic creators' and the 'rational organizers,' or, as he calls them in The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, the 'devils' and 'angels.' Both are necessary to life according to Blake:
Without Contraries is no progression. Attraction and Repulsion, Reason and Energy, Love and Hate are necessary to Human existence. From these contraries spring what the religious call Good & Evil. Good is the passive that obeys Reason. Evil is the active springing from Energy. Good is Heaven. Evil is Hell.

Jerry has clearly read Blake.

I think the point of Jerry Springer the Opera is the same as the point of Zorbá, one of my favorite shows, a little-known Kander & Ebb gem, which New Line will produce at some point. The opening song, "Life Is," is a kind of Hal Prince mission statement for the show. Part of the lyric, sung by an anonymous woman "Leader," goes:
Life is what you do while you're waiting to die;
Life is how the time goes by.
Life is where you wait while you're waiting to leave;
Life is where where you grin and grieve.

Having if you're lucky, wanting if you're not,
Looking for the ruby underneath the rot,
Hungry for the pilaf in someone else's pot,
But that’s the only choice you’ve got.

Life is where you stand just before you are flat;
Life is only that, mister,
Life is simply that, mister,
That and nothing more than that.
Life is what you feel till you can't feel at all;
Life is where you fly and fall.

Running for the shelter, naked in the snow,
Learning that a tear drops anywhere you go,
Finding it's the mud that makes the roses grow,
But that's the only choice you know.

Life is what you do while you're waiting to die.
This is how the time goes by...

Kander & Ebb are the masters of the mission statement. Notice that the title of the song, "Life Is," embodies the song's ambivalence. Life is neither good nor bad; it just is.

Many people think Zorbá is depressing, but I think it's utterly joyful, even empowering. I think the point of Jerry Springer the Opera, Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell, and Zorbá is that you can't be a whole person if you love only the good parts of life. You have to love all of it, the "yin and yang, love and hate, attraction and repulsion" of it. Zorbá teaches Nikos to embrace every bit of life, and that's also what Jerry teaches us, to not divide the world up into good and bad, us and them. Only oppression (like religion, for example) comes from doing that.

We're all "us."

In fact, you might argue that the Springer Megamix ("Finale de Grand Fromage") at the end is more than just superfluous reprises. You might argue that this is when we see that these people have learned Jerry's lesson, and they celebrate their new enlightenment. As they revisit each of the guests' stories in this medley, they find connection there and they celebrate these lives of quiet desperation. They see that we're all crazy, we're all high maintenance, we're all contradictory, we're all vindictive, we're all lonely, we're all confused, we're all weird, and we all just want to be loved. And what a fun way to make that point on the way out...

I should note that the writers wrote this megamix as bows music that's sung, but I think there's an argument to be made that the story is not over until these people celebrate their newfound wisdom and perspective on life. It's no accident that they finish this finale with a verse of "This is Our Jerry Springer Moment" – significantly, the song is no longer called "The is My Jerry Springer Moment." Now it's about this community of misfits who finally see their place in the world and their connection to the rest of us.

I should also note that the script says the entire cast dresses as Jerry for the finale. We've been talking about that. I'm not sure if we'll do that or not. It seems to me if we treat the finale as the end of the story instead of as bows music, then it should be this same community of people who celebrate here. They don't actually become Jerry; they just learn from him.

It strikes me as I write this, that at the beginning of the show, Jerry is the audience's surrogate, our way into the world of the show; but at the end, it's the guests we identify with. Very sneaky.

An interesting (at least, to me) side note to all of this... Sondheim has often said that he prefers writing musicals to operas, partly because he really loves the yin-and-yang interplay between spoken and sung text; and probably unintentionally, Thomas and Lee have written an opera that would satisfy Sondheim. They use that interplay between spoken (only Jerry and Steve) and sung (everybody else, including the studio audience), to place Jerry "outside" the crazy world of these Jerry Springer Show guests. He doesn't sound like the rest of them; he "speaks" a different "language." As in real life, he's just an observer (at least, in Act I). That dichotomy between spoken and sung text is a very effective device, which mirrors the show's central themes, of the duality in everything.

Content dictates form – again, Sondheim would be pleased.

As you can see, Jerry Springer the Opera is insanely funny and outrageous, but it's also a whole lot more than that. And that's really cool.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Going Down with Me

We're in Hell. But in a good way.

Act I of Jerry Springer the Opera was easy to block, as long as I kept the TV show in my head and let that guide me. We're using fewer stage devices than the original in London, just telling the story as straightforwardly as we can. But Act II (well, Acts II and III, really) when we go to Purgatory, then Hell, isn't quite so obvious.

In fact, as we blocked the second half of the show this week, I realized that I didn't like what I had done with Purgatory. As I've already blogged about, the original production(s) was a lot about mocking the conventions of opera, and the show totally works that way, but our production is going to let the text and music take care of that part of the show. Our Act I will feel a lot like the TV show. But as I blocked Purgatory, I fell into a trap. I let the original production get in my head (sometimes that's a good thing, but not in this case), and I staged the Purgatory section like an oratorio, very little movement, very formal, etc. And then I realized what I had done. I had staged Act II sort of like the original, but Acts I and III were totally different.

Our production needs a unity of style that I was short-circuiting.

I realized I had been coming from the video instead of the text. So I stopped doing that. I reoriented that whole section, asking the actors instead to play it less formal and oratorio-ish, and more gothic spooky and haunting, to actually play these dead people, demons, etc, keeping in mind their causes of death of course. in a style as "naturalistic" as it can be (whatever that might mean in terms of ghosts and demons), with no comment on the performance, no overlay of "style" other than what the text and music supply.

I love the luxury that our process affords, that we can totally change our approach to something, with plenty of time still left to explore this new path. Our actors immediately jumped into the altered concept, and it already works better. I don't do that often to our actors, but if I see that we're on the wrong road, we correct that. There's nothing worse than being married to the blocking, whether or not it's working. My ideas don't always work. As long as I'm okay with being wrong sometimes, we'll always find the right road.

Also, while Act I really is just a Jerry Springer Show translated into the language of opera and theatre, Acts II and III, in Purgatory and Hell, are harder to figure out. The first step is figuring out what the writers intended. That's not the only information worth seeking out, but it's really helpful if it's available.

Back in the day, I was a music major in college, largely because I didn't find out until I got there that Harvard lacked a theatre department. I thought every college had a theatre department. But circumstances made me a music major instead and what I learned in those classes turned out to be really valuable to me in my musical theatre work. The more I know or can figure out about a show (especially the score!), the better we will do that show, and the more powerfully our audience will connect with it. That's what first started me writing my theatre books.

I never wanted to take music theory or music history in college, but they both turned out to have real value to me. One lesson I learned during my undergrad years is that you can never learn too much and you can never stop learning; and though those lessons apply to life, they also apply to working on a show. After taking music history and learning about classical opera, suddenly What's Opera, Doc? and The Rabbit of Seville were twice as funny, twice as interesting, and full of little Easter Eggs for those in the know. The more we know about the story we're telling, its context, its symbols, its subtext, its world, its rules, then the richer our performances will be.

Case in point...

A couple weeks ago, I accidentally stumbled upon something awesome. There's a fictional character in Jerry Springer the Opera, the warmup man Jonathan Wierus; and the actor playing Wierus also plays Satan in Acts II and III. I don't know what made me go looking, but I discovered the 16th-century Dutch physician, occultist, and demonologist Johann Weyer (or Wier), whose name in Latin is Ioannes Wierus. According to Wikipedia, he was among the first to publish against the persecution of witches. His most influential work is De Praestigiis Daemonum et Incantationibus ac Venificiis (On the Illusions of the Demons and on Spells and Poisons), 1563.

Also... I've ordered some books about Dante's Inferno, because I notice a similarity between that and our opera. In both, we visit both Hell and Purgatory. In our show, as in Dante's work, a Jerry's punishment is a kind of poetic justice. In Dante, the lustful are punished by being thrown around by a violent storm. The gluttons are rained upon by garbage, and stand in worms decomposing the mess. The greedy and the spendthrifts are forced to push stones against each other, each telling the other that they handle money badly. The angry and the sullen are put on the bank of the river Styx to forever fight in the mud. The violent are made to boil in blood, and shot by arrows if they rise up higher than they should. The flatterers are burned in shit. You see how it works...

In our show, the poetic justice is that Jerry has to do his show for the first time in which his stakes are the high ones, not his guests, and where someone else (or maybe no one) is in control. The writers of Jerry Springer the Opera seem to agree with Sartre, that Hell is other people. Why hasn't anyone made No Exit into a musical yet...?

Again, from Wikipedia... Inferno (Italian for Hell) is the first part of Dante Alighieri's 14th-century epic poem Divine Comedy. It is followed by Purgatorio and Paradiso. It is an allegory telling of the journey of Dante through Hell, guided by the dead Roman poet Virgil. Likewise, in Jerry Springer the Opera, Jerry arrives in Hell, and is guided by Baby Jane, the dead adult baby. In the poem, Hell is depicted as nine circles of suffering located within the Earth. Allegorically, the Divine Comedy represents the journey of the soul towards God, with the Inferno describing the recognition and rejection of sin.

I wonder if there's more to learn about this show from other operas about Hell, like Orfeo...? I see that there are some overt references to William Blake's The Marriage of Heaven and Hell late in the show as well.

Of course, we have to decide if Jerry actually goes to Hell or is it all in his head? We could probably play it either way, but it makes (marginally) more sense if it's all in his head. After all, we have the Wizard of Oz thing going here, where the characters in the fantasy world look a whole lot like the characters in the "real world." Plus the show returns at the end of Act III to a moment at the end of Act I, implying that all of Acts II and II didn't actually happen. But in our opera, the writers go even further, with Adam and Eve singing pretty much exactly what Chucky and Shawntel sang in Act I, and much the same for others. A lot of musical themes and melodies return in Acts II and III, often in altered form, to connect the fantasy world back to the real world, further suggesting that this is all a hallucination in the moments before Jerry dies.

And maybe also suggesting that Jerry's regular TV show is already pretty Hellish, so though Hell itself might be worse, it's not a whole lot worse.

And how does the usually unflappable Jerry Springer react to waking up in Hell? Do we play the melodrama or do we consciously underplay Jerry in the second half, keeping him that same, easy-going, Zen-like ringmaster from Act I...? Again, either one probably works. I think we're gonna try keeping him calm and easy, even amidst the insanity of Hell, creating a comic dissonance that comments both on Springer himself and the career he's forged, but also on the Springer audience and guests. It doesn't take much to turn them into denizens of Hell...

So much to think about. We've blocked the whole show now, and we move into the theatre this weekend. It will be so nice to get on our set and to get the music out of the actors' hands. Then the really fun, interesting work can begin.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Pimps in Bad Suits, Mothers Who Are Prostitutes

I've realized as I've been blocking Jerry Springer the Opera that my job this time is to Get Out of the Way. This is such dense text, often with laughs coming every few words. Any complex staging or gimmicky stage pictures will take focus away from this brilliant text and the genuinely funny musical jokes. So a lot of my job this time is just about planning ahead and traffic control.

You might not be surprised to hear that I don't want to approach the show the same way the original production did. I see it somewhat differently.

In this show, words reign over all. The language, the jokes, and the references come fast and furiously. So my number one task is to make everything as clear as possible, to help the audience navigate these crazy stories through our staging. One important part of that is to keep it simple. Clarity rarely rides along with complexity.

Boil them down, and all three segments in Act I are basic, archetypal stories, though slightly askew. Dwight's segment is just a simple story of boy meets girl, and girl, and "girl," boy loses girls. Montel's segment is  a story of being coupled to the wrong person, de-coupling from them, and re-coupling to someone else. Same as A Little Night Music, Cry-Baby, Bat Boy, Little Shop... And Shawntel's segment is essentially the story of the struggle for women's rights over the last 50 years.

We already knew our production would be scaled down from the massive productions in London, but as often happens to me, I find I like the show better without all the bullshit. The more tech you heap on a show, the less of the show you get to see, the less human the experience becomes.

The original production was a massive, overblown spectacle, as part of the meta-joke that this nasty, "common" content is being treated as grand opera. But as is often the case with us, we're coming at the show slightly differently. Instead of making fun of opera conventions, we're gonna follow the lead of Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown – and know that the more straight-faced we play it, the funnier it gets. Personally, I think they overplayed it in London. The second the audience feels effort in comedy, it becomes less funny. I think Jerry Springer the Opera should be played the way the British play Gilbert & Sullivan: the wackier the content, the straighter they play it. They let the words do the work, and they don't try to pile on the rich, laugh-packed text.

Sure, some of our performances will be over the top, because these characters live over-the-top lives (I'm lookin' at you, Montel), but even this early in rehearsal, I'm happy to see the performances aren't going to be superficial or cartoony. We have to come at this as if these are real people, though they may be living in an admittedly extreme world. Like we would with any of the great neo musical comedies, we're taking the comedy super-seriously, and that makes it utterly hilarious.

Rather than mock the conventions of opera with this content, as the original productions did, I want the ridiculous coupling of this form and this content to speak for itself, without our imposing our own commentary on top of that. We do not need to make this show funny; it's plenty funny on its own. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because it already is one, just without the music. The emotions and drama and stakes are already that high. I want to present The Jerry Springer Show as an opera because I think that reveals so much about the show and the culture that has embraced it (even while condemning it) for so long. I don't think this show is just some elaborate joke, though it is incredibly fucking funny. I think this show is a really smart and insightful social commentary. You can ignore that part of it and still be wildly entertained, but there are real guts to this show.

As we block this crazy opera, I find that our actors are sitting down a lot. And some of them clearly would like to be moving more. (Most actors have a constant fear of being boring.) The way we're coming at this thing, I'm trying to stage this as much like the TV show as is practical, to the point of being almost naturalistic some of the time. I think about how a moment would happen physically on the TV show, then translate that as directly as possible to our stage. And even this early in rehearsals, I can see that this approach really works. These characters are delivering so much information, and the way to get the audience to really listen is to give them less to look at.

I learned from the great ones – Bob Fosse, Hal Prince, Michael Bennett – that sometimes a great solo should be totally still. Think of Elaine Stritch sitting in that chair for all of "The Ladies Who Lunch" until the she stands for the series of "Rise!" at the end. Saving the standing up till the end makes it so much more powerful, almost like all that self-loathing has been simmering under the surface all throughout this long song, until at last it boils over at the end, and she has no choice but to rise herself. After all, she's been singing about herself the whole song anyway, so her demand to "Rise" is to herself as much as to anyone else. Any more staging to that song would have diminished it.

The same is true of Barney Martin's iconic performance of "Mr. Cellophane" in Fosse's original Chicago, almost still the entire song, with just small, minimalist gestures here and there. Just as "Mr. Cellophane" was based on Bert Williams' signature song "Nobody" from the 1906 musical Abyssinia, Fosse also based the staging on Williams' famous original performance. In this case, the restraint in staging focuses the audience on the lyric and its emotion, and it also conveys the idea of timidity, of almost literal nothingness. As Sondheim says, Content Dictates Form. The lyric becomes the staging. (To see New Line's recreation of Fosse's recreation of William's staging, from New Line's production of Chicago in 2002, click here.)

On the other hand...

One of the hallmarks of The Jerry Springer Show is chaos. On his show and in our opera, most of the characters are agents of chaos. You never see what's coming, except that you know it will be chaos. Sometimes that chaos is emotional, sometimes it's narrative, and sometimes it's physical. The writers of the opera do an amazing job of creating that chaos in the words and in the music (and it's tough to do chaos this well in music). So in parallel to what I said above, I just have to follow the text, and have the actors move only when the text requires it. The writing is really good and really well paced, so all I have to do is keep up.

It's important that we end the first act with a lot of visual chaos (including some special guest agents of chaos, who I won't name in case you haven't seen the show), because the second act (in Purgatory) is very different, much more still, almost more an oratorio, though again, slightly askew. The wilder the end of the first act is, the richer that contrast will be, and the more of an effect it will have on the audience.

Then in Act III, as Springer does his show in Hell, we essentially return to the staging of Act I. Though here in Hell, Springer doesn't control everything, as he did in Act I. It's a different Jerry here, less confident, less in control, less detached, less bemused. Now the high stakes are Jerry's, not the guests, and that changes everything. I haven't blocked Act III yet, but I need to find a balance between the style of Act I and this darker, creepier mood in Act III.

As is often the case with our shows, Jerry Springer the Opera is like no other piece of theatre you've ever seen. Which is a big part of the fun of exploring it and figuring out what makes it tick. At first, I wasn't even sure exactly what it was I love so much about it. But now I'm feeling much more comfortable; I do know how this thing works, and I know we're on the right road.

We finished blocking Act I last night and we will run the whole act for the first time tonight. What a wild ride this has been, and the adventure is only beginning...

Long Live the Musical!

I Want to Sing Something Beautiful

TV Guide called The Jerry Springer Show the worst show in the history of television. In 1995 critic Janice Kaplan wrote in TV Guide that coming on television to tell one’s secret is like “defecating in public.” I'm sure lots of people (most of whom have never seen Springer) would agree. But then why has it been on the air for more than two decades, to such consistently strong ratings?

It's easy to smile smugly and conclude America is just stupid. Talk show host Sally Jesse Raphael famously said, “Nobody wants to watch anything that’s smarmy or tabloid or silly or unseemly – except the audience.”

But America isn't stupid. As I said in my last post, a big part of the appeal is that humans crave narrative. It's how we learn, how we preserve our history and culture, how we share experiences, how we explain ideas, and how we entertain ourselves. Narrative is the primary form of human communication, and the most universal is the narrative of a human life. The Jerry Springer Show offers up two or three narratives every day, human hero myths in miniature. And in those stories, no matter how outrageous (and no matter whether we think the stories are 100% true or not), we see ourselves because we recognize human themes – love, loss, betrayal, lust, revenge, humiliation, despair. We've all felt these things, just maybe not to the extreme degree we see on Springer.

The Jerry Springer Show offers us what Bat Boy, Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, and Urinetown offer us, exaggerated but truthful human behavior under a magnifying glass. But the exaggeration doesn't obscure the truthful. And notice that, like Springer, all the shows I mentioned are about the Other, the outcasts. As Elayne Rapping wrote in The Progressive, “The people on these shows are an emotional vanguard, blowing the lid off the idea that America is anything like the place Ronald Reagan pretended to live in.”

As we've been learning this music the last couple weeks, I've been following along, thinking a lot about finding my way into this show. Despite its gleefully wicked humor and its monstrous vulgarity, this is also a very serious show, in a crooked kind of way. It looks at a huge, pervasive cultural phenomenon and asks us to think about two things, which happen to be the keys that I think unlock this show for us.

The first question is why would anyone go on The Jerry Springer Show? It's hard enough to understand why the first guest in each segment is there, but at least they're taking power, by choosing the time and place of engagement. But it's almost impossible for most of us to understand the subsequent guests in each segment, the people who don't know why they're there, but for some inexplicable reason, they've agreed to come on The Jerry Springer Show. Surely they know this can't end well.

We've been talking about this in rehearsal as we block the first act.

I found a really cool book called Freaks Talk Back: Tabloid Talk Shows and Sexual Nonconformity, by Joshua Gamson, that speaks directly to this question. Here are a few quotes I find really useful...

On the subversion:

“The interesting thing here is not just that talk shows are seen as a threat to norms and normality – as we will see, they are indeed just that, and the fight is between those who think this is a good thing and those who think it is not – but just who threatens whom here, who is ‘us’ and who is ’them'?”

“In fact, the talk show genre has always operated as an oddball combination of middle-class coffee-klatch propriety and rationality, and working-class irreverence and emotional directness. Talk shows, in a general sense, stretch back to earlier public traditions emerging from different and sometimes opposed, class cultures, and they still operate with the awkward tension between sensation and conversation growing from these roots. Propriety, of course, is not a middle-class property, and working-class and underclass people certainly do not own irreverence and emotion, but the talk show genre is fashioned from particular cultural pieces historically associated with different classes: relatively sober, deliberative, ‘polite’ middle-class forms of participating in and presenting public culture, embodied in literary circles and the lyceum, for instance; and irreverent, wild, predominantly lower-class public leisures, such as the carnival, the cabaret, the tabloid, and the nineteenth-century theatre.”

“Puzzle pieces begin to emerge from these criticisms. How exactly do poverty and lack of education, sex and gender nonconformity, and race come to be lumped together and condemned as monstrosities? What are we to make of these equations? Are they the result of exploitative programming that scripts and markets weird people most of ‘us’ wouldn’t talk to in a supermarket, selling the middle-class audience its own superiority? Are they the result of willful distortions by guardians of middle-class morality and culture, part and parcel of the ongoing ‘culture wars’ in the United States? Are they, as defenders of the genre suggest, the result of a democratization process that threatens those who are used to the privilege of owning and defining public discourse?”

“Silly as they can be, daytime TV talk shows are filled with information about the American environment in which they take root, in which expertise and authenticity and rationality are increasingly problematic, and in which the lines between public and private are shifting so strangely. And they embody that information with Barnumesque gusto. I like what talk shows make us think about.”

“A world of goofy lightness turns out to be heavily enmeshed in complicated, contradictory processes of social change.”

On the people:

“Where critics see ‘freaks’ and ‘trash,’ defenders see ‘have-nots’ and ‘common people’.”

“For people whose life experience is so heavily tilted toward invisibility, whose nonconformity, even when it looks very much like conformity, discredits them and disenfranchises them, daytime TV talk shows are a big shot of visibility and media accreditation. It looks, for a moment, like you own this place.”

“Exploiting the need for visibility and voice, talk shows provide them, in distorted but real, hollow but gratifying ways. They have much to tell about those needs and those contradictions, about the weird and changing public sphere in which people are talking. Just as important, talk shows shed a different kind of light on sex and gender conformity.”

“Social conservatives have been notably unsuccessful at stemming the democratization of culture, the breakdown of those class, sex, and race-bound conventions that once reliably separated high from low, ‘news’ from ‘gossip,’ public from unspeakably private, respectable from deviant.”

“… the paradoxes of visibility that talk shows dramatize with such fury: democratization through exploitation, truths wrapped in lies, normalization though freak show.”

The second big question is why do we watch? I'll admit it, I watch Springer. Even before I knew we were producing the opera. And I like it. But why?

I found another good book, Tabloid Culture: Trash Taste, Popular Power, and the Transformation of American Television, by Kevin Glynn, that helped me with this question. For me, a big part of it is how subversive the show is. Here are some interesting quotes:

“If Reaganism entailed a widespread cultural repression of voices and identities representing social difference, Reaganism's repressed others returned with a vengeance on TV's tabloid talk shows, whose numbers grew impressively from the mid- to late 1980s and exploded spectacularly during the early nineties [around the same time Jonathan Larson was writing Rent, also about society's Others]. By widening both the sense of social distance and the power gap between the haves and the have-nots, and by stepping up the surveillance and policing of alterity, twelve years of Reagan-Bushism intensified already bitter conflicts around social difference. The oft-noted intense conflictuality of U.S. daytime TV talk shows is symptomatic of social conflicts that escalated sharply during the Reagan decade and the Bush years.”

"In October 1995 a moralistic senator from Connecticut, Joseph Lieberman, joined forces with the self-anointed secretary of civic virtue and former Reagan and Bush administration official William Bennett to host a press conference denouncing U.S. daytime TV talk shows as sites of ‘moral rot’ and ‘cultural pollution.’ Although Bennett captured media attention by outing businesses that advertise on talk shows, it was Lieberman who came surprisingly close to theoretical prescience when he observed that the programs unsettle distinctions between the perverse and the normal. Daytime talk shows, staples of the new tabloid media, do indeed thrive on contestation over the difference between normal and abnormal. They invite the participation of people whose voices are often excluded from U.S. commercial media discourse, such as sex workers, ordinary women, blue- and pink-collar laborers, the homeless, the HIV positive, people living with AIDS, youths, gay men, lesbians, the transgendered, people with unconventional body shapes and sizes, alien abductees, convicted criminals, prison inmates, and other socially marginalized ‘abnormals.’ Says Elayne Rapping of the daytime talk shows, ‘There is something exhilarating about watching people who are usually invisible – because of class, race, gender, status – having their say and, often, being wholly disrespectful to their ‘betters’.”

“Tabloid television prefers heightened emotionality and often emphasizes the melodramatic. It sometimes makes heavy use of camp, irony, parody, and broad humor. It relies on an often volatile mix of realistic and anti-realistic representational conventions. It resists ‘objectivity,’ detachment, and critical distance. It incorporates voices frequently excluded from ‘serious’ news and often centers on those that are typically marginalized in mainstream media discourse. The ‘bizarre’ and the ‘deviant’ are central to its image repertoire. It is generally offensive to high- and middlebrow tastes. Moreover, it is often equally offensive to masculine tastes (although tabloid discourse is itself gendered: there are both masculine and feminine varieties of address found within it). It frequently violates dominant institutional standards and procedures for the production and validation of ‘truth.’ It thrives on the grotesque, the scandalous, and the ‘abnormal.’ Its images are often stark, raw, unprettified, and unsanitized. It dwells on social and moral disorder. Among its favorite themes are the ubiquity of victimization and the loss of control over the outcomes of events, and of one's fate. Also typical are stories involving gender disturbances and ambiguities, troubled domestic and familial relationships, and paranormal phenomena that apparently outstrip the explanatory power of scientific rationalism. Tabloid media simultaneously defamiliarize the ordinary and banalize the exotic.”

“The most disparaged cultural objects are those consumed predominantly by the most devalued social groups.”

Maybe I enjoy Springer because I am myself a social Other – gay man, artsy, pothead. Maybe the most powerful message Springer offers his audience is the most important message we can get from culture – You are not alone.

In the show, the guests sing to Jerry:
We eat excrete and watch T.V.,
And you are there for us, Jerry.
Jerry, can you understand,
We sit out in nowhere land,
Wanting and yearning,
Our bloated stomachs churning?
Eat, excrete and watch T.V.
You are there for us, Jerry...

I'm still reading a lot about all this, but I am coming to some conclusions. Jerry Springer and shows like it subvert the mainstream culture and mainstream values, so for anyone who feels left out of that mainstream culture, Springer is a welcome poke in the eye to the world that excludes them, whether for economic, social, sexual, or other reasons.

Is Springer's audience all that different than the Romans at the Coliseum or the groundlings at Shakespeare's Globe? Or today's boxing fans? Or football fans? No matter who's cheering for what, it's all a metaphor for the journey of a human life. It's all narrative. And just like when we watch a movie or TV drama, we want conflict, drama, surprise, and always, resolution.

The Springer Show is one of the few places where The Other can have their say, where they can take power and demand that "Attention must be paid." That opportunity to be Heard and Seen can be a powerful, seductive drug. It's also the place where those who've done wrong usually get their comeuppance. Though it may seem to some as an amoral space, it's not. There is a morality in Springer World, but it's not the same morality you might see on The Big Bang Theory. The Springer morality is less arbitrary, really just about personal dignity (yes, I'm serious), freedom, respect, not really much more than The Golden Rule.

During rehearsals, we keep being surprised by the seriousness and poignancy of several of the songs, these few moments when the authors take a real look at the real emotions of these characters. Andrea's "I Want to Sing Something Beautiful," Baby Jane's "This is My Jerry Springer Moment," Shawntel's "I Just Wanna Dance," and the company number "Take Care" all take us somewhere unexpected, into the honest emotions of these people who we've otherwise seen only as cartoon characters.

It's as if the authors are reminding us that no matter how outrageous The Jerry Springer Show gets, these are real people who often have very deep, very profound feelings. Like the TV show, the opera alternately dishes up both mockery and respect for these folks.

In 2010, President Obama hosted an evening of Broadway music at the White House, and he said, "Over the years, musicals have been at the forefront of our social consciousness, challenging stereotypes, shaping our opinions about race and religion, death and disease, power and politics." That's certainly true of Jerry Springer the Opera. Like Cry-Baby, Rent, Passing Strange, and many other New Line shows, Springer is about the outcasts, the Others.

Because they're more interesting.

No matter how much you think you're prepared for Jerry Springer the Opera, you're not. You really have no idea how vulgar and blasphemous this show is, but you also have no idea how much you'll get emotionally involved with these characters, and their very simple, very modest hopes and dreams.

We say this a lot – because it's often true – but this show is truly like no other. By a mile. You know you're dying to see it...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Je Suis Charlie

I've been trying to process the Charlie Hebdo tragedy in Paris. I try to believe that it won't happen in America, but of course it could.

I really am Charlie. My life is spent making public art, telling stories, and a great deal of the time, indulging in fierce, even offensive satire. And a healthy portion of that satire is directed at religion. What if someone told me that we couldn't produce bare or Bukowsical or Bat Boy because they're sacrilegious? What if someone killed me merely because I wrote Johnny Appleweed, easily a quarter of which would be offensive to many hardcore Christians?

We take the freedom to offend for granted. Satire likes to grab you by the throat and shake you, to get your attention, and offense is one way to do that. Think "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue" in Cry-Baby or "Mama Gimme Smack on the Asshole" in Jerry Springer. It wakes you up from the (cultural or political) Matrix you're sleeping in, and slaps you awake. New Line does a lot of shows with an agenda like that. It never even occurred to me that we couldn't produce Jerry Springer the Opera because of its content – which is really offensive and really sacrilegious, FYI – because it's also a smart, insightful piece of theatre about the dysfunction of our culture in this time of massive change and upheaval. And art makes order out the chaos of the world around us and inside us. We need that.

I remember the year I graduated high school, Theatre Project Company, here in St. Louis, lost both their theatre and funding for Christopher Durang's Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All for You. It's a wickedly funny satire (Stray Dog Theatre did an excellent production a while back), but it's hard to believe people were that scared of it. But like Charlie Hebdo, it was shining a light on the dark and/or stupid side of religion.

When we were doing Hands on a Hardbody last season, it occurred to me that it was the first time in twenty-four years that religion was a major theme of a show and not in a critical or ironic light. The show's lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green told me that it hadn't occurred to them to make religion that central a theme, until they met the real people the characters are based on, and saw how much religion pervaded their culture. But that show was the exception for us.

I think back through all the shows we've produced over the years on controversial topics. We really are Charlie. The great actor Larry Luckinbill wrote to me on my 21st birthday, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it." New Line lives by this idea and it has served us well these last twenty-four years. We do our audience a disservice if we self-censor in their name.

The whole point of terrorism is that the idea is even bigger and more destructive than the actual attack, so that fear then drives us more than reason, so that we defeat ourselves. What will be the fallout from The Interview and Charlie Hebdo? Will film studios and magazines self-censor in fear? Charlie Hebdo responded to the attack by putting a cartoon of the prophet Muhammad on the cover of their next issue. Well, fuck yeah. But television networks in the West will not show it. Is it too simplistic to say, then, that the terrorists won?

The only thing we can do in response to all this is take even more seriously our job to illuminate, using all the tools of our trade, including the fiercest satire. Did I mention that Jerry Springer the Opera opens in a few weeks...?

We can't do anything else, because the darker the world gets, the brighter and more piercing our light has to be.

Je suis Charlie Hebdo.

Jerry Springer the Opera

What the hell is Jerry Springer the Opera?

Good question.

Honestly, it's pretty much exactly what it sounds like. But people keep asking that question, I think because they can't imagine that it could possibly be what it actually is. So in response, I always say something fairly uninformative like, "Well, it's a Jerry Springer show... as an opera..." That really is what it is. But it's a lot more than that, too. After all, The New York Times called it "genius," and the Sunday Times of London called it "a shocking, irresistibly funny masterpiece!" They wouldn't be saying that if it were really just a Springer show.

As you can see, I'm still trying  to figure out how to talk about this show, and I think that's because I'm still trying to figure out exactly what this thing is and why I love it so much.

One thing I know – you really have no idea what this show is like until you actually see it. Nothing I say can really prepare you.

Here's what else I know. It's whip-fucking-smart. It's consistently, outrageously laugh-out-loud funny, on a level with Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, and Cry-Baby. It's deeply insightful culturally. It's probably the most offensive thing you will ever see on a legit theatre stage. By a mile. People keep saying, "Well it can't be worse than Bukowsical!" It's worse. But also, it humanizes its characters more than you would think possible, considering the context.

It's really an opera, and the music is really wonderful, beautiful, exciting; and also extremely expressive, doing every bit as much storytelling as the lyrics. And my favorite thing in the musical theatre – the music itself is quite often really, really funny. There's nothing better than funny music.

I also know, having let the show percolate in my brain for quite a while now, that though it is an opera, it operates as a neo musical comedy; and so the trick here is to play it all as seriously and honestly as we can, to let the outrageous situations and language take care of the Funny, while we take care of the human emotions at the core of all the lunacy. This is serious comedy, like Bat Boy or Little Shop of Horrors. No camp. No commentary. No winking. 100% honest. As the Bat Boy writers put it, "the height of expression, the depth of sincerity." The more seriously we take this crazy world, the funnier it will get.

Why is it an opera? I think probably the real reason is that seemed like a really funny idea. But it goes deeper than that. Why does the idea seem so funny? Because it's both surprising and truthful. I realize as I watch our early rehearsals that these characters and emotions are already operatic, even without music. Richard Thomas and Lee Stewart merely followed the First Law of Sondheim: Content Dictates Form. These huge emotions, these sky high stakes, this ravenous crowd (our "studio audience") demand the size of opera.

When Dwight sings "I've been seeing someone else," in a soaring operatic melody, we get not only the fact of his betrayal, but the self-importance of his decision to drag his loved ones onto national television. What seems trivial to us does not seem trivial to Dwight or his multiple paramours. After all, this small moment in their lives that we're witnessing may destroy or salvage those various lives. We laugh at the over-drama, at the meta joke of the operatic music, at the excessive chaos of these interlocked lives; but most of us also know we've been dumped or almost dumped, we've felt old, we've felt trapped. These are universal human emotions. And maybe that, at the root, is why the show works so well.

Take a look at this lyric, in which Shawntel tells us how desperately she wants escape from her life. The show's ironic, meta edge remains – she's talking about being a pole dancer, and she sings this clutching Jerry's famous stripper pole – but the emotion is unmistakably real.
I don't give a fuck no more,
If people think I am a whore –
I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
Things are going bad for me,
I am feeling sad for me,
So I just wanna dance,
Oh, I just wanna dance.
I’m tired of laughing,
And I'm tired of crying.
And I'm tired of failing,
And I'm tired of all this trying.
I wanna do some living
‘Cause I’ve done enough dying.
I just wanna dance.
I just wanna fucking dance.

She may be uneducated and lacking the exact vocabulary to express what she's feeling, but this lyric captures her 21st-century discontent quite eloquently in the list of what makes her tired, including "all this trying." Her line, "I've done enough dying," rises above the show's gleeful crudity to a place of piercing truthfulness. We can feel how beaten down this woman is, how weary she feels, how desperate for escape. By the end of the song, dance is no longer rebellion; it's survival. This lyric sneaks up on us (as the show does from time to time) and surprises us with its gravity and its seriousness.

What music does best is emotion, which is why the most emotional stories make the best musicals. And here's a show that actually subordinates plot to emotion. Who's sleeping with whom is far less important or interesting (on the real show or in the opera) than what each character's individual quirk or fault or path may be. Like the TV show it's based on, this is a show not about story, but about betrayal, loss, triumph, love, rejection, dreams. It doesn't matter that the emotions are extreme, that they're exaggerated, even ridiculous; they also ring true.

It's almost a neo musical comedy.

And though narrative is not the show's primary agenda, each segment does give us a glimpse into someone's personal hero myth story, complete with obstacles to overcome and enlightenment to be attained (if they're lucky). And maybe that universal hero myth story is what makes us tune in to Springer. Storytelling is the foundation of each Springer segment, as Jerry welcomes the next guest and says, "So what's goin' on?" Humans need storytelling, to learn lessons, to connect with other lives, to preserve our history and culture, to feel less alone.

And in many cases, these guests are taking back their power. They are choosing the time and place for confrontation. They are choosing to change something in their life. We all relate to that too.

All the issues on the show (and in the opera) are moral ones – the guests' needs/desires are at odds with mainstream morality. But are the guests "wrong" or "sinful" while the mainstream is "right," or are they just different from the mainstream? Do these people have the right to construct their own moral universe? What does that do to the people around them? Do those people get to choose...?

I'm reading two books in my quest for understanding of all this. Richard H. Smith's The Joy of Pain: Schadenfreude and the Dark Side of Human Nature is really interesting and easy to digest. There's more to schadenfreude than the song from Avenue Q. The other book is Talking Trash: The Cultural Politics of Daytime TV Talk Shows by Julie Engel Manga, a study specifically of how women connect with shows like Jerry Springer, Oprah, and the others. Both books are giving me insight into all this, but I still don't have a really concrete grasp on it all. And I do think it's graspable.

In Talking Trash, Manga suggests that we generally judge Springer's guests by three criteria:
  1. impartial reason (does this make sense, is this rational, does it sound true)
  2. public/private distinction (where do we draw that line and why, where do the guests draw it)
  3. respectability (do these people act the way we think "respectable" adults act)
Since we've announced this show, people have been asking me if I think the TV show is "real." My best guess from people I've talked to, is that most of the episodes are not strictly real, but that the stories are more egged on and revved up than outright fabricated. But the truth is it doesn't matter for our purposes. In our show, these guests definitely have these real problems.

So much to ponder here.

I believe this show is really something special, and I don't want us to get lost in the considerable fun of the show's outrageousness and obscenity. We need to remember that though this show is truly hilarious, it's also a lot more. We've walked this tightrope before. We're good at this.

The other question we get a lot is, So is it really an opera? As you might know, New Line's June show, The Threepenny Opera is not really an opera, despite its title; it's a musical comedy. But Jerry Springer the Opera is really an opera, not just because it's almost entirely sung (though Jerry and Steve never sing), but also because several of the roles really can only be sung by classically trained singers. Of which we have several. The score also dabbles in jazz, rock, pop, and Broadway, but much of it really is contemporary opera music.

But as I said at the top, you'll really have no idea what you're getting into till you see it. And judging by the response we're getting already, you better get your tickets early...

Another wild New Line adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!

Sweet Understanding

We New Liners take our comedy seriously.

One of the disadvantages to this new Golden Age of musical theatre where we find ourselves, is that this is a massive transition in the art form (much like the massive transition in the culture at large), and many working in the musical theatre haven't yet found their way in this New World. We really are (mostly) leaving behind the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, and the 20th-century musical comedy model, for new, more interesting, more relevant forms, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical.

But a lot of actors and a lot of directors come at neo musical comedies as if these shows are old-school, 1950s musical comedies. They're not. And what's extra hard about this problem is that these shows can still be fairly funny, even when not done all that well, so the clueless don't even realize what they've missed, that their productions lack all the rest of what makes these such great shows, their bite, their irony, their subtext, their politics, and their very meta self-awareness. After all, they get laughs!

And so do babies and cats on YouTube. Is that really the only measure of theatre?

Too many directors of musicals don't even consider the writers' intentions when they stage a show. It doesn't even occur to them that a particular show may have its own unique style, tone, rules, etc., which are unlike those of any other musical. This is true of more and more musicals these days, thanks to the amazing experimentation going on in our art form today. These clueless directors don't read interviews with the writers. They don't read anything the writers have written about the show. To these folks, all funny is equal, all funny is wacky and cheap.

It's not.

There are directors and actors who will tell you that you shouldn't have to think about the writers' intentions, that everything should be right there in the script. Maybe you could make that argument about a play (although even then, I'm not sure I agree), but musicals are really complex, and it's just not possible to write down the spirit, the tone, the level of exaggeration and irony, etc. Some writers try to give us a hint. The Bat Boy writers shared with me their guiding mantra, "The height of expression, the depth of sincerity." Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a really great short essay at the front of the Little Shop script, but I've seen productions where no one involved read Ashman's piece. He wrote:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

Note that this is not a campy show, though many productions treat it that way. We're not supposed to be laughing at these characters; we're supposed to be emotionally involved in their story, despite the insanity of the premise. And let's look at that last sentence one more time, because it applies to so many contemporary musicals – "When Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable." I wish they would print that in boldface at the top of every page of the script... and the scripts of Urinetown, Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, etc.

Watch Ellen Greene, the original Audrey, sing "Somewhere That's Green." No matter how silly or absurd the content gets, her acting is subtle, committed, utterly inside the character. Audrey is a real woman, and her emotions are real, even if she lives inside a really fucked-up cartoon world.

Doug Wright wrote a short note like that at the beginning of the Hands on a Hardbody script that was really helpful. He wrote in part:
Despite their colorful eccentricities and regional turns of phrase, the characters in our story are inspired by very real people. They should not be played broadly, or with an implied "wink." Rather, they should be acted with integrity, with full regard for their ardent hopes, heartbreaking foibles and core decency.

Not all writers do this for us, but it's not hard at all to find interviews, essays, and other pieces that will tell you how these writers built a show and how it should work.

So many newer musicals today are sui generis, each of them with a style and tone utterly unique to that show. In many of these cases, the only ways to fully understand what the writers intended is to see the original production (if in fact the writers liked it, which is not always the case), and/or to read what the writers say about their show. It's important to remember that the writers sometimes don't like the original production or the original director.

Here are some of the most abused shows, in my (only occasionally) humble opinion...

Like Little Shop, the characters and action of Bat Boy have to be taken totally seriously by the actors and director. Neo musical comedies are about irony, in this case the very funny juxtaposition of incredibly high stakes and powerful emotions against the fundamentally silly premise of the whole story and the rank hypocrisy of many of the characters. But for that to work, the acting has to be utterly honest and serious. Like the Bat Boy writers put it, the depth of sincerity, the height of expression. Honest and outrageous at the same time. If you're working on a well-crafted neo musical comedy, the more seriously the director and actors take the characters and story, the funnier the show gets.

Adding jokes, bits, schtick, gags, mugging, etc. to shows like these only hobbles them, and makes them half as funny as they should be. Nothing is less funny than the obvious effort to be funny.

Urinetown is similar but even more serious. Remembering the brilliant original production on Broadway, the show is incredibly funny, but it's not always funny. Many of the scenes are meant to be disturbing, scary, creepy. Again, just because a show is funny doesn't mean every second of it has to be funny. You have to follow the show, not your own agenda. Urinetown is relentlessly dark, over-serious, even condescending, and like the other shows mentioned here, the more seriously you take it, the funnier it gets.

Watch this clip from the Tonys, and see how totally straight-faced it all is, and how serious Officer Lockstock and Bobby Strong are.

There are lots of musicals that lots of directors and actors apparently don't understand. For the record... Godspell is not sketch comedy and it's not a revue; there is a through-line and character arcs. Hair is not Godspell; it is a dark Hero Myth story, not a playful romp. Hedwig and the Angry Inch is not a comedy and Hedwig isn't mean. You'd be astounded at the terrible wrong turns lots of musicals take in the wrong hands.

But I also want to point out that some of those directors and actors who fundamentally misunderstand contemporary musicals are working on and off Broadway. Director Walter Bobbie thought High Fidelity was a romantic musical comedy, but it's actually Rob's serious (sometimes very sad) coming-of-age story. The story is a drama (not many comedies involve abortions), even though there are a lot of laughs. Likewise, director Mark Brokaw thought Cry-Baby was an offensive comedy about mean kids, but it's actually a serious story about class and justice, again even though there are a lot of laughs. And the "bad kids" are actually our big-hearted heroes, something else Brokaw didn't understand. I can only assume he's never seen a John Waters movie.

You can't argue that this evolving form is entirely new and uncharted, since it arguably goes back to Little Shop more than thirty years ago, or at the very least, back to Bat Boy and Urinetown in the mid-1990s, but a lot of people still don't get it.

You wouldn't direct an episode of The Sopranos the same way you'd direct Saved by the Bell, but that's essentially what's happening in the musical theatre today. People are directing Bat Boy and Urinetown like they're The Pajama Game and Damn Yankees.

They're not.

There are lots of different kinds of Funny. The musical theatre writers and composers of this new Golden Age are giving us the kind of Funny that matches our times, dark, uncomfortable, weighty, ironic; but also insightful and illuminating. We don't need the kind of Funny audiences needed in the 1950s; we need a musical theatre for today's world. We need Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and Cry-Baby and Jerry Springer the Opera.

And lucky for us, that's what we have. Now if we can just get those clueless types to join the rest of us in the 21st century, we can charge ahead into the undeniably exciting future of our art form...
Yesterday is done.
See the pretty countryside.
Merrily we roll along, roll along,
Following dreams.
Traveling's the fun...

Long Live the New Musical!

Only Way to Make a Work of Art

As I said when I accepted New Line's special award from the St. Louis Theater Circle this year, all I've ever wanted to do with my life is make musicals. But you can't do that alone.

So I want to take a moment, as the new year begins and before we go back into rehearsal, to heap some praise on three people who have made my job so much easier this past year. As you can well imagine, running a small theatre company is really hard. And directing the kind of musical theatre we produce is also really hard. So anything that can make either of those two endeavors easier is a godsend.

I have three godsends to tell you about... call them my 2014 New Line Persons of the Year.

Flashback to 2009. We were less than a week from starting rehearsals for the Shakespearean rock & roll sci-fi musical comedy Return to the Forbidden Planet, when we found out one of the actors we cast had not just dropped out, but actually had moved to Denver, without saying a word. In a mild panic, I called some of my theatre friends, including Nick Kelly, longtime New Line actor and professor of theatre at Lindenwood University, to find a replacement who could handle Shakespearean dialogue and sing three-part, doo-wop backup. Nick had just the guy – a strong tenor and a strong actor named Mike Dowdy. I was so relieved I didn't even ask Dowdy to audition for me; on Nick's recommendation, I offered Dowdy the role and he accepted. And only then did he discover he'd have two Shakespeare monologues...

Which he nailed. And he was awesome to work with.

He was wonderful in RTTFP, already so at home with our straight-faced outrageousness, so we just kept inviting him back, to appear in Spelling Bee, The Wild Party, Evita, Two Gentlemen of Verona, bare, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Night of the Living Dead, and this past summer's Hands on a Hardbody. He's played everything from a grade school egotist to an incestuous gay theatre writer, to an aggressively creepy John Waters villain, to a romantic lead, to a stoner servant, to a damaged middle-aged husband... He completely inhabits every one of his characters and he's got this gorgeous tenor voice!

But Mike has taken a new day job, as stage manager for the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company, which requires him to join the actors and stage managers union, which means he can't perform on New Line's stage again for a while, because New Line is non-union.

But Dowdy's other talent, I discovered, is directing. He's great at it. Even when he was in a show, he often had such smart, interesting staging ideas (quite a few of which we used); so we eventually named him New Line's Associate Artistic Director, and now he's directing all our shows with me. And we're a hell of a great team. We have very similar tastes and opinions, and he's really in tune with my process. Quite often, Dowdy and I will be standing there, watching a run-through of a show, and at exactly the same instant, we'll turn to each other with exactly the same thought. Which then always makes us laugh. And yet, after that run-through, Dowdy and I will both have lots of notes for the actors, but the two of us will never have the same note. Weird, huh?

I've been directing musicals since 1981, but my work is better if Dowdy's directing with me. I'm a pretty great problem solver, but so is Dowdy, and as The Robber Bridegroom teaches us, two heads are better than one. Especially when both heads are on the same wavelength. He's a really wonderful artistic partner.

The most recent addition to the New Line family is Jeffrey Carter, chair of the music department at Webster University, who became New Line's resident music director with Bonnie & Clyde. And it's really wonderful having Jeffrey around. I had been New Line's music director for most of our history, but I handed that job off to our excellent bandleader Justin Smolik a couple seasons ago. But then Justin got another job. When I first met Jeffrey to talk about being our music director, I immediately knew this was going to work out. Jeff and I get along really well temperamentally, we have fairly similar tastes in music and theatre, he totally has a New Line sense of humor, and he's both really great at the job and really easy-going and fun to be around.

Our Bonnie & Clyde sitzprobe rehearsal was the easiest for me that a sitzprobe has ever been, thanks entirely to Jeff.

I'm particularly glad he's in the job right now, as rehearsals for Jerry Springer the Opera approach. That show is going to be extremely challenging in a variety of ways, but the music is very hard (it really is an opera), and I could not be more thrilled that I don't have to teach it! When we held auditions for Springer, trained opera singers showed up, and Jeffrey was able to talk to them in opera-speak, which is not among my skills. I was a good music director, but I was never trained in that job. Jeffrey is a serious pro.

And he's awesome.

One of our luckiest hires lately was the one and only Rob Lippert. After our last set designer Scott Schoonover (High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, BBAJ, Bukowsical) left to take a position with Stages, we put the word out, and Rob was one of the first to respond. Not only did he have lots of experience, and some really cool set designs in his portfolio, but he's also a lighting designer; and our resident lighting design Ken Zinkl was taking "maternity leave" for our fall show, Night of the Living Dead, so Rob ended up designing both lights and the set, which he did again for Rent. So, to our great delight, Rob is now our resident scenic designer, and Rob and Ken both are our resident lighting designers.

But the real gift was that I saw on Rob's website that he had created a truck for a production of The Grapes of Wrath, and we had just been offered the American regional premiere (the first production after Broadway) of Hands on a Hardbody, which requires a full-sized, real pickup truck onstage. Though it ended up taking Rob and his crew about 400 man-hours, he delivered our truck.

And let's be clear about this – Rob gave us a real, full-sized, red pickup truck (minus the engine and most of the innards), in the middle of our set, in our second-floor theatre, which has only regular-sized doors. He literally deconstructed and reconstructed an entire Nissan pickup. He also built us a cool Nissan billboard through which you could sometimes see the band behind it.

Rob has also delivered for us a totally realistic looking, creepy old farmhouse for Night of the Living Dead; a beautiful urban landscape (and a 16' raked moon!) for Rent; and a surrealistic dreamscape for Bonnie & Clyde. I'm sure he thought I was nuts when I said to him about Rent, "I don't care what you do with the rest of the set, but in the middle, I need a giant, raked, circular platform, painted to look like the moon, and big enough to seat sixteen." But god bless him, he gave me my moon.

And the topper is that Rob is the nicest guy you'll ever meet, super smart, super dependable, incredibly creative, and so hard-working!

When we started New Line, back in 1991, I was director, music director, set designer, costume designer, graphic designer, piano player, house manager, and other assorted jobs – partly because our budget was really tiny, and partly because I'm a world-class control freak. But over the years, I've let go of all those jobs except director (and now I'm sharing that one!). And the control freak in me is okay, as long as my collaborators are people like Dowdy, Jeffrey, and Rob. We have a pretty small budget for the kind of work we do, and yet we need truly outstanding artists at the top of their game, to pull off shows like Next to Normal and Jerry Springer the Opera.

New Line and I are both very lucky that these guys have come to work with us, that the work is more important to them than the size of the paycheck, and that they give us their very best every time. New Line is known all over the country for the quality of our work, but the art can only be high quality if the artists are high quality.

And they are.

Soon another wild adventure begins. Fasten your seat belts.

Long Live the Musical!

525,600 Minutes

When I sit down to write my last blog of the year, I always look back with a big, goofy grin on my face. 2014 was wonderful, but really, most years are pretty terrific in Miller World. After all, for the last twenty-five years (holy shit, that's half my life!), I've been doing exactly what I've always wanted to do literally since before I can remember. When other toddlers were learning "The Itsy Bitsy Spider," I was singing "Wouldn't It Be Loverly" in what I thought was a full-out cockney accent, or "Why Can't the English?" in fully indignant, upper-class dudgeon. I memorized Harold Hill's "Trouble" speech at age nine just because it seemed to me like something I should have in my head. No idea why. But I still know it. And I often recite it to myself just because I can.

So I'm pretty much livin' the musical theatre dream. And most years for me are chock full of musical theatre awesomeness. 2014 was no different. There were two big surprises/honors for New Line this year. First, in March, the St Louis Theater Circle honored us with a special award for our body of work over the years.

Then in June, Rob Weinert-Kendt, a writer for American Theatre magazine, flew out to see New Line's Rent, and to interview me and some of the other New Liners about our company and our work. This was a really huge honor for us. American Theatre is the national magazine for serious, professional theatre artists, and though they have run quite a few short items over the years about our projects, they had never done a feature story like this.

Rob wrote, "There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. You'll probably never see The Music Man at New Line, in other words." To read the whole article about New Line, click here.

We also launched this year the first annual New Line Theatre Show Tune Challenge, in which we challenged our friends to either sing a show tune on Facebook or donate to New Line. It was quite a success for our first time, with forty people making videos! I believe we'll do it again next November.

One other cool thing – we had been an Amazon Associate, so that when you bought items on Amazon through our links, we got a kick-back. But then Missouri changed some tax laws and we got kicked out of that program. But now Amazon has created Smile, a new program where you choose your favorite charity, then every time you visit Smile.Amazon.com and buy something, New Line once more gets a donation from most items you buy. Pretty cool, huh? So go get that set up now, so you don't forget...

In terms of performances, we started in January with the second of our Off Line Cabarets, this time New Liners Ryan Foizey and Marcy Wiegert in "What the Hell Are We Doing Here?", music directed by Justin Smolik, and directed and produced by Mike Dowdy, who runs New Line Theatre Off Line. It sold out and was really wonderful.

New Line's 24th season continued in March with our very different take on the now classic rock opera Rent.  This was a show I had resisted directing for a long time; the original seemed so perfect to me and that was a real obstacle for me for years. I'm glad now that I waited. It's been almost twenty years since I had the thrill of seeing Rent for the first time on Broadway, and three years since I saw the outstanding off Broadway revival. That distance – and Rob's incredibly inventive set – allowed me to come at the story with some real freedom. At my request, Rob's set centered on a giant raised, raked "moon," and that massive set piece (16' across) really restricted what I could do in staging. And as most artists know, the more restrictions you have, the more creative you'll be. To an artist, restrictions are like steroid shots.

We cast a very young cast (our two leads were 19 and 20), and we had newcomers in eight of the show's nine leading roles. (We love giving leads to people who are new to us.) The critics and audience all went wild for our production, and many of the reviews mentioned how much we departed from the conventional staging of the show. Paul Friswold in The Riverfront Times called our show, “sharp, incisive and viscerally moving. . . a masterpiece of stagecraft, a composition as visually stunning as it is sonically powerful. . . packed with unforgettable moments.” Chris Gibson wrote in BroadwayWorld, “If you think you've seen Rent before, you really haven't.” Judith Newmark in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch called it “intimate and raw.” Christopher Reilly at Alive magazine called it “a powerhouse evening of theater.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway, said it "brings stunning characters furiously to life, in all their contradictions.”

Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote in his American Theatre article, "Miller's Rent is youthful, movingly raw, and unfailingly intimate; it doesn't smooth over the original work's odd, form-bending structure. It feels almost as if it's being made up on the spot, and that gives it a kind of immediacy it probably hasn't had much since its debut at Off-Broadway's New York Theatre Workshop." I could not be more proud of our production, and "La Vie Boheme" will never again look right to me on a long, straight table.

New Line has done a lot of crazy things over the years, but I'm not sure we ever approached the crazy that resulted in a full-sized, actual truck on our stage for Hands on a Hardbody. It was a crazy show for Amanda Green and Doug Wright to want to write (a musical based on a documentary about people standing around a truck for five days?), and it was incredibly crazy of us (well, me, really, but I'm gonna spread the crazy around) to think we could get a truck into our small, second-floor theatre. It wasn't until blocking rehearsals started that I also realized how crazy I was to think I could stage a musical around a full-sized truck.

But you know what? Rob delivered the truck (the first time I saw it on our stage, I just started laughing at the immense absurdity of what we were doing), we got a killer cast of strong actors with great voices, and I figured out that staging the show wasn't all that different from any other show. After all, a few months earlier I had staged a whole show around a 16' moon! And once again, audience and critics couldn't find enough superlatives. Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called our show "brilliant and captivating. . . exhilarating." Lynn Venhaus of the Belleville News-Democrat called it "a must-see. You might not have heard of this show, but you definitely won't forget it." Kevin Brackett from ReviewSTL called it "the surprise hit of the year. There’s something in it for everyone." Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it "a fresh and invigorating experience. Go see Hands on a Hardbody now!" Jeff Ritter of The Trades called it "regional theatre gold, featuring so many of the top voices in the St. Louis theatre scene today."

The coolest part was that lyricist and co-composer Amanda Green flew out to see our production on opening night. She had also come to see us in 2008 when we were the first to produce High Fidelity after its aborted Broadway run. She loved our Hardbody, stayed for our after-party, and she said so many nice things about our show and our cast. My favorite comment of hers was "He can pretty much do anything, can't he?", referring to longtime New Liner Jeff Wright, who had played Rob in Hi-Fi and now Benny in HOHB. We also heard a story from an audience member who was sitting behind Amanda – this woman says to her friend that she'd love to come back and see the show again, if she only had another $20, and with that, Amanda turns around, hands her a twenty-dollar bill, and tells her to come back and see the show again. How awesome is that.

And almost as awesome, several of us got to be Facebook friends with some of the real-world contestants in the documentary! The real Benny Perkins was so cool about talking to Jeff Wright (who played Benny) and me, about the contest and about himself. And I think Jeff's portrayal was a lot richer because of that.

Back in 2011, I had seen Frank Wildhorn's Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway and, to my admitted surprise, loved it. Unfortunately, the critics don't like Frank's shows and they were just itching to hate this show, which they all did, which meant it closed after only 33 previews and 36 performances. Despite the reception in New York, I knew how strong it was, both book and score, and so the minute they'd let us have it, we snatched up the performance rights. And what a joy it was to work on. I fell so in love with every song in the score, and we assembled an exceptionally kick-ass cast, including newcomers in three of the four leads (as New Line often does). We came at the show pretty differently from the original. For example, the song "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" was a small, intimate, emotional scene in our production, rather than the big American Idol moment it was in the original. But both bookwriter Ivan Menchell and orchestrator-arranger John McDaniel flew in to see the show and really loved it.

Once again, the critics totally embraced our show. Judith Newmark wrote in the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, "If you live in New York or London, you enjoy lots of opportunities to see new shows. . . In St. Louis, we have those opportunities as well – mostly because of New Line Theatre." Mark Bretz of the Ladue News called it "a joy ride of infectious music . . . crackling chemistry. . . an evening of engaging and thoughtful entertainment. . . buoyant, captivating." Kevin Brackett wrote in ReviewSTL, “New Line has once again seen the potential in an unappreciated show, and has given it a new and glorious life!" Chris Gibson of BroadwayWorld called it “brilliant . . .You’ll be blown away.” Richard Green of TalkinBroadway called it “a reckless kind of delight.” And Steve Allen of StageDoor St. Louis called it "a fast-paced, toe-tapping romp . . . an evening full of surprises and multiple magic moments."

We also started something new this year with Off Line, talk-backs onstage with the designers and production staff, hosted by associate artistic director Mike Dowdy, on one of our dark nights during each run. Our crowds have been small-ish the first few times, but we're going to keep doing them, so come join us this season! We've also started videotaping the talk-backs so you can see them even if you can't get to the theatre that night.

All three of our shows in 2014 were greeted as full-out artistic triumphs. New Line was the first company to produce Hardbody after its Broadway run, and we were one of the first companies to produce Bonnie & Clyde. And next fall, we'll open our 25th season with the regional premiere of the new rock musical Heathers, by the creators of Bat Boy and Reefer Madness. We can't wait.

Meanwhile, the rest of this season will include Jerry Springer the Opera in March, and the classic musical comedy satire The Threepenny Opera in June. And before that, on January 31, we'll present the third Off Line Cabaret, with Jeffrey M. Wright, Zachary Allen Farmer, and Todd Schaefer in "Shootin' the Shit," another very adult evening of cabaret. Come join us!

It's been such an amazing year, and so much more amazing is on the horizon. But we can never forget that all these things are only possible because of you. A performance isn't a performance without an audience, and a theatre company doesn't amount to shit without an audience. To everyone who comes to our shows, who donates to our company, who follows us on Facebook and Twitter and YouTube, we owe you everything.

I owe everything to New Line, and New Line owes everything to the people of St. Louis. So many, many thanks, and Happy New Year!

Long Live the Musical!