Mine Will Be Too

I have a confession to make. I hate stage directions. I do my best to ignore them.

Much of the time, stage directions are descriptions of the original production. Of course, when you read a script, there's no way to know which stage directions come from the writers and which come from the original director's staging. I guess I use stage directions the same way my father used to use the assembly instructions that came with my toys – they're the last resort after you've tried everything else. I'm only half kidding. In fact, I use the stage directions so sporadically that when I do want to use them, I have to put a star next to them in my script, to remind myself.

Otherwise, fuck 'em.

So I'm hard at work figuring out the staging for Bonnie & Clyde. I mentioned in an earlier post that I intend to change substantially the original staging of the songs "What Was Good Enough for You" and "Dyin' Ain't So Bad." But not just the staging; I think these songs should be approached differently, as acting scenes, rather than soliloquies. On Broadway, Laura Osnes as Bonnie got all Broadway-verklempt (i.e., showing extreme emotion, but not "earning" it) during "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," and by the end, she could barely finish the song through her stage tears. And the Tony goes to... not her. I'm not sure if it's the fault of Osnes, the director, the writers, or simply a casualty of the massive changes they made in the show between the La Jolla production and Broadway. I remember when I first saw the show, this moment felt a little weird to me, but I wasn't conscious of why I felt that way.

Now I know.

It's because the verklempt Bonnie who was falling apart during "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" wasn't the same tough Bonnie we had known through the rest of the show. I think sometimes actors automatically assume that their own natural reaction to something is also their character's natural reaction. But Laura Osnes isn't Bonnie Parker. Laura Osnes doesn't live in the Dust Bowl during the Depression, and she doesn't live in extreme poverty and hopelessness. Why should we assume that life on these terms is better than death for this fucked up kid? Who are we to make that assumption?

Is this song about the Depression as much as it is about Bonnie?

Jeff Gunn writes in Go Down Together, “On the day she met Clyde Barrow, nineteen-year-old Bonnie Parker’s life was also in complete shambles. Everything that could be wrong in it, was. She’d lost her job and couldn’t find another. The handsome young husband she’d expected to make all her romantic dreams come true was gone for good. After years of predicting she’d be a famous star on Broadway, or perhaps a renowned poet, she was still a nobody in the Dallas slums. It was enough to make her cry, and she frequently did.”

Look at the character in the show – Bonnie succeeds in escaping that life, and she has no illusions about the price she'll pay. In Act II, Bonnie reads Clyde her finished poem about them, and it ends with their deaths. In Go Down Together, Gunn writes, “Bonnie told her mother that it was inevitable that Clyde would die and, when he did, she wanted to die with him. For a change, she was matter-of-fact instead of dramatic.”

She was matter-of-fact instead of dramatic.

I think the key to "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is Bonnie's conviction. We know she's been thinking about this. I think she fully believes what she's saying. She's concluded that being with Clyde till-death-do-them-part is a far better fate than leaving him, waiting for him to be killed by the cops, and living the rest of her life without him. I'm sure there are older couples who've been together all their lives, who feel similarly, that living without the other would be worse than death. I think my mom feels that way about my stepfather. She's actually said she hopes she dies before he does, and I bet you've heard people in your family say the same thing. Bonnie's hopelessly immature and intense love (remarkably like Shakespeare's Juliet) gives her that same conviction. And crying throughout the song completely undermines that and shortchanges the character.

The lyric takes on new meaning if you approach it my way, no tears, no telescoping of the tragic ending, just a straightforward statement of belief, just an honest attempt to make Blanche understand how Bonnie feels. I told Larissa, who's playing Bonnie for us, to practice the song smiling. Not that we necessarily want that in performance (maybe...), but it will help fend off the urge to let it go weepy.
Dyin' ain't so bad,
Not if you both go together;
Only when one's left behind
Does it get sad.
But a short and lovin' life,
That ain't so bad.

If this is a simple statement of fact, rather than a frightened rationalization, the lyric makes more sense, and it gets a lot deeper. If we take the lyric at face value, that she really believes this, then we automatically ask ourselves: is she crazy or would I feel the same way? If Bonnie doesn't really believe this and is just covering up her sadness, that question never gets asked.

She goes on:
I only hope to god that I go first.
I couldn't live on memories;
I'm sorry but I'm not that strong.
There are some things in life
You can't replace;
A love like ours don't happen twice.
When all his days are through,
Mine will be too.

On a purely technical level, notice how little rhyme there is here. This score as a whole is overflowing with interior rhymes, double- and triple-rhymes, and alliteration. But not here. Sondheim has a rule that rhyme equals intelligence and/or presence of mind. So the less intelligent, the more emotional, or the more panicked a character gets, the less they rhyme (look at the verses of "Getting Married Today" in Company). The more intelligent, more intellectual, more analytical a character is, the more they rhyme (look at "Now" in A Little Night Music). This lyric in "Dyin' Ain't So Bad" is pure emotion, so only two words rhyme in the first verse, and only two at the very end of the second verse. More rhyme would get in the way of what she's saying.

So, is Bonnie nuts, wanting to die? Or do you understand how she feels? Bonnie's lived life without Clyde and with Clyde, and being with him has been infinitely better. Notice her lyric in the song's bridge:
I've met boys who talk 'bout farms and horses,
And they don't do much for me;
I don't need to end up in a rocking chair.
Seems you get to live your life just once;
If that's how it's gotta be,
I'd rather breathe in life than dusty air.

Notice that rhyme has returned. These lines aren't expressions of pure emotion; they're analytical. Bonnie is comparing her dreams to Blanche's, and each of us in the audience will draw our own conclusions about which fate we'd rather have. But weirdly, in the script and in the Broadway production, Bonnie sang the first four lines, and then Blanche left the stage. That doesn't make any sense to me. See why I ignore stage directions?

Look at the dialogue leading up to this song:
BLANCHE: The two of them [Clyde and Buck] are out doin' God knows what and you can just sit there like that.
BONNIE: Yes I can.
BLANCHE: You're as crazy as he is.
BONNIE: You keep talkin' like that and you just might be the first person I kill.
BLANCHE: (pause) The two of you deserve each other.
BONNIE: Yes we do.
BLANCHE: I don't understand. You're an attractive woman. I'm sure you could have any man you set your sights on. Why are you here?
BONNIE: Why are you here, Blanche?
BLANCHE: I am tryin' to stop my husband from getting himself killed. For some stupid reason, he feels obliged to be here.
BONNIE: Maybe there's just not enough excitement to keep him at home.
BLANCHE: Our life would be perfect if it wasn't for you and Clyde.
BONNIE: You just think you're so much better than everybody, don't you?
BLANCHE: I am just trying to be the best person I can be in the eyes of the Lord.
BONNIE: And has that been fun, Blanche? You enjoyin' life?
BLANCHE: I am grateful for every day I spend on God's good Earth.
BONNIE: Take a look around, Blanche. God's good Earth is dried up. It's dead.
BLANCHE: You are so completely and utterly lost, all I can do is pray for you.
BONNIE: Don't waste your time, Blanche. I have everything I want.
BLANCHE: (pause) You know, they're going to kill Clyde when they catch him.
BONNIE: If they catch him.
BLANCHE: And they're probably going to kill you, too.
BONNIE: They better.
BLANCHE: You can't tell me you ain't scared.

The music comes in and Bonnie replies, "Dyin' ain't so bad, not if you both go together. Only when one's left behind does it get sad. But a short and lovin' life, that ain't so bad." After all that, Blanche just walks out...??? No.

This song isn't an interior monologue; this is a continuing conversation. Bonnie is making the case to Blanche for her worldview. I don't see any other way to read this dialogue, and the song is a direct response to Blanche's last line of dialogue. So what reason does Blanche have for leaving in the middle of Bonnie's answer? None, really. Also in the original production, in the middle of the song, Bonnie picks up her poetry notebook and starts writing this lyric in her book, as she sings it. But why? Has her conversation with Blanche turned into poetry? Is she formulating these thoughts for the first time? Is she trying to convince herself? Is this a poem or is this (musical) dialogue?

I assume you've already figured out that I think there's a better solution. We're gonna leave Blanche onstage and let Bonnie sing the entire song to Blanche. I think Bonnie has thought about all this a lot. I think she's known her own mind about all this she first met Clyde. Why take away Bonnie's scene partner? Why not give Larissa someone to play off of? Why not give more stage time to Bonnie and Blanche's relationship, which is clearly the most interesting after Bonnie and Clyde's?

From the beginning we've seen that in some ways, Bonnie and Blanche are in the same position and feel the same things, but they are also polar opposites in certain ways (wanting a rocking chair, wanting to change their man). In fact, their signature songs in the show are polar opposite – Bonnie's lust for fame in "The Picture Show" versus Blanche's dreams of a quiet home life in "That's What You'd Call a Dream." In their duet, "You Love Who You Love," the sentiments in their verses are totally opposed to each other, but they sing the choruses together because they both love their men very deeply – and they harmonize, which of course is musical theatre proof that they are connected. (More on that in another post...)

Our new music director Jeffrey and I keep discovering new details and new depth in both the music and lyrics, which is such fun! The actors have learned the score, and tonight we have our read-through-sing-through, so everyone can get a sense of the adventure ahead.

Then it's my turn. Blocking and some inevitable Millerography...

Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

Made in America

As I've written about here before, I love research.

And I thought it might be interesting for my blog readers to get a sense of what I've been doing the last few weeks to prepare for Bonnie & Clyde. I've found some really cool books and DVDs that are giving me so much insight into this time and place, and into the characters themselves.

These are the DVDs I'm working my way through...

The Great Depression was the first video I watched. I knew a lot about this period (from research on The Wild Party and The Cradle Will Rock), but this four-part documentary from the History Channel was a nice refresher course. And seeing it all now through the lens of Texas, the Dust Bowl, and how it affected the Barrow and Parker families, really made their world and their struggles concrete for me. Such poverty, such hopelessness, such shame and despair. No wonder our fucked-up heroes wanted a way out.

Ken Burns' Prohibition is an excellent three-part documentary about what led to Prohibition and all its unintended consequences, most notably making the act of law-breaking not just common, but kind of cool. The word scofflaw emerged during this time to refer to someone who openly scoffs at the law (usually Prohibition). This is the culture that led to the many rampant crime sprees in the early 1930s. The cheerful disregard for the law we see in Bonnie and Clyde (and Capone and Dillinger and all of them) is learned behavior. This is interesting both for its insights into the culture that birthed Bonnie and Clyde, but also for that period's lessons about (drug) prohibition in our own time, especially at this very moment in our history, when marijuana prohibition gets chipped away more each day.

Ken Burns' The Dust Bowl was a revelation for me. I never knew more about this topic than what I got from The Grapes of Wrath. I never understood that this was entirely an accidental, man-made ecological disaster. And this ecological disaster surrounds Bonnie and Clyde for most of their youth, bringing with it death and poverty. You can see how this long nightmare would change a person's perspective on what's right and wrong, how it might lead to a justification for stealing from corporate America and its banks. It makes me wonder what I would've done in similar circumstances. It makes Bonnie and Clyde seem less like monsters and more like the inevitable unintended consequence of American greed and gluttony. Monstrous, sure, but only because they're the cultural offspring of monsters.

Some of this documentary was hard to watch. Such misery, such poverty, such shame. I've never known anything like that. I'm the guy won't go camping because there's no AC or cable. I can't imagine the weight of growing up in the middle of all that. It's the same setting as the opening of one of the most brilliant of the cable dramas, Carnivale if you haven't seen this show you must), a story that revealed an ongoing battle between a being of pure good and a being of pure evil which must be fought once a generation. It wasn't hard to see the 1930s zeitgeist in those metaphors. The trick is that Evil comes in the guise of Good...

And that's the world in which Bonnie and Clyde set off on a two-year crime spree.

When The World Breaks is an extremely cool collection of intercut interviews with people, some famous, who lived through the Great Depression, talking about our country's emotional life, our psychological life, and our artistic life, during this crisis. Lots of period footage and very some very emotional stories. It really brings home the reality of the Depression for those of us who just can't imagine going through that. The others docs are great, but this one places it all on such a personal level.

In one interview, comedian and actor Jerry Stiller talks about his childhood. He remembers this kindly shop owner who always treated him so well. Until one day, when young Jerry shows up to find the shop closed. Why? Because the owner was so deep in debt and so bereft of any hope that he hanged himself. Stiller started crying as he told the story. Very powerful stuff that brings home the point of the song "Made in America" in horrifically stark terms.

I'll admit it, I'm a documentary junkie.

But the other half of my research is the culture that shaped Clyde and Bonnie and their times, especially the films they probably saw. We know from biographers that Clyde saw James Cagney in the title role of the 1931 film The Public Enemy (one of many thinly veiled biopics about Al Capone), and Clyde no doubt saw this fictionalized version of Capone as a role model, alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (also 1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), both also essentially about Capone.

We know that movies reflect their times. How interesting that in 1930-1932, we got three movies about Al Capone! Guess who had captured the public's – and Clyde's – imagination...

Here are some movies that Clyde and Bonnie almost certainly saw. Watching them now, it's so easy to see how these fucked up kids modeled their lives on these film images.

Scarface (1932) was, according to the TCM website, "without a doubt, the most controversial of the gangster films of the Great Depression (when the genre was beginning to flower). The film was produced before The Public Enemy and Little Caesar, its better-known counterparts, but its release was delayed almost a year by producer Howard Hughes's protracted battles with the Hays Office and regional censor boards." The article goes on:
Unlike The Public Enemy or Little Caesar, which were fictional products of the studio system, Scarface was a renegade independent production that flaunted the codes of decency and drew an obvious parallel between its on-screen anti-hero and his real-life inspiration, Al Capone. According to the trade publication Motion Picture Herald, Capone was so perturbed by the film's thinly-veiled references to his criminal career that he sent gangland emissaries to visit director Howard Hawks in order to arrange a private screening of the film prior to its release. 'The Big Shot will have to lay down his money at the box office if he wants to see Scarface,' was Hawks's alleged response.

TCM Greatest Classic Film Collection: Gangsters: Prohibition Era is a terrific set, including The Public Enemy (1931), The Roaring Twenties (1939), Little Caesar (1930), and Smart Money (1931). Watching these films, it's easy to see where Clyde Barrow got his role models – not from his family or community, but from fictional accounts of real gangsters. In the first scene of Little Caesar, the Capone doppelganger says, ""Money's all right, but it ain't everything. Nah, be somebody, look hard at a bunch of guys and know they'll do anything that you tell 'em, have your own way or nothin' – be somebody!"

The Mythical Monkey movie blog says this about The Public Enemy:
The Public Enemy starts out with a traditional "good brother-bad brother" conflict, a favorite trope of storytellers ever since Moses penned the fourth chapter of Genesis, but then Cagney, director Wellman and screenwriters John Bright and Kubec Glasmon upset our expectations and with them, societal norms, by making Cagney's Tom dynamic and exciting and the good brother a shellshocked, underemployed sad sack. Part of this was the result of a last minute casting change – Cagney originally had a supporting part until Wellman saw him in rehearsals and switched him with projected lead Edward Woods -- and part is the result of some wicked subversion on the part of all involved, especially Cagney, but in any event, the lesson is clear: crime pays better than a straight job and since either way you wind up dead, what are you waiting for?

When America's fathers (especially those in the Dust Bowl) had lost their their self-respect, their pride, their natural authority, to the indignities of the Great Depression, who could a boy look to for a role model? Herbert Hoover? Of course not. The Police, who everyone knew to be corrupt? Nope. The clergy, who were preaching that poverty was godly and morality was black and white? Nope, Clyde could see that neither of those were true.

After all, the book Go Down Together tells us, “Many local lawmen earned most of their income by claiming rewards for capturing criminals, and the rewards for Clyde in Texas, Oklahoma, and Missouri were widely known to cumulatively total around $1,000.” And also, “The Jesus worshipped by Cumie Barrow [Clyde's mother] and her fellow backcountry fundamentalists saved through fear rather than forgiveness. You did what the Bible said because Jesus would send your soul straight to hell if you didn’t. At home, the Barrow children were reminded of this daily. It would have also been pointed out to them in church as well as by their mother that, I fact, their poverty was a plus in their relationship with Christ. The Bible was replete with reminders that Jesus loved poor people a lot more than he did rich ones. Wearing patched clothes and sometimes not having enough to eat were, in effect, evidence of personal godliness. The implication was obvious, if not declared outright: poor people were good, rich people were bad.”

King Vidor's Billy the Kid (1930) is the other obvious influence on Clyde. We know he saw this film, just a couple years before their crime spree, which paints the infamous outlaw as a romantic, avenging vigilante, part Lone Ranger, part Batman. In this movie, mainstream morality isn't equipped for the times, so Billy makes his own morality; it's easy to see Clyde draw the same conclusion.

But the musical Bonnie & Clyde makes twin cases for fucked-up cultural influences. Clyde finds Capone's violence attractive, and Bonnie finds Clara Bow's overt sexuality attractive. It's eerie now, watching these gnaghters films, because it almost feels like Clyde literally used them as blueprints for the life he and Bonnie led until their deaths. But we can also learn a lot about Bonnie by watching Clara Bow's films...

It (1927) was the movie that made Clara Bow famous and gave her the legendary title of "The It Girl." Seeing it for the first time recently, it was mind-blowing, first at what a good movie it is, and second, at how Clara Bow's sexuality was both very aggressive and also very innocent.

So what is "It"?

Well, it's sex, of course, but it's more than that. In the film, we see a shot of a section of text in author Elinor Glyn's Cosmopolitan article, "It," in which Glyn writes, "The possessor of 'IT' must be absolutely un-self-conscious..." That was certainly true of Clara Bow – and now I know that was her secret, completely natural acting, as if no one's watching and there is no camera, yet as alive and vivaciousness, and focused as anyone you've ever seen. I doubt there was a more authentic, more honest, more naturalistic actor in the silent era. But that's not Bonnie. In sharp contrat to her role model, Bonnie (at least in our story) performs her sexuality. And while Clara Bow's appeal was in her authenticity, in how comfortable she was in her own skin, Bonnie wants to be somebody else. Bonnie wants someone else's authenticity.

It doesn't work that way.

Wings (1927) was the first film to get the Oscar for Best Picture, and though Clara Bow isn't in a big part of the movie (which includes the best dogfight footage anybody ever shot up until Star Wars), but her presence is felt throughout. She was a real movie star and everything Bonnie wished she could be. Clara Bow also had a fairly scandalous off-screen life as well, often detailed in movie magazines, and it's a good bet that Bonnie found that element as exciting as her onscreen sexuality.

The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow includes Mantrap (1926) and Dancing Mothers (1926), and The Actors: Rare Films Of Clara Bow Vol.2 includes Free To Love (1925), My Lady of Whims (1925), and the scandalous Hula (1927). Mantrap is the best of these.

And then there's this...

Cartoon Rarities of the 1930s is a collection I picked up, mostly just for fun, but also so the cast could have as full a sense as possible of the culture. The collection includes Betty Boop (modeled at least in part on Clara Bow), Tom and Jerry, and a very early Porky Pig. It's interesting in these cartoons to notice cultural assumptions that we just don't have anymore. It really was a different time and place.

And in case you think I'm just a stoner couch potato watching videos, I've also been reading some great books in prep for the show.

Go Down Together: The True, Untold Story of Bonnie and Clyde by Jeff Guinn, is such a wonderful book, chronicling in great detail Clyde and Bonnie's upbringing, families, cultural context, and all the details of their relationship and crime spree. Nothing else I've found gives me as complete or as insightful a picture of these two kids.

Public Enemies: America's Greatest Crime Wave and the Birth of the FBI, 1933-34 by Bryan Burrough, is a really cool book about how the FBI was created specifically in response to the Midwest crime wave that included Bonnie & Clyde, John Dillinger, Pretty Boy Floyd, and others. So much I didn't understand about all that...

Clara Bow: Runnin' Wild by David Stenn, is a really interesting book about this iconoclastic, convention-busting woman who refused to live the way others wanted. Reading this book makes me wish I could have met her. She seems awesome.

My Life with Bonnie and Clyde by Blanche Caldwell Barrow, is a book that's been recommended to me, but I haven't started it yet. I know our "Blanche" (Sarah Porter) is reading it.

I believe in what Uta Hagen and other actings teachers have taught, that acting is really just understanding the world of the play as fully as possible, then acting naturally. But to do that, you have to have every bit of information you can have about the time and place we're invoking. And all this research does that for me and for the actors. The better they know our world, the more the audience will believe in it. I know that "Clyde" (Matt Pentecost) has already watched both Scarface and Billy the Kid, to get inside Clyde's experience. Stuff like this always helps.

We finish music rehearsals tonight, then we'll have a read-through-sing-through, then we start blocking the show! I have so many ideas about staging, and I can't wait to see what works and what doesn't. Stay tuned.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

That Girl's Got Somethin'

The song "Bonnie" in Act II of Bonnie & Clyde is a fascinating number. This is one of those private, honest, unguarded moments between our heroes, no bravado, no bullshit, no showing off. (And no, Clyde won't be naked in a bathtub in our production, like he was on Broadway. This is not a show about sex or getting actors to take their clothes off.) In the previous scene between these two, Bonnie reads Clyde her poem about them. This song is sort of Clyde's response. The book Go Down Together says that Clyde carried a guitar with him much of the time, and he loved to play and sing.

The song is essentially built in three sections: the first two verses, then the more expansive middle section, and a final verse that bookends the song. The number starts with only Clyde playing onstage, no orchestra, which also adds to the honesty of the moment – there's no artifice here, no musical theatre conventions. Clyde's just fooling around, making it up as he goes. At first his images are standard ones, not far from actual period songs like "You're the Cream in My Coffee."
I start thinkin' 'bout my Bonnie
From the minute I wake up;
And that feelin' is the best I ever had.
She is in my shavin' mirror;
She is in my coffee cup;
I must be in love or else I'm goin' mad.

It's interesting that he doesn't know he's in love; he concludes that he is. Also, we find here an ongoing theme in American popular music, of love being or causing sickness. The same idea shows up in a lot of 50s rock and roll songs, and, not surprisingly, Grease's finale, "All Choked Up." It's also interesting that the word love doesn't show up again until the very end of the song when it's used to mean the act, not the feeling. Maybe Clyde isn't entirely comfortable with the idea of love, maybe out of emotional self-defense?

The second verse continues in the same vein, but Clyde reveals a telling detail: as much as he loves driving (he got a whole song about it in Act I), he loves Bonnie more.
I would like to write to Bonnie,
Tell the girl the way I feel,
But I'm better with a car than with a pen.
Used to be I'm only happy when I'm set behind a wheel;
Now I don't care if I ever drive again.

That last line is a hell of a statement. Back in Act I, he told us that he only feels alive when he's driving. Not anymore. Now there's Bonnie.

And then the songs morphs into something else. No longer a lark, the number changes from a diegetic, onstage song into a musical theatre monologue, like in any other musical. The music changes drastically, but the lyrics change more subtly. In those first two verses, Clyde's thinking in concrete images (mirror, cup, car, pen, wheel), but when the music changes, that changes too. As the music goes deeper emotionally, his images go inside, into what he feels.

The first two lines of this middle section are the most potent in the song:
That girl's got somethin' –
Nothing scares her.
Only piece of luck that's ever come my way...

Finally, Clyde tells us his secret. He isn't articulate enough to name it – a rare strong use of the word something in a lyric, because Clyde actually does not have the words – but it's Bonnie's fearlessness that he loves most, that he needs most. Everyone else is afraid of him (for good reason), everyone else sees him as a monster, irredeemable, dangerous. But that doesn't bother Bonnie. Nothing scares her. She wanted an adventure and now she's got one. You might say she's hooked up with the personification of adventure. What other girl would not only accept Clyde's violence and lawlessness – or more to the point, his fearlessness – but would embrace it, love him for it? In a world that hates him, that's out to get him, Bonnie is his safe harbor, a place of no judgement, and a fellow sociopathic adrenaline junkie. (Boy, that takes all the romance out of it!) Clyde is so grateful to her, though he might never be able to put that into words.

And we also get a taste of Clyde's worldview here – the world is against him, fate is against him, everyone he knows is against him (except Buck) to one degree or another, and Bonnie is the one good thing (?) that's happened to him, the "only piece of luck that's ever come [his] way." This isn't love song hyperbole; this is Clyde's perception of his life and it shapes every tragic moment in our story. He feels he's owed some payback by society for the considerable shit he and his family have taken. The only bright spot, the only piece of luck in his whole gray life, has been Bonnie.

We know he means it, because Frank Wildhorn's aching music tells us that.

The act of singing is more honest in the first two verses, but the emotional content is more honest, more unguarded once this middle section starts. We go deeper. And that difference is due in large part to Wildhorn's expressionistic music. Because music is an abstract language it conveys emotion better than words can. (Which is why West Side Story works better than Romeo and Juliet.)  This lush, emotional music changes the fundamental nature of the song; and even though the accompaniment is almost exactly the same for the first two verses and the last verse, the music of this middle section transforms that last verse; we hear that same simple music at the end through different ears.

The middle section continues and Clyde goes on:
Can't wait to tell her
How much I've missed her;
Feel sorry for James Cagney,
'Cause he's never
Kissed her.

Because the music slows down so much at the end of this stanza, it creates a cool, subtle rhyme that wouldn't otherwise be there, with "ne-ver" and "kissed her," but kissed her also rhymes with missed her a few lines earlier. The same line rhymes in two directions. Also notice the parallel construction lyricist  Don Black creates here, with tell her, missed her, and kissed her. That's good lyric writing.

This middle section of the song isn't about shaving mirrors; this is about missing someone you love, about Clyde's interior emotional life. We all know this feeling and it humanizes the "monster." It's the parallel of that moment in Frankenstein when we start to feel empathy for the creature. It's subtle. You don't notice it. The creature happily accepts the flower from the little girl and you think, He's not a monster, after all, is he?, and then he kills her. Holy shit.

Biographers tell us Clyde saw James Cagney in the title role of the 1931 film The Public Enemy (one of many thinly veiled biopics about Al Capone), and Clyde no doubt saw this fictionalized version of Capone as a role model, alongside Edward G. Robinson in Little Caesar (also 1931) and Paul Muni in Scarface (1932), both also essentially about Capone. Mentioning Cagney in the lyric is both a great character detail – of course that's the movie star that would first come to Clyde's mind, the guy who played Al Capone! – but it's also a funny and sweet compliment, that even a movie star like Cagney doesn't have it all – if he doesn't have Bonnie...

Clyde's quite the charmer. And what's more, we know he means it.

And then the song returns musically to the simplicity of the first two verses for one final verse. At the beginning of the song that simplicity is about Clyde's amateurism and his improvisation. Now it's about direct, honest emotion, no ornaments, no embellishment, no "help" from the music, just his real feelings, unadorned. There's a peacefulness, a zen-like contentment in these last few lines.
I start dreamin' 'bout my Bonnie
Just as soon as I'm asleep;
They're the kind of dreams that keep you in your bed:
I am makin' love to Bonnie,
And that sure beats countin' sheep;
Got a feelin' there are good times up ahead...

Yet they both know they're probably going to end up dead. Later on, Bonnie will even end her poem with their deaths. But until then, they will live for today.

Or does Clyde only have that optimistic feeling in his dreams?

The lyric to this song is part diegetic (i.e., the character is aware he's singing within the action of the story), and part non-diegetic (i.e., singing is just the language of storytelling, and the character is not aware he's singing, as in most musicals). It's really interesting storytelling and really interesting songwriting. It's as if Clyde needed some fucking around, some "ironic detachment" from his feelings in those first couple verses, to open the door for him to a fuller, less guarded expression of his emotion.

In Bonnie's poem, some of the language and structure is awkward, her amateurism on full display (because the show uses Bonnie Parker's actual poem, though cut down), but in Clyde's song, there's a mix of amateurism and high-level lyric-writing craft. The first two verse show us what Clyde chooses to reveal about himself; the rest of the song is what Don Black chose to reveal about him.

We just started rehearsing a couple days ago, so we have miles to go before we sleep, and I'm sure we'll find much more richness in this and the other songs. This is the part of making musicals I love the most, digging into really rich, subtle, detailed writing, exploring it as fully as I can, and then bringing it to life onstage with amazing actors.

So happy to be back in rehearsal again!

Long Live the Musical!

Bonnie & Clyde

I saw Bonnie & Clyde on Broadway in 2011 and really loved both the material and the production. I wrote a blog post about it when I got back to my hotel that night. I later saw a bootleg video of the show at the LaJolla Playhouse in 2009, before coming to Broadway. Now digging into the show as we start rehearsals, something occurs to me.

First, this isn't a love story. At LaJolla, it was a very good show, but it was a love story, including a killer love duet called "This Never Happened Before." But on Broadway, they didn't have to tell the audience that Bonnie & Clyde loved each other; it was assumed. And that made the show more a dark adventure, a interrupted hero myth story, in which our heroes don't get enough time to learn anything of value.

It's a story about America and all its institutions failing a generation of Americans. And it's a story that doesn't pass judgment on its protagonists, which may be part of why it didn't run very long in New York. This show doesn't comment on Bonnie and Clyde; it just presents them. It explores the zeitgeist that helped create them but doesn't draw any conclusions.

We can't condone what Bonnie and Clyde do, but maybe we understand it – and again, maybe that makes an audience uncomfortable. We feel the shame that permeates Depression-era America, particularly in the Dust Bowl. We feel the despair that comes from losing your dignity. And we see these vibrant kids brimming with life, refusing to succumb to the shame and the despair, refusing to live by any of the rules our institutions have imposed. You can see where these kids might wonder why should they adhere to those failed norms? When the bank can take your house, why can't you take the bank's money?

In his book Go Down Together, Jeff Gunn writes, "Every city had its slums, but in all of Texas, West Dallas was recognized as the worst. Its fetid air and swarming bugs, open sewers and garbage-strewn blocks bisected by narrow dirt streets contributed to dozens of deaths annually from tuberculosis and pneumonia. Even a few drops of rain turned those dirt street to mud: West Dallas was know as The Bog because it often was. . . Many families, some thought most, supplemented the little they could earn honestly with shadier income. People in the camp generally didn’t steal from each other – they had so little, what was the point? But across the river, other families’ chickens, knick-knacks, and even cars were considered fair game."

To some extent, this is an American horror story.

The second thing that occurs to me is that the 2009 LaJolla production was very good but very conventional, very Rodgers & Hammerstein in its structure and form. The show opened with an "I Want" solo from Bonnie, then one from Clyde, then one from their antagonist, the Sheriff, then from the second female lead, Blanche. All well written but really conventional.

By the time they got to Broadway, the opening was a long form contemporary musical theatre opening, like High Fidelity, Lippa's Wild PartyNext to Normal, Hands on a Hardbody, Spelling Bee, and one of the best, Ragtime. It was a tapestry of two songs, one for Bonnie, one for Clyde, about their mutual lust for fame and its promises, as well as about Clyde's lifelong propensity for violence. By the time we finish the opening number, we know Clyde's criminal past, we understand the social forces at play, and we know the central theme of the story. It does a shit-ton of exposition and gets it out of the way really fast, all the while giving us all the information we need and entertaining us with this pair of high energy, but creepy songs. This is economical writing.

The artistic team did pretty massive rewrites, cutting and adding songs, and also integrating many of the songs more fully into the script, overlapping scenes, finding interesting, even shocking transitions. The show I saw in 2011 was an interesting mix of a R&H book show with a Hal Prince (or Bob Fosse or Tommy Tune) concept musical. There were still Stand-Here-And-Sing songs, but the show was much darker, but also much more cinematic, much more about "perpetual motion," and much more inventive in its storytelling. Director Jeff Calhoun (who staged the brilliant Deaf West production of Big River) came up with some really striking, really thrilling visual moments.

In our production, I think I want to more fully make that transition into the concept musical. I think even the Stand-Here-And-Sing songs should be staged more conceptually, and I already have ideas (or at least, questions) about some of them. For instance, do we have to stay in the living room for "When I Drive"? Can't we get out on the road – or on the road in Clyde and Buck's minds?

The script has Clyde's father leave the stage right before Clyde sings, "What Was Good Enough for You," to his father. And then Bonnie sings a section of the song to her mother, but Bonnie's alone in her room. Sure, I can see maybe a little extra pathos from the parents' absence, but how much more dramatic for these kids to finally tell their parents this stuff, face to face? As it's written, Bonnie and Clyde are bored kids; but put the parents onstage across from them, and they become kids just starting to feel their way toward becoming adults, finding their own paths – and considering the end of the story, that's really fucking sad.

In "Dyin' Ain't So Bad," Bonnie really wants Blanche to understand this – this explains everything about Bonnie. But the script has Blanche walking out of the room after the first four lines of the song. I think Blanche staying and listening would give Bonnie's very complicated, childish (?), arguably scary emotions more weight, more respect – and more or less tragedy depending on how much you agree with her.

Maybe some of the original staging is just a product of the expectations of the tourist audience on Broadway. Maybe New York commercial producers and directors think their audiences want American Idol moments. And maybe they do. But the rewritten show as it opened on Broadway feels to me like a full-on concept musical, and I think we can discard those R&H devices entirely. Wicked needs those devices because it's essentially a Rodgers and Hammerstein show. Bonnie & Clyde doesn't and isn't.

Connected to that, the set on Broadway was extremely cool and pretty minimalist, but it still concretely represented every stick of furniture, etc. I've asked Rob, our scenic designer, for a more dreamlike, more surrealistic set, almost as if we're inside Bonnie and Clyde's heads.

I think we're gonna focus less on underwear (the two Broadway leads were undressed a lot during the show) and more on these socially and emotionally under-developed kids, playing at being adults and murdering innocent people in the process. This is one of those American social tragedies, like Death of a Salesman or American Idiot. We can see the forces and events that shaped young Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow, we can understand the stifling oppression of poverty and hopelessness; but even if we do understand in some way, we can't ignore the brutality of their crime spree. Is society is to blame? Maybe, but if so, then isn't Hoover really at fault for not averting the Depression, or the Congress and state legislatures that voted for Prohibition, destroying the authority of law enforcement across the country...? But you can't put the country in prison, and who knows how many more people Clyde and Bonnie would have killed if they hadn't been stopped..?

There are no answers here, just questions.

Is that why Americans love this story, in whatever form it takes? It's both romantic and brutal. Bonnie and Clyde are both guilty as hell and sort of innocent, the cops are both the good guys and the bad guys (for killing our heroes). This is one of those stories that always reappears during times of great change and great struggle in our country. It reassures us with two contradictory messages – that you can fight back against The Man when he's crushing you, but also, that when the monsters come, the government (police, army, etc.) will protect us.

In a way, Clyde, and to a lesser extent I think, Bonnie, are America's Frankenstein's monsters, created by bad economic policies, failing democracy, ecological disaster (the Dust Bowl), a culture of celebrity, and indifferent or cruel parents; in fact, by the breakdown of almost every American institution. And because of that breakdown, Clyde's role model is the gangster media hound Al Capone, more a father figure to him than his own father; and Bonnie's role model is the silent film sex symbol Clara Bow, both iconoclasts representing not just celebrity and its advantages (freedom from want and rules), and also the rejection of conventional morality. Following the rules wasn't working.

Clyde finds Capone's violence attractive, and Bonnie finds Bow's overt sexuality attractive. While Bonnie no doubt saw Clara Bow on screen many times, Clyde probably saw King Vidor's 1930 film Billy the Kid, which paints the infamous outlaw as a romantic, avenging vigilante, part Lone Ranger, part Batman. He also surely saw the 1932 film Scarface, a thinly veiled biography of Al Capone. It's eerie now, watching these two films, because it almost feels like Clyde used them as blueprints for the life he and Bonnie led until their deaths.

While today's kids grow up watching Sesame Street, Bonnie grew up watching the open sexuality of Clara Bow; and Clyde grew up watching Billy the Kid and Al Capone solve problems and accumulate wealth and power with guns and charm.

All these social forces came together, no doubt combined with a strong predisposition, to create the monster, one unique to the 1930s, maybe even unique to the early 1930s, in the early days of the Great Depression. But once created, Frankenstein's monster can never live among us. He can't control his destruction. So what does the monster do?

If you've read Mary Shelley's Frankenstein, you know the answer – he walks among us.

Now, reading the script instead of watching the show, it seems to me the show is primarily a horror Romeo and Juliet story, about two "children" (at least, emotionally) failing at being adults because they take the wrong lessons from life: that fame is security, sex is freedom, and violence is power. You can argue that Romeo and Juliet were largely passive in their tragic trajectory, while Bonnie and Clyde took an active role in their own destruction. But maybe that ignores the why, and at our peril. Maybe West Side Story put it best: "Hey, I'm depraved on account I'm deprived!"

It's a half-joke in West Side Story, but research is proving it true. I read a really amazing book a couple years ago, Chris Mooney's The Republican Brain, that summarizes recent brain research (and there's been a ton of it since the invention of the real-time MRI) in an attempt to understand the differences between conservatives and liberals. And it turns out there are actual physical differences between the average conservative brain and the average liberal brain. In the average liberal brain, the anterior cingulate cortex is larger, the part of the brain that processes complexity, conflicting information, nuance, tolerance for uncertainty, and empathy. It's also the part of the brain where curiosity and openness to new ideas come from.

Take away empathy and it's easy to kill someone without feeling bad about it, which means it's easy to do it over and over again. And research is also tentatively showing us that a lack of physical affection in a child's early years may well lead to an under-developed frontal lobe and therefore an absence of empathy and impulse control -- and that absence inevitably leads to crime. Considering the crappy upbringing Bonnie and Clyde had, it makes me wonder what their frontal lobes looked like...

In the average conservative brain, the amygdala (the most primitive part of the brain and the location of our fear center) is larger. Mooney says, "The amygdala plays the same role in every species that has an amygdala. It basically takes over to save your life. It does other things too, but in a situation of threat, you cease to process information rationally and you’re moving automatically to protect yourself.” But what if your whole life is essentially a threat, or at least seems that way?

(Now to be fair, the amygdala is also where loyalty and tribal bonding come from. And research doesn't tell us yet whether conservatives are born with bigger amygdalas, or if a conservative environment causes the amygdala to develop more.)

In one study, "Conservatives showed much stronger skin responses to negative images, compared with the positive ones. Liberals showed the opposite. And when the scientists turned to studying eye gaze or 'attentional' patterns, they found that conservatives looked much more quickly at negative or threatening images, and then spent more time fixating on them." Mooney concludes that this "new research suggests that conservatism is largely a defensive ideology – and therefore, much more appealing to people who go through life sensitive and highly attuned to aversive or threatening aspects of their environments." And it might explain why Clyde was often fast on the trigger, if he was preconditioned to suspect a threat...

No, you can't get all this into a musical and conveyed to an audience. But that's not really the point. The point is to let all this help us paint the clearest possible picture of who these kids are, and what happened. The more we know, the better picture we paint.

Again perhaps for commercial reasons, the show felt like a romantic story on Broadway, but I think it's more a (not-)coming-of-age story. This isn't a story about them falling in love or the depth of their love; that's all taken as a given here. It's a story about their failed attempt at being adults, a story in which they're doomed from the start – by circumstances, by the times, by destructive messages from the society around them, maybe even by biology. Bookwriter Ivan Menchell knows this and starts the show with Bonnie and Clyde's death. The writers know that we all know the end of this story, so they make the end of the story the point of the show. The narrative isn't what happens; it's why. How did we get here? And to the writers' credit, there isn't only one answer here. Because that's the truth.

This will be such a fun show to dive into, to research time and place, culture forces, political and economic forces. Judy Newmark wrote in her Post-Dispatch review of one of our shows that New Line is studying 20th century American anthropologically over time, and I realize this show fits right in. The action of our story takes place just five years after The Wild Party, and just four years before The Cradle Will Rock, both shows New Line has produced. And coincidentally, Bonnie & Clyde is set the same year our June 2015 show, The Threepenny Opera, first opened (and quickly closed) on Broadway. It's not hard to see similar cultural forces at work.

We've got rich material, a stellar cast, and a crack staff and design team supporting them. A new adventure begins. Stay tuned.

Long Live the Musical!

You're On to Something, Bobby...

I've had a correspondence with Stephen Sondheim since the early days of New Line. At the start of our second season in 1992, we asked lots of Broadway musical people to donate items for a special celebrity auction. So many people sent stuff -- Elaine Strich sent an autographed copy of the "Ladies Who Lunch" sheet music, Gwen Verdon sent a scarf she had worn onstage in a show, Kander & Ebb sent an autographed copy of the sheet music for "New York, New York," and Hal Prince, Jim Lapine, Harnick & Bock, Patricia Zlipprodt, and many others donated autographed books, music, Playbills, etc. Sondheim sent us an autographed copy of the private issue LP of the Evening Primrose soundtrack. (I really thought about holding that one out of the auction for myself, but I didn't.)

After the auction, I sent everyone thank-you letters, in which I then asked if they would donate money to us. Sondheim promptly sent a donation. After that first donation, I sent him another thank-you letter and asked him if he'd be an honorary member of our board. He said yes. From that time on, I've had a periodic correspondence with him, he's done some favors for us, he sends us contributions regularly, and he's been pretty much all-round awesome to us.

So back in 2011, it occurred to me one day (the day before Thanksgiving, appropriately, and about a week after seeing the Follies revival in New York) that I should thank Sondheim, not just for what he's done for us, but for what he's done for the art form, for all the beautiful work he's created that we've had the privilege of working on. I wanted to make sure I told him how much his work means to all of us while he was still with us...

I was thinking about this letter today and I decided to post it, to publicly thank Uncle Steve for everything. We all owe him so much.

November 23, 2011

Dear Steve,

I just wanted to take a minute to let you know how grateful I am to you, for your work, for your generosity to our company, and for your part in the forward evolution of this most wondrous art form of ours.

As I hit middle-age, and as my work gets more and more interesting and satisfying, I’ve been thinking a lot about the major influences on how I view theatre. From further back than I can remember, I was in love with musical theatre and knew all the classic scores by heart. My family went to The Muny in the summers, so I saw many of the classics on stage. As I entered my teens, I discovered Grease and Rocky Horror and realized how wildly diverse my art form could be.

And I then I discovered you. First, Company, which blew my mind, then the others one by one. I already knew West Side Story and Gypsy of course, but not what I now think of as the Sondheim canon. Each new piece of yours I discovered blew wide open the possibilities for me. Your fascinating experiments formed a tutorial for me in taking risks and breaking boundaries. I took an independent study my senior year in college to dissect two theatre scores in depth, Sweeney and Night Music. I learned more about my art form that semester than at any other single time in my life.

Also during college, my high school drama teacher and I started a community theatre group. A few years after college, having finished exploring your work, I was ready for more adventure than a community theatre could offer me. So I started New Line, and we attacked your shows one after another. The first we produced was Assassins, and that may have been the most significant artistic moment of my life. It changed how I thought about the theatre, about why it was important, about what it was capable of, about the act of storytelling. I’ve now directed Assassins three times for New Line, each time discovering even more richness there. Assassins is also the first show I ever wrote about, back in 1994 for an article in The Sondheim Review, which launched my side career writing books about musical theatre. My sixth book was just released this month.

In addition to Assassins, New Line has also produced Anyone Can Whistle, Company, Sweeney Todd, Passion, Into the Woods, Sunday in the Park, and two revues of your songs. Each one has been a joy to work on, an incredible adventure, and a fascinating exploration of the endless possibilities of the art form.

You and your work have been the most powerful influence on the preference I’ve developed over the years for meaty, substantial, complex, political, usually dark, and unerringly truthful subject matter. That stuff is just more interesting. Luckily for me, there’s an enthusiastic audience here in St. Louis for exactly that kind of theatre, so it looks like New Line (now in our 21st season!) will be thriving for quite some time to come. But I want to make sure you know how much you’ve influenced both me and our company – and by extension, our audience.

I can’t thank you enough for all you’ve brought to my life and to our culture.

With enormous gratitude,

Scott Miller
Artistic Director
New Line Theatre

P.S. I saw Follies on Broadway last week and it was one of the most thrilling nights of theatre I’ve ever had. Some day, I’m gonna find an old proscenium house and figure out how to pay for a full orchestra…

Uncle Steve wrote me back a very funny note, which said, "Dear Scott, Thanks for the terrific letter. Very good for the ego. Best, Steve."

Somebody asked me recently why we haven't done any Sondheim since Assassins in 2008. It's because we've worked our way through much of the Sondheim canon. As I said in my P.S., I intend to produce and direct Follies someday, and I'm not really interested in producing The Frogs or Pacific Overtures, as much  as I admire them. And Forum and Night Music just aren't New Line shows. I'm torn about Merrily We Roll Along. New Line might produce that someday.

Not long ago, I watched my bootleg video of the original Merrily, which is an epic mess, and because of the kind of work I've been doing with New Line, I saw pretty clearly how to make that original version of Merrily work. To a large extent, the unorthodox structure, the massive layer of irony hanging over everything, and an asshole for hero, aren't as weird as they were in the early 1980s, so I don't think those elements would alienate the audience as they clearly did originally. Today, The Last Five Years, with its similar structural device, has become part of the modern canon. And both High Fidelity and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson prove you can get an audience to care about a real asshole as the protagonist.

Also, it seems to me all the characters in Merrily should be cast with actors in their 40s. If they're the right age when our story starts, already burned out, already doomed to their various fates, then I think the irony will work far better as we move back in time, and "Our Time" will be much sadder and richer. In the original production, those fresh-faced kids singing this anthem of optimism derailed the dark irony of their future.

So I wrote Sondheim a long letter asking him if he'd let us do the original Merrily and explaining why I think it would work. He wrote back, thanked me for my enthusiasm, but said, no, he and bookwriter George Furth really never wanted that version on stage again. Which of course means we'll never hear two amazing numbers, "The Hills of Tomorrow" and "Rich and Happy," in their proper context again.

Still, I have to respect his feelings about his show.

It's been pretty cool all these years, being able to correspond with Sondheim. I only met him in person once, and very briefly, but he's been a real friend to New Line. I wish so much that I could have talked with Fosse and George Abbott, but I've been able to talk with Sondheim, one of the true giants of our art form, one of the artists who fundamentally changed the direction of our art form and raised the bar for everyone in terms of craft and artistry.

In a way, New Line has moved on beyond Sondheim's work, to newer work and younger writers, but the debt we owe Uncle Steve is massive. And I'm so glad I was able to tell him that.

Long Live the Musical!

Nah, Fuck It.

Although I'm sure the Muny's current production of Grease is well produced (the artistic quality at the Muny has increased tenfold lately), but I just can't go see it. I think it's a real shame that most people will never again see this smart, insightful, ballsy show in the raw, original version that ran 3,388 performances, from 1972 to 1980, the longest running Broadway show in history, until A Chorus Line beat it.

Not only does the version at the Muny continue to censor most of the obscenities in the show (I really doubt any of these kids would've called each other a "dipstick"), including the clumsily censored lyrics in "Greased Lightning." But it also includes (as most productions do now) the disco songs from the movie and the 70s country ballad ("Hopelessly Devoted to You"), while leaving out authentically period songs like the subtly over-sexed "Alone at a Drive-In Movie" (in the original stage show, Danny's as upset about not getting a handjob as he is about his broken heart), the hilariously truthful "It's Raining on Prom Night" (about the imagined high stakes of teenage love), the awesomely rude "Alma Mater Parody" (which sets up the central conflict of the show!), and the much more carnal, much more rock-and-roll, and decidedly more 1950s, original finale, "All Choked Up."

Even worse, they're using full orchestrations, brass, the works. That's not what this kind of rock and roll sounded like. And inexplicably they've changed Frenchie's Teen Angel into a woman, so the comically abusive seduction of "Beauty School Dropout" is lost. This just isn't Grease. In fact, it's so utterly unlike the original Broadway production, in almost every way, I think they should stop calling it Grease and start calling it Based on Grease.

Maybe the Muny audience doesn't want to hear Sandy say her REAL line before the finale, when Danny asks her if she’s still mad at him and she answers, “Nah, fuck it.” Maybe Muny audiences would be grossed out by the lyric to the "Alma Mater Parody":
I saw a dead skunk on the highway,
And I was goin' crazy from the smell,
Cause when the wind was blowin' my way,
It smelled just like the halls of old Rydell.

And if you've gotta use the toilet,
And later on you start to scratch like hell,
Take off your underwear and boil it,
Cause you've got memories of old Rydell.

I can't explain, Rydell, this pain, Rydell –
Is it ptomaine Rydell gave me?
Is it V.D., Rydell?
Could be, Rydell?
You oughta see the faculty!

But then maybe the Muny shouldn't do Grease.

Does that sound harsh? It shouldn't. First of all, I think the Muny is doing some of the best work they've done in decades under the stellar new leadership of Mike Isaacson. I've seen three shows so far at the Muny this summer and all three productions were outstanding. A few years ago, all three productions would have been bland and lacking in any artistry. The Muny is back in the business of making theatre, rather than just diversion.

But the Muny shouldn't produce Grease. They wouldn't produce the very adult, very R-rated bare or Bukowsical or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or even tamer adult shows like I Love My Wife or Passing Strange. They sure wouldn't produce Rocky Horror or Hair, so why are they producing Grease? True, this current version of the show is more a revival of the film than of the original stage musical, but even the somewhat sanitized movie version (listen to stage and screen choreographer Pat Birch talk about this on the DVD commentary) kept the original lyrics for "Greased Lightning," even if Hollywood was too squeamish for the many ass jokes in "Mooning." So if we're assuming Grease is popular now only because of the film, then haven't these kids already heard the boys sing pussy and tit in "Greased Lightning"?

Grease was a concept musical when it debuted, a show about an idea more than about story. Danny and Sandy didn't even exist when the show first opened in Chicago. Fifteen of the twenty songs in the original Broadway score have nothing to do with Danny and Sandy. But today, Grease has been turned into a romantic musical comedy. It's a fundamentally different show now. And the most obvious evidence of that is the singing. Listen to the original Broadway cast album – they did not have great singing voices, exactly like early rock and roll! Today, they all sing like they've been on American Idol. That robs the show of its substantial authenticity. It turns the kids into cardboard cutouts, instead of poor, ignored, working class kids just trying to get laid.

Grease is a show that looks very truthfully at how rock and roll, cars, and drive-in movies changed sex in America. It's not a show about how crazy those wacky kids in the 50s were, and by the way, isn't young love sweet? No, Grease is a social document. To quote from my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
The story of Grease is set during the 1958-59 school year, at a time when America was facing the preliminary rumblings of the Sexual Revolution that would arrive in the mid-1960s and blossom in the 70s, only to be ended by AIDS in the early 80s. And like The Rocky Horror Show did later, Grease shows us how America reacted to this tumultuous time though two of its main characters. Danny Zuko (along with Rizzo and Kenickie) represents that segment of American teens already sexually active in the 1940s and 50s, who ultimately frees the conforming Sandy to express her sexuality without fear or shame, leading her into a new life and a new decade of sexual freedom. This same theme is also at the heart, though far more cautiously, of the 1959 film A Summer Place, starring Sandra Dee and Troy Donahue. Sandy Dumbrowski (notice how ethnic all the character names are, to suggest that they are working class) represents mainstream America, reluctant to throw off the sexual repression of the conforming 1950s for the sexual adventuring of the 1960s.

That is the story of Grease – the story of mid-century America – the way sex was changing and the part rock and roll and cars and drive-ins played in that messy, mystical transformation. With twenty-twenty hindsight, Grease knows that the fifties were only a brief window of surface respite before the dark, dangerous times would return, with Vietnam, race riots, the anti-war movement, Watergate, and recession, and all that darkness is bubbling just under the surface of these teenage hijinks.

In the clumsy movie version of Grease, the central love story might have been the point, but on stage that romance is just a device for making a larger, more interesting point. And those who criticize Grease for its “immoral” ending don’t understand what this show is about – and they haven’t really paid attention to the lyric of the show’s finale, “All Choked Up.” Sandy is no victim here; she’s becoming a women’s libber.

You won't see any of that at the Muny, because at the Muny, the finale is "You're the One That I Want," which tells us nothing more than Danny and Sandy want to fuck. "All Choked Up" is a more interesting, more subtle finale that says more about the culture and less about these two kids – and notably, in "All Choked Up," Sandy tells Danny that she's not going to fuck him...!

You probably won't see any of that ever again on Broadway either. In fact, you won't see the real Grease anywhere, unless the folks producing it have the original script and don't mind risking the wrath of Samuel French by putting the show back the way it was written. That's what we did in 2007, and truthfully, some in our audience were horrified by that. They wanted Sandy blonde and they did not want to hear her say "Fuck it." But Sandy originally had brown hair and she did say, "Fuck it."

And doesn't that sound like a much more interesting musical than what you've seen in recent productions of this show? Grease is a descendant of Hair, not Bye Bye Birdie.

So, bottom line, what am I advocating? That no one ever produce Grease unless they can use the word fuck onstage and unless they use only the show's original score, no interpolations, no disco, no country. Seriously. Ever.

Grease has an unfortunate reputation for being silly, lightweight, nostalgia. But that's because no one ever really sees Grease anymore; instead they see a shallow rewrite that ignores almost everything interesting about this show. When I talk about Grease, I often feel like Don Quixote tilting at a windmill he can never defeat, but that doesn't mean I'll stop... Quixote never did...

Long Live the Musical!

Let Others Make That Decision. They Usually Do.

Here's another glimpse inside the world of running a small nonprofit theatre...

We apply for government grants every year and two of those grantors, the Regional Arts Commission and the Missouri Arts Council, use citizen review panels to help judge the applications. After all the decisions are made, and they tell us how much our grant is (we got raises from both MAC and RAC this season!), they also send along a list of comments from the panelists.

Which can be both encouraging and maddening.

Quite a few of these comments are awesome. One MAC panelist this year wrote "The large variety of extraordinarily positive reviews, along with the pictures illustrating high production values, clearly illustrates artistic merit." Another wrote, "New Line has intelligently and clearly established and carries out its specific purpose as a company committed to producing high-quality, socially and politically relevant musical theatre. It exhibits a savvy reliance on social media to provide an interactive educational component."

Another one wrote, "Has distinct unique niche (adult musicals between the avant garde and mainstream rep) in community arts scene. Heavy involvement with community via volunteer efforts, working with local businesses, etc. Actively pursuing greater diversity inside and out." Another wrote, "The theatre you deliver is important to the community!" And another wrote, "Your product is strong. It is a welcome part of the scene in our community! Thanks!"

Wow! Thanks, folks!

We also get a lot of very weird comments. For years we used to get some vaguely derogatory comments from some MAC panelist in outstate Missouri, who apparently didn't think St. Louis deserves its Big City reputation. This person once commented that New Line isn't "avant-garde" enough because we were planning to do Spelling Bee that season, and he had already seen it in Springfield.

Sorry, dude, but New Line doesn't do avant-garde theatre. Never has.

We often get weird reactions to our use of the word alternative when we describe New Line as an "alternative musical theatre company," or when we describe our work (as we do on our website) as "daring, provocative, muscular theatre about politics, sexuality, race, religion, the media, and more, offering an up-close-and-personal alternative to the big, commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours, since 1992." In other words, New Line's work is an alternative to other, more conventional approaches to musical theatre. Not avant-garde, not "cutting edge," just different. One MAC panelist once complained that New Line wasn't "avant-garde" enough to use the word alternative. They all need to look up the word alternative. The relevant dictionary definition is "employing or following nontraditional or unconventional ideas, methods, etc.; existing outside the establishment: an alternative newspaper; alternative lifestyles."

Or an alternative musical theatre company.

This year, one panelist complained that Rent is too "standard." If he'd just read the reviews I submitted with our application, he'd see that our Rent was anything but standard. Weirdly, he complimented us and dissed us at the same time: "The musicals vary in quality, as do the productions. When they are good, they are very good. When not so good, average." Ouch! Okay, opinions are like assholes, right? He goes on, "The material, considering they are characterized as 'alternative,' provides an opportunity to see work that is rarely done although Rent is pretty standard." Well, he's right that our programming frequently gives our audiences a chance to see new or obscure musicals, but that's really not our primary agenda – our mission is to present politically and socially relevant musicals. If Rent doesn't fit that description, I don't know what show would.

I keep adjusting our descriptions in our application from year to year to address these misconceptions, and last year I revised it heavily to explain exactly what we do in really clear terms. Here's part of the main essay I wrote about our company for the application:
Now in our 23rd season of professional, alternative musical theatre, all of us at New Line still believe live theatre is one of the most important and effective forums in American life for exploring the issues and events that most deeply affect our lives – and for personalizing those issues through our stories. We believe that artists owe it to their community to address these issues, and New Line was founded on those principles.

Our twenty-two seasons of success prove that we produce work that is accessible to a wide audience, while focusing on challenging, adult material that explores political and social issues, sometimes more obviously, sometimes more subtextually – mostly shows that The Rep, Stages, and The Muny will not produce. We are not an avant-garde company and we do not generally consider our work controversial. Since there are plenty of local companies producing family-friendly musicals, we do not duplicate that effort and we keep New Line's focus on the adult work that our audiences love so much. Every season since our founding has included at least one world premiere or regional premiere, often more than one. We produce brand new works, as well as older works reimagined, and radical reinterpretations of the classics, all of them socially or politically relevant in some way. New Line has produced 68 musicals over the years and five world premieres in just the last seven seasons.

That's pretty clear, isn't it? And now that you've read that, does Rent seem out of place in our repertoire?

Maybe it's hard for some people who like to put the world into nice, neat, little boxes, because New Line just doesn't fit into any existing category, which is probably why there aren't any other companies doing exactly what we do (though there are quite a few now who partly do what we do). Our mission statement says we produce politically and socially relevant works of the musical theatre. That's not all that hard to understand, is it?

But it can get even crazier than that. Imagine my frustration when I read comments from the RAC panel a couple years back, and came across this – "Everything about this organization is quite exciting with the notable exception of the work on stage, which is subpar compared to most other organizations in St Louis doing similar work."


So "everything" about New Line is great except we make lousy theatre...? And where are the "other organizations in St. Louis doing similar work"...? There's no other company in the whole country that does what we do, much less in St. Louis, and the national press and the local press understand that. And even more frustrating (but probably good) is that the comments are all anonymous, so I can't ask what he meant, and give him the information about us that he lacks. Still, I can't get too upset by stuff like this because it's so silly; if our work was really "subpar," we wouldn't have oceans of rave reviews to quote and we wouldn't be thriving after twenty-two seasons. So this person doesn't like the kind of work we do. That's fine. They won't be the first. To paraphrase Frank N. Furter, "We didn't make it for you!"

And the bottom line is that MAC gave us an almost 50% raise this year, and RAC gave us a 10% raise, and that's pretty great. All that really matters is that our audiences keep buying tickets to see what the mad geniuses at New Line come up with, and that our donors keep supporting our work.

As much as shit like this annoys me, I have to take a step back and realize that I chose this Road Not Taken for myself. I chose to forge (or at least adopt) new rules for making musicals. I chose not to travel down the expected path, and I have to accept (even embrace?) that the world isn't always comfortable with that. Rather than getting pissed, I just have to understand where the resistance comes from; after all, we are asking people to change how they think about musical theatre and theatre in general. Like Mother Jones, New Line's job is to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable.

While singing.

And when all is said and done, the only opinions that really matter to me are the audiences' and the writers'. The rest is just noise.

Long Live the Alternative Musical!

Not Just One Singular Sensation

In a recent blog post, I admitted to a love-hate relationship with Broadway.

Kinda like a boyfriend you wanna break up with, who used to be awesome but is now just lazy and nihilistic and annoying, and who smokes all your pot and empties the fridge. Sure, you remember the good times, the joy and the fun, but then you realize how long ago that was. Is it time to move on?

Well, I can't really.

Despite the fact that commercial Broadway success no longer has any correlation to quality or artistry, still most of the most serious, most talented, most ambitious musical theatre writers still gravitate toward the Big Bad Apple, partly because Broadway used to be The Place for new musical theatre, and partly because if you can succeed commercially in New York theatre, you might be able to make a decent living making musicals. So I understand why writers often head there.

But these writers (and, I'd argue, actors and others) are in an abusive relationship. They keep thinking they can change Broadway, by producing work like Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson and The Scottsboro Boys, but Broadway doesn't change. Not anymore. At least, not for the better.

Picture the young tourist couple at the TKTS booth wondering what shows they and their eight-year-old would all enjoy. They see Next to Normal on the board and the wife says "Look, a rock musical! You enjoyed Jesus Christ Superstar at the Fox..." Or better yet, "Oh look, honey, a funny musical about Andrew Jackson! It'll be educational...!"

One word: PTSD.

So because Broadway is a commercial enterprise, that tourist couple's taste becomes Broadway's taste. And Broadway isn't going to change as long as they're serving that audience and as long as Broadway musicals cost north of ten million dollars to produce. Which makes the ticket price crazy high, which makes theatre-going a Special Event, not a habit – and not the time to Try Something New. For many people, it's a Special Event you attend only when you're On Vacation. It's all a big, fat Catch-22. So Broadway isn't going to change.

But as long as so many of our best writers live and work there, I'll keep an eye open and an ear to the ground. Still, I'll be careful not to ignore the rest of the country, or I'll miss gems like The Ballad of Little Mikey, Bukowsical, and Night of the Living Dead. As far as New Line is concerned, Broadway and off Broadway are good conduits for us to find strong new work, but we don't care if Broadway or off Broadway gave the shows their Good Housekeeping Seal of Approval or not. They're not a reliable judge of quality, for two reasons. First, the only measure of success in New York is ticket sales. Success means financial success. Second, too often, unconventional material is sabotaged by its Broadway production team who can't escape their narrow view of what a musical is.

Not that I have strong opinions about all this...

Lest I get too ranty, let me stop and admit that when I was young, Broadway was as magical and magnificent to me as it is to young people today. In college, I spent more time in the cast album section of used record stores than in classrooms. But two things were very different then. First, there weren't regional theatres all over our country in the numbers they exist today. St. Louis didn't have dozens of theatre companies like we do now. The only place I could see new shows was on tour and that was expensive. Second, when I grew up, most of the people seeing Broadway shows lived in the New York area, so the artists could be much more adventurous for this more sophisticated audience who went to the theatre regularly. It's different today. According to the Broadway League, in the 2012–2013 season, tourists purchased two-thirds of all Broadway tickets. International tourists, many of whom don't speak English, made up a quarter of the audience, the highest percentage in recorded history.

So how could a Broadway producer really be fearless...? No wonder they make lots of terrible choices with a financial Sword of Damocles hangin' over their heads.

Of course, those who still worship Broadway (I was once one of them) give me epic shit for my less enthusiastic position. And I do feel a little guilty, like I broke up with Broadway, but I still love her... but she's also a crazy bitch and I still have a scar from when she threw that shoe at me (let's just call that a metaphor for Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark)...
Broadway: How can you just leave? How can you give up on us?
Scott: I just don't feel as close to you as I used to.
Broadway: But why? We're so comfortable!
Scott: Exactly.
Broadway: Can we still be friends?
Scott: Sure. Of course.
Broadway: Wanna have dinner Friday night?
Scott: Gee, I'm really busy this month... I'll call you.

But there are also those on the other side, those who reflexively reject Broadway, who think commercial success is a disqualifier, the ones who think theatre companies should only do the newest, most aggressive, least accessible work, preferably only work by local writers. That's not what we do.

In a recent Facebook conversation, someone said that they weren't aware that New Line ever did new work. So I told him that New Line often does new work and we have done three new musicals in just the last five seasons, which I think is pretty cool. But then this guy replied with (I may be slightly paraphrasing), "Yeah, but you just did Rent."


Producing Rent cancels out other shows we've produced? How does that work? So Rent is evidence of artistic apostasy just because it connected to a wide audience? Sure it ran for twelve years on Broadway, but it's also one of eight musicals that have won the Pulitzer Prize for Drama, right along with Death of a Salesman, Long Day's Journey Into Night, and A Streetcar Named Desire.

Both good and bad shows can be popular, usually for different reasons. Popularity comes from a strong connection to the audience. And great art creates a strong connection with the audience. Sometimes, they overlap; other times, they don't.

I encounter a similar thing on a personal level with Andrew Lloyd Webber. I love early ALW shows. I mean, I love them. New Line has produced both JC Superstar and Evita, both of which I think can be outstanding pieces of theatre when done right. And I have great affection for Joseph, which is really smart and clever, and just enough ironic and smartass to keep me happy. I also really like Tell Me on a Sunday (I'd like New Line to do that someday) and I must admit I really loved Cats the first time I saw it, and I still love listening to the score. But I hate pretty much everything ALW wrote after that. And so I've been branded my whole life as a Lloyd Webber hater, when my actual opinion is much subtler.

We choose shows for New Line to produce based on a lot of factors, but nothing is ever more important than good storytelling and a good score. We also consider the physical, financial, and casting demands. And because we do have to keep New Line alive, we are aware that we can't fill a season with three weird, difficult shows no one's ever heard of. So to that extent, we do think, last, about ticket sales – even in our somewhat insulated world, complete commercial failure does cause us problems.

But while it may cost you $400 for an orchestra seat to a Broadway musical, it only costs $25 to see a New Line show. So it's much easier to take a chance on an unknown musical. It's much easier for our New Line audience to be as adventurous as they are, with only $25 at stake.

I'll continue with my love-hate relationship until musical theatre writers can make a living writing for regional theatres, and I don't know when or if that will happen. Until then, we'll keep our unholy alliance with commercial New York theatre, but we will never bow to its limitations and narrow boundaries. We are artistic and emotional adventurers here at New Line. We're not interested in what's familiar and comforting. We'll leave that to others.

We'll just keep doing the best, most exciting musical theatre this new Golden Age has to offer. Sometimes it'll come from Broadway (though it will almost never originate there); sometimes it won't. We just hope you'll keep coming to share it with us.

Long Live the Musical!