Celebrate You and I

We just had one of the most electric, most thrilling opening nights we've ever had. And we've had our share.

Part of it was our beautiful new theatre, the Marcelle, designed by the hardest working man in local showbiz, Rob Lippert, and only possible because of the endless generosity of Ken and Nancy Kranzberg. I think we'll get some serious rave reviews for this show, but there will also be raves for the theatre. It really is beautiful, and because Rob is a lifelong theatre animal, it's so intelligently designed, both for us and for the audience.

A big part of tonight's thrill is this extraordinary Heathers script and score by Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy. It's big and goofy, dark as hell, profoundly moving, and piercingly truthful. And the score is nothing less than powerful, and deceptively complex – entirely in the musical language of 1980s Top 40, and yet built with a sophistication few musical theatre scores can match, using multiple leitmotifs, lots of cinematic underscoring, and a hundred clever ways of building and sustaining tension through the music.

And as an added bonus, so much of the music is really funny. Which is rare. O'Keefe's Bat Boy score was the same. Most composers can't write music that's funny itself, but Larry really can.

As important as the script and score is this team of ours, this fearless, powerhouse cast, kickass band, top-notch designers and staff, and my brilliant artistic partner, my co-director Mike Dowdy. But I have to give a special shout-out to the enormously talented, brave-as-shit Anna Skidis, who carries this whole show on her shoulders in the role of Veronica. She's extraordinary in this role, and she is matched every step by Evan Fornachon as J.D. I owe them both a great deal.

(They also played opposite each other as Roger and Mimi in New Line's Rent.)

You don't often come across a show with five female leads, all of whom have to be amazing singers and actors and comedians, but Heathers is such a show, and our five women are fucking fierce. I've never before seen an audience cry twice within the span of a few minutes, but Larissa's "Lifeboat" and Grace's "Kindergarten Boyfriend" both just shattered the audience.

It feels great to make an audience laugh, but making an audience cry is real power.

An old lesson was driven home again for me tonight. When you try to be funny, it's less funny. When you try to be truthful, it's way funnier. I thought the off Broadway production of Heathers was very good, but I felt it too often trying to be funny. Heathers isn't really a comedy, at least not on stage, where the interior monologues give the story so much extra weight. It's a thriller.

Just summarize the story in one sentence – Two misfit kids start murdering the popular kids in school – not that funny.

This is a dark, mean story. Much of the show is not funny, though parts of it are flat-out hilarious ("Blue," anyone?). It's a serious story, about murder, suicide, school shootings, bullying, though with a lot of laughs. Exactly like Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, and others shows we've done. The reason these shows are so good, is that that mix of funny and serious is real. That's life. That's what being human is.

The reason the audience was crying during "Lifeboat" and "Kindergarten Boyfriend" is because they were emotionally engaged with these characters. They understood and cared about Martha and Mac. If those characters are cartoons or caricatures, the audience won't care. But if we successfully navigate that tightrope, we make something palpably real. Though you might not realize it, this is a show that requires strong, skilled, honest acting.

Funny is good, but truthful is better. And funnier.

Our cast has plumbed the depths of these characters, they've formed a Westerberg community, with shared backstory, and they all found their path to Fearlessness. There is nothing safe about this show or our production. It's harrowing. It's overwhelming. It's fierce. It's fearless. Because that's the story we're telling.

"Civilians" often ask me "Where do you find such talented actors and musicians?" The answer is that we pay shitty, but where else would any of us get to do Jerry Springer the Opera, Bukowsical, High Fidelity, Love Kills, Cry-Baby, bare...? The reason we get all these talented and skillful artists to work with us is the work itself.

Tonight at the after-party in the gorgeous Marcelle lobby, so many of our actors and musicians hugged me and thanked me for this opportunity and this experience. I think every one of us feels profoundly lucky to be doing this show. It's so much richer and smarter than any of us first thought. Beneath its loud, rowdy, vulgar surface, Heathers is surprisingly subtle in ways that most in our audience won't even consciously recognize.

But what our actors and musicians don't understand is that while I have given them all the wonderful gift of this opportunity, they all give me an equal gift in return: the performances that make Heathers and all our New Line shows so consistently excellent. No matter how clever or insightful I may be, my ideas don't mean shit without actors and musicians at a high enough level to pull off the freakishly difficult shows we produce, suffused with the kind of emotional depth and intelligence that New Line has become known for over the last twenty-five years.

I don't bring Heathers to life. They do. Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms, and so the art is only as good as the collaboration.

I think I got more hugs tonight at the party than I've ever gotten before in a single day. It was great. From what I can tell, the reviews are going to be raves. And all of us are beyond psyched to run this beautiful show for the next four weeks.

What a great fucking night.

Oh, and BTW, our Opening Night Tweeters were also in top form. You can read their tweets by going to Twitter and searching #STLHeathers.

Thank you, St. Louis, for the best opening night audience we could've hoped for, and I suspect, many more awesome audiences to come. Word-of-mouth is going to be really good. Thank you, Ken and Nancy, for our beautiful new home. And thank you, New Liners, for climbing another mountain with me. Isn't this fucking FUN?

If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, you'd better do it fast. We're already selling out performances. Metrotix, 314-534-1111.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

So Very: The 80s Movies That Led to Heathers

To understand the world of the 1980s and the Heathers, here's a course of study for those who weren't born yet and those who can't remember. Just watch these movies and you'll understand everything.

The 80s gave us an explosion of teen movies like we hadn't seen since the 1950s, and the form peaked in 1985, right before Veronica, Martha, JD, and the gang started at Westerberg High (and right before I graduated college). This post is about my journey back through all those movies again. No wonder these kids are so fucked up. In all these films, the adult world is not to be trusted and/or it's even more fucked up than the teen world. So many of these teenage characters are really damaged. It was a new era for teen comedies, and it's no surprise that era ended with incredibly subversive and original movies like Heathers (1989) and John Waters' Cry-Baby (1990).

I wanted to watch these movies again, partly just to put myself back in that era again, the language, the clothes, the pop culture, but also partly to look at the cultural influences on these characters in our show.

Many of these movies, particularly in 1985 and later, function in an essentially adult-free world, where adults and authority figures are largely absent or oblivious. This adult-free world is much like Shakespeare's woods, a place free of rules, responsibilities, expectations, constraints – but also free of safety nets and order. These were films about teens learning to control themselves – usually sexually – very much in the vein of Shakespeare's romantic comedies.

It's interesting how many 80s movies centered on a high school guy who's oblivious to the fact that his female best friend is actually in love with him. I assume it was intentional, but it was almost like all these screenwriters were describing the 80s in macro. After the sexual liberation of the 1960s, and the Women's Lib movement of the 70s (including the ultimately failed Equal Rights Amendment, one of the more surprising fatalities of the Reagan era), the re-conservatizing of America in the 80s made many women feel like they had moved backward, like they were those dismissed female sidekicks in Sixteen Candles, Pretty in Pink, Teen Wolf, St, Elmo's Fire, and so many others.

Also, the 80s reinvented the horror film, with several movies that deconstructed and reimagined classic horror forms for these new, more cynical times. Fright Night, The Lost Boys, and Once Bitten reinvented the vampire; Teen Wolf reinvented the wolfman; Weird Science reinvented Frankenstein's monster (you might argue that RoboCop did as well); and the continuing Nightmare on Elm Street series was updating and complicating the more recent slasher genre. Horror movies always proliferate in times of great national distress. There were five editions of the Elm Street franchise from 1984-89 (the fifth released just weeks before Veronica and friends started senior year), channeling the complex American zeitgeist, a culture now more skeptical than ever of public institutions and authority figures, with Americans feeling less safe than they had in decades.

The teen movie genre was invented in the 1950s, for drive-in audiences, after the drive-ins' family audience was lost to television. But it largely died out, until its rebirth in the 1980s. In the 50s, teen movies were about sex, drugs (usually alcohol), rock & roll, guns, and gangs – every conceivable rebellion. In the 80s, teen movies were about sex. Or sometimes sex and horror. Just say no! In 50s teen movies, the parents are absent because the kids are at their favorite hangout, or roaming the streets in teen gangs; in 80s teen movies, the parents are absent because both parents work, or because the parents are divorced, mirroring a new socio-economic reality for most families.

After the wildness of 1970s sexuality cooled down in mainstream adult cinema, teen movies took over the sex. The decade began with movies pretty much exclusively about having sex for the first time. Later, after a few years, teen movies began to explore all the struggles of growing up, often following the Hero Myth template.

First, here are some films our characters may well have seen in middle school – most of them are R-rated (interesting that so many movies about teens are not made for teens! or are they?), but that never stopped my friends and me, so...

Porky's (1981) – The central point of this movie is that for teenagers, nothing matters more than sex, not other people's feelings, not other people's property, not authority, not the future, not disease, nothing but getting laid. Women are only challenges to overcome, not people, not potential romantic partners, just body parts. Like many sex comedies of the 80s, here sex is scary, ugly, even dangerous, paralleling the burgeoning the AIDS epidemic.

The Last American Virgin (1982) – This is a celebration of the awkwardness of sex, in a story that sort follows the same plot as The Apartment and Promises, Promises, translated from corporate America to high school. Here, the Sexual Revolution was over. Sex wasn't fun anymore; now it was scary. Now sex has consequences. You might call this movie a serious sex comedy. One of the film's most interesting aspects is its soundtrack, including twenty-three Top 40 hits of the moment, which are integrated into the narrative so organically, it often seems the songs were written for those moments in this movie. The lyrics describe the emotions of the story with pinpoint accuracy, and it really enhances the storytelling.

Fast Times at Ridgemont High (1982) – This was a serious, true story, but told in the form of a sex comedy, a cautionary tale about the consequences of sex. And I have to point out that I graduated high school in '82, and this is an incredibly authentic cultural snapshot of that moment. While there were a few teen dramas in the 80s (Endless Love, The Outsiders, All the Right Moves, The Karate Kid, Footloose), most of the teen movies at the time were about getting laid for the first time. As IMDB describes My Tutor (1983), "A rich father hires a tutor for his son. The son is a horny teenager and the tutor is a gorgeous blonde. Complications ensue."

There were several films in that vein, including Losin' It, Valley Girl, Class, Risky Business, Private School, and others. Though these are all great movies, the best of these was Sixteen Candles, the great John Hughes' take on the horrors of adolescence, dialed them up to the level of absurdity.

A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984) – This was the first merger of the teen movie with the slasher movie, which up till now had been was usually about college kids, now with a more sidelined sexuality. Elm Street is the perfect story for the Reagan Era, nothing but unrelenting, primal fear. But this time, there is blame to be assigned, and these kids are being punished for their parents' crimes. These parents fear the wrong monsters -- it's disconnection, apathy, and fear that are the monsters to be slain in this story.

This new teen film era peaked in 1985, the year before our Heathers characters entered high school. What would these movie teach them about teenage life and culture?

The Breakfast Club (Feb. 1985) – This film explores all the same themes as Heathers, but while Breakfast Club looks at these themes in micro, Heathers looks at those same themes in macro. And as in Heathers, here, each kid has to learn empathy, another theme that weaves throughout the 80s

Back to the Future (July 1985) – Let's be honest, this isn't really a teen movie, even though a teenager is the protagonist. It is instead (maybe unintentionally) one big primary-colored allegory for Ronald Reagan's political philosophy. Marty McFly can only "fix" the 1980s by going back to the 1950s; though not the real 50s, but a 50s without oppression, inequality, self-sedating housewives, or racial Others (except as entertainers, of course). Only by traveling through this mythical, rose-colored American past can Marty (as a stand-in for all of us) find stability, happiness, and traditional family values in the present. Though this isn't a movie with absent adults, still Marty the teenager is the only one who can save his helpless parents, though admittedly with the help of his Wise Wizard figure, Doc Brown.

Fright Night (Aug. 1985) – This movie takes the common teen movie theme of a ineffectual, weak, oblivious adult world, always missing what's really going on, and takes that theme to its logical extreme, raising that obliviousness to a matter of life and death (as Heathers would a few years later). And again, even though Charlie the teenager has to go to battle with a vampire, he has the help of a Wise Wizard figure in the late-night horror actor Peter Vincent.

Weird Science (Aug. 1985) -- This is one of the weirder movies of the decade a wild, teen sexual fantasy mashup of Frankenstein, Cinderella, Risky Business, Smokey and the Bandit, and more. A sexual hero myth.

Real Genius (Aug, 1985) – Here's another teen movie about anarchy with no adult control. In the case of this indie flick, the story is a wholesale rejection of everything about the 80s -- the Cold War, the military-industrial complex, institutions (both formal education and religion are roundly mocked), and most of all, conformity. In this story, the adult morality of the mid-80s is truly fucked up, an extension of the US's aggressive (some would say swaggering) foreign policy under Reagan. Note that the bad guy here, representing authority, is the same guy who played "Dickless" from the EPA in Ghostbusters (1984). The "real genius," the story tells us, is in how to live a good life, to find your path, your "Real," as Passing Strange would put it. Real genius is not in academic genius; it's in family, community, fun, adventure, living out loud. Each of the three "geniuses" in the movie have to come to that understanding themselves. The very opposite of 80s culture and the Heathers.

Better Off Dead... (Aug, 1985) – Here's a comic social-sexual nightmare, and though it's fun, it's really just a lesser knockoff of the much better Sixteen Candles from the year before, with some Breaking Away (1979) thrown in. This movie is part standard form teen sex comedy, but part wacky John Hughes-style absurdism, but these two competing styles don't coexist very easily. Without Hughes' gift for truthful, insightful detail, and without the brilliant acting tightrope Hughes' actors always traveled -- both heightened and honest, just like the New Line style -- the absurdism mostly falls flat.

Teen Wolf (Aug, 1985) – Not one of the great teen films. The original I Was a Teenage Werewolf was a serious psychological thriller, in which lycanthropy stands in for this troubled teenager becoming a man without anyone to adequately guide him. Teen Wolf turned this classic science fiction film into a lightweight teen sex comedy. But in this 80s retelling, Michael J. Fox's character Scott gains mainstream acceptance by exploiting himself and his oddity. He creates his own sideshow cage. He makes entirely selfish choices, and the kids only accept him because they get something out of it -- a winning basketball team. Scott stops being a team player, and he forgets about community. How very Reagan Era.  On the upside, it's when Scott embraces 1960s authenticity and communalism, and rejects 80s individualism, that he can have a happy ending and peacefully integrate all the parts of himself.  I Was a Teenage Werewolf is about a troubled guy finding his way, while Teen Wolf is about a decent guy losing his way. Now that I think about it, maybe Teen Wolf is a lightweight companion to Wall Street (1987).

Of course, 1985 was an awesome year for film in general, also including Witness, The Purple Rose of Cairo, Lost in America, Desperately Seeking Susan, Silverado, Day of the Dead, Return of the Living Dead, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Pee-Wee's Big Adventure, Agnes of God, After Hours, Jagged Edge, Re-Animator, Young Sherlock Holmes, The Color Purple, Out of Africa, Enemy Mine, I could keep going...  What was it about 1985? Broadway pretty much sucked that year...

The era continued but never again with that kind of intensity, as our heroes struggled through their time at Westerberg High.

Ferris Bueller's Day Off (June 1986) – One of the great comedy films of our time. And what a twisted, crooked view of high school this movie must've given our Heathers heroes, a world with absent or ineffectual adults, and complete anarchy.

Veronica, Ram, Kurt, Martha, and the Heathers all start high school...

And the first film after they start school is David Lynch's wild, weird, surreal take on teen comedies, Blue Velvet. I wonder if anyone in our story would have been a David Lynch fan...

Can't Buy Me Love (1987) – Here's another metaphor for the 80s -- Ronald (note the name) craves popularity, believing that will bring him happiness. And he approaches his problem the Reagan way -- with money. But that backfires on him, and ultimately, he learns the only true path is the liberal path of authenticity (the 60s!) and empathy. When Donald stops being selfish and puts others first, the exact opposite of the "Greed is Good" 80s ethos -- when he find again his empathy, then he can find his Happy Ending and resolve his story. It's a surprising sort of teen morality tale for the 80s, though a much sunnier one than would come two years later, with Heathers.

The Lost Boys (1987) – With its darkly ironic title from Peter Pan (they never grow up because they're vampires!), this is another story about misfits, about fitting in, about absent parents, a world in which only the kids are capable of solving their problem. Michael goes from outsider (newcomer) to (vampire) insider, and like other teen horror flicks, the monster/monstrosity is a stand-in for puberty and sexuality. Like the original I Was a Teenage Werewolf, The Lost Boys takes the metaphor seriously.

It's also a Faust story, just like Heathers.

Bill and Ted's Excellent Adventure (Feb. 1989) – This surprisingly smart little comedy is perhaps an accidental argument for respecting and nurturing differences in learning abilities and processes. It's a comic fable that illustrates Howard Gardner's theories in his landmark 1983 book Frames of Mind, about the "seven intelligences" people have, and the idea that everyone learns differently. Ultimately, we see that Bill and Ted aren't stupid; it's just that no one's ever taken the time to figure out how these two oddballs learn. In keeping with the 80s, there are nothing but absent, nasty, and ineffectual adults everywhere we turn, except for Rufus, their Wise Wizard.

Heathers was released in March 1989, a year that also saw Say Anything and the very serious Dead Poets' Society.

As this decade wound down, the great John Waters capped it all off in 1990 (the actual final year of the 80s and of Veronica's high school career) with the most subversive teen movie of them all, Cry-Baby, in which the "Bad Kids" are clearly the Good Guys, and the "Good Kids" are clearly assholes. Robert Zemeckis also wrapped up his Back to the Future trilogy that year, and writer-director Allan Moyle made the definitive final statement on the era, with Pump Up the Volume, starring Heathers' Christian Slater and Samantha Mathis, a Winona Ryder doppelganger. Pump Up the Volume showed us what might have happened to Heathers' J.D. if he had found a healthier way to channel his rage. And it foresaw, years before "social media" emerged, the way that American youth would soon take power with advances in technology.

They say there's a Pump Up the Volume stage musical coming...

But other than those three films, the teen movie essentially went into hibernation again, disappearing almost as quickly as they had been reborn ten years earlier. Sure, they kept making movies with teen characters (mostly horror and heavy drama), but the "teen comedy" was largely over for a while. (Wikipedia has a lengthy list of teen movies in the 1990s, but the list includes movies like Titanic, Basketball Diaries, and American Beauty, not what I'd call "teen movies.") It wasn't until 1999 that American Pie was released and started another round.

It's been very helpful to me as director (and our unofficial dramaturg) to re-explore that time in our national and cultural history. This show is an incredibly smart, serious piece of theatre, despite its many laughs, and it offer fascinating insights into our national character – today as much as thirty years ago.

We have moved into our new theatre and we open the show in a week. It's in great shape. Nothing but the most subtle fine-tuning now.

I can't wait to share this with an audience!

Long Live the Musical!

We're All Freaks, But That's Alright.

Months ago, when our scenic designer Rob Lippert and I were talking about our new theatre (incidentally, Rob is also the architect who designed this theatre), I made the fatal mistake of mentioning that I thought it would be interesting to do a show in the corner of a blackbox. We had worked in the ArtLoft blackbox for seven years and used at least six different configurations that I can remember off the top of my head, but we never used a corner.

Now I know why.

Soon after Rob and I first started talking seriously about Heathers, he presented me with an undeniably cool set design. I quickly approved it. Cool floor plan and a very cool look from the front too.

That is, if there were a front.

So I started blocking the show, and holy shit, is it hard to block on a triangle! It's essentially the same as blocking in-the-round, because unless the actor is pretty far (what we're calling) upstage, they have to play close to 360 degrees around. When they're upstage, it's more like 180.

Now don't get me wrong, I'm not complaining. Okay, I am complaining, but I wouldn't want Rob to change a thing. Like I said, it's a very cool set.

There were two very difficult things about blocking on this set design. First, there are sometimes sixteen people onstage, and it's hard keeping them out of the audience's sightlines so they can see the focus of the scene. Also, actors instinctively want to play down-center (the front and middle of the stage), and that won't work this time. There really isn't a down-center (even though we've been calling it that) because the stage isn't symmetrical, and if an actor does stand there and play full-front, he will be singing into an aisle. I'm sure I'll be reminding the cast about this up till we open.

Luckily, I have staged shows in the round before, so I have that vocabulary. Before I directed my first in-the-round show, I called Steve Woolf at The Rep, and asked if I could come pick his brain. So I sat in his office and said, "Okay, how the hell do you direct in the round?" He gave me two incredibly helpful tips. First, the actors can rarely stand still for long -- that's very different from my usual directing style. Second, Steve told me that as director I should never sit in the same seat twice during rehearsals, because the actors will want to play to the live person in the room, and if the director always sits in the same place in the house, the show will start to aim in that direction.

Both pieces of advice have served me well.

One thing I keep saying to soloists in the show, which I know is driving them crazy, is "You gotta share!" Most theatre people call it "cheating out" when an actor places her body sort of facing the other actor on stage and sort of facing the audience. The idea is for the actor to look like they're in the conversation onstage, but also "presenting" their performance to the audience. I've never understood why that is "cheating," as if there's something wrong with this practical accommodation. I call it "sharing," because that's what it is.

But in this case, with our Heathers set, an actor has to share way more widely than usual, and it feels really unnatural at first. But everyone in the show is getting used to it now.

I know that there will inevitably be certain moments that not everyone in the house will see equally well. That's just the nature of the beast. I can accept that. And from now on, we'll be rehearsing in the theatre, on our actual set, so many of these weirdnesses will be much less weird once we move in. In rehearsal, our "down-center" was in the front and middle of the rehearsal room, so maybe it's not a surprise that actors wanted to play down-center. In the theatre, that faux "down-center" is actually the corner of the room, so I don't think the actors will be as drawn to that spot...

The good news is the show itself is in great shape, and this amazing cast is working their collective ass off. Characters are coming along nicely, the vocals sound beautiful, and there are wonderful moments already of great hilarity, deep emotion, serious creepiness, and some awesome surprises. We're taking the show much more seriously than the off Broadway production did, and the result is that the funny stuff is much funnier, and the emotional stuff is really powerful.

When will directors and others working in New York commercial theatre learn that every show of any value benefits from authenticity and honesty? No sight gag is ever as funny as a really truthful punchline. The off Broadway production was acted and directed like a teen sex comedy, but that's not what this is. Heathers is potent social commentary about America's once disappearing (though maybe re-emerging) empathy quotient. Despite the many laughs, this story has something of real import to say about how we live our lives.

This show deserves our respect and we will deliver on that.

We'll figure out all the various challenges pretty easily I think, both the practical ones and the more conceptual ones. The next step in our process is my favorite. We just run the show now, shape it, polish it, focus it. My favorite thing is when I suggest a tiny change to an actor, and then the next time we get to that moment, the whole rooms busts up laughing. It's often the smallest detail that makes a joke land or not, that makes a moment powerful or not. My job is to fine-tune all those small but important details, while the actors work on the inner lives of these characters.

At last, I'm going to get a look at what we've created so far, I can assess where we're succeeding and where we're not, and we can whip this beautiful, clever, original musical into shape. I can't wait to share Heathers with an audience. As with Bat Boy, we're going to have them laughing out loud one moment, and wiping away a tear the next. I love this writing!

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

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!