Hands on a Hardbody

When I first heard about Hands on a Hardbody, my initial impression was that it didn't sound like a very good premise for a musical. Then again, neither does the life of Charles Bukowski. Or a zombie movie. Or a spelling bee.

And really, the structure of Hardbody is essentially the same as Spelling Bee, and so is the dramatic content. It's endless suspense, as we wait for each character to be "out," getting invested in one or more of them and rooting for them. While Spelling Bee fills out that structure with wacky comedy, it also creates rich, nuanced characters, with complex, "adult" psychologies. Musicals are about emotion and that means they are about people, not ideas, not concepts, not issues, not jokes. Despite its wackiness, Spelling Bee works on a whole other level when it's cast with actors rather than comedians. Honesty is the key to Spelling Bee, not bits.

Likewise, Hardbody is an actor's show. Its structure-by-elimination only works if we care who stays and who goes each time it happens. It's about emotion, universal emotions like despair, weariness, joy, hope, fear, love, friendship; and honest emotion onstage comes only from really great actors.

Luckily for us, we have a cast full of great actors who also have amazing voices.

I think Hands on a Hardbody is a show that never should have run on Broadway. It's not "a Broadway musical" by today's standards. It's more an off Broadway show, emotionally intimate, nuanced, and by definition, physically stagnant. Like High Fidelity and Cry-Baby, I think Hardbody would have fared better in an off Broadway house, where no one would have expected the truck to spin and dance, where no one would have expected choreography or scenic eye candy. Though there are laughs, this is a serious story about serious people in serious times. It's physically about people standing still, but it's also about the metaphor of standing still for a long time, being trapped in life, being tired, being scared; but also conversely, about endurance, about standing up, about surviving. The narratives here are interior ones. This isn't a show that needs dance to tell its story, or the emotional expansion that dance provides; I really thought the choreography in the original production felt imposed on the story, rather than coming from it organically, like they thought the audience needed "a Broadway musical."

But the truth is the audience just needs a great story, great characters, and honest emotion. Look at The Fantasticks. Look at Passing Strange or Rent.

When I found out Amanda Green was co-writing the Hardbody score (with Trey Anastasio, frontman for the rock band Phish), then I was interested. She wrote the wonderful, funny, adult lyrics for High Fidelity, which I have to admit, has edged out Bat Boy to become my all-time favorite musical. I think it's genuinely brilliant. And then I found out that in addition to writing the lyrics, she was writing some of the music as well. I'd never heard her music before.

And then I finally heard the score, and instantly fell in love with every single song as it played. I wanted to sing along to all of them. I wanted to sing back-up. I wanted to swim in those vocal harmonies. Most of the songs have choral back-up and the arrangements are superb. And then I started listening to the lyrics and they're so strong – smart, clever, honest, raw, insightful, powerful, subtle, rowdy, aching, and most of all, deeply emotional. Amanda just keeps getting better and better as a lyricist. There are masterful, playful turns of phrase, like "Leave the judging to the judge who'll judge us all on Judgment Day," or the wistful "...but I can almost feel the ocean breeze, when I read a label labeled overseas..." or Norma's "...till the day that I go to my proper reward." That one phrase, the use of that word proper, says so much about Norma and her faith, and her relationship with God. There's so much information in Amanda's lyrics, but also jokes, and interior rhymes, and at the same time, the lyrics are always fully in the voice of the character. Just as an actor has to keep acting when she sings, so too Doug Wright's dialogue and Amanda's lyrics have to be seamlessly merged, so that the audience never catches a false moment that pulls them out of the story.

After watching the documentary the show is based on, it's also fun to catch all the lyrics that come directly from things the real contestants said in the film. I think that using so much of these folks' actual language helped Amanda live inside their voices so fully; and even if you haven't seen the film, I think it gives the show even more authenticity.

And then there's the incredible music, written by both Amanda and Trey – some songs have music by both, some songs are by one or the other. It's a big basket of different musical styles, rock, pop, Latin, country, gospel, funk, but it's unified by its story. These are the musical sounds of Texas. Just as the High Fidelity score exists fully inside its story (each song in the style of one of Rob's rock gods), so does the Hardbody score. While the original documentary can show us Texas, the stage musical has to deliver that through our ears. Texas is real to us onstage because these people sound like Texans, or more to the point, they sing like Texans. And all that gives this very eclectic score a single voice.

When I first read the High Fidelity stage script, I was bowled over by it. Later, I saw a bootleg video of the Broadway production and I was horrified. Hi-Fi is a serious, often sad story, even though it also has a lot of laughs. On Broadway it had been directed like it was a 60s musical comedy (it was truly the fastest paced musical I've ever seen in my life), and it was designed like it was Wicked.

In contract to that, I thought the original production of Hands on a Hardbody was really good. But I do feel like they tried too hard in certain ways to make it into "a Broadway musical," rather than embrace what it is. It's closer to August: Osage County or Book of Days than it is to any musical on Broadway right now. But that's its strength, not something to be compensated for.

New Line's production will be the first since Broadway, and we all feel very lucky to get to work on this piece. I know the writers don't make much money when New Line produces a show, but I do like to think that special shows like this one have a safe haven here, where they'll be respected and loved for what they are; and I hope that feels good to the people who create the beautiful, brilliant shows we produce. We can't offer them tours or film versions, but we can love their baby with all our heart.

And that's something, right?

A new adventure begins. Hands on!

Long Live the Musical

Connection in an Isolating Age

I started this process loving Rent, but I ended up also being endlessly impressed by it and constantly blown away by the level of craftsmanship and artistry in both the text and the music, much of which most people probably don't even register consciously.

I didn't until now.

The more I watched our show, the more I started noticing the various musical themes Jonathan Larson uses throughout the show (the "I Should Tell You" theme, the "Halloween" accompaniment figure, the "Santa Fe" vamp, "No Day But Today") and the many textual themes that are everywhere (fire, especially as a metaphor for life force; references to Mimi's eyes; the idea of "rent" to connote the temporary nature of life and love; and more than anything, connection).

I used to think that Rent was brilliant but messy, and I assumed that was because Larson died before he could do his final revisions. The original production team used Larson's notes to try to make some of those late changes, but we don't know what else Larson would have changed. But now, having spent three months deep inside Rent, I think my perception of the show was wrong. It's not messy; it's wild. It's rock and roll, in its mindset and attitude. But everything about it is very intentional, very carefully wrought. Larson knew exactly what he was doing.

And it's also an incredibly well structured opera, using all the devices of classical opera, recitative, arias, duets, trios, quartets, etc. The end of "Christmas Bells" – intricately built, full-cast, five-part counterpoint – is as operatic as you can get.

But as brilliant a lyricist and composer as Larson was, his real triumph with Rent was its story and its very conception. Producing the show creates the same kind of bohemian family that the show depicts. It hit me often during the run, as I watched our show, that we're not just telling a story about a family of bohemians; we are a family of bohemians. And that built-in reality supercharges the show's and the audience's emotion.

We were all so happy that the hardcore RentHeads all loved our production so much (and many of them saw it multiple times), even though I know many of them were a tad apprehensive beforehand about what New Line might be doing to their beloved show. Quite a few of those RentHeads told us afterward that they've seen the show 20 (or more) times, but they thought ours was the best.

That's pretty humbling.

But the greatest joy for me was introducing Rent to the many people who had never seen it before but came to see ours. A lot of them had consciously avoided Rent for one reason or another. And I also loved convincing the folks who'd seen Rent and didn't like it, that it really is as brilliant and powerful as we all think it is. We converted a lot of people. Including a bunch of reviewers.

The other joy was watching, night after night, the intricate staging, almost all of it bordering on choreography, that we created for this show, this rowdy, soulful, perpetual motion machine. So many of the coolest moments came from my assistant director Mike Dowdy. He can look at a moment onstage and instantly know what would make it a little richer or a little clearer.

Not since The Wild Party have we climbed a mountain like this. Though it was never my conscious goal, though my only agenda was to tell this story as clearly as possible, our staging was so totally different from the original. I see in our Rent staging the many lessons we learned from The Wild Party. Much of our staging for Rent was expressionistic, suggesting the feel and energy of the streets of New York, or the interior emotions of these characters. It was often visual poetry, visual metaphor, more than literal representation.

And like most of our work over the past decade or so, a lot of our staging was very cinematic. I learned from Michael Bennett and Tommy Tune how to use cinematic language on stage – close-ups, long shots, pans, split-screens, montages, focus pulls – and that vocabulary came in really handy on this show (as it had on Wild Party).

One of my favorite things was what we called "the foot traffic." Upstage, behind the action of several songs, the cast simply walked back and forth across the stage, in a perpetual loop. It felt and looked silly in rehearsal, but my gut told me it would work. And on the set, with the lights and costumes, it became the sidewalks of New York. During "Santa Fe," the foot traffic moved from far upstage, to circling our giant moon, center-stage. It was almost like a film close-up, and it gave the impression that these friends were moving through New York as they talked. In "Without You," the foot traffic returned, but this time slow, heavy, melancholy, mirroring the emotions of Mimi and Roger. And together with the lyric, the endless loop of pedestrians suggested time passing, as the leads emerged slowly downstage out of the generic city life, to return to our focus. The foot traffic device was a leap of faith to be sure, but it worked.

And then there was the moon.

In our first conversation about Rent, I told our scenic designer Rob Lippert the one thing I needed was a giant, raked, circular platform, painted like the moon, dead-center, big enough to seat sixteen people around it. And god bless him, he gave me exactly that, and we put that moon to such good use! It was Maureen's stage, a room where the support group meets, tables at the flea market, the beds of our eight lead characters, the table at the Life Cafe, and a kind of abstract limbo space for interior monologue songs.

Last night during strike several of us were talking about how it will never seem right again to see "La Vie Boheme" at a long straight table. Using our moon as the table changed that song so profoundly, to set it at a round table, with some of the actor's backs to us, with all these friends facing each other during this wild, playful number, performing for each other. I think it added enormous energy to the number, it made it funnier, rowdier, more joyful. It gave the number a surprising sense of reality. From the audience, it felt like we were at the next table, rather than like the Act I finale was being performed for us.

The only thing we did with the show that I thought Rent fans would dislike is we moved Angel's death slightly later. In the script, she dies at the end of "Without You." In our production, it happened (more expressionistically) during her solo verse in "Contact." And we left Angel onstage for the rest of the show, up on the fire escape, watching over her friends, literally an angel in heaven. So many people told me how much they loved that. It made that whole last part of the show so much more intense, more emotional, more beautiful.

As our Rent journey comes to an end, I find myself so grateful to this cast of fearless, honest, fascinating actors. Most of the leads were shocked we cast them in these roles, but they all turned in brilliant, subtle, powerful performances. As I have the privilege of doing every so often, I taught them something about what they're capable of, something they didn't know about themselves. Some of them were scared because they aren't the usual physical types for the roles, but our audiences embraced them all so completely. These characters looked like they lived in the real world, rather than on a Broadway stage or in a Hollywood movie. And though I'm obviously biased, I think the acting in our production was the best, deepest, more authentic acting I've ever seen in Rent. And our often very different characterizations made more sense.

Evan Fornachon as Roger was the heart and soul of the show. We had worked with him only once before, in the ensemble of Cry-Baby. He's only nineteen, but he was so easy to direct, so great to work with, and his performance was nothing short of extraordinary. Not a phony moment anywhere. Rather than a bad boy rocker, this Roger was an artistic introvert (we gave him really long bangs to hide behind), which made his scenes with Mimi so much more vulnerable, so much sweeter. He's one of those actors who's completely open to everything, and though he already knew Rent backwards and forwards, he never hesitated for a moment when we led him down a very different Rent road. One other thing about Evan – every single time you give him a note, he says "Thank you." It's a little thing, but it's really nice. To some extent, that's just Evan, the nicest guy you'll ever meet, but it also tells you that he understands the note, and it shows you his mindset, that he knows we give him notes to help him create his best possible performance. Some actors are defensive and perceive notes as criticism rather than building blocks. All those thank yous were so nice.

Jeremy Hyatt as Mark brought such energy and wry humor to his role as narrator. I learned from the 2011 off Broadway revival, that casting these characters as young as they're written to be (which doesn't usually happen) makes the story much richer and much sadder. (Jeremy just turned 21.) The friendship between Roger and Mark felt so incredibly authentic because Evan and Jeremy really are good friends (which we didn't know when we cast them), and they were utterly fearless in their big fight scene in "Goodbye Love." There's nothing more dramatic onstage than a real knock-down-drag-out fight, and they delivered. It was so sad to see these close friends screaming at each other, lashing out, bringing each other to the verge of tears. Evan and Jeremy both have great voices, but they're also already serious, accomplished actors.

And then there's Anna Skidis who played Mimi. She wasn't sure she was up to this at first, but Dowdy and I never doubted her for a second. She has a huge, gorgeous voice, but she almost always plays the wacky character roles. This role was a wild departure for her, but we knew she had this in her. We knew she was a good enough actor to find and inhabit this complicated woman. And we were right. Anna was brilliant every night, funny, emotional, ironic, damaged, sexy, hopeful...

Now everybody knows Anna isn't just a wacky character actor. What's extra cool is that she's now moving on to a completely different kind of role, as Norma in New Line's Hands on a Hardbody. Also, moving on to Hardbody is another of our new folks, Marshall Jennings who played Tom Collins.

I saw Marshall in a production of Parade and was mightily impressed by him as an actor and singer. From the very first rehearsal, I felt so confident about Marshall. He asked lots of really smart questions, and we could tell from those questions that he was on exactly the right path. He was a different Collins, much funnier, less secure, more emotionally open. I can't imagine a better, more interesting Collins. The relationship between Collins and Luke Steingruby's more Zen-like, more ladylike Angel was so cool, so believable, so sweet, that Collins' eulogy was almost unbearably emotional. And this reading of Angel really supported our choice to make her a literal angel for the second half of Act II.

The triumph of Shawn Bowers' portrayal of Benny was that in our production Benny wasn't a dick (which is what I've usually seen in Rent). He was a basically decent guy (okay, aside from cheating on his wife) who really did not understand his friends' Bohemian worldview, a guy who really was trying to do something he thought would be good for him and his friends. Shawn's Benny seemed not to understand how he and his friends had grown apart. He was more complicated in more interesting ways. And once again, Shawn was totally easy to direct. Any note Dowdy or I ever gave him would be fully integrated into his performance the next time we ran that scene, even if it was just twenty minutes later.

The same was true of Cody LaShea who played Joanne, also new to us. Some actors legitimately need time to merge our notes with their work, but actors like Shawn and Cody, who deliver instantaneously, are such a gift to a director. Cody's Joanne was so real, no artifice, no "acting." And she was always open to anything we asked of her. One of the big surprises of our production was the obvious, palpable love between Maureen (played by the world's most versatile actor Sarah Porter) and Joanne. Because Sarah's Maureen wasn't the ice bitch she usually is, because our Maureen was so funny and so weirdly charming, the audience really loved her, which made the audience invested in Maureen and Joanne's relationship. In so many nonverbal ways, Sarah and Cody gave us a detailed arc of the ups and downs of their relationship, as they both learn how to accept and love each other as they are. At least in our production, this is the relationship that has the best chance of lasting.

And let's be honest, nobody's ever seen an "Over the Moon" like Sarah's. Not only was it brilliant and hilarious, it also made every other version look bland and uninteresting by comparison. The only direction I gave her was two specific moves to match certain words, and then I told her all I needed beyond that was that every choice in the performance was something Maureen had thought about a long time; no matter how bad her choices are, she fully believes in them. I told her she could do anything she wanted and it didn't have to be the same every night. (That's not something I often say to an actor, but I really trust her.) This wasn't an "Over the Moon" designed to get cheap laughs (though Sarah is a brilliant comedian), it was designed to come as organically as possible from the character. And that's what made it so very funny. It really was a revelation. Which I don't think anyone expected.

Our cast as a whole was extraordinary, not only when they were singing, but also in the detailed characters they all created in each scene, even when they were just in the background. This wasn't an ensemble; this was a community. And that brought such life and reality to the story. And our musicians and designers also did extraordinary work. And while I'm at it, it's so nice to have two people in our booth, Kerrie and Gabe, who are really good at their jobs, incredibly nice people, and both planning to stick around for a while!

I also want to offer up a public thank-you to Mike Dowdy. He's been acting with us since 2009, and in 2012 we made him New Line's associate artistic director. He's directed Next to Normal and Rent with me, and for the foreseeable future, he's now going to direct all our shows with me. He's a master problem-solver when I get stuck, but he's also a fount of great ideas. And we're so utterly on the same wave length. Many times during Hell Week, I'd lean over and whisper something to him and he'd laugh because he'd just written down that same note. He and I have exactly the same taste and aesthetic, and I do much better work when he's at my side.

Finally, I wish I could thank Jonathan Larson. I often have the privilege of talking to the writers of the shows we produce, which can be so helpful. But I'll never get to tell Jonathan how deeply we loved working on his show, how much we all owe him, how much we all wish we could have seen what else he would have written.

It's as if Sondheim had died after Company, or as if Kander and Ebb had died after Cabaret.

We can't thank Jonathan, but we can bring his story to furious, joyful, rowdy, beautiful life, and we can share it with the thousands of people who came to see us during the run. We can keep Jonathan alive because he's everywhere in this show. Larson wrote before he died that Rent is about celebrating life, even in the face of death. That's also what life's about. And that's how we keep Jonathan alive.

We celebrate.

We have to say goodbye to the Alphabet City Avant Garde now, but we've all been touched so deeply by this show that these Bohemians will always be with us. Like Hair, working on Rent changes you.

And really, if you don't walk out of the theatre different than when you came in, what's the point? You could just stay home and watch a sitcom. As I've said for a long time (and will keep saying for a long time), people don't go to the theatre (or the movies) for escape; they go for connection, "in an isolating age."

It's so hard to let go of something this wonderful. But a week from tonight, we have our first rehearsal for Hands on a Hardbody. So I have to move on. But I'll never forget this experience.

I love my job, and I love the New Liners.

Long Live the Musical!

No Other Path, No Other Way

I've always been uncomfortable with awards. I hate the idea of competition in art. The dozens of theatre companies in St. Louis are not in competition with each other. Someone can see a New Line show one weekend and a HotCity show the next weekend. It's always bothered me when local theatre companies claim to be the "best" or "premier" something-or-other. It's both nonsensical (who's to say who's "best" and by whose standard?) and it's sort of uncool too, explicitly saying you're better than the rest of us...

But awards kind of do the same thing. You're the best, so you're not.

In my experience, the companies that do really exceptional work don't have to tell us they're exceptional; the work, the audiences, and the reviews speak for themselves.

Full disclosure: During the years when St. Louis had the Kevin Kline Awards, and now with the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, New Line has been nominated for multiple awards every year, but none of us ever won anything. But that's more than fine with me. We often joked that winning anything would ruin our reputation as "the bad boy of musical theatre."

Our proud losing streak was broken this week when Rob Lippert won the St. Louis Theater Circle Award for his lighting for Night of the Living Dead. Thanks for ruining everything, Rob! The rest of us who were nominated this year had the decency to lose again!

But also that night, the Theater Circle presented me with a special award for New Line's body of work over the past twenty-three seasons. As always, it made a little uncomfortable, but at least in this case, it wasn't about "winning" or competition; it was just a really nice compliment, an acknowledgement of our longevity and the fascinating, alternative work New Line has become known for.

My folks came to see me accept the award, and to my surprise, so did my high school drama teacher, Judy Rethwisch, who set me on my current path more than any other single person.

Lynn Venhaus of the Belleveille News-Democrat, introduced me (with text written by Judith Newmark):
Spend a few years on our side of the lights, and gradually you're bound to notice something: Point of view. You learn what kinds of material, performances and style different theaters cultivate. In time you may conclude that different theaters, like different actors or singers, have their own voices.

Since 1991, when it was founded by artistic director Scott Miller, New Line Theatre has developed one of the clearest, most distinctive voices we have heard. You know a New Line show from the minute you walk into whatever intimate room it's making its current home.

That voice will be socially aware, and it will be politically to the left. It will be musical, and there's a fair chance it will be music from a show you've never seen, or possibly heard of, before.

On the other hand, it will probably feature performers you recognize, members of New Line's informal repertory company. It won't offer much in the way of eye candy, but it will probably boast a stripped-down, ripped-stocking style that has its own louche charm.

Above all, it will be smart.

Sometimes people love New Line's shows. Sometimes they find them offensive. Occasionally they even may shrug. But no matter how the audience reacts, Scott Miller has built a theater with an unmistakable voice of its own. That's something to cherish, and, for us, to honor. We are happy to present Scott with a special Theater Circle award for New Line's body of work.

And here's what I said when I accepted the award:
Literally since before I can remember I was in love with musical theatre. They tell me when I was four they took me to see The Sound of Music and I sang out loud during the entire film. I would’ve been really angry if I was in that audience.

All I’ve ever wanted to do my whole life – literally my whole life – is make musicals. But you cannot do that alone. And I’ve realized over the years that all my crazy ideas, and all the bizarre shows I pick, and all the adventures I want to go on, don’t really matter unless I have really talented, smart, and really fearless artists working with me – actors, musicians, designers, tech people, everybody. New Line is what it is because of the people who work with us, and I’m really grateful to everybody who’s worked with us over the years.

And I want to make sure everyone remembers that St. Louis is an amazing theatre town. And I also want to make the point out that our art form, the American musical theatre, has never been this exciting, or vigorous, or varied, or surprising, and I’m incredibly thrilled that I get to work in it every day. So thank you very much.

And I really meant all of that. New Line may be guided by my ideas, but the cool work only happens when a whole bunch of theatre artists buy into my ideas and go on the adventure with me.

It was particularly nice to receive this award during our sold-out run of Rent, because this show embodies one of the things New Line does really well, giving audiences a fresh look at a show they thought they already knew. People who've seen Rent done the traditional way twenty times still love our production, and so do the people who've never seen Rent, and to our great surprise, so do the people who've seen Rent before but didn't like it. Until now.

Awards mean very little to me (other than discomfort). Audiences are what matter to me. But this award was a little different. It was about New Line's contribution to the artistic life of our city. And that's pretty cool. And the award came from the local reviewers, who've all seen our work over time, who all write very intelligently about our work, who all really know our body of work.

I hate it when people come up to me after shows and praise me personally. I love it when people come up and rave about the work. It's not me who makes that magic onstage – I'm just the shepherd. So getting this award for New Line's "body of work" honors not just me, but all the New Liners.

As it should be.

The rest of the Rent run is sold-out, and then we get one week off before Hands on a Hardbody rehearsals start. No rest for the fearless.

Long Live the Musical!

Everything is Rent.

It's been about three weeks since I've blogged. Sorry about that. Opening a show always takes a lot out of me, and usually leaves me half brain dead. (I don't know how I once did this while also holding down a full-time job.) And even though 90% of my job is done on opening night, it's still very hard for me to focus on anything else during our four-week run. Sometimes I have to, sometimes we have to audition the next show, but not this time.

Though despite my art-stupor, and thanks to ridiculous, record-breaking ticket sales, I was able to pay some bills that we wouldn't otherwise be able to pay till we close. Or well after we close...

Getting Rent ready and opened wasn't super-hard, but it was overwhelming. There was just so much to work out in this show – not only a big cast, but lots of tech, including sound effects and sixteen body mics. Luckily, we have exceptional people working on every aspect of this show, so everything came together beautifully. No crises, no big problems to solve. But it was still overwhelming.

Even more overwhelming has been the reception to our show. We've already sold out five of our first six shows, and it looks like the rest will probably sell out as well. I knew Rent would sell well, but I didn't know it would sell this well, far better than Hair, Rocky Horror, Bat Boy, Grease...

And my favorite part of this experience is that people who've never seen Rent before all seem to love our production, and people who've seen Rent fifteen times also seem to love our production. I was worried about that second group because our Rent has turned out completely different from any other Rent I've ever seen, and I thought the hard-core Rentheads might object to those differences. Character interpretations are different, the actors' physical types are different, the costumes are very different, the set is wildly different, which also means the staging is wildly different – we've staged the death scene in Act II so utterly unlike any other production. But it turns out that not only do the Rentheads accept this very different take on the show, they fully embrace it.

And there's a third group – people who don't really like Rent. Several reviewers have admitted they were in that camp... until they saw our production. That may be the biggest compliment of all.

Check out these reviews...

“If you think you've seen Rent before, you really haven't. . . This is a must-see show, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. . . Scott Miller's direction, with the able assistance of Mike Dowdy, is a revelation. . . Rent is a modern classic, and New Line's wonderful production shows us why.” – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld
Read the whole review here.

“This Rent has a completely different vibe from the big show that toured the country. Intimate and raw, this production makes the story coherent and the music effective, instead of merely loud. Yes, size matters – but not in the way we usually think it does.” – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch
Read the whole review here.

“This is a Rent that is sharp, incisive and viscerally moving. These characters matter; their struggles to find themselves in the wastelands of their early twenties are a potent reminder of what it's like to feel lost in your own life, and that even small steps toward maturity can feel immense. In New Line's hands, Rent is a show that deserves every bit of its formidable reputation as the musical that revivified musicals for the next generation. . . It is a masterpiece of stagecraft, a composition as visually stunning as it is sonically powerful.” – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times
Read the whole review here.

“Jonathan Larson's 1996 rock musical unfolds to epic proportions in this lively new production. It's also sweet and funny and beautiful, under the direction of Scott Miller. . . It almost seems Mr. Miller is choosing his seasons nowadays for sheer emotional complexity, along with New Line's usual focus on strong musicianship. And the results have been enthralling. Rent continues the company's recent trend of bringing stunning characters furiously to life, in all their contradictions.” – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway
Read the whole review here.

"An intimate, emotionally charged production filled with memorable performances. . . Director Scott Miller and assistant Mike Dowdy have assembled a uniformly talented, fearless cast, and the two excel in pulling out the small moments that illuminate character development. The presence of a guiding hand is clear throughout the production, yet the movements and character nuances feel almost organic, as if each actor pulled his or her role from the inside out. The result is a unified cast that creates a truly bohemian community on the stage. And this feeling is intensified in the group numbers, where layered harmonies blend seamlessly, rising and falling with the emotion of the story." – Tina Farmer, KDHX
Read the whole review here.

“With the current local production of Rent, the question was could New Line Theatre show me something the national tour hadn’t? The answer came last Saturday night: Yes. Yes, they could. . . Undoubtedly, the intimacy of a small production helps to make the story more sincere, but it’s more than that. Director Scott Miller has removed sole focus on a handful of characters to focus on the cast as a whole, and this helps to view the work as a singular organism, with a singular meaning and purpose. Even the music seemed better, with the excellent voices and performances by the cast and the New Line band under the direction of Justin Smolik, two things you can always count on at New Line. . . Everything works together throughout the entire production, top to bottom, for a powerhouse evening of theater.” – Christopher Reilly, Alive Magazine
Read the whole review here.

“Leave it to New Line Theater to give this seminal work a fresh spin. The result is an electric, enthralling presentation of the landmark Pulitzer-Prize, Tony-winning musical that ran for 12 years on Broadway. . . [The actors'] zeal propelled the show's intensity, and it seemed like we were seeing some of these characters for the first time.” – Lynn Venhaus, Belleville News-Democrat
Read the whole review here.

“The new concept and the advantage of intimacy that New Line always offers, makes this one a big, fat hit. . . It’s a total effort that shows the diversity and depth of New Line talent. Scott Miller has once again put his personal stamp on a classic show and it turns out to be yet another audience pleaser. . . this score is pulsating, tender and just a pure delight. Now we have a production that matches these great songs and makes you actually like the people who populate the show. This one’s a big hit, folks.” – Steve Allen, Stagedoor St. Louis
Read the whole review here.

“I was admittedly one of those folks who didn't get all the hype around Rent after I saw it for the first time several years ago. Well, now I get it. The characters this time around, though dealing with major issues that would be tough for anyone, have an affable quality that was lacking the last time I saw it. Could it be because seeing a show like this in New Line's intimate space makes the theatre experience not just something you see, but something you feel? Yes. But it's also New Line's artistic director, Scott Miller's knack for gaining a deep understanding of whatever he puts his hands on, and translating that to his cast, who in turn translate that to us, reaching out to the audience, in this case literally, with invigorating connection. way better than the touring production. There. I said it.” – Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob
Read the whole review here.

“I’m glad directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy have chosen to follow their own vision for the show. New Line’s version is full of youth and energy. It’s also staged with a sense of immediacy that brings a lot of life to the show. Although the passage of time has turned Rent into something of a period piece, New Line doesn’t treat it that way, and that’s as it should be. It’s an iconic show made achingly real, with all the truth and energy brought along with its humanity. It may have taken New Line many years to finally do this show, but this production is well worth that wait.” – Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts (local blogger)
Read the whole review here.

I love this production so much. I love all the performances. I love the band. I love all the design work. I love so many bits of staging that Dowdy and I created. And every night I watch it, I find new things in the text, new uses of musical themes. This show really is a masterpiece of the art form and it fully deserved its Pulitzer Prize for Drama. I love so much that we can give this new, fresh, reinvigorated take on the show to all those people who've experienced Rent only through tired touring productions, or community theatre imitations of the original production's set and staging, or worst of all, that godawful film version.

Since New Line's founding twenty-three years ago, it has been important to me to serve both our audiences and the art form itself. And I feel like we're doing that with this production. We're proving again what a serious, powerful, artful, intelligent piece of theatre this is.

Someone asked me what "my approach" to the show was. The answer is Tell the Story. All we did is work hard to tell this story as clearly and fully as possible. It may feel to some like a radical take on the show, but remember what radical means: "of or relating to the origin : fundamental." In that sense, this is a radical interpretation of Rent because "my approach" was just to discard all the Rents I've ever seen and go back to the text. In fact, that's our approach to pretty much every single show we've ever produced.

It always works. Just tell the story.

I frequently remind myself that none of my ideas, none of my insights matter at all, without intelligent fearless artists making those ideas come to life. The actors don't work for me; they are my collaborators, and every one of them has brought so much to their roles and to the show. They do as much work as I do to create this beautiful piece of art. I like to think of making theatre in terms of comic book art: I give the actors the pencil sketch, together we ink the lines, and then the actors fill in all the colors. We block shows pretty fast (usually 15-20 pages a night), and then take lots of time to run the show, so the actors have time and space to do the important work of fleshing out this imaginary world. That's what gives our shows such emotional honesty and it's what allows us all to take so many artistic risks. In the last part of the process, I'm just there to edit and polish; the bulk of the work is the actors'.

As stage and screen director Sam Mendes says, "Theater is the writer's medium and the actor's medium; the director comes a distant third." That's as it should be.

I could not be prouder of this show and I'm thrilled at how much padding we're gonna have in the bank account now...!

We're halfway through the run, and though nothing big will change anymore, the performances just keep getting richer and deeper and more interesting. That's the joy of live theatre.

If you haven't gotten your tickets yet, you should do it now.

Everything is Rent.

Long Live the Musical!

Touch Taste Deep Dark Kiss

I always thought that "Contact," in Act II of Rent, was just about sex, but it's not quite that simple. I think the point of "Contact" is that sex is not connection. Sex is pleasure, appetite. Connection is more than that. And these people need connection.

I confess that I never really understood why this number was in the show. It's in such a different style from the rest of the score, and the way it was staged in the original production baffled me – it was cool, but what did that have to do with what came before and after it? The number is about sex, I get that... and...?

Now that I've spent some time with it, "Contact" is beginning to make sense to me. It's a wild piece of music, a very sophisticated piece of counterpoint and percussion, more an expressionist collage of words than a conventional theatre lyric, in fact closer to Larson's artistic model, Hair, than anything else in Rent. Words as percussion, as pure sounds, repeated until they divorce from their meaning. The central theme of Rent, as Mark and Roger put it in "What You Own" in Act II, is "connection is an isolating age." The central theme of "Contact" is a lack of connection.
Touch taste
Deep dark kiss
Hot hot hot
Sweat sweet
Wet wet wet
Slap slap red heat
Beg fear fear fear thick
Please don't stop
Please, please don't
Red, red red, red red,
Red stop, stop,
Red red red red red red stop, stop,
Stop don't
Red red red red red red please, please, please
Please please please please
Harder wetter
You whore!
You bastard!
You cannibal!
You animal!
Fluid, no
Fluid, no
Contact, yes
No contact
Fire fire
Burn burn yes
Fluid, no fluid, no
Fluid, no fluid, no
Contact, yes contact, yes
No contact no contact
Fire fire fire fire
Burn burn burn burn yes yes
Sticky licky trickle tickle
Steamy creamy
Stroking soaking
No latex rubber rubber
Fire latex rubber
Latex bummer lover bummer
Where'd it go?
I think I missed
Don't get pissed
It was bad for me – was it bad for you?

It's a song from the Id. The stand-out lines for me are:
Contact, yes contact, yes
No contact no contact

These characters crave connection, and all they get is contact. Sex isn't love. It's not even connection. These young people are growing up, and pure carnality isn't enough anymore. What was once satisfying has become underwhelming, insufficient, ruined both by the horrors of AIDS and by a growing desire – need? – for real human connection.

The lyric is so well-crafted. It's starts out bordering on soft porn, but then something goes wrong ("Red red red red red red stop, stop, stop"). Emotions get in the way ("You whore!"), and the necessary caution in the age of AIDS ("Fluid, no fluid, no"), the age of contact without actual contact, gets in the way. How can you connect in an age when two bodies can't even touch without latex? It's another example of the "virtual reality" that Collins is battling. As the song spins out of control, the characters try to salvage the passion, but it's no use. Sex is difficult now, careful, a negotiation. And it's not fun anymore. Mere contact isn't enough. They need more. And the whole things runs out of steam.

Larson didn't give us a whole lot specific to go on here. His stage direction reads:
There are two main groups: As the music begins, a group of dancers start a sensual life-and-death dance, while a group of actors gather around a table centerstage to speak words of passion, which punctuates the dancing. Eventually the actors converge on the table and cover themselves with a white sheet. Angel emerges upstage of the sheeted group.

He clearly wanted this moment to function in a more abstract, expressionistic way, more purely emotional, more primal, more stream-of-consciousness, less rational, less linear, an experience very much like being in the throes of sexual passion. But by the end, instead of a climax, the experience gets short-circuited. These people have lost their way.

In New Line's staging, we've shifted slightly a couple things in Act II (not the words or music, just the action), so that in our Rent, "Contact" is also about the fact that Collins and Angel did have that deeper connection, that for them sex was connection.

The most important thing for me was that this number not be vulgar. Don't get me wrong – I'm a big fan of vulgar – but that's not what this is about. Sex really isn't the point here.

We're continually finding as we work that Rent is deeper, more human, more complex than  any of us ever understood. Even though we've all known the show by heart for years, we're allowing ourselves to be open to finding new meaning, new moments, new surprises, with nothing to guide us but the exceptional text.

I don't think Rent's depth is always plumbed, but it will be on our stage. I couldn't be prouder of our cast or the work they're doing.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Moo with Me.

My favorite part of the process is once we get the show blocked and start running it, and I get to see everything we've created, always better, cooler, more intense, more surprising, more intricate, more beautiful than I had imagined.

This is the time when I can really step back and play audience. I'm really good at feeling the "wrong" moments. I may not immediately know what's wrong, but I can tell if it doesn't feel right. I then analyze the moment and see what set off my alarm. It's usually a lapse in authenticity, an actor anticipating a surprise, a false reaction, an easy choice, an unmotivated cross. Being able to find those little problems and fix them is part of what makes complex shows work well.

I often notice during this part of the process small things in the text that I just passed over before. If something doesn't make complete sense to me, and the actor's performance isn't helping, I'll ask them – Why do you say that? What does that mean? Sometimes the actor has thought about it and has a good solid understanding of it. Sometimes the actor has done what I've done, passing over it to focus on the bigger, more important stuff.

The other night, Marshall came over to me and asked me why Collins was fired from MIT. First, I love that that mattered to him as an actor, having that piece of Collins' reality. But also, I had an impression of why Collins was fired, but I wasn't sure if it was just my assumption or if it was in the text. So we found it –
They expelled me for my theory of actual reality,
Which I'll soon impart
To the couch potatoes at New York University.

It's a bit vague, but it seems Collins was fired for teaching radical, subversive politics in the classroom. The joke for New Yorkers in the audience is that Collins is immediately hired by über-liberal New York University. That tells us more than I had thought about before. Collins is intensely political.

Last night, having dinner after a really great rehearsal, I asked Anna (Mimi) why she says a particular line when they revive her late in the show: "A leap of moooo..." Now, I know it's a reference back to Maureen's performance art piece. But why "a leap of moo"? Is Mimi only half-conscious? Is she just babbling? Even so, what's the point? I don't think it's just random – Larson didn't do that in this show.

So we talked about "Over the Moon."

We talked about the nursery rhyme it's based on, "Hey Diddle, Diddle"
Hey diddle diddle,
The Cat and the fiddle,
The Cow jumped over the moon.
The little Dog laughed,
To see such sport,
[originally, "To see such craft"]
And the Dish ran away with the Spoon.

We wondered if the nursery rhyme originally had some political context (a lot of them did) that Larson was referencing. Searching the internet today, it seems no one knows for sure the origins of this nursery rhyme. But Maureen has certainly made it a political statement about fighting the power structure.
Then a little bulldog entered. His name, we have learned, was Benny. And although he once had principles, he abandoned them to live as a lap dog to a wealthy daughter of the revolution. "That's bull," he said. "Ever since the cat took up the fiddle, that cow's been jumpy. And the dish and spoon were evicted from the table and eloped. She's had trouble with her milk and that moon ever since. Maybe it's a female thing. Cause who'd want to leave Cyberland anyway? ... Walls ain't so bad. The dish and spoon for instance – they were down on their luck – knocked on my doghouse door.”

I said "Not in my backyard, utensils! Go back to China."

"The only way out is up," Elsie whispered. "A leap of faith. Still thirsty?" Parched. "Have some milk." I lowered myself beneath her swollen udder and sucked the sweetest milk I'd ever tasted. “Climb on board,” she said. As a harvest moon rose over Cyberland, we reared back and sprang into a gallop, leaping out of orbit!

I awoke singing, “Only thing to do is jump over the moon.”

So jumping over the moon -- taking that "leap of faith" – is how to escape from the oppression (the "walls") of enforced social conformity and mainstream morality.

And then, happily baked after a long day's night, it hit me.

Maybe mooing is fighting back, taking action, refusing to be a victim.

That's the whole point of Maureen's piece – art as political activism. Maureen is protesting this lot (her performance space) being redeveloped, and how does she do it? "Moo with me!" She gets the crowd to moo. Mooing becomes an act of civil obedience. Remember what Joanne tells the gang at the Life Cafe? "The cops are sweeping the lot, but no one's leaving. They're just sitting there mooing!"

Mooing is fighting back.

And at the end of the show Mimi has to fight back on an existential level. She has to fight to keep existing. The more I think about it, the more I think the "moooo"  is the sound of the exertion of Mimi fighting her way back, almost like a magic incantation or something...

Mooing is living. Surviving.

Mimi takes a leap of "moo." Instead of being passive, instead of letting life happen to her, she takes control of her destiny. She takes responsibility for her life. And with that act, she learns something important and her hero myth story can end. And maybe we've learned something too.

Come moo with us.

Long Live the Musical!

It's a Comfort to Know

Luke (in the picture), who's playing Angel in New Line's Rent, and who is also a truly evolved human, posted an article to Facebook not long ago, called "Why Bad Things Happen to Good People: How Is This Supporting You?"

It's a good article and I agree with most of it. The point is that "Why" is the wrong question, but people are constantly asking it. People want to know why a loved one gets sick or dies, why things go wrong, why problems persist. It's the whole point of Mark's art song "Halloween" in Rent.

But that's a dangerous question to ask, because that's the kind of question that led humans to create gods and religion.

As Bill Finn's 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee tells us, "Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium." (And Finn should know, after collapsing from an arteriovenous malformation in his brain, the day after winning a Tony for Falsettos.) Of course, if you don't believe in a god, then this statement is perfectly logical. If life is random, it can't be "fair," right? But that's not necessarily a bad thing – to me, it's comforting, free of judgment, free of mythology, free of expectations. Bad things happen sometimes because we live in a massive, complex world with billions of other people, not because we're "good" or "bad" or because we've "sinned" or "repented."

And hurricanes aren't caused by gay marriage.

As I was commenting on Luke's post, I realized suddenly that's what I love most about Rent, and I think it's why Rent is so universally loved: Larson never judges these people. (Which is why, I think, Rent is so free of religion, which is built on lots of judgment.) Our heroes don't have AIDS because they're bad people or they've enraged God to the point where he smote them with the HIV virus. They have AIDS because there's an epidemic and lots of people in their community are getting AIDS.

Because life is random and unfair.

One of the central points of the story is that judgment of others is unhealthy. Rent is about a community of misfits, but as in Cry-Baby, here the real misfits are the outside world, the adults, the police, the university, the parents, because they judge. It reminds me of a lyric from Hands on a Hardbody: "Leave the judging to the Judge who'll judge us all on Judgment Day." (I love Amanda Green's writing!) It's that judgment from the outside world that has built this insular community, that has drawn these people together, that prompts Mark to toast, "To being an Us for once, instead of Them."

Jonathan Larson compels his audience to accept, even embrace, all these societal misfits, to set aside judgment, to see their humanity. For those in the audience who don't know any transgendered people, Angel may seem a little scary to them at first (some people are terrified of blurring the gender lines), but by the end of Act I, the whole audience wants to be Angel's best friend. And then there's the stripper, the addicts, the homeless people, the squatters, the artists... but when they're all singing "La Vie Boheme," it's hard to be scared of them.

When I first saw Bat Boy, I was stunned at how powerfully emotional the ending was, how deeply the show had touched me – it's so wacky, so outrageous, so full of Brechtian "alienation," but the writers still made me care about Edgar. Likewise in Rent, the most ordinary, middle-of-the-road Americans find themselves crying before the show is over, because they'll feel that deeply for these characters.

Because Larson tricks them into forgetting their usual prejudices and biases. He makes them forget to judge.

When the cast sings, "There's only us. There's only this," I can't help but think, This is enough. I have an artistic family much like the friends in Rent, and having all those people in my life, being able to make really great art with them, getting to watch them create, sharing our work with the world – that's more than enough for me. It would be greedy to want more. I don't need promises of eternal bliss or threats of eternal damnation to make me want to live a good life and make a good world, here and now.

I'll always remember one of my favorite teachers, Mrs. Doherty, 8th grade earth science. Every once in a while, she'd have to leave the room for some reason, and she'd always say to us, "While I'm gone, don't behave because you might get caught misbehaving; behave because that's what you're supposed to do in my classroom." And she'd leave to go to the principal's office or something, and everyone would behave. Always.

Because instead of threats, which often seem to be such a central part of religion and education, she just assumed we'd be decent, and so we were.

Angel is very Zen-like, and so is Luke. Just as I have, they've both been through dark times, and came through those times with newfound wisdom. Just like a hero myth story! I'll admit that part of my journey to semi-Zen-like-ness was aided and abetted by my fictional doppelgänger, Johnny Appleweed. Using pot (at least for me) really does allow you to see more clearly what matters and what doesn't, what's of value and what's bullshit.

And sometimes it makes you ask your set designer for a twelve-foot-wide, raked moon platform.

In my 2006 musical Johnny Appleweed, we introduced these three Stoners, who perform a group monologue that leads up to the song, "The Scheme of Things":
We stoners experience the world in a way the uninitiated will never even imagine. Certain things just don’t matter anymore, money, career, gadgets, all the accoutrements of status and rabid patriotism, and only when you’re straight again, do you realize that those things didn't matter when you were baked because they really shouldn't matter.

The human brain processes four hundred billion pieces of information per second, but we’re only aware of two thousand of them. Marijuana dials down that editing system and opens up the Floodgates of the Mind – like a circle in a spiral, like a meal within a meal.

So now you have your pick of all those amazing, interesting little pieces of information, all those bits and bites that usually get sorted out without our knowing it. Now the things that are supposed to be important get lost in a sea of everything-ness, no longer gripping our reality quite so tightly, now allowing new things to come swimming along, relegating the “important” things to a small swirling eddy of neuroses just over the horizon out of sight, out of mind.

In short, the holy bud sweeps away from your brain all the bullshit that keeps you from being the happy, thoughtful, engaged person you really are, a fully realized being like Yoda or Gary Busey. And the trivia washes back to shore…

I think my lyric gets at some of what I'm talking about here, accepting life as it is (also the central theme of Kander & Ebb's Zorba), not struggling against it, not being swept up in the trivial bullshit of life that can take you to a dark place. Whether or not you need the holy bud to accomplish that...
Your boss is mad
‘Cause your drawer is short.
The customers think shopping
Is a contact sport.
Pity the customers,
Pity your boss.
So what if you’re fired?
It’s really his loss.

It doesn't really matter in the scheme of things.
And you don’t have to answer when the telephone rings.
What really matters?
What really counts?
A couch, snacks,
And at least half an ounce.

We are the stoners;
This is our creed.
We live on only
Just what we need.

We don’t need laptops,
Or cell phones too.
And what good does an i-Pod
In your ear really do?
You’re all self-inflicting
Your psychic pain.

The part that makes us human disappears each day,
And does it really matter if your therapist is gay?
What really matters?
What really counts?
It’s joy, and friends,
And at least half an ounce.

Look at the forest,
Not at the trees.
This is our stoner creed,
If you please.

We know what you've read,
That stoners sit at home and might as well be dead.
But we’re home pondering the questions of the universe,
While you’re out shopping instead.

And please remember,
Don’t call us slackers –
That really hurts.

You see, your consciousness is limited
By what you know;
But find the key,
You’ll see
You’re just an embryo.
To see what’s so important,
To see what’s really not,
Load a bowl and smoke all you've got.
Take it from the stoners,
There is poetry in your pot.

Writing Johnny Appleweed was partly an exercise for me in figuring out all the stuff I'm talking about here. I live a fairly unconventional life, and I have, ever since college. That brings with it a shit-ton of judgment from the Normal World. It was hard to learn how not to be beaten up by that, and I had to fuck up a lot of things on my way to learning that. Appleweed was my way of sharing the things I came to understand. There is lots of truth in our world that goes unnoticed or not understood. Our job as artists, as storytellers, is to point that truth out, in as compelling a way as we can.

And I think Rent was the same for Jonathan Larson. It was the AIDS pandemic that brought him the profound wisdom he put into his masterpiece. There is great truth in his story. That's why we write, to share what we've figured out about the world and ourselves. When I experience something wonderful, my first inclination is to share that experience (god bless Facebook), and I have no doubt that inclination is part of why I've spent my life telling stories.

As actor Ben Kingsley said, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important to appreciate that."

And maybe the reason Rent hit me so powerfully, so personally, is that I'm a misfit too. I'm not as fucked up or as noble as the characters in Rent, but I'm on that same journey. We all are. And Larson has a lot to share with us, still, through his story. He's gone, but he left us Rent.

There are some shows that bring with them profound responsibility, shows like Hair and Next to Normal. It's the same with Rent. This isn't just entertainment. This isn't about diversion or escape. Rent is about connection. That's why it's both universal and timeless. We will always need this story.

It makes me proud to be a storyteller.

Long Live the Musical!

To Passion, When It's New

As I've written about here before, for a long time, I didn't want to work on Rent. I was convinced that any changes to Michael Greif's original conception and staging would be blasphemous. But then Greif himself remounted the show in 2011, and blasphemed himself by taking an entirely different approach to the show's conception and staging.

After I saw the 2011 revival of Rent, I was reminded of an interview with Jerry Zaks about his masterful 1992 revival of Guys and Dolls. He said his whole team agreed from the beginning that they would forget that Guys and Dolls was a classic, arguably a masterpiece of musical comedy. Instead, they treated it as if it were a new piece that had been sent to them for production. Every choice was wide open. The only blueprint was the words and music. And the results were amazing, as different from the original as the two Rents were, but like the Rents, equally brilliant.

The reverse is also true, why most productions of Show Boat and anything by Rodgers & Hammerstein usually suck. People try to direct and design and act in "classics" instead of stories. They over-venerate the material. Usually (though not always), it takes a foreign director to make those shows work again, someone who's not crippled by that veneration. It's the same reason so many productions of Shakespeare suck. They think they're doing "masterpieces" instead of sex comedies and thrillers.

I knew that was the key with Rent. I could not direct a Pulitzer Prize winning theatre piece by a dead, young genius. It would overpower me. I had to come at the show without reverence. That's what had held me back all those years, not wanting to work on this show, not wanting to tamper with the perfection of the original. I had to come at this show like it's a brand new piece I've found, that no one else has ever produced before.

Because I love Rent so deeply and because that first experience seeing the original cast on Broadway was so artistically life-altering for me, I assumed that even with my new, Zen-like approach to the show, some moments would end up looking like the original, despite my intentions. In fact, I even planned originally to stage "Seasons of Love" exactly like Michael Greif did in the original production, as a sort of tribute, in that famous line across the front of the stage. But now that we're done blocking the show, I don't think there's a single moment that looks like the original. I decided Greif's "Seasons of Love" line didn't fit the rest of our show, as masterful and meaningful as it was in its original context. So ours will be different.

Ultimately, I found a clear path right through this story, but it wasn't the same path Michael Greif took.

So how will New Line's Rent be different, I hear you ask? In a lot of small, tiny ways, just because we have a lot of really interesting, playful actors who are already finding so many cool little details that define their characters. I see relationships developing among the lovers, and they're all slightly different from what we've seen before. We intentionally departed from the usual types with many of the characters, both in look and in personality.

Marshall is giving us a much funnier, more vulnerable Tom Collins. Luke's Angel is less Puck and more stylish zen master. Shawn's Benny is much less of an asshole, and instead just a guy who wants different things than his friends – which I find a lot more compelling.

Sarah's giving us a much funnier – and weirdly charming – Maureen. In a way, this Maureen is closer to the Drapes in Cry-Baby than to other Maureens I've seen. This Maureen is not mean, just fully armored emotionally (which also means selfish), and prepared to return fire if she's attacked. There's real damage there, a base assumption that the world will shit on her unless she's got her fists up. Like Larry and Joanne in Company, here in our Rent, Joanne is the only one who can see the real, vulnerable Maureen inside the cocky badass.

And Joanne and Mark have become buddies as we've staged the show, to Maureen's great displeasure. Which I love.

Cody's Joanne may be closest to the original, among our leads, but Cody's given Joanne such heart and some steel balls when she stands up to Maureen. Their confrontations work so well because both characters are such strong women -- without being bitches. Cody and Sarah have also really found Maureen and Joanne's love later in the show, which is very cool.

Evan's Roger is less sure of himself, more vulnerable, more fragile. Anna's Mimi has much more insecurity and damage underneath the bravada and aggressiveness. And Jeremy brings to Mark a kind of detached amusement that's really fun in Act I, and then in Act II, it fades as everything turns to shit and reveals the vulnerable kid inside, the kid who's been hiding behind his camera. Even this early in rehearsals, Jeremy's found a really subtle, interesting take on Mark. I don't know if it just happened by instinct or he's been working on it, but it doesn't matter to me.

There will be more concrete ways our Rent is different – different acting choices, different blocking, different scenic, lighting, and costume designs. The giant, raked moon platform in the middle of our set forced us into some really different choices. But some differences seemed obvious. Instead of Mimi starting "Out Tonight" really far away from the audience, in our production, she'll be inches from the front row. Our "Contact" is very different, more subtle, less aggressive, more of a link tonally between "Without You" and the reprise of "I'll Cover You." The cops in Act I will be in the Fourth Wall (i.e., imaginary), which I think makes them even more of a looming presence. By necessity (but now that we've seen this, we love it), Benny's investor at the Life Cafe is Joanne's father instead of Benny's father-in-law. We had to have the same actor play both roles because of our cast size, and as we were struggling with how to distinguish the two men, it occurred to me that maybe we don't have to. Having Mr. Jefferson at the table has created some wonderful, funny, uncomfortable moments between him and Joanne (we decided he's never met Maureen before this).

And there will also be some abstract differences – tone, energy, etc. Rent is a hybrid of rock concert and theatre. I think the original production leaned more toward the rock concert, and we're leaning more toward the storytelling.

I don't think die-hard Rent fans will mind these differences. We're not changing music or lyrics. In fact, in some cases, we're singing closer to what Larson wrote than the original cast did. Hopefully, our show will be as exciting for Rent fans as it was for me seeing that completely reconceived 2011 revival. I cannot wait to share this wonderful show!

Our ticket pre-sale is insane, by far the biggest we've ever had. Get your tickets now...!

Long live the Musical!

The 3-D Imax of My Mind

Right after college, I had a ready-made job (almost) waiting for me. And like Mark does late in Rent, I pulled the plug on it before I even started.

I had been a music major at Harvard and had written five musicals by that point, all produced here or in Boston. My junior high drama teacher's husband worked at Maritz, and he got me a job interview with their Corporate Theatre department.

I remember going for the interview, taking a tour of the department, meeting everybody who worked there. On one level, it was pretty cool. They essentially wrote one-act musicals for corporate conventions, shareholder meetings, product launches, trade shows, etc., often starring people like Liza Minnelli and David Copperfield. Everybody was very cool and the atmosphere was very laid-back. They sent me home with three past scripts to look at, to understand the form, the house style, etc. And then the next time one of these came up, they'd ask me to write a script and lyrics to several songs on spec. If they liked my work, they'd keep hiring me, and after a few projects, they'd bring me on staff. The money was great.

So I went home and read these scripts. And I was horrified. These were musicals about how much Chrysler loves its employees, or how exciting the new line of Ford trucks is. (It was something I would later learn is called an "industrial musical.") I don't remember many specifics; my mind has blocked it all out. I finished reading the scripts and felt so depressed. That's not what I wanted to do. Not even close. I didn't want to write songs about products or employees. I didn't want to write someone else's ideas. But it would be good pay, and I'd be writing musicals for a living, right? Sort of...?

Just a few days later, the call came. They had a new project and they wanted me to come out, get the details, talk through the basics, etc.

I told them I was busy.

They never called again.

Which I expected.

My mother was furious. And I felt like I had dodged a bullet. I've got nothing against the people who write stuff like that. I'm sure they do it very well. But even then, several years before the birth of New Line, I knew how wrong that was for me. Like gravy on ice cream wrong.

And last night, watching Act II of Rent, I realized how close my experience was to Mark's experience with Alexi Darling and Buzzline. I wonder how many people watching Rent think Mark's an idiot for turning that opportunity down. I wonder how many people have been in a situation like that...?

I think Mark just saved his own life.

And I think all that's connected to Mark's amazing art song "Halloween," which has also always resonated so strongly with me, partly because it's just so beautiful and the lyric is so simple and insightful; and partly because I really felt like that in my 20s, back before I realized that it's okay not to know where your road is leading. You don't have to know. You don't have to have a plan. You don't have to choose money over happiness. You can just stay on your road and see where it takes you. That's what I did. Asking why shit happens won't keep shit from happening. I've always identified most strongly with Mark, but I never really thought about exactly why that was until now.

I'd love to check in with Mark today, twenty years after Rent, and see if he's still being pure to his art. I am. Maybe it's just my own bias, but I bet Mark does stay pure. I don't think money matters all that much to him, but his work really seems to.

It's never occurred to me before to think about where those characters would be today. Hopefully, Collins, Roger, and Mimi are still alive. If Mimi can kick her habit, she and Roger might still be together, but I wouldn't put money on it. Did Maureen ever grow up? Did she and Joanne stay together? What would a 45-year-old Maureen be like? How many in the support group would still be with us? Would Benny still be with Muffy... sorry, Alison...?

Just a peek into the things that swim around in my head while I'm working on a show...

Me and Mark. Poor but pure.

Long Live the Musical!

P. S.  There's a new book about industrial musicals called Everything's Coming Up Profits: the Golden Age of Industrial Musicals, co-authored by Steve Young, a guy who writes for Letterman. About ten years ago, I found an article he had written about this sub-genre, and I contacted him to ask him more details. I was writing my history book at the time, and I wanted to include a section on these shows, but ultimately I didn't have the room. (My first draft was almost twice my allotted length.) Still, Steve sent me ten CDs full of songs from these shows. Apparently, in the 50s and 60s, not only did they write and produce these shows, they also recorded cast albums that everyone got to take home with them. Which are all now collector's items, of course.

A Bittersweet, Evocative Song

Somebody taught me long ago that sometimes the protagonist isn't the character you think it is. It wasn't till after the first reading that I figured out the title character in Johnny Appleweed wasn't the protagonist. And I was writing the damn show.

But there are ways to figure it out, and if you're telling a story, it's important to know. If the storyteller doesn't know, the audience sure as hell isn't gonna know. There are some easy tells. In any good story, the protagonist changes over the course of the story, and he always learns something. Often, though not always, the hero is the first person you meet and the last you hear from.

More than anyone else, Rent is Roger's story. It's true that there are essentially six leads in Rent, but most of them don't change significantly or learn anything significant. Roger and Mimi do, and Mark and Maureen, to a lesser degree. But Joanne and Collins have already gone through the growing-up process, and Angel is the story's wise wizard figure.

Rent is Roger's hero myth. It's easy to get swept up in the joy and rowdiness of this show, the rich musical landscape, the quirky characters, and to miss the skillful, carefully wrought character arc that Larson constructed for Roger. Remember, Rent went through massive rewrites over several years. Though roughness is to some extent Rent's unique style, Larson did a lot of work on the show and put a great deal of time and thought into its construction. (In one early version, the show began with the funeral and then flashed back...)

Once you look closely at Roger's arc, you can see how the whole show is built on that structure.

Roger is in enormous pain when we first meet him. He's been through a terrible tragedy – his girlfriend April gave him AIDS, then killed herself, just six months ago – and as many people do in horrific situations, he shuts down his feelings. He becomes an emotional zombie. He looks like a person on the outside, but he's dead inside. He's learned to function, and how to fake a smile. But he has cut himself off from life. He hasn't seen anyone but Mark in a really long time.

And he's just six months clean from his own heroin addiction. You don't get "cured" of heroin addiction. It's like alcoholism; it's with you for life. You just learn to control it. Maybe.

From the first moments of the show, we're introduced to Roger's "magic amulet" (like the ruby slippers and Luke's light saber), his Fender guitar. It's the only part of him not dead. It's the artist part of him that's hanging on. As long as he has the guitar, as long as his "one great song" isn't finished, he has a reason to get up tomorrow. Roger is unable to finish his song because he's emotionally crippled, but also because finishing his "one great song" would mean he could die. And deep down, that's not really what he wants.

He wants to live again. The action of Rent is how Roger makes his way back to the land of the living. It's about how Roger learns to be one of those "people living with, living with, living with, living with, not dying from disease."

Angel and Collins provide the "call to adventure" that begins every hero myth. Angel is Roger's wise wizard, his Glinda the Good Witch. And his faithful companions on his journey are his community. More than any other modern piece of musical theatre, in Rent, the community is a character – another way in which Larson followed the Rodgers & Hammerstein model. If Roger can just get out into the community, he will find again what was taken from him: real human connection.

Our reluctant hero resists that call at first, but then he gets a second call to adventure, this time a call to emotional (okay, and sexual and chemical) adventure, when Mimi barges into the loft. Roger resists again. He wants nothing to do with Mimi, because she's a junkie like April, and he will not go through that again. He must protect himself, his heart, his broken soul. Just as he protects himself from his addiction. After Mimi leaves, Roger realizes he likes her. But what does that mean to an emotional zombie?

Might it mean that he's not a zombie after all?

He finally answers Angel's call to adventure, inviting Mimi along. And only then, when he risks, when he opens himself to the adventure, does something of value come back to him. Connection. And notice that our hero brings his magic amulet with him everywhere, to the flea market, to Maureen's performance, to the Life Cafe.

Roger and Mimi's duet "I Should Tell You" is the show's "obligatory moment," the moments toward which everything before it has led, and from which everything after it results. Take out that moment and the whole story collapses. Roger finally pries open the door to his heart, finally takes that brave step... and finds out Mimi also has AIDS. Just like April. Just like him. Part of him is terrified that he's finally letting himself feel again, and that it's going to be exactly like the last time. Pain, pain, and nothing but pain. He knows it'll end the same way. He can't do that. He can't bear that kind of pain again. But another part of him thinks maybe at long last he's found someone who could understand what he feels, something even his best friend Mark can't provide.

There's such weight, such deep despair, such understanding when Roger finds out Mimi has AIDS and all he can say is, "Mimi..." He can't believe it. Once again, he falls for someone who's a junkie and who has AIDS, and once again, he knows, she'll die, leaving him alone again. And he knows he won't survive that. And yet who could better understand what he's been going through?

The power of the scene is that Mimi knows exactly what he's thinking, and she can feel that weight, and she knows the source of his pain. And she knows they could ease each other's pain. If only.

And then he says Fuck it and  he chooses. ("Here goes...") The end of Act I of Rent feels a little like the end of Act II of Next to Normal. Guardedly semi-optimistic. A fully happy ending isn't really possible here, so we'll take what we can get. Yes, there will be pain. As Next to Normal tells us, "It's the price we pay to feel." And as the act ends, Roger and Mimi join the others in celebrating life at the Life Cafe.

End of Act I...

Unlike most stories, a big part of Roger's hero's journey is skipped, as we race through most of the year in Act II. We're left to fill in those blanks, assume a progression (and disintegration) of Roger and Mimi's relationship, but Larson does a great job of connecting all the dots for us.

Roger's real moment of self-discovery comes in the double interior monologue he shares with Mark, "What You Own" in Act II, and in their fight leading up to it. In each hero myth, the hero has to gain some new wisdom from the trials he's been through and he must return to his village to share his new wisdom. But first he has to hit rock bottom. Everything that Roger needed is being taken away. In the song-scene "Goodbye, Love," Roger and Mark have a real fight, and in pointing out each other's flaws and frauds, they each gain some self-awareness. It takes a fight for them to finally say all this, to finally open up.

They sing, in "What You Own":
So I own not a notion.
I escape and ape content.
I don't own emotion – I rent.
What was it about that night?
Connection – in an isolating age.
For once the shadows gave way to light,
For once I didn't disengage.

Dying in America
At the end of the millennium.
We're dying in America
To come into our own.
But when you're dying in America
At the end of the millennium,
You're not alone.
I'm not alone.

Or as Sondheim would put it, "No one is alone." Mark and Roger are coming to realize that we all go through trials. We all suffer. We all grieve. And we all know we're not alone. Notice the shift from "living in America" earlier in the song, to "dying in America," to "dying... to come into our own." It's the hero's progression from mere existence, to challenge and danger, to finding your own place in the world.

But Roger has not finished his journey. He has not yet become a man. If he doesn't own his emotion, how can he write a love song?

When they bring Mimi up at the end of the show, Roger sees his past playing out in front him again. It's all happening exactly as before. And then he makes a different choice. Instead of giving in to the grief, as he did with April, here he fights it. He rises up to slay the dragon. Roger's song – or more accurately, the genuine love that his song expresses – is the kiss the Prince gives the Disney Princess that saves her life. He hasn't been able to write the song before now, because he wasn't yet capable of mature love. Now he is. He's growing up.

Now Roger is no longer passive. He has chosen to be active. He has chosen to act to save another. He has become heroic... in a small, urban, Alphabet-City, kind of way. He has grown up, and now he can love someone fully.

But like Matt in The Fantasticks, Roger first had to get beat up by the world.

Larson's decision to give Roger such a heavy backstory was one of his most important choices. The existence of April in the story changes it, and elevates it well beyond both the maudlin, emotional pornography of the opera and the subversive but shallow comedy of the novel on which the musical and the opera are based. April gives Roger weight. In the opera, Rodolfo seeks romance; in the novel, Rudolphe seeks sex.

Roger seeks connection.

At the beginning of the show, Roger's song had to be written before he dies. It's connected with ending. At the end of the show, his new song has to be written to express real love. Now it's connected to beginning. All through the show, as a running joke, Roger keeps trying to write this song, but it always ends up sounding like "Musetta's Waltz" from La Bohème. (How meta of you, Jonathan!) Now that Roger has grown up emotionally – or at least, is growing up – now he can integrate his obstacle into his journey, and now a quote from "Musetta's Waltz" shows up as an integrated instrumental break in the middle of his love song, "Your Eyes." Instead of being stymied by it, he has conquered it.

Also notice that Roger's first big song, "One Song Glory" is all about Roger. He even refers to himself in the song, in the third person. This is a shallow sentiment. He wants glory. He thinks he's capable of "truth like a blazing fire." Not yet he isn't. But by the end of the show, he's grown up and his last big song, "Your Eyes," is all about Mimi. It's about connection.

Ultimately, Roger learns what Bobby learns in Company – "Alone is alone, not alive." Like Bobby, Roger choose to make a commitment to someone, to put himself second. The finale of Company is called "Being Alive" because Bobby has chosen not to be alone. The goal isn't to find the perfect person. The goal isn't to get married. The goal is to be alive.

At the end of Rent, Roger choose to be alive. He takes all that he's learned on his journey and he chooses connection. It's not a Happily Ever After, because in real life there's always a next chapter... until there isn't. But it is a resolution.

Larson took some of his structure from the opera, and took some details and the subversive, comic tone from the novel. But he also departed from both sources significantly. It's such a fascinating, complex character arc Larson created for us, and it's fun watching Evan build Roger.

We're almost done blocking. Then we run, run, run...

Long Live the Musical!