10 Musical Theatre Titles We Take for Granted

Because I was practically singing show tunes coming out of my mother's uterus, I never really stopped to think about a lot of things in classic musicals. Because I first encountered them, got to know them, then memorized them while I was too young to really think about them in any serious way, it didn't occur to me until much later that there were things there worth thinking about...

For instance...

My Fair Lady
I grew up thinking this was kind of a dumb title for a show, if we're being honest here. What did that title have to do with the story? (Although I loved the Hirschfeld poster art!) It wasn't until high school that it hit me – "London Bridge is falling down, my fair lady." Duh!

My Fair Lady (like Pygmalion before it) is a story about subverting and busting open class distinctions – and therefore, the entire social structure -- and though it's never mentioned explicitly in the show, the subliminal image of London Bridge collapsing under the weight of social upheaval is both funny and very dramatic. Plus, invoking this old, traditionally English song (according to Wikipedia, the original song dates back to the 1600s and no one is exactly sure where it came from or what it means) also implies that long-held social conventions are in the cross-hairs of this satire. It's a strong, interesting title for the show. On the other hand, how many people actually make that connection to the old song? If a title is clever and revealing, but nobody gets it, is it still a good title? Isn't the point of a title to entice an audience?

The Music Man
As might be expected from a musical with this title, the central theme of the show is the role of music in the lives of Harold, Marian, and River City, and how that music heals.

The title works on two levels. On the surface, the title refers to Harold's con involving musical instruments. Just below the surface, it also refers to what we learn in this story, that music plays an incredibly important role in our lives, and Harold brings music (both literal and metaphorical) to River City even though that was not his intention. Music is portrayed in the show as fiercely American, as wholesome and transforming, as part of our national heritage (as evidenced by the singing of “Columbia, the Gem of the Ocean” at the assembly), as patriotic. At that time in America's history, music was often the center of small town life; and yet, the only music in River City before Harold's arrival is the gramophone at the barber shop and the piano lessons Marian gives.

The show's creator Meredith Willson uses music as a metaphor for joy and life. When the school board learns to harmonize with each other, they suddenly find themselves in personal harmony with each other as well. Harold uses their new enthusiasm for making music to escape them time after time. By simply starting a tune, he can get the board members caught up in the joy of four-part harmony while he slips away. It's ironic that when the school board asks Harold for credentials to prove he's a music professor, he uses music to avoid exposing himself as a non-musician. He becomes a "music man" so they don't find out he's not a "music man." His clear command and manipulation of (and through) music may mean he's more of a musician – a music man – than even he thought.

But on a more cynical level – and make no mistake, The Music Man, is a pretty cynical show, despite its reputation as a Family Classic – the title also refers to how much Harold uses music in his con. He exploits people's love of music to cheat them out of their money. In the show's opening, we hear Charlie Cowell say repeatedly, with real disdain, "He's a music man!" That's not a job a man has, Charlie seems to be telling us, and so we should be suspicious. But that's what Harold is. Music is his seduction language (as he seduces Marian, Mrs, Paroo, Winthrop, Mrs. Shinn, and the whole town), and, most ironic of all, music is his ultimate salvation. He promises actual music, knowing he can't deliver it, but then he accidentally delivers metaphorical music along the way. He's not a man of music, but ends up being the man who brings music... Harold really is the music man.

The Sound of Music
When I was a kid, this is one of those shows I thought had a really dumb title. "The Sound of Music," yeah, no shit, it's a musical! But years later, I understood how right this title is. This is an American fable, and though religion is part of the environment, this story is really about a new, non-religious kind of faith, in this case, faith in the healing power of music/art. In other words, "the sound of music" is their/our salvation. Not too far off from what the hippies believed a decade later. But it was also what America was seeking in 1959.

As The Sound of Music opens, Capt. von Trapp is an emotional cripple, just like many American men who came back from World War II. And it is literally the sound of music – and not just the actual sound of music, but more specifically, the sound of the title song, "The Sound of Music" – that rescues Georg from his depression, that bonds him to Maria and his kids, that re-establishes The Loving Family, exactly what America wanted in the postwar years. That moment when Georg picks up the guitar and sings "Edelweiss," the inherent healing and connection in that moment, is the point of the title. The sound of music heals us. It was everything postwar America craved at that moment.

But significantly, The Sound of Music (the last Rodgers & Hammerstein show) opened as the rock and roll revolution was already in full swing. And one of the standard attacks from adults was that rock and roll wasn't really "music," but just "noise." Though it wasn't intentional on the part of R&H, the title also asked audiences in 1959, what exactly is music and what does it sound like? The sound of music was at heart of a major cultural upheaval in our country, and the R&H musical would be one casualty of that revolution.

This title means so many different things to different people, which was the whole reason Jonathan Larson loved it. The word rent represents the financial burden young people feel as they graduate college full of knowledge but absent any marketable job skills, thrown into a real world where high ideals don’t pay the rent. But the title also highlights the temporary nature of these characters’ lives, the month-to-month living without permanence or promises. The characters Collins and Angel sing to each other in the song “I’ll Cover You” that though love can’t be bought, at least it can be rented. In other words, their happiness is temporary, but it’s theirs for a while.

And of course the word rent also means torn, Larson’s favorite meaning of the title, and certainly the characters in this show are torn between conflicting desires – between comfort and idealism, between love and dignity, between anger and pain, between the fear of intimacy and the fear of getting hurt. The word rent means shredded in grief or rage. It means split apart when it describes communities, families, or other relationships. And it also means torn open by painful feelings, something nearly every character in the show feels at some point. And all the complexity of that simple, four-letter word parallels the complex construction of both this fascinating musical and the real world it dramatizes.

Songs for a New World
Every song in this amazing, abstract musical is essentially about the same thing: those moments in life when everything seems perfect and then suddenly disaster strikes and you find yourself in a "new world," in the form of the loss of a job, an unexpected pregnancy, the death of a loved one, the end of a marriage, imprisonment, even suicide. But these songs are even more about surviving those moments, about the way we regroup and figure out how to survive in a new set of circumstances – how we write our own "songs for a new world" – even against seemingly overwhelming odds. These are songs about a world in which the definitions of family, distance, money, technology, the very nature of human contact is changing every day, a world in which the rules don’t apply as often as they do, a world in which the solutions our parents found don’t work for us, and a world in which today’s answers probably won’t apply tomorrow. For someone who has lost his job or lost a spouse, our everyday "real" world becomes just as frightening, just as dangerous, just as uncharted as the New World was to the Jews leaving Spain in 1492. It's a brilliant metaphor and it's a brilliant title.

Passing Strange
The title of this show is another of those multi-layered titles that can mean a dozen things all relevant to the show. The title of Passing Strange comes from a line in Othello. In this scene in the Shakespeare play, Othello is accused of “stealing” Desdemona with the use of spells and potions (of course a white women wouldn’t otherwise fall in love with a black man!), and in his defense, Othello tells the story of how Desdemona fell in love with him, hearing stories of his painful youth:
I did consent,
And often did beguile her of her tears
When I did speak of some distressful stroke
That my youth suffered. My story being done
She gave me for my pains a world of sighs.
She swore, in faith, ’twas strange, ’twas passing strange,
'Twas pitiful, ’twas wondrous pitiful.

Othello’s tragic stories full of harrowing battles, travels outside the civilized world, and dramatic reversals of fortune – tales not just exotic and strange but passing strange, beyond strange – moved her so deeply that she fell in love with this sad, damaged man. In certain ways, this parallels in Passing Strange the Youth’s own (less dramatic, more metaphoric) life journey. And it’s fair to speculate that Marianna and Desi (both white women) fall for the Youth for similar reasons, to “fix” this damaged man with their love.

But even outside the Othello context, the phrase by itself is just as potent, particularly applied to the wild and weird adventure Passing Strange's creator Stew takes us on, through church services, acid trips, marijuana caf├ęs, riots, performance art, and more. His story truly is passing strange. But passing has so many other meanings. When it comes to African Americans, passing usually means being light-skinned enough to live as a white person, but here Stew turns that upside down when Franklin introduces the idea of “black folks passing for black folks” – not just passing but passing strange – which then underlines certain moments throughout the rest of the show when the Youth does indeed “pass” for being black. And this also suggests the show’s central theme of the masks that all these characters wear to hide from the world.

And there are more meanings. The Youth is “passing” through these cities – though he may think he intends to stay in both Amsterdam and Berlin, he is really just passing through, not intending to integrate himself into the community, but staying "strange" and outside it. And he’s also both passing time (wasting time) and passing through time, especially in the time-telescoping world of the theatre, when time can be compressed and elongated at the whim of the Narrator. All that in two words. Another great title!

The Nervous Set
The Nervous Set was a neurotic little jazz-Beat musical that debuted here in St. Louis, in Gaslight Square in 1959, then went to Broadway and got its balls cut off. Admittedly, it was a very hostile, smartass musical (New Line produced it in 2004) with a very smartass title. The phrase, "The Nervous Set" was a poke at the literary magazine Smart Set (1900-1924), which one Eugene O’Neill website describes this way:
Smart Set was a leading literary magazine which was edited by H. L. Mencken and George Jean Nathan. Calling itself “a magazine of cleverness,” it provided a haven for writers just getting started, as well as for established authors whose more daring efforts could find no other market.

Smart Set editor H.L. Mencken promised to “combat, chiefly by ridicule, American piety, stupidity, tinpot morality and cheap chauvinism in all their forms.” The phrase smart set soon became a common term for the intellectual and cultural elites in America. The title of the musical (and its source novel) was a joke implying that the newest trend among the cultural elite was to be neurotic, to be part of the Nervous Set. But most audiences today wouldn't get any of that. Which is okay, really, because it's a mess of a musical...

A Chorus Line
Legend has it that Michael Bennett chose the title A Chorus Line because that put the show at the beginning of the "ABC" theatre listings in the New York Times. If that's true, he had astonishing instincts. That "A" at the beginning of the title is a big deal. This is any chorus line, any job interview. We're all in this together, Bennett is telling us. There is nothing specific here, though of course there is. As the great dramatists all know, the more specific the details, the more universal the connection.

But the title is also telling us something about the aggressive minimalism of the physical production. For most of the show, there is literally nothing onstage but actors and a white line for them to stand on. The show had (essentially) no sets or costumes, nothing to "help" tell this story, just that chorus line, just that central metaphor. Nothing else.

By 1975, it seemed everyone in America was lying – the politicians, the media, etc. – but A Chorus Line stripped away all the conventional “lies” from musical theatre, the artifice that separates actor from audience, the fourth wall, the sets (sort of), the costumes (sort of), even the pretense of a linear narrative. And so it just left us with us up there, with that metaphorical Mirror Up to Nature. Not only was it naturalistic in its acting style, but its content was also true. There weren't even the "lies" of fictional storytelling. This was a documentary musical. You walked into the theatre and you saw exactly what you were gonna get: just a chorus line, but also everything else it implies...

Jesus Christ Superstar
People probably don't even register it anymore, but the title of this now classic rock opera is snide, sarcastic, angry. It reveals Judas’ point of view (he is our protagonist after all, not Jesus), that Jesus has become a “superstar,” a shallow, hyped personality worshipped merely for the hype, like so many pop stars of the 1960s and 70s and today. All this baggage became more important than the central philosophical message Jesus wanted to convey, a message Judas believed in. To Judas, Jesus lost his stature as philosopher when he gained his status as superstar.

Everyone already knows the story of Jesus as the Son of God. This was the other, rarely examined side of the story of Jesus, an ordinary guy who became an unlikely star. The name Jesus was one of the most common Jewish male names of that time and place; calling this man Jesus is like a modern author calling a character Everyman, or in Bible-speak, the “Son of Man.” The story is about the process of Jesus becoming a superstar and the cost of that.

The lyric to the chorus of the title song originally just repeated “Jesus Christ” every time the melody repeated. But before recording it, Tim Rice wanted to give the lyric some variety. The word superstar was just beginning to be widely used, mostly to refer to rock and pop stars. Rice changed the second repeat of the chorus to include the word superstar because that's what Christ was, a superstar of his time, widely popular, complete with his own groupies who cared more about his star status then about his message. He was thronged when he went out in public, and like many rock stars today, he was considered dangerous and corrupting by the establishment. The songs “Hosanna” and “Simon Zealotes” point out to Jesus the tens of thousands of followers who are hanging on his every word. Whether he likes it or not, he's a superstar, and that's going to get him killed.

This title was very controversial, and it pissed off all the right people, but more than that, it was exceptionally right for the story Tim Rice was telling.

Anything Goes
This is another musical that most people think is kind of empty and shallow, but it's really not. This is a story about morality and moral irony, set in a time ("the present" when it debuted) with no fixed morality, the roaring 20s continuing into the 30s for the rich, even if the 20s only led to the Depression for the rest of the country. Also, since most of the show takes place in international waters, there is literally no "law"! Significantly, the characters we like the most (Reno, Moonface, Billy) are the least lawful or “decent.” And the most decent character (Sir Evelyn) is the show's antagonist. All this moral complexity is wrapped up in the show's title and its title song, a conscious symbol of the moral relativism of the American culture during Prohibition.

In the 1930s, it seemed all America's institutions were failing, The famous criminals of the time made their own rules, and that made them heroes to millions of ordinary Americans struggling themselves under the weight of poverty and hopelessness. In a time when the law itself was an object of ridicule, thanks to the failed experiment of Prohibition (and its widespread violation), the Gangster stood in for everyday Americans, "a nation of scofflaws" who no longer respected the law or even recognized it as legitimate.

In Anything Goes, Reno is America, responding to the repeal of prohibition, just a year before Anything Goes opened. Instead of the usual religious story of going from sinner to saint, Reno hass gone from “moral, purity” as an evangelist under Prohibition, to “moral sin” as a nightclub singer after the repeal. She has been "saved" by abandoning religion. She's a sly, comic mix of superstar evangelist Aimee Semple McPherson and notorious speakeasy hostess Texas Guinan (the model for Velma in Chicago). Here, in this world, literally anything goes.

There are probably more examples, but that's enough for now...

I'm sure you figured out some of this stuff already, but hopefully there are some things here that you hadn't realized before, and now when you see or hear the show, it will be different for you. And that's kind of cool.

I remember that it wasn't until I was in college that I finally understood why it was funny that the Munsters had a cuckoo clock with a raven in it that popped out and said, "Nevermore! Nevermore!" Once I realized that, watching The Munsters was even more fun. I think, at least in a few cases, the same will be true with these shows.

Long Live the Musical!


When I was younger, my mother always wanted us to go around the table at Thanksgiving dinner and say what we were thankful for. My passive-aggressive response was always to come up with a joke answer, along with some MST3K asides while others were being forcibly thankful'd. I can be such a cynic.

And yet, when it comes to my theatre...

It was just about a year ago that serious talk began about creating the Marcelle Theater for New Line.

We had had so many false starts over the years, people promising us a new theatre and then either nothing happened or, in the case of the Ivory, it was a total nightmare. And meanwhile, we kept moving from space to space. The Marcelle is our eighth theatre in twenty-five years. So even after it seemed like a sure thing, I reserved my full optimism over our new theatre, fully prepared to find out, at any step along the way, that it wasn't going to happen after all. Just like the other times.

But holy shit, things moved fast. It was last October that Ken Kranzberg first called about this building he had in Grand Center that might make a good blackbox theatre. I went to look at it in early November, and I saw that it could be exactly what we wanted. By early December, they had hired Rob Lippert to design it, and Ken told me we could announce it at our holiday dinner as "95% sure." The architectural drawings were made, actual work started February 1, and it was all finished in mid-July, well before we needed to move in.

Still, I don't think it was really real for me till October 1, when our first audience was there, and Heathers was up and running. At that point, I think I finally felt pretty confident that no one could pull the carpet out from under us again. It's a wonderful feeling to be back in a blackbox space again, which I had been waiting for since 2007, and this is a real, permanent home for New Line. We don't have to move anymore. We don't have to worry about whether our lease will be extended another year. We're home.

To say that I'm thankful for our new home doesn't begin to cover it. I will never be able to fully convey to Ken and Nancy Kranzberg how much it means to me that they've built this beautiful theatre for us to work in. It is literally a dream come true. And likewise, I will never be able to adequately express to Rob Lippert how thankful I am to have him working with us as our resident scenic designer (his work is just extraordinary), our frequent lighting designer (ditto), and the brilliant architect of the Marcelle.

(Here's my Stage Grok podcast interview with Rob about designing the Marcelle.)

It's been extra special to open this new theatre for our 25th season! It's almost impossible to believe that it was twenty-five years ago that I launched this adventure, and it's even more impossible to believe that New Line has survived this long doing alternative musical theatre. No, not just survived, but thrived. It is a testament to the cultural sophistication of our city that there is an enthusiastic, growing audience here for what we do. When I think about the thousands of actors, musicians, designers, techies, and other staff who've worked over the years to make such extraordinary theatre on our stages, I am profoundly humbled. That all these talented, intelligent artists would follow me into one wild artistic adventure after another still baffles me.

But I'm glad they do...

I know it's not me and it's not the shitty money we pay that attracts these theatre artists to come work with New Line. It's the work. My biggest success in leading New Line has been never to violate our core mission statement, never to compromise artistically. That commitment has drawn to us over the last twenty-five years so many wonderful actors, musicians, and others, as well as tons of great press, and an enthusiastic and trusting audience.

Twenty-five years ago, I never dreamed New Line would be known in New York musical theatre circles, that New Line would get a national reputation, that we would be able to bring back to life shows that were not understood in New York, that licensing agents would come to us when new shows are released, that I'd get to become friends with many of the people who write the shows we produce!

It is all a dream come true. And I am very, very thankful.

This was also a year of three complete artistic triumphs for New Line, the St. Louis premiere of Jerry Springer the Opera in March, Brecht and Weill's masterpiece The Threepenny Opera in June, and the regional premiere of Heathers in October. Check out these rave reviews! What a fucking year!

I am so thankful for our actors and musicians. Without them, we've got nothin'. We conquered three incredibly difficult shows this year, and we succeeded only because of the exceptional artists onstage.

I am so thankful for the brilliant writers that create these amazing stories we tell, the bookwriters, composers, and lyricists who provide us with the blueprints for one thrilling adventure after another.

But I think I'm most grateful to our audiences, without whom we'd just be doing a whole lot of run-throughs.

I'm not like a lot of directors, who leave after opening night. I'm there at every single performance. I want to see the subtle differences from night to night, in both the performance and the audience's reactions. What I'm grateful for, beyond any words I could muster, is the opportunity to live and work in the musical theatre, to watch our actors build characters and performances over time, to watch our audiences share our adventures with us, to watch first-time New Line actors discover the unequaled joy of doing truly fierce, fearless theatre.

I'll just end by quoting the great songwriter John Bucchino and his song, "Grateful":
It's not that I don't want a lot,
Or hope for more, or dream of more,
But giving thanks for what I've got
Makes me so much happier than keeping score.

In a world that can bring pain,
I will still take each chance,
For I believe that whatever the terrain,
Our feet can learn to dance.
Whatever stone life may sling,
We can moan or we can sing.

Grateful, grateful,
Truly grateful I am.
Grateful, grateful,
Truly blessed and duly grateful.

Happy Thanksgiving and thank you all!

Long Live the Musical!

Rock Me, Sexy Jesus: Ten Great Movies About Musicals

I did a post a while back listing ten really cool but lesser known movie musicals, a post on the new movie musicals, and another post listing ten really cool musical theatre documentaries.

This is a list of cool movies about musicals. Some might argue whether these are actually movie musicals themselves or not, but they're all about putting on a musical (or in one case, a musical TV show), and the songs are all diegetic (with just a couple exceptions), meaning that the act of singing is actually part of the action of the story (i.e., putting on a show), rather than just the language of storytelling.

These are all worth seeing, most of them because they're wonderful, a few because they're just so weird and interesting.

Cradle Will Rock, Tim Robbins' masterful film about the socio-political stew during the Depression, from which came such amazing art, with the entire story revolving around the writing and producing of Marc Blitzstein's ground-breaking 1937 "labor opera," The Cradle Will Rock. Though most of the characters and events in the film are true, Robbins' has compressed events over several years into one moment in time, to more clearly show us the connections and relationships. It's one of my favorite movies. I watch it once a year or so, and every time, I cry like a baby at the end; it's just so powerful for a musical theatre nerd like me. This movie is also the reason I decided New Line should produce The Cradle Will Rock back in 2001, and we did it like that historical first night on Broadway, with the actors performing the entire show out in the audience...

The Tall Guy may be one of my all-time favorite comedies, with Jeff Goldblum as an American actor in London, who gets the lead in a massive pop opera about the Elephant Man. With Emma Thompson as his girlfriend (and truly one of the funniest sex scenes you'll ever see), Rowan Atkinson as his unbearable asshole of a boss, and – here's the biggest surprise – some hilariously, undeniably excellent songs in the musical-within-the-film, Elephant! Why hasn't someone written the rest of this score...?

Pittsburgh is another of my favorites, and weirdly enough, also starring Jeff Goldblum (who ever thought he'd be in two movies about musicals?). In this case, it's an incredibly straight-faced, part-real-part-fictional mockumentary following Goldblum doing the role of Harold Hill in a regional summer stock production of The Music Man (just think about that for a second), and as the story progresses, he pulls his friends into the project with him, including Ed Begley Jr. and Illeana Douglas to play Mayor Shinn and his wife! But get this – though the film is substantially fictional, like the improv comedies of Christopher Guest, the production of The Music Man is real, Goldblum's audition is real, the rehearsal process is real (the Music Man folks thought it was a real documentary), and Goldblum actually did the run of the production.

The real genius of this movie is that you start out thinking this is just a goof, like Waiting for Guffman, but before you know it, you're really invested, largely because a real director is really trying to prepare Jeff Goldblum to play Harold Hill. Of course the central comic conceit of the film is that Goldblum is obviously, comically ill-suited to play Harold Hill. But throughout the film he takes the work very seriously, and you can see early on that the musical's director Richard Sabellico really understands The Music Man and classic musical theatre (he threw out a couple insights I had never thought about before). What you never see coming – minor spoiler alert here – is that Goldblum makes a great Harold Hill, nothing like any other Harold Hill you've ever seen, but still great. So ultimately the last laugh is on us. All the comedy is based on our sure knowledge that he can't do it, and then he does it, with masterful guidance from Sabellico. Fucking great movie.

Hamlet 2 was one of those movies that I kept hearing about from my friends, but it just sounded so damn dumb. Finally, after it was released on video, I got it from Netflix, watched it one night, and fell in love with it. Despite everything your instincts might tell you about a movie called Hamlet 2, the biggest surprise of the film is that by the end of it, the title no longer seems silly, and we understand the depth of emotion behind what seems like such a trivial premise. The story centers on a loser drama teacher, with some formidable emotional baggage, and his quest to save his drama department by producing his rock musical sequel to Hamlet, not incidentally with Jesus Christ making an appearance (hence the song, "Rock Me, Sexy Jesus"). Twenty minutes from the end, you may still be on the fence about this quirky movie, but I promise you, once you see these kids perform Hamlet 2, you'll get it and you'll be totally won over. I first watched this because people told me it's really funny, and it really is, but it's a lot more than that, too...

Camp may have its flaws, but as with Rent, that's part of what makes it work. I'm not sure that "civilians" would enjoy this movie nearly as much as musical theatre nerds like me, but I think it's safe to say if you do musical theatre, you'll love this movie. A big part of the fun is the many musical numbers in the film, especially the original Michael Bennett choreography for "Turkey Lurkey Time," which will blow you away. If you don't find it weird that a kid would bring an 8x10 glossy of Sondheim to camp with him, this movie is for you. This is a movie that makes me feel normal.

Bamboozled is a fierce, raw, fearless satire that will make you more uncomfortable than any other movie, except perhaps a few of John Waters' earlier adventures. Spike Lee's brilliant, controversial satire is one of his very best films. It adapts the story of The Producers to modern day television. Our (anti-)hero is a comfortably assimilated black TV executive (Damon Wayans) named Pierre Delacroix. His boss (Michael Rapaport), a white guy who sees himself as "blacker" than Delacroix, demands new, innovative, cutting edge, more "urban" programming. So Delacroix (like Max Bialystock before him) puts together the most intentionally offensive black show he can imagine – a new generation minstrel show – to teach his boss a lesson. And of course, it becomes a monster hit. With an all-white writing staff and a studio audience all wearing blackface.

This film works a lot like Chicago and Cabaret – by the end of the story, we realize we're complicit in this horror. We've been enjoying this incredibly entertaining minstrel show (starring Savion Glover!), laughing at the jokes, being wowed by the tap dancing, and suddenly we're slapped back to the reality that even in the 21st century, we can still accept a minstrel show as entertainment. In fact, we just did. We accepted blackface! Is it because we know Spike Lee wrote and directed it? Does that give us permission to enjoy it somehow? Bamboozled is very funny and undeniably entertaining, but it's also a moral horror story that leaves you with a lot of questions. About yourself. But who's being bamboozled here? The viewer? The fictional audience? The fictional actors on Mantan: The New Millennium Minstrel Show? White people in general? Black people in general? All of us?

The First Nudie Musical is not a great movie, but it's a revealing glimpse (both intentionally and not) into the massive confusion at the heart of the Sexual Revolution in America, almost a companion piece or conceptual sequel to Rocky Horror, though not nearly as smart or culturally insightful. Still, it's all set up as a low-budget movie musical within this low budget movie musical, and the songs are supposed to be cheesy and mediocre, so that excuses a lot. And really, how can you not love a movie with lines like, "I will not do this scene until these damn dildos know their steps!" New York Daily News theatre critic Judith Crist called it "The Star Wars of nudie musicals!"

42nd Street is considered by everyone to be a classic movie musical, but there's precious little music in it, until the very end, when we go inside Busby Berkeley's psychedelic stage musical, which of course could never fit on any stage. The bulk of the movie is not a musical. Maybe people only remember the end, or the stage musical has changed our perception. But it's still a very cool movie, much less fluffy than its reputation. But if you want a really adult version of this story, read the original novel by Bradford Ropes. It's amazing.

The Boyfriend is one of the weirdest movie musicals I've ever seen. Not psychedelic weird, like Tommy or Phantom of the Paradise, but just really weird. I guess you'd expect as much from director Ken Russell. But it's also somehow wonderful. Rather than a film adaptation of The Boyfriend, which was a spoof of 1920s musicals like No, No, Nanette!, Russell made a day-in-the-life film about a second-rate theatre company putting on The Boyfriend for a sparse, apathetic audience. If you're looking for an old-school movie musical, this is not for you. This is something quirkier and more interesting than that.

The Producers (1968) is a genuine masterpiece, whether you consider it a movie musical or a movie about a musical. Everything about it, the screenplay, the direction, the cinematography, and the acing, all walk that tightrope I love so dearly, between outrageous comedy and emotional honesty. That first long scene in the office between Leo and Max is a master class in comic acting. I was lucky enough to see the stage show the day after it opened on Broadway, and I must admit Nathan Lane and Matthew Broderick achieved that same manic, tightrope energy and honesty. Mel Brooks was one of the first to understand the fun and novelty of mixing the old form of old-school musical comedy) with the new postmodern irony of the 1960s. That new sensibility made it to the stage in 1982 with Little Shop of Horrors, then eventually took hold and took over the art form in the 90s. I'm not a huge fan of all Brooks' later work, but we all owe Mel a lot for laying the groundwork for what later became the neo musical comedy in the new millennium.

I love all these movies, and if you haven't seen any of them, you should give them a try. So now you have something to do on those cold winter nights ahead...

You'd think I'd run out of musical theatre related lists by now... But I haven't.

Long Live the (Movie) Musical!

25 Reasons I Love the Musical Theatre (And You Should Too)

In honor of New Line's 25th anniversary season, here are my twenty-five favorite things about the musical theatre. Not in any particular order...

1. Joy. Not every musical trades in joy, but most do, even some of the darker ones, even many of the cynical ones. Even if there isn't joy in the content, there's usually at least the kind of joy we get from seeing a stage full of actors dancing together or singing in glorious harmony. There's not a lot of joy in the world these days. You have to embrace it when you find it.

2. Transcendence. Theatre in general, but musical theatre in particular, is church. It is a genuine, often transcendent spiritual experience to enter this world of music and live inside it for a couple hours. (Or for the New Liners, lucky us, a few months!) As Sondheim said, "To live in music is a gift from God." But it's more than just transcending our daily lives; it's also about transcending our individual isolation, as we become part of either the organism that is the audience or the organism that is the performance. Musical theatre is by necessity the most collaborative of all art forms. As far as I'm concerned, it's better than religion.

3. Storytelling. I'm a storyteller. It's what I do. Storytelling is the foundation of all human culture and history, and almost all human communication (I've been reading a great book called The Storytelling Animal). And musical theatre is the richest form of storytelling, partly because it is the most collaborative of all art forms, but also because it combines the language of the concrete world with the abstract language of music and sometimes dance, the languages of thought and emotion. I'm admittedly biased, but I believe no other storytelling form can reach the power or emotional depth of top-notch musical theatre. And we need storytelling, to make sense of the world and ourselves, or as Sondheim puts it, to make order out of the chaos of being human.

4. Endless Variety. I can tell every conceivable kind of story within my art form – and I have. Here's a list I put together a while back of all the genres New Line has produced, while only producing musicals: comedy, drama, film noir, crime drama, thriller, melodrama, allegory, fairy tale, fable, folk tale, science fiction, documentary, sex farce, social satire, political satire, political drama, absurdism, expressionism, impressionism, religious drama, autobiography, confessional, horror... Our art form is endlessly pliable. Just look at Hamilton and The Visit. And beyond content, every kind of music lives comfortably in today's musical theatre, from old-school musical comedy foxtrots, to jazz, rock, pop, Latin, rap, funk, country, metal, alt-pop, techno, punk, emo, you name it. Isn't that cool?

5. The SIZE of the Emotion. There is no experience on earth like watching the finale of Sunday in the Park with George or A Chorus Line or Next to Normal or Hair. Or Jennifer Holliday singing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going." Or Glynis Johns singing "Send in the Clowns." It's emotionally overwhelming, or as American Theatre magazine put it, in its review of New Line's 2008 production of Hair, "almost unbearably emotional." What else can give you an experience like that? My own personal theory is that this is why gay men love musicals, at least gay men my age and older; because they had to always mask their own emotions, but musical theatre was entirely about emotions, big ones, dramatic ones, even "forbidden" ones. Some people are uncomfortable with emotions that big, that powerful. So those people don't like musicals. Fine with me.

6. The Neo Musical Comedy. Some of my favorite newer shows are neo musical comedies, including Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Cry-Baby, Bukowsical, and a few older shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Little Me. With a couple exceptions, the neo musical comedies appeared in the mid- to late 1990s, with shows like Bat Boy and Urinetown. A neo musical comedy takes the form and devices of old-school musical comedy, but uses them in the service of dark, ironic content, and often pointed social or political commentary. They feel like musical comedies, but they've got way more guts and complexity.

7. Heroes. I know every field of human endeavor has some great heroes, but my musical theatre heroes kick serious artistic ass. Primary among them are Hal Prince, Steve Sondheim, Bob Fosse, Tommy Tune, Bill Finn, Kander & Ebb, Michael Bennett, George Abbott, and George M. Cohan, geniuses, visionaries, and great artists all of them. If you're a musical theatre fan and you don't know much about Abbott or Cohan, read up on them. We owe them both so much. In fact, we owe Cohan everything.

8. The Characters. (I mean the factional ones.) Because of the use of music, and the device of interior monologue, characters in contemporary musicals are often richer and more emotionally complex. Just look at the interior monologue songs in Heathers.

9. The People. (I mean the real ones.) The endlessly cool people working in the musical theatre are the craziest, most emotional, and yet most awesome people you'll ever meet, and I mean everybody, the people writing for the musical theatre, the people who work in the musical theatre, the people who love the musical theatre, the people who fill New Line's theatre show after show, ready and eager for another new musical adventure. I love musical theatre people!

10. The Classics. As my readers well know, I'm really over Rodgers & Hammerstein. I understand their importance in the evolution of the musical, but their work is no longer relevant to the world we live in. But some of the older shows, either through their timeless insights, their utterly unique styles, or the sheer perfection of their execution, still thrill me, no matter how many times I see them, including Of Thee I Sing (1931), Anything Goes (1934), The Cradle Will Rock (1937), Pal Joey (1940), Guys and Dolls (1950), West Side Story (1957), The Music Man (1957), and if they count as "classics," The Fantasticks (1959) and How to Succeed in Business…(1961). (For the record, I'm defining "classic" as pre-1964.)

11. David Edward Byrd, the legendary poster artist. Musical theatre posters are, in general, pretty amazing. There's something about musicals that really drives graphic artists to new heights. Our artists, first Tracy Collins, then Kris Wright, and now Matt Reedy, have done such exceptional work for us. But Byrd stands alone, as the artist behind the iconic posters for Follies, Godspell, The Robber Bridegroom, Little Shop of Horrors, Zombie Prom, Soon, The Grand Tour, The Magic Show, and a ton of revivals, and a ton of rock posters too.

12. Exit Music. Except when we're doing the heaviest of musical dramas, I always insist that we have exit music. It's awesome. I'm not even sure why I love it so much, maybe just because it extends the wonderful experience just a little more, maybe because it's the one time the band gets to really play out and get its own applause. Whatever the reason, I love exit music.

13. Cast Albums. When I was a kid, the only way to get any idea of the experience of seeing the great musicals was to listen to the cast album (and don't you dare call them soundtracks). Today, there are YouTube videos and other things, but growing up in the 70s, the cast album was it. I so love "experiencing" the show, but only through its songs, its emotional through-line, boiling the show down to its emotional essence. I still know every word of the scores to My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Hello, Dolly!, and so many more, from hours listening to the cast albums. In college when I discovered a new cast album, I'd listen to it nonstop day and night for weeks, driving my roommate crazy. I did that with Little Shop, March of the Falsettos, and Robber Bridegroom. And even today, I have found several cool shows for New Line by first finding the cast albums on Amazon. I found both The Ballad of Little Mikey and Bukowsical that way, and I think one or two others.

14. Piano-Vocal Scores. I bought my first PV score in junior high; The Fantasticks, and I played through that score constantly for months, though somehow never mastering the running thirds in the overture (piano players know what I mean). A little backstory first... my parents started me on piano lessons when I was four, and the only way they could keep me interested and willing to practice, was to give me each week a show tune along with my exercises, etc. I think my mother can still hear me pounding the piano in the basement, learning to play "Tradition" for about a month. All my life, playing through a theatre score has been pure bliss for me. I play everything but the scene changes, and sing at the top of my lungs till I completely roach my throat and can't sing anymore.

15. Musical Numbers on the Tonys. In this age of YouTube and bootleg videos, it's less important than when I was young. But even today, I love that once a year the whole country gets to see some of the latest work in New York musical theatre. And it's a wonderful way to preserve at least small pieces of cool but less successful musicals. In fact, many of the videos in New Line's YouTube History of Musical Theatre are clips from the Tonys. I have my beefs with the Tonys, and with awards for art in general, but seeing those musical numbers every year has always been pretty wonderful.

16. The New Golden Age. The American musical theatre moved into a new Golden Age in the mid-1990s, and we're still in the midst of it. I won't plead my usual case, since I've written so much about it here on my blog. And here. And here, here, here, and here...

17. YouTube. I sometimes think about early musical theatre fans, before cast albums, before Ed Sullivan, before the Tony Awards. I'm sure today young fans are wondering how we got along before YouTube. Not just clips from almost the entire history of our art form, but interviews, behind-the-scenes stuff, and so many productions! I love that Next to Normal fans can see on YouTube an earlier incarnation of the show at Second Stage. New Line has gathered together on our channel a ton of the coolest musical theatre content on YouTube, including footage from the original Follies and so much more.

18. Cut Songs and Early Demos. I love reading early drafts of shows, hearing the songs that got cut and/or rewritten. (There are a lot on YouTube.) I love getting a glimpse into the evolution of the project but also into the writing process itself. There aren't many art forms where you can get that glimpse. I guess you can look at an artist's early sketches, but this is different from that. As just one example, when we were working on Rent, we found all the early Rent demo recordings on YouTube. It was both fun and instructive to listen to them. For instance, in this early demo version, we find out in the first phone call that Mark's parents have thrown him out. Also, the first verse of the title song is Mark's suicide fantasy. I love stuff like that. When I read Ted Chapin's wonderful behind-the-scenes book about Follies, my favorite part was reading about how much they were changing, down to the last minute, throwing out songs, writing new songs, restaging dances, you name it. It all reminds us that making art is usually really messy and when it ends up a masterpiece, it's even more of a miracle than we think...

19. Shows That Get Submitted to Us. So many people send us their musicals, hoping we'll produce them. I'm sorry to say that most of them are just not high enough quality for us to produce, but some of them are great. And even if I don't often find shows for us that way, it's so encouraging to know that many people are out there writing new musicals. Because some of them are gonna be the next Jonathan Larson, or Pasek and Paul, or Jason Robert Brown. Keep writing!

20. Interior Rhymes. For me, hearing internal rhymes is like finding an intensely cool easter egg. They delight me. Two of my favorite practitioners are Sondheim and Brian Yorkey. Just listen to the Night Music, Next to Normal, and Heathers cast recordings, and really keep an ear out for the internal rhymes. They're everywhere, yet these brilliant writers never contort or invert a sentence to make a rhyme.

21. Earworms. A lot of musicals have earworms, melodies or even fragments of melodies that get caught in your brain, and the only way to get them out is to replace one earworm with another. So many of the shows we do have earworms out the butt. That can be awesome and it can be annoying, but mostly it's awesome. And let's be honest, you can't get earworms from a painting or a sculpture, am I right?

22. Jennifer Ashley Tepper. I've been calling her the hardest working woman in show biz, but only half joking (here's my podcast interview with her). She's an author and historian, and has written the two-volume Untold Stories of Broadway (more volumes are coming), She's also the producer of a concert series in New York called If It Only Even Runs a Minute, about great (or near-great) shows that flopped on or off Broadway. She's also the director programming at Feinstein's 54 Below in New York, where she produces solo cabaret shows, musical theatre reunion shows, and so much more. She has also worked on the Broadway shows [title of show], Godspell, The Performers, and Macbeth. She also co-produced Hit List, the live concert version of the fictional musical from Smash. She has worked on other projects with Ars Nova, National Alliance for Musical Theatre, The Producing Office, PBS, The Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization, New York Musical Theatre Festival, Second Stage, The York Theatre, and the Tony Awards. See why she's the hardest working woman in show biz?

23. Peter Filichia. Another of my favorite people, Peter has the best Broadway stories I've ever heard, both stories that happened to him and stories other people told him. He holds more information about the Broadway musical in his head than anyone I've ever met, and he's written a ton of books about musical theatre, all of them really entertaining and chock full of cool info. Peter also writes four online columns, for Music Theatre International, BroadwaySelect.com, Masterworks Broadway, and Kritzerland Records.

24. Posters and Showcards. A while back, I asked New Line graphic artists why they enjoy designing theatre posters so much and why they're willing to do it for us for free. Both of them said the same thing – a theatre poster is a very different animal from any other graphic design job or any other advertising. It has to convey a ton of information about style, tone, themes, story, character, etc. with very few words. Almost every show, Matt Reedy sends me his graphic design, I open it to discover it's nothing like I expected, and yet it captures fully the style, tone, etc. of our show. Look at Matt's design for The Wild Party, in the style of a poster for a Marx Brothers comedy, but with hints of darkness, notably alcohol mixed with bullets. It feels like it should be wacky, but instead it feels a little unsettling. Exactly. I'm always astounded at how fully these artists can convey so many non-concrete ideas almost entirely through images and colors. Check out New Line's incredible poster gallery.

25. New Line Theatre. Okay, maybe I shouldn't list the company I run, as one of the great things about the art form. That's not exactly humble, is it? But the fact that New Line can exist and thrive for twenty-five years says something very cool about our art form and its evolution. New Line was there at the vanguard of this new Golden Age, several years before Rent, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, Songs for a New World, or Noise/Funk. Not only do we produce lots of shows no one else in the area would produce, but we have brought back to life several musicals that were abused and left for dead by the New York commercial theatre, only to be greeted by rave reviews and packed houses here in St. Louis! New Line is the reason why there is now further life for High Fidelity, Cry-Baby (which just got picked up by MTI!), Night of the Living Dead, and we hope, Atomic, as well as several other shows. It's always been important to me that New Line not only produce new work and alternative work, but also that we continually Make the Case for our art form, for this Golden Age, and more – through our Facebook page, the New Line blogs, my analysis essays, our YouTube channel, and so much more. All the New Liners believe that we're not just serving our audience, but also the art form itself. And though we often do wild, crazy, outrageous shows, we take our work very seriously. As it deserves.

There's never been a better time to be alive for a musical theatre fanboy like me... Can you hear the people sing...?

Long Live the Musical!

Ten Awesome Surprises on New Line's YouTube Channel

Seven years ago, New Line started a YouTube channel. At first, it wasn't clear exactly what we'd use it for, beyond promo videos. But after a while, we started to recognize how useful and also educational our channel could be. We started recording interviews with our actors during rehearsals, and I started uploading clips from historical videos I had. Soon I realized we could do so many cool things with your YouTube channel, including my favorite YouTube feature: playlists!

Seven years later, we've got more than 350 subscribers and our channel gets more than 5,000 visitors a month, watching close to 15,000 minutes of video each month.

So here are ten of the coolest surprises you'll find on our YouTube channel. Fair warning, though, if you're a hardcore musical theatre fan, you may get lost in there and not emerge for several days...

New Line's YouTube History of Musical Theatre
This is my favorite part of our channel. I've assembled two playlists (it wouldn't fit on one), chronicling the history of our art form, from the beginning to the present, though about 250 YouTube videos. The first video is a recreation of George M. Cohan's 1904 show, Little Johnny Jones, one of the very first American musical comedies. Many of the videos have the show's original cast performing numbers on the Tonys, The Tonight Show, The Ed Sullivan Show, and other TV appearances. In some cases, the videos are film or TV versions, or revivals, that are the best records we have. And because we now live happily in The Information Age, we can now see home movies and other rare records of these shows, clips we never could have seen before YouTube. These playlists also include some interviews with writers, directors, and actors. We're always looking for cool new material to add...

And while we're talking history, we also have a playlist of complete Tony Awards broadcasts, from 1967-2014.

Musical Theatre Interviews
This is a playlist of videos featuring writers, directors, designers, and actors talking about their work in the musical theatre, including great artists like Stephen Sondheim, Jason Robert Brown, Hal Prince, Susan Stroman, Tommy Tune, Bill Finn, Tim Rice, Frank Wildhorn, John Kander, Jerry Herman, Savion Glover, George C. Wolfe, Arthur Laurents, Tim Curry, Stew, Michael Friedman, Elaine Strich, Bob Fosse, and that's not even all of them. Much of this is historical video that's never been commercially released. Quite a few of these come from my own personal collection. Some of the coolest things include a 1975 interview with Tim Curry about Rocky Horror, a Charlie Rose segment about George Abbott, with his daughter, Frank Rich, and Mary Rodgers Guettel, an interview with Paul Simon about Capeman, a 1965 interview with Sondheim and Arthur Laurents about Do I Hear a Waltz?, and other cool stuff.

Compare and Contrast
I just started this list recently, and I'll keep adding to it. It's one of my favorite lists, featuring multiple interpretations of famous theatre songs, so far including various performances of "Rose's Turn," "If I Were a Rich Man," "I'm Still Here," "Being Alive," "I Am What I Am," "The Ladies Who Lunch," and "Wilkommen." What's fun for me about this collection is that you can see several "right" but different choices for each song, proving that, most of the time, there really is no "right" answer. I hope this will also be an antidote to all the young actors who imitate the original performers. Every role has so many possibilities!

Random Cool Musical Theatre Shit
Normally, I guess this "Etc." category would go at the end, but I love these videos so much. They just don't fit into our other playlists. There are so many odd but awesome things here, including "Def Ass Musical Theatre Gangsta Jam," Seth MacFarlane doing the "Trouble" speech, "The Horrifying Truth About Life Inside Movie Musicals," and weirdest of all, Muhammad Ali in a Broadway musical (in case you're wondering, it's awful and he can't sing). But my favorite video here comes from my own collection, Chris Elliott's hilarious short film "Housewives," a wacky parody of the famous documentary about making the Company cast album. This aired on the Letterman show in 1994, and I remember at the time thinking, This is hilarious, but no one will get it unless they've seen the documentary. Regardless, I was smart enough to record it...

Great Movie Musical Moments
Exactly what it sounds like, an eclectic collection of some incredibly cool movie musical moments, like "Take Off With Us" from All That Jazz, "Bang Bang" from Robin and the 7 Hoods, and three brilliant clips from the musical-within-a-movie The Tall Guy; alongside more mainstream fare like Gene Kelly's "Singin' in the Rain," and Sweet Charity's "Big Spender." My personal favorite is "Fortuosity," the opening from Disney's The Happiest Millionaire, one of my all-time favorite movie musicals.

Broadway Musical Commercials
The Broadway musical TV commercial was born in the early 1970s, when Bob Fosse asked producer Stuart Ostrow for some money to film a commercial for Pippin. The commercial did wonders for the box office, and from then on, every big show had to advertise on TV. Here is a really cool collection of commercials from the 70s to today. I especially enjoy watching the commercials for the shows I've never seen, to get just a taste of how they felt and how they moved...

Follies and Cop Rock
Whenever I go to New York, I make an appointment to watch videos of shows at the New York Public Library's Theatre on Film and Tape Collection at Lincoln Center. Years ago, I heard that there were home movies of the original 1971 production of Follies. I called the Collection and asked about it. Yes, they had an hour of home movie footage, half of it with sound. Sold! But there was a hitch. Both Sondheim and James Goldman's widow had to give permission for me to watch it. As I had corresponded with Sondheim a fair amount, he readily gave permission, but Mrs. Goldman wouldn't. So I couldn't watch it. The next time I went to NYC, I enlisted Sondheim to ask Mrs. Goldman, and she agreed, and I finally got to see the footage. Truly one of the thrills of my life up to that point.

And now all that footage is on YouTube. God bless the internet. So we've collected all of it into one playlist.

In parallel to that, I wrote a blog post in 2012 in defense of Cop Rock, which I love. The post continues to get quite a bit of traffic (I'm probably the only one on the entire internet saying anything nice about Cop Rock). Not long ago, I acquired the entire series on DVD. It's never been released commercially but I found someone who had all the episodes (it ran less than a full season!). When I was writing that post, I thought the best argument for Cop Rock is Cop Rock. I wanted people to see it. So I found several clips already on YouTube, and I added several of my own, and now there are sixteen clips available of this bold, ballsy TV series. My blog post explains why I think this show was worthwhile. If you're still a skeptic, watch just one of these videos, and judge for yourself. I think the best is "Sandman," powerful, emotional musical drama.

Demo Recordings
One of the many cool things people upload to YouTube is demo recordings of musicals. I put together playlists of the demos from Rent, Cry-Baby, and Spring Awakening. It's so fascinating to hear the differences between these recordings and the later versions we're familiar with now. One of the biggest surprises for me in the Rent demos (among many!) is that Mark's parents had thrown him out of the house! And the opening verse to the title song is Mark's suicide fantasy! Quite a different character from the Mark we know today. So cool to see how a work changes and evolves over time...

New Line Content
We've been adding original, Behind-the-Scenes content since 2010, including interviews with actors during the rehearsal process, video tours of our sets, videos of our talk-back events for each show, and also a few media interviews. We also have a playlist of all our promo videos, going back to Urinetown in 2007. We've experimented with how to do these promos, but now we have Kyle Jeffery Studios as our regular videographers, so they're now making really great videos for us, including our awesome 25th Anniversary Video. We also have clips from several of our shows on our channel, documenting our company's history and evolution over time.

Celebrity Anniversary Wishes
For our 25th anniversary season, we wanted a special video to mark the occasion. So I asked a number of people I know working in New York theatre to record a short video greeting for our anniversary. We ended up with eight very cool videos, from John Waters, Betty Buckley, Amanda Green, Andrew Lippa, Ann Harada, Kyle Jarrow, Lee Wilkof, and John McDaniel. So awesome! And honestly, I was thrilled to get videos from all these folks, but I have to admit the greatest thrill was getting one from John Waters, and wait till you see how awesome his video is...!

Pretty cool, huh? Even cooler, ever since we did Cry-Baby, I've been on John Waters' Christmas card list. You can't even imagine...

Admit it, our YouTube channel sounds amazing! So take some time to browse around and see what treasures you can find. If you subscribe (it's free), you'll be notified whenever we add anything new. Enjoy!

Long Live the Musical!

We'll Make It Beautiful

The Heathers have left the building.

New Line's sold-out, critically acclaimed production of the brilliant rock musical Heathers is now just a memory. Right now, I don't think we'll ever return to this show, but I've learned never to say never.

The response was amazing. Every night sold out except our preview, with standing ovations every night, and so much love from the press! Here are just a few quick samples:

"This is beyond must-see entertainment. . . You'll be dazzled by its brilliance." – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"A racy rock score drives 120 mph into the dark, libidinous story with a narrative intelligence reminiscent of Gilbert and Sullivan on coke." – Chris Limber, Buzz On Stage

"A spectacular production." – Tina Farmer, KDHX

"As entertaining as it is terrifying." – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

"Ruthlessly intense in the final 20 minutes" – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway

"One of the standouts of the year." – Lynn Venhaus, Belleville News-Democrat

What a wild, awesome ride it's been. We assembled a truly exceptional cast, funny, gutsy, inventive, and more than half of them new to our company; our designers all did excellent work; and we discovered as we worked that this powerful, beautiful show is way more serious, more intelligent, more insightful than any of us thought. And way more relevant. It's about far more than high school violence.

As J.D. puts it, "People are going to look at the ashes of Westerberg and say there's a school that self-destructed not because society didn't care, but because that school was society." How meta. I can't imagine any other moment in history more exactly tuned to Heathers' satire and its message than right now. And what is that message?

We don't have to be assholes.

In this historical moment, when many Americans genuinely believe our President is trying to destroy our country, when huge chunks of the American electorate think the usually nasty Donald Trump would make a good President, when Congress is pursuing the nastiest kind of partisan witch hunt against a Presidential candidate, Heathers delivers an important lesson for us.

We can choose not to be assholes. Each one of us, every day. We can choose.

When the relative anonymity of the internet makes it so easy to be mean, to belittle, to insult, to assault verbally (have you ever read the comments on political news stories?), Heathers tells us that we can choose to be Heather Chandler and Heather Duke, or we can choose to be Veronica. J.D.'s response to the cruelty of Westerberg High is to be even worse than they are, but that only drags him down to hell with them. Veronica learns that the only reasonable answer is to reject the cruelty, to be different from the assholes.

Veronica and Gandhi.

She chooses not to be an asshole. Okay, sure, it takes her a while, but we should cut her some slack. Who among us could resist Charming J.D. in Act I?

Heathers starts and ends with twin phrases. At the beginning, we hear it many times, "We can be beautiful." By the finale, that phrase changes to "We'll make it beautiful." It's no longer just a possibility; now it's a decision. That's not some Hallmark sentiment. That's the point of the show. We can choose to be beautiful, to be open and optimistic and joyful. We can choose to embrace life, rather than struggle against it. We can chose not to see life as a zero-sum competition.

To be fair, J.D. (at least as drawn in the musical) is probably too fucked up to choose well. He's more complex than that. We all have damage, but J.D.'s goes pretty deep and pretty far back. As he sings to Veronica, just before the finale, "I am damaged, far too damaged, but you're not beyond repair." He's right. Maybe his most tragic flaw is his self-awareness. He's knows exactly how damaged and how toxic he is. But at least there's enough good in him to make his final selfless act. Which makes him even more tragic.

Veronica is our surrogate, the audience's way into the story and also our guide (as narrator) through these moral "woods." As the great James Baldwin wrote in his 1962 essay, "The Creative Process":
The conquest of the physical world is not man’s only duty. He is also enjoined to conquer the great wilderness of himself. The precise role of the artist, then, is to illuminate that darkness, blaze roads through that vast forest, so that we will not, in all our doing, lose sight of its purpose, which is, after all, to make the world a more human dwelling place.

The redemption at the end is so powerful for us because Veronica is our stand-in. We know we've all done mean things, said mean things, hurt people. But through Veronica we can be redeemed. We can find our way out of those dark woods.

We can choose not to be assholes. If Veronica can do it, so can we.

Despite its darkness, its aggression, its vulgarity, Heathers is ultimately a show that asks us to "make the world a decent place for people who are decent," to reject all Heathers and their types, whether in high school or out in the world. Not with explosives, like J.D., but with decency, like Veronica.

It's a more hopeful companion piece to both our last two shows, The Threepenny Opera and Jerry Springer the Opera.

I think most of our audiences were both deeply moved and genuinely surprised by this show. It's so much richer and more beautiful and more emotional than anyone expected. In comparison, the film (which I've always loved) seems a little less intense now that we can see how powerful this story really can be, how emotionally harrowing. In all fairness, much of that power comes from this rich, evocative music, and the musical theatre's ability to do interior monologues, like "Kindergarten Boyfriend," "Fight for Me," and the first part of "Dead Girl Walking." What a fucking show!

I am forever indebted to our cast, our musicians, and our designers and staff. Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms, and a show isn't this great unless everybody involved is doing their very best. I am a very lucky man – I get to do what I've always wanted to do, and I get to do it with really talented, really smart, really creative people. I often end my blog posts with "I love my job," but that doesn't begin to cover it...

Many, many thanks to all the New Liners who worked on this, to the press who really understood this difficult piece, and to St. Louis audiences, who so embraced our show and gave us a sold-out run full of standing ovations. I am so grateful.

And one last special mention. Pretty much from the minute I decided we'd produce Heathers, or at least from the first time I heard the score, I knew I needed Anna Skidis to play Veronica. We don't often pre-cast roles, but this was a no-brainer. I knew she'd be extraordinary in this role, and I was right. I can't imagine any actor being more right for this role. Every night, she and Evan (as J.D.) made me laugh out loud and they broke my heart, and Jesus, I could listen to them sing (together or separately) forever. Actually, if I were really rich, I'd just hire these sixteen actors to come sing for me once in a while. What a glorious sound they all made together.

One line from the show pretty much captures my feelings right now: "Holy shit!"

Goodbye, Westerberg. We'll miss you!

Long Live the Musical!

A Raging Black Ocean

Jonathan Gottschall writes in his excellent book The Storytelling Animal, "Story – sacred and profane – is perhaps the main cohering force in human life. A society is composed of fractious people with different personalities, goals, and agendas. What connects us beyond our kinship ties? Story. As John Garner puts it, Fiction 'is essentially serious and beneficial, a game player against chaos and death, against entropy.' Story is the counterforce to social disorder, the tendency of things to fall apart. Story is the center without which the rest cannot hold."

And we have been engaged in some heavy-duty storytelling these last several weeks.

There are three things about Heathers that surprise the hell out of our audiences. First, that the show is as vulgar and aggressive as it is. It paints a very ugly picture of this micro-society. Second, that it is as intense as it is; at least on stage, it's definitely more crime thriller than teen comedy. And third, that the show includes moments of genuinely transcendent beauty and emotion, amidst the terror and hormones run amok. It's those moments in which the show really earns it.

It continues to baffle me why it seems that the director off Broadway thought this is a musical comedy, but that's how he staged it. Of course, I think he wildly misdirected Reefer Madness off Broadway as well. He's a director who does not trust his material or respect his audience. Heathers is a much more serious, more complex piece than the off Broadway production would suggest.

Here are two cases in point, both from Act II, where the story turns considerably darker. Several people in our audiences have remarked to me how much darker and more serious the musical is than the movie (something the off Broadway production did not understand). I think one of the central reasons for that difference in tone is that musicals use interior monologues, so characters can just tell us outright what they're thinking and feeling. In the case of Heathers onstage, the implications of the outrageousness and cruelty become much more obvious, because emotion is at the forefront of the story.

Because this is a musical.

It's interesting how constantly murder and suicide dance around each other in this show, masquerading one for the other, sometimes real, sometimes not. The show traps us by making the first three murders, all in Act I, funny. By the time we get to Act II, we're not taking death any more seriously than J.D. does. And then the show shakes us out of that complacency and smacks us with the real pain all this ugliness causes – all this ugliness we were laughing at all through the first act.

It's when Larry O'Keefe and Kevin Murphy force us to face this shit, that the show makes its bones. This is no teen comedy. This is a show comfortably in the artistic company of Cabaret, Chicago, The Scottsboro Boys, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

Early in Act II, the guidance counselor Ms. Fleming's ridiculous anti-suicide rally gets accidentally sidetracked into genuine emotion, with Heather McNamara's powerful solo, "Lifeboat." Notice that the lyric follows one of Sondheim's rules, that rhyme in theatre lyrics connotes intelligence and/or presence of mind. The more intellectual, the more rhyme; the more emotional, the less rhyme. Here is a song that's uncomfortably emotional, and so there is very little rhyme here, essentially one rhyme per stanza, only at the end, which is in real contrast with much of the Heathers score. Not only that, but it's the same rhyme in every verse, subtly altered each time, but still...
I float in a boat
On a raging black ocean.
Low in the water
And nowhere to go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
With people I know.

Cold, clammy and crowded.
The people smell desp'rate.
We'll sink any minute,
So someone must go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
With people I know.

Everyone's pushing,
Everyone's fighting,
Storms are approaching,
There's nowhere to hide!
If I say the wrong thing
Or I wear the wrong outfit
They'll throw me right over the side!

I'm hugging my knees,
And the captain is pointing.
Well, who made her captain?
Still, the weakest must go.
The tiniest lifeboat,
Full of people I know.
The tiniest lifeboat,
Full of people I know.

One of O'Keefe's favorite acts is to give his audience emotional and narrative whiplash, jerking them between hilarious and poignant, wacky and sad. Mac's short monologue leading up to "Lifeboat," ends with a very dark, but undeniably funny punchline, which gets a big laugh that almost immediately quiets, as the audience sees Mac is dead serious. She says:
My sort-of boyfriend killed himself because he was gay for his linebacker. And my best friend seemed to have it all together, but she's gone too. Now my stomach's hurting worse and worse, and every morning on the bus I feel my heart beating louder and faster, and I'm like Jesus, I'm on the frickin' bus again 'cause all my rides to school are dead.

That's a dark fucking punchline, and the audience instantly recognizes the uncomfortable truth in what she says. And really, it's brilliant writing, leading seamlessly into the song, fully character-driven. And it really drives home the social isolation of this girl who until recently was on the top of the social heap, her pain, her fear. It's funny because the punchline is such a surprise, but it's also sad as hell. And that's the beauty of this show.

The other powerhouse emotional solo, Martha's "Kindergarten Boyfriend," just shatters our audience every night. It's intentionally childlike, with short sentences, very simple vocabulary, very child-like images, which give her a palpable innocence. Martha is forever stuck emotionally at age five, kissing Ram on the kickball field in kindergarten, a time and place before judgment and cliques and social cruelty.

This song is very much like the brilliant "Somewhere That's Green" in Little Shop of Horrors. It's power is in its simplicity, in how little Martha asks from life to be happy, and how impossible we know her dreams to be. Lyricist-bookwriter Howard Ashman wrote a forward to the published Little Shop script that also applies to Heathers, and especially to Martha. 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.

In fact, this applies to many shows New Line produces, including Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, BBAJ, and many others. The more honest, the most heartfelt, the more powerful. The writers take care of the outrageousness; the actors supply the honesty and emotional reality. Notice that there are no rhymes in this song. Just raw emotion.

Martha sings:
There was a boy I met in kindergarten.
He was sweet, he said that I was smart.
He was good at sports and people liked him.
And at nap time, once, we shared a mat.
I didn't sleep, I sat and watched him breathing;
Watched him dream for nearly half an hour,
Then he woke up.

He pulled a scab off, one time, playing kickball.
Kissed me quick, then pressed it in my hand.
I took that scab and put it in a locket.
All year long I wore it near my heart.
He didn't care if I was thin or pretty,
And he was mine until we hit first grade.
Then he woke up.

This last sentence returns, now with much different, much deeper meaning; and this image of waking up will return again. Once the real dream dies, the song moves into fantasy, just as Martha has done all these years. And the music takes flight along with the imagery...
Last night I dreamed
A horse with wings
Flew down into my homeroom.
On its back there he sat,
And he held out his arms.
So we sailed above the gym,
Across the faculty parking lot,
My kindergarten boyfriend and I...
And a horse with wings…

The only world she knows is school and the people there. And reality is smacking her in the face now.
Now we're all grown up and we know better.
Now we recognize the way things are.
Certain boys are just for kindergarten,
Certain girls are meant to be alone.

You've got to be carefully taught. The script tells us, "Lights change to reveal Martha standing on the edge of a bridge."
But I believe that any dream worth having
Is a dream that should not have to end.
So I’ll build a dream that I can live in,
And this time I’m never waking up.
And we'll soar
Above the trees,
Over cars and croquet lawns.
Past the church,
And the lake,
And the tri-county mall!
We will fly
Through the dawn,
To a new kindergarten...
Where nap time is centuries long.

Martha raises her arms, as if to fly. As she leans back... Blackout. Splash. And all this was foreshadowed back in Act I, at the homecoming party.

"So I'll build a dream that I can live in, and this time I'm never waking up." Wow. This image of waking returns, now in the context of the story's first real suicide attempt, a "dream" in which "nap time" – the big sleep? – the only possible safe place, "is centuries long." It's not just beautiful language, not just authentic emotion, but also rich, character-driven poetry. Only Martha could sing this song, because only this character would feel these things, but only in a musical could her pain be this eloquent and revealing.

These two songs change how we watch the rest of the show. We are no longer at an ironic distance; we are elbows deep in these messy, authentic emotions, and it makes for some powerful, harrowing theatre in the last twenty minutes.

We close this week, having sold out all but one performance (our preview). I will miss this show, this cast, and this wild, wonderful experience of living inside this gorgeous, rich, thrilling music for the last several months. It's been such a privilege and such fun.

On the bright side, half this cast is going on to American Idiot with us...

Long Live the Musical!