here and here), it hasn't been hard to put this exquisite, vulgar, wild piece of theatre together. The hardest part lately has been just figuring out traffic patterns on our altar-like stage and out in the aisles (one of my favorite tools from our ArtLoft days), and figuring out the logistics of some of Tom Jones' crazier moments.
I haven't really had to talk to the actors as much as I had expected about what this show is and how it operates. I think they've come to an understanding of all that as we've put the pieces together.
Maybe the most important thing I told them was to think of the entire show as a ritual. Celebration follows certain conventional musical theatre rules, it appears to follow others, but it ignores even more. It's a wonderful, subversive, quirky combination. As Tom Jones has said repeatedly, this show was an experiment. It would have been harder for all of us if we'd been thinking about this show as a traditional linear narrative love story with an obvious antagonist. As I quoted in my last post, Jones wrote in his intro to the published script, "When we moved Celebration into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn't feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn't a Broadway musical."
Understanding that was the most important thing about our process. I had a sense of this before we started work; I knew that I needed a hand-picked cast for this one, including actors who have done other shows with me that made up all new rules. Those of us who navigated the wild waters of Hair, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny, and American Idiot are more or less comfortable going out on the artistic tightrope without a net (pardon the mixed metaphor).
The characters in Celebration have arcs, but not necessarily the arcs we would expect. They all fit musical comedy archetypes, but awkwardly. Mr. Rich is clearly the musical comedy villain (I'm not sure I've ever seen Zak have this much fun), and yet almost the whole story focuses on him. His desire to feel emotion is the central plotline. Angel seems like an old-fashioned musical comedy heroine, but she isn't looking for love, just advancement. While Hope Harcourt may have used her "feminine wiles," Angel uses her bare breasts.
Orphan seems to be a typical musical comedy hero, cousin to Billy Crocker and J. Pierpont Finch; but really, he's closer to Leaf Coneybear. Though Orphan falls for Angel – and can you blame him, the first time he ever meets a woman his own age and her boobs are hanging out there like that? – his central motivation has nothing to do with love. All Billy Crocker wants is Hope. All Orphan wants is his Garden.
Would it be too crass to say Orphan wants Angel to be his new garden...?
The other thing that's just now occurring to me is that the usual musical comedy hero is a good guy but also a smartass, going all the way back to Little Johnny Jones in 1904, and as recently as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten. But Orphan is never sarcastic. There's no darkness in him. He's like a character from one of my own musicals, Johnny Appleweed, no judgment, no ulterior motives. That's not a musical comedy hero. That's an archetype in a religious ritual. Which is why Orphan doesn't have a name.
Pippin for Ben Vereen, had he seen Celebration? The difference of course is one of stature. Leading Player is God and Satan. He controls reality. Potemkin, on the other hand, starts the show warming his hands over a trash can. He controls a freaky pageant in a rich guy's ballroom. As much as I love Pippin, I think I prefer Potemkin.
So here we are, a week before opening the show, and I'm feeling pretty great. All that's left to do is figure out the last few logistical things, especially a couple things related to costumes, and polish and tweak the small stuff.
One thing I know -- one major ingredient has not yet been added. Masks. Our ensemble, called Revelers (because the action is set on New Year's Eve), wear masks throughout the entire show. And Scott Schoonover, local scenic designer and mask maker, is making custom leather masks for this production. I've seen pictures of three of them, and they are fierce. The night they first wear those, everything will change, and I'm pretty sure it will take us right where we've been heading.
People are going to have so many mixed reactions to this show. If you ask them afterwards what it was about, they might not be able to put it into words. It's less a story than an experience, a ritual that mirrors the cycles of life, or as I put it in the press release, "the freakiest New Year's Eve party you'll ever attend." It's very funny (the line that cracks me up every night, as Potemkin sticks a giant hypodermic needle into Mr. Rich: "What do you think I am, a jazz musician?"), it's vaguely R-rated, and you'll have these melodies in your head for a month.
But, if only on a subconscious level, I think everyone will sense the universal truth in this story of ours. And they will laugh a lot. I think this show will work a lot like Hair.
So tonight we have our last non-tech run-through, and do our best to work out all the little problems. Saturday is our lighting cue-to-cue, and Sunday the band joins us for the sitzprobe, the one rehearsal in which we run through the entire score with the band and actors, focusing only on the music.
Next week, we'll have three full tech run-throughs, then a preview next Thursday, and opening night on Friday, with our after-party! There's nothing more fun than adding these final elements to the work we've done, as we get to see our assembled puzzle for the first time.
I cannot wait to share this with our audiences...
Long Live the Musical!
In my last post, I was trying to figure out exactly what this show of our is, how it works, what its rules are. I could sort of identify the elements of a Hero Myth story, but it really didn't exactly match up, and it broke a lot of those rules.
So the other night in rehearsal, I'm watching our actors do a first run-through of Act I, and I realize that this has nothing to do with Hero Myths, any coincidental similarities notwithstanding. You can see how this story feels kind of normal, with our Young Lovers, and our obvious Villain. But it doesn't fit any of the forms we're used to -- because it's just not the kind of story we're used to. It has a different purpose than the stories we're used to.
In bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones' book Making Musicals, which I'm currently re-reading, he writes:
Before I finished my college education, I came gradually to realize that there were two kinds of theatre: one that I liked, and one that I didn't like as much.
The kind that I liked was what might be called "presentational" theatre, "poetic" theatre, the theatre of Shakespeare and the Greeks and Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht. The kind that I didn't like as much was what might be called "realistic" theatre, "prose" theatre, the theatre which almost totally dominated the stage for the first half of the twentieth century.
I didn't like stage sets very much. That is, I didn't like "realistic" stage sets -- sets which purported to be the actual environments where the action took place. I didn't like living room walls and charming bric-a-brac and pretend windows with pretend bushes outside. Something in me resisted the whole thing, as if someone were trying to trick me. I felt the urge to say: "Come on, who are you kidding? I know that's not a real door. I know that the tree outside is made of papier-maché and held up by a stage brace."
On the other hand, if little or no pretense was made to literally depict a place, I had no trouble in believing in its reality. A suggestion was all I needed, all I wanted. Any more than that took away the fun, the magic, the creation. It robbed me as an audience member of my part in the proceedings. It limited my imagination. The whole thing was a paradox: Try to convince me that it was really real and I resisted. Admit to me that it was false and I could believe in its reality.
Also, and in a similar way, I didn't like plays where the actors spent all of their time just talking to each other and never acknowledged the presence of the audience. It seemed stupid to me. And rude. And again, it robbed the experience of the direct involvement and participation of the audience.
By the way, that's exactly how I have felt since junior high.
"The theatre, after all, is surely one of the last bastions of the spoken word. In an increasingly Visual world, the theatre provides a place where people may gather and have a group experience induced primarily by the power of words. And, surprisingly, these needs are still deep within us. They will not be dropped so quickly. They are part of us, part of our species. To gather in a circle and have a story told, to experience a group reaction (possibly even a group revelation) this is a basic need. Too bad the theatre nowadays so often forgets that."
Though all theatre is ritualistic in some way, Celebration isn't just a modern descendant of ritual; it is actually ritual itself.
Jones wrote in the introduction to the published script:
Celebration is different. For one thing, it is mostly in prose. For another, it requires a bit more explanation. It is "different" from other musicals. In fact, I'm not even sure it is a "musical" at all. Not in the usual sense of the word. It is a fable. It has ritual overtones. It is based upon ancient ceremonies depicting the battle between Winter and Summer. It was suggested by an editorial in the New York Times about the meaning of the Winter Solstice. It annoyed the hell out of some people. It delighted others. It ran for only 109 performances on Broadway. But it is done often around the country and the world. And it has been phenomenally successful in Scandanavia (where the Winter Solstice is something to be reckoned with.)
My favorite kind of theatre!
Potemkin tells us himself in the show that he's autumn. Rich is obviously winter, cold and dying, which makes Orphan summer (he has his a garden, after all). And Angel has to be spring since she's the only woman here, the only one who can give birth.
Once you see that structure, everything else makes more sense.
This really isn't like any other musical you've ever seen. (I find that's true of a lot of the shows we produce.) This is ritual disguised as linear narrative. This is a storytelling experiment. The "story" here is just the changing of the seasons and the calendar, and the climax is literally the clock striking twelve on New Year's Eve.
But there's so much more here in addition to that, so much more put into the service of this ritual story Tom Jones created...
The more we Google elements of this show (especially the character names, Potemkin, Orphan, Angel, Rich), the deeper we get into the origins of this wild story that Jones has fashioned for us, with so many different strands going back to the ancient world, all woven together into this quirky, smartass, unexpectedly powerful, contemporary musical comedy.
This show is chock full of references and devices going back to our earliest human history. I've already blogged about Angel's roots in the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna, who name means "Lady from Heaven," coincidentally (not). The action of Celebration essentially follows Inanna's ancient Sacred Marriage rite. How crazy is that?
I've been thinking a lot about whether Angel is being "used" for her sexuality, or if she's "using" her sexuality as power, as a tool? And depending on that answer, is she in charge here or are the men...? Is the story unintentionally sexist because it's originally from the late 1960s? Or is sexuality just Angel's nature (as a stand-in for Inanna), something which she must "use"?
An article on AncientHistory.net, says, "Contrary to claims that Inanna's priestesses engaged in ritual prostitution, it is more likely that they were in control of their choices of bed-mates along with the high priestess engaging in the ritual re-enactment of the sacred marriage between Dumuzi and Inanna with a young man of her choice once a year on the Spring Equinox. The tales of Inanna make it very clear she was not shy in picking lovers and promoting them to Kingship and her priestesses would have followed her example."
same site says, "During the Neolithic Age, which was the era when, as some say, God was a Woman, the Goddess and Her Son, the Green Man, were venerated by people worldwide for annually bringing forth the Earth's material abundance. A universal legend about them arose that began with the annual impregnation of the virgin Earth Goddess by the Sun, the 'Father in Heaven,' and the subsequent birth of Her Son, the Green Man."
Sounds a lot like Christianity. Long before Christianity.
It's worth noting that three times during Celebration, Orphan sings, "The sun! The sun! The sun!"
The article goes on: "This important event occurred annually at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the spirit of the Green Man that had been slumbering underground in the underworld was shaken back to life. But although his dormant spirit had been stirred, it was not yet fully awake. This did not occur until a few days later, on December 25th, when the Sun or Solar Spirit completely reversed its downward path and took measurable steps along a northerly route."
This sounds kinda like Celebration...
Another parallel struck me. The same article says, "In order to awaken Dionysus from his slumber at the time of the Winter Solstice, female representatives of the Goddess would loudly bang pots and pans as they danced their way in ritual procession to the snowy summit of Mount Parnassus. And then after receiving his new set of clothes at the following spring equinox, the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego, Pan, a name meaning 'the All,' as in All of Nature.
Likewise, in Celebration, Angel and her backup girls, The Hittites, do a big dance number early in Act I, and soon after, Orphan gets a big number himself, "My Garden.". In the second part of "My Garden," Orphan sings his song, even making up a bridge on the spot, and the Revelers all sing with him, in echo. That sounds a little like, "...the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego..."
Now, in terms of our friendly guide and con artists, Potemkin...
According to Wikipedia... "In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village, built only to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected the fake portable settlement along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Russian Empress."
Unlike most narrators, Potemkin is built to deceive. He's literally a con artist. And he pulls a helluva con on Mr. Rich.
So what does all this information mean for us?
It will all just help us (sometimes directly, other times indirectly) find the best, clearest way to tell this crazy, wonderful story Jones and Schmidt have given us. But also, all these gods and goddesses are windows into the humans who invented them. That these gods still serve our story today says a lot about how universal they are, how deeply human these feelings are, even after thousands and thousands of years.
I was saying to Sean last night that I think this story is, at its heart, about the choices we all make that forge the path of the human life ahead of us. The whole show is about these people making choices, and the show ends with Orphan faced with yet another choice. Jones refuses to tell us what's next. That's not the point. The season has turned. Winter has died, and here comes Summer. What happens happens.
But how can our story be about choice if it's about the relentless, unforgiving cycle of the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar, the passing of time? Aren't the perpetual cycles of life and death inescapable?
Maybe their (our) choices are illusory, and they're really all just cogs in a cosmic machine that just keeps going. Maybe there will always be Angels and Orphans and Riches, whose battles and triumphs keep the calendar turning. It's The Story of Humanity, or maybe of Time. After all, there's always another New Year's Eve...
Tom Jones wrote in his book, "I decided that the American musical offered a wonderful opportunity to pursue the kind of theatre that I felt in my bones was the real theatre." Theatre like Celebration.
As Sean/"Orphan" wrote to me a few days ago, "So. Many. Layers." Yes indeed.
At the end of his intro to the 1973 published script, Jones wrote, "We did Celebration first at our Portfolio Studio. It felt good there. It belonged. When we moved it into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn't feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn't a Broadway musical. Who knows? Perhaps we will do it again someday. With revisions. And in a proper place."
Tom Jones has given New Line the honor of premiering the revised Celebration, right here in St. Louis in our beautiful blackbox theatre. A proper place, indeed.
Long Live the Musical!
It's a primal ritual drama about Inanna, the Sumerian goddess of fertility, love, sex, and wisdom, re-enacting the ritual of the hieros gamos, or Sacred Marriage, which takes place during the New Year Festival, symbolizing the union of the goddess Inanna/Ishtar and her lover Dumuzi. Doesn't that sound like a great idea for a musical comedy?
Okay, wait, that's not really right. Inanna and Dumuzi are surely more an inspiration for the story rather than its source material. Celebration is really more a classical Hero Myth story, isn't it?
Well, except the obvious hero figure, Orphan, isn't really the protagonist. He doesn't learn anything or grow really. He's a great guy when we meet him, so open and warm and sincere and guileless. And that's also who is he is at the end. Even though Orphan fits the description of the hero in most ways, and even though he's the first character introduced to us (after the narrator) – and most important, even though he seems completely innocent and naive – he's really the Wise Wizard figure in this story, like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch. He teaches Angel to Follow Her Bliss, just like the late great Joseph Campbell taught us.
You might expect Potemkin, our untrusty guide, to be the Wise Wizard, but no, he's the story's Agent of Chaos, like Shakespeare's Wise Fools. The structure of a Hero Myth is here, but the roles are all jumbled around.
And in tune with the classic Hero Myth, much of the action of the show is a battle – both figurative and literal – between Orphan and the story's Evil Wizard figure, Mr. Rich. Rich tries to lure Angel to the Dark Side, in this case, a life built upon the love of money (and we all know what that's the root of). Orphan offers her the Light Side, not money, but Life. Literally, in the form of his garden, the oldest metaphor of them all.
Hey wait, I hear the dramaturgs grumble, Why does Angel end up with Orphan if he's really the Wise Wizard?
Because in this story, maybe Angel is the hero, the protagonist. She's the one who has something to learn, who grows, who perhaps sees a different path for herself by the end, following love/sex rather than money/fame. At the beginning of the show, we might make assumptions about her because she's an exotic dancer, because we see her almost naked in her first scene. Some among us may assume she's a bimbo or a slut. She does her first number, about wanting fame and fortune, and we might assume she's as vacuous as a Kardashian. But none of that is true. It's a trap Tom Jones lays for us, to challenge our assumptions.
Angel's life goals have been taught to her by a cold, commercial, disconnected world (is it any different today from the late 1960s?). She's never thought to questions them – just like most Americans never have. She has to be awakened to these new values (kinda like The Matrix), and then make the very difficult leap to consider a wholly different worldview from the one that's gotten her thus far.
What if money doesn't equal happiness...?
Angel's quest is to find her matching other half, to de-couple from Rich and re-couple with Orphan. To do that, she must find herself. But by the end of the show, we know only that she has some new self-awareness, not necessarily that it will lead to a Happily Ever After. We really don't know what will happen to Orphan either. (That really doesn't sound like a Hero Myth story, does it?) I have a feeling that opinions on their fates will be a kind of Rorschach test for our audiences.
Nobody said this was an ordinary musical...
On the other hand...
Okay, maybe Celebration is really just a musical comedy – that is, a musical comedy as only Tom Jones and Harvey Schmidt could fashion one. But there really isn't a protagonist in the way we usually think about it. The story is more just a crazy allegory for the patterns of life. There are no Heroes when it comes to birth and death, summer and winter. We all just follow the cycles. The fascinating part is that though it was written in 1969, Celebration feels a whole lot like shows being written right now. I guess that's not a surprise, coming from the guys who brought us the wild experiments of The Fantasticks way back in 1959, almost a decade before Hair.
This show fits quite comfortably alongside the neo-musical comedies of this new millennium, and alongside the approach we New Liners have learned from working on Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and other contemporary musical comedies: hyper-serious, with crazy-high stakes, but utterly totally honest on the inside. The more serious, the more honest the performances, the funnier the crazy stuff gets. (So many directors don't get that.)
Really, the truth is that Celebration takes from many different sources and traditions (as Tom Jones did with lots of his shows), all blended together brilliantly into something both ancient and new at the same time, both primitive and deceptively sophisticated, a pointed metaphor for each of our lives in this modern world.
Who do we want to be? Potemkin, the onlooker and toadie? Rich, successful but empty and lonely? Angel, chasing the culture's false gods? Orphan, all good intentions in a crooked world? The ultimate message of Celebration is that we all must choose. Every day. And that choosing is how we celebrate life.
Will Mr. Rich get an erection?
I've been re-reading Peter Brook's The Empty Space (I think this is my third time), which Tom Jones remembers as one of his early influences. The more I read about the small studio theatre that Jones and Schmidt built, The Portfolio, the more I see how much it's like our theatre. My designers will hate me for this, but my ideal theatre is live actors and musicians, on as little set as possible, with as few props and costume changes as possible, letting the audience's imaginations do as much of the storytelling work as possible. There's nothing like that kind of engagement. That's why I tried for so many years to get New Line back into a blackbox theatre, like our beautiful new Marcelle.
I think Jones and I are pretty simpatico in terms of what kind of theatre we love, but I'm also re-reading his book Making Musicals, which is a short history of musical theatre, and a deconstruction of the elements of a musical, all mixed in with Jones' own opinions and experiences working in our art form. Interestingly, he wrote the book in the late 1990s, right at the very onset of this new Golden Age of musical theatre, but the signs weren't obvious yet. Still, I think there are probably some fun insights here about his point of view that will help me with Celebration.
I haven't done a show this "high concept" and this sui generis in a while, and I really love getting back to this kind of theatre. It's the hardest and most fun kind of directing.
We're almost done staging Act I, and I feel really good about the path we're on. The adventure continues... Stay tuned.
Long Live the Musical!
This season is full of shows I've been wanting to work on for a long time. But I honestly didn't think I'd ever really get the chance to work on this first one...
Back in the late 1960s, with the profits from their hits The Fantasticks and I Do! I Do!, lyricist/bookwriter Tom Jones and composer Harvey Schmidt opened the Portfolio Studio in New York, in which they could experiment with the modern musical as an art form, away from the economic pressures of Broadway and off Broadway. Their first experiment there, in 1968, was a ritual based musical called Celebration, inspired by an ancient Sumerian ritual play (no kidding), an allegory in which the villain Edgar Allan Rich (not only a pretty funny pun of a name but also a parody of the widely despised producer David Merrick) and the hero, Orphan, go to battle over the not so angelic heroine Angel.
Schmidt and Jones had been working on the show off and on, since The Fantasticks had opened in 1960, but kept putting it aside for other projects. Two of their earlier projects, Ratfink and The Bone Room, "contained the genesis and inspiration for Celebration," according to Tom Jones. Full of masks and symbolic props, Celebration was inspired by Peter Brook’s work in England, combining ritual or “holy” theatre with street theatre and populist theatre.
Its reception was widely varied. Some found it pretentious, while others thought it was terribly sophisticated. It opened on Broadway in January 1969. John Chapman, in the Daily News, called it "a hapless, helpless, hopeless little musical charade. It tries to be cute and smart but it just isn’t. It is sticky and icky."
Critic Martin Gottfried wrote, "Though Celebration seems highly experimental when compared to other Broadway musicals, it’s not because the show is so fresh but rather because Broadway’s are so archaic that anything even eight years out of date will seem inventive."
But instead of moving from the 100-seat Portfolio to a mid-sized off Broadway theatre, the producers took the show straight to Broadway where it seems to have been accidentally transformed by its surroundings, and where it just could not sustain its magic. It closed after only 110 performances.
But the show still made its mark. The Portfolio was home to a very new process in creating musicals – the workshop process that would become more common a decade later after A Chorus Line found major commercial success using it. In fact, perhaps the only thing that killed Celebration was putting it in a theatre that was too big for it. Also, Celebration’s sense of style and look presaged some of the more successful musicals of the following decades, most notably Julie Taymor’s The Lion King. During the 1970s, the Portfolio financed (with profits from The Fantasticks) a series of small musicals, all minimalist, all happily free of the constraints and limitations of Broadway.
My personal relationship with Celebration starts in high school, when I saw the Webster Conservatory production of The Fantasticks. It Blew My Mind. I went out and bought my first full piano-vocal score so I could play those songs over and over. And a few years later, I discovered the cast album for Celebration and fell in love with it as fast and as deeply as I had with The Fantasticks. About that same time, I found the published script.
And really, though nothing could ever replace The Fantasticks in my musical theatre nerd's heart, Celebration is really more my kind of show, most adult, more cynical, more R-rated, and yet still so magic and so joyful.
There are lots of laughs, but they bite.
And I think I love it most because it's really about storytelling, about why we tell stories, why we need stories. It's about the most primal kind of theatre. The show starts with a monologue by our host, the Loki-like Potemkin:
In ancient days, in Winter,
When the sun kept sinking lower in the sky,
Men started to wonder if it could die.
"Look;" they said:
"The Day is being eaten by the Night!"
"Look," they said:
"The darkness is devouring the Light!"
And they were frightened.
And so the people gathered by the fire.
They drank and sang and made up plays.
They painted their faces, and in the blaze,
They waited –
Hoping for a sign.
We're like those ancient people, in a way.
We've gathered by the fire to do a play.
Our night is dark like theirs.
Our world is cold.
Our hopes seem frozen
Underneath the snow –
And yet, if you will just assist us
With your imagination,
We'll try to make this empty space
A place for Celebration!
I can't imagine a better description of what New Line Theatre does. Even with all his money, Mr. Rich still needs stories to survive. We all do.
Fast forward to last year. I'll never know exactly why but Celebration was back in my head. Maybe it was the election. And New Line was back in a blackbox. It seemed perfect. Only now do I see the freaky parallel between our villain, now named William Rosebud Rich, and our Republican nominee for President.
One of my awesome theatre friends was able to hook me up with Tom Jones, and I told him we were going to produce his show, but I really wanted to talk to him about it. It's a weird show! And then he told me he had been working on a revision and would love for us to premiere this new version. It's not a radical departure from the original, but certain aspects are very different, including both the beginning and end.
So we started music rehearsals this week and what a joy it is to have this music swimming around in my head all the time. I really love this fucked-up, awesome show.
Fucked-up, you ask?
Take away the artistry, Tom Jones' beautiful-ugly, deliciously smartass dialogue and lyrics, and Harvey Schmidt's luscious, rowdy, jazz-rock music, take away all the dressing, and at its heart Celebration is about a rich guy who can't get an erection. I mean, that's not exactly what it's about... no, fuck it, that's really what it's about.
That's the spine (if you'll pardon the pun) of our story.
Of course, along the way the show explores two fundamental worldviews, one focused on material gain and comfort, "success," power, control, safety; and the other focused on the joy and mystery of the journey of a human life, the surprise, the fun, the passion, the music, the life of a human life.
Now that I've typed that, I realize the companionability between these two shows may not be an accident after all. Zorba opened in November 1968. Celebration opened on Broadway in January 1969. There must have been something in the air. The legendary concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris (which New Line produced in 1997) explored many of the same themes, opening a year before Celebration. A few years later, both Pippin and, arguably, Follies, wondered many of the same things.
Maybe these times we live in are another of those periods in American history when unfettered capitalism has caused lots of collateral damage, and we wonder aloud as a culture if the love of money really is, after all, the root of all evil, if success might be defined better by measures other than dollars (as Michelle Obama argued at the 2012 convention), and if we have come to admire the wrong people for the wrong reasons.
After all, money is power, and power corrupts.
So yeah, Celebration is sort of about Erectile Dysfunction, but it's also about a lot more than that. Another incredible, wild, New Line adventure is ahead...
And meanwhile, we're still running Tell Me on a Sunday through August 27. If you haven't seen it, you really should. Sarah Porter is extraordinary.
Long Live the Musical!
Okay, not exactly.
At the end of my 2005 musical theatre history book, Strike Up the Band, I mused on what the future of the art form might be. Here's what I wrote. It's how I closed my book...
Away from Broadway, in New York’s alternative spaces and also in theatres across America, hip-hop musical theatre is finally taking hold. These are musicals that use some of the conventions of American musical theatre but the vocabulary and style of hip-hop. To some, hip-hop and musical theatre seem as mutually exclusive as musical theatre and rock and roll once seemed, but as we know from history, the rules of musical theatre are made to be broken. So what are hip-hop musicals? Well, like concept musicals, hip-hop musicals are different things to different people. But at its core, it’s a musical that uses some or all of the elements of hip-hop culture: rap, break dancing, graffiti, and DJ’ing.
As just one example of many, two Jewish Canadians, Eli Batalion and Jerome Saibil, created the wildly successful Job: The HipHop Musical, updating the Biblical story, with God and the Devil transmogrified into the record label president J. Hoover (Jehovah) and vice president Lou Saphire (Lucifer). Saibil said in an interview, “The whole thing is done through hip-hop. It’s sixty minutes of nonstop rapping over fresh beats. So it’s a musical, but it’s a hip-hop musical; and it’s a musical, but it’s also a Biblical tale.” It opened in Canada, then moved down into the U.S. The Vancouver Sun called it “so fresh and inventive that this truly marks the dawn of a new era in musical theatre.” Batalion and Saibil followed it up with an equally successful sequel, Job II: The Demon of the Eternal Recurrence.
Rodgers and Hart’s classic 1938 musical comedy The Boys from Syracuse was transformed, bridging the leap from old-fashioned musical comedy to new millennium hip-hop theatre. Two hip-hop versions of the show appeared, off Broadway in 1999 as The Bomb-itty of Errors, and at the London Fringe Festival in 2003 as Da Boyz. In December 2005, the New York Theatre Workshop opened a new hip-hop musical called The Seven, written by Will Power, based on a Greek tragedy by Aeschylus, with choreography by the famed modern dance choreographer Bill T. Jones. Once again, so many people are trying so many things that anything could happen…
So what is the future of musical theatre? Some of the "experts" will tell you it’s dying or dead, merely because it’s not what it used to be. But the world has changed so much since George M. Cohan, even since Rodgers and Hammerstein, how could anyone expect a living art form to remain stagnant when the world is changing around it? It seems musical theatre is such a part of America’s culture and history – even today – that it will probably never die.
Though movies and television can provide something close to the experience of seeing a non-musical drama or comedy, those forms cannot approximate the energy and magic of a live stage musical, so though non-musicals are doing less and less well commercially on Broadway and on tour, musicals are doing better than ever. We need what only musicals can provide, their brashness, their unique ability to mix reality and unreality, and most important, their music, their emotional muscle. The same extreme emotionalism that made musicals less “cool” in the cynical 1980s and 90s, makes them cool once again, even essential, in the new world of post-9/11 America, a time when public emotion is once again legitimate, even expected, and equally, in a world in which once again humans are asking many big unanswered questions about right and wrong, morality and immorality, who we are and how we are connected.
Today, we need music to tell our most important stories because words quite often lie in our culture, and the more skillful the lies become, the harder it is to recognize them. But music can’t lie; you always know what it’s saying, even without words.
If music has charms to soothe the savage breast – and it does – then aren’t these times in which we need, more than ever, to keep the music playing as we explore our individual and collective lives, as we tell our national story, as we tease out the complexities of being alive?
this book, I was only beginning to understand that we are in a new Golden Age of the American musical theatre, and that Golden Age has brought with it four very important things.
First, the art form has reinvented the older forms, into the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical, remaking the devices and tools of the past for this new moment in our history and culture.
Second, the art form has reclaimed its position as a commentator and explorer into the political and social issues of the moment.
Third, the American musical is back at the center of popular culture, with lots of television musicals watched by millions, a genuine, active fan culture on social media, and stars of the pop music world clamoring to write for the theatre.
Finally, and most important in terms of the future, the musical theatre has reconnected to popular music at long last. Which brings us full circle. We wouldn't have gotten Hamilton without Rent, and we wouldn't have gotten Rent without Hair. All shows that ignored the rules and made up new ones. All shows that merged the artistry and intellectual content of our evolving art form with the visceral emotion and authenticity of rock and roll.
Maybe the real significance in all this is that the American musical theatre continues to evolve at a rapid pace, but now instead of running away from pop and rock music, it's running toward them. And that's such good news for those of us who see literally endless possibilities in our art form. We have lots of people to thank for that, but none more so than Jonathan Larson and Lin-Manuel Miranda. As much as Sondheim and Prince did, Miranda is taking us into the future...
What a great time to be a musical theatre artist. I truly love my job.
Long Live the Musical!
Some of you reading this will think, Yeah, so? And others will think, Oh my god, holy shit, you must be fucking kidding me!
See, this show closes New Line's 25th anniversary season, and in all those twenty-five seasons, I directed every show. Sometimes I had an assistant director with me, but I directed every show. In large part, that's because New Line has a really specific aesthetic, that partly comes from me and partly from the way the company's work has evolved over time.
As we've explored all these brilliant, rule-busting musicals, I've learned so much from all of them. Each crazy weirdo show we produce – Night of the Living Dead, The Wild Party, Love Kills, Jerry Springer the Opera, The Nervous Set, Assassins, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, Threepenny, Bukowsical, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, High Fidelity, Hands on a Hardbody, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... I could keep going – each show taught me things, opened up new possibilities to me, gave me new vocabulary and tools to use, and as each of these shows met with rave reviews, they each encouraged my fearlessness.
Not to say that nobody can direct as well as me – many people are better at it than me – but there aren't many in this area who can direct this kind of work as well as I can. I have a really specific niche, but it's all I've been focused on my entire adult life, so I'm pretty good at it.
That's why I've directed every New Line show. It's like I know the code.
But not this time.
For the last several seasons, Mike Dowdy has been directing most of our shows with me. He started with us as an actor, but he's got amazing instincts as a director. It started with him making suggestions to me when he was an actor (always in private, as it should be), about other possible staging choices, stuff like that. Some of the time, his ideas were good, but not exactly what I was trying to get at. But quite often, I'd run his idea in my head, no red flags would pop up, and I'd say, "Let's try it." Easily, nine times out of ten, his idea worked really well, and it was a clear improvement.
He has such a good eye for making a moment just a little clearer. Or just a little more tense. Or just a little funnier. His ideas always come from character and story, and since he and I have remarkably similar aesthetics, it almost always meshes with what I've done around that moment.
Hang on... I'm getting to the point...
When the Kranzbergs built us the Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, our board decided to expand our season from three shows to four, and at my suggestion, we decided to ask Dowdy to direct the fourth show each season.
So for the first time in my life, I'm producing a show, but not directing it. And you know what? I like it. Part of why I like it is that I have unwavering trust in Dowdy. For the past year, he's been calling me with ideas he's had for Tell Me on a Sunday. And you know what? Every idea was great.
We cast her as Maureen in Rent because I had seen the revival and was surprised at how funny and charming Maureen was, even as she was selfish and mean. It really changed the character for me, complicated it, and I liked that it gave more weight to her relationship with Joanne. All I had to tell Sarah was that I really wanted Maureen to be somebody you loved hanging out with. Sarah totally delivered, but also gave her a very subtle insecurity and vulnerability.
She made Maureen so real. And the result was that, by the end of the show, it was clear that Maureen and Joanne had the most solid of the relationships in our story. I loved that.
Beyond their obvious talents and skills, Dowdy and Sarah also went to college together at Lindenwood, under the great Larry Quiggins. They know each other so well, they've played across from each other on stage many times (as a married couple in Night of the Living Dead), and they really trust each other. It's been cool for me to watch them work. I've never had a moment of worry. And that's saying a lot for a control freak like me. But I trust them as much as they trust me.
Last night at rehearsal, we did a slow, methodical tour through the score, looking for any problem spots, tweaking things, finding different choices, connecting things, all that cool stuff. It was fun to watch them doing all that, along with our intrepid music director Nate Jackson, always so easy-going, and really nailing this beautiful, though sometimes tricky, music.
To my surprise, I noticed last night that Dowdy and I had completely swapped roles. Usually, I'm the one trying to put the machine together and get it running, while Dowdy's discovering beautiful little details, asking questions that make the actors think, getting me thinking about a line reading or a metaphor, that kind of thing. But this time, Dowdy is piloting this ship, and I'm just along for the ride, asking the "Dowdy questions," and hopefully giving him the support he needs.
Watching them work last night made me feel even more secure about our show. Dowdy knows exactly what he wants, exactly how much to push Sarah and how much to protect her. And Sarah really knows this woman she's playing.
All I've got left to worry about is box office, and I think the Andrew Lloyd Webber name will sell a lot of tickets. I've discovered that, among St. Louis theatre people, the Sarah Porter name is pretty powerful too.
I think people are going to love this show. The songs are great, catchy ALW songs, but there's also a darkness and depth to the emotion that's really compelling. Emma is one fucked up young woman, and it's really fascinating to watch her find her way...
I hope you'll join us. Tell Me on a Sunday runs only three weeks, so get your tickets now!
Long Live the Musical!
That's only partly a smartass reply. It's also the truth. I have never worked in show business. I have never worked anyplace where money was more important than art.
A nonprofit arts organization is not a business, though I will admit, certain aspects of operation can be similar. But honestly, what business survives only if people give it money with no expectation of return? What business can stay afloat with a product whose price covers only half its cost.
But that's exactly the point.
Or to put it another way, that fiscal model is not a problem with the arts; it's the purpose of the arts, the reason for the arts to exist, so that people without lots of money can also experience and participate in this fundamentally necessary human endeavor, supported by the community as a whole.
Or to put it another way, it's a feature, not a bug.
Every show we produce loses money, not because we're bad at budgets, but because that's our model. Making theatre is incredibly labor and time intensive, and there are no economies of scale, since every show is so different and starts from scratch.
But there's a more important reason. To quote from our website:
New Line Theatre, "The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre," was created in 1991, at the vanguard of a new wave of nonprofit musical theatre being born across the country during the early 1990s, offering an alternative to the commercial musical theatre of New York and Broadway tours. The New Liners believe in what Broadway and film actor Laurence Luckinbill once wrote in a letter to artistic director Scott Miller: “Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They will thank you for it.”
The only company of its kind in the country, New Line was founded to involve the people of the region in the creation and exploration of provocative, alternative, politically and socially relevant works of musical theatre – daring, muscular, intelligent theatre about politics, race, violence, drugs, sexuality, religion, art, obscenity, the media, and other contemporary issues.
If we produce commercial, guaranteed sellers, then we're not New Line anymore; instead we're a pale, lower-budget imitation of The Muny and Stages. And we no longer serve our community. By definition, New Line has to be able to produce shows that don't sell out, and once in a while, even shows that sell poorly, to fulfill our mission.
Without going bankrupt.
Likewise, if we charge for tickets as much as it all really costs, our top ticket price would be $50-60 or more, and most of our audience couldn't afford that. Plus, as we know from the New York commercial theatre, the more a ticket costs, the less the audience is willing to take a risk. And we often ask our audiences to take risks...
You'll notice that nowhere does our mission statement mention money or profit. New Line exists to share theatre with the public. Charging money for tickets is a necessary evil; we do it only because we must to survive. Money is not the point.
All that said, New Line is at a major turning point, and I want to take some time to explain to all our followers what our current challenge is, and how we plan to address it. Maybe some of you reading this will be able to help us.
New Line has always lived on the edge fiscally. Some seasons we end in the red a little; some seasons we end in the black a little. Once in a while, we end up in the red a fair amount. We always find our way back, but things are a little different for us now.
We've moved into the beautiful Marcelle Theater in Grand Center, and we love it there. But there are two problems that have resulted. First, we agreed to pay about 20% more in rent, to make the project work financially. That doesn't seem huge, but... Also, we were hoping to seat 150 for most of our shows, but that was overly optimistic. We can fit 150 chairs in our space, but then we have a pretty small playing area, and not all the rows would be on risers. For our first three shows in the Marcelle, we seated 120, 130, and 134.
So our rent went up but our capacity (and potential income) went down. Even though our first two shows, Heathers and American Idiot, sold out every night, they still lost money. (I keep thinking if only we'd had 150 seats for those two shows!) And those two big successes also partially masked the new fiscal challenge we're facing. It was only during Atomic that I saw the problem clearly.
On top of our new situation in the Marcelle, we also lost two grants this season, for $5,000 each (one of them because the funder will fund only children's theatre from now on; no idea why we lost the other). And also, we had been told by another funder that we were eligible for a new category of funding, and that our grant from them would likely go up $5,000-10,000. Then later they decided that we weren't actually eligible after all...
Our annual budget is only about $120,000, so losing all that is hard on us. We usually bring in about $30,000 in individual donations each season, which is pretty decent, but we have to do better now.
A couple seasons back, we started looking for two $5,000 sponsors for each show (eight per season), and we have made some initial progress. We got three sponsorships each of the last two seasons, but we have to do better.
Just in the last couple weeks, two of our donors stepped up with additional gifts beyond their usual, and only then were we able to pay everyone on closing night of Atomic. But the problem remains and we can't rely on unexpected miracles. We also can't operate on a model that requires every show to sell out.
That both sounds like a lot of money and also doesn't seem impossible. But we need help.
We need help identifying the folks who could support us at that level, getting them to the Marcelle to see New Line shows, and then getting them to make a donation. None of us on the New Line board really have those connections, so we need someone to take our hand and lead the way...
How can you help us? Are you able to sponsor a New Line show? Do you know someone else who could? Do you work for a company that makes grants to local companies, and can you influence that process?
Fundraising is mostly about connections, so we're asking you to help us connect. New Line has been around for twenty-five years, but we are growing. We're paying more people than ever before, and we now have the reputation and clout to get lots of local and regional premieres. We're also making plans to create a children's theatre arm of the company (which should be self-sustaining). But we need to balance the budget.
In the meantime, even if you don't have $5,000, you can still donate to New Line and help us along. Just go to the Contribute page on our website, to donate through PayPal or to send us a check.
Don't feel like you know enough about us yet to invest in us...? Watch this:
I hope this post helps explain some of the complexity of how a small regional nonprofit theatre keeps the lights on. For our younger colleagues just starting companies, I hope this helps you plan for the future. For our audiences and supporters, we want you to feel invested in us and our work, to feel you have ownership in New Line. So when we have a challenge, we'll tell you about it.
To everybody who sees our shows and sends us checks, we hope you're proud of what we've built and the work we've done over the last twenty-five seasons. We honestly do it all just for you.
So much cool theatre ahead for New Line – Tell Me on a Sunday in August, then next season, Celebration in October, Zorba in March, The Sweet Smell of Success in June, and Out on Broadway next August. We've also gotten the rights to open our following season with the rock opera Lizzie in October 2017. New Line's work has never been more exciting than it is right now...
Long Live New Line! And Long Live the Musical!
A painter wouldn't do a sketch of just one corner of the picture, then paint that, then do a sketch of the next little section of it, then paint that... They'd sketch the whole picture, then paint it, right?
The coolest part of New Line's process is that we can really change course midway through and still have enough time to reorient. That doesn't happen often, but it happens.
A piece of theatre is a living organism. It grows and evolves. I often don't really know what the end product will be until we get there. That was the case with Atomic. So it would be silly to insist that every idea at the beginning of the process must be preserved throughout. As the show changes, as its final form slowly emerges, some ideas may no longer fit comfortably. There's no shame in changing shit...
I once staged "And the Money Kept Rolling In," in our Evita, four times before I felt good about it. Kudos to the actors for putting up with that. I'm lucky my ego didn't prevent me from seeing that the first three attempts weren't terribly successful...
Oh, let's be honest, asking the actors to run in place to music in 7/8 was just mean...
We opened Atomic last week and we were lucky enough to have both writers, Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman, fly up from Australia to see the show. They loved our production and it was such fun having them here. After they had seen a couple performances, they asked me (very gently) for a few very small changes. In a couple cases, we had done what they were asking, but couldn't make it work, so we had changed it. But I was happy to try their suggestions. A couple took some pondering, but I think we ended up putting all but one or two into the show.
If those changes would have been big ones, I probably would have resisted. I hate doing that to actors after we open.
On the other hand...
A week or so earlier, before opening, we contemplated an arguably substantial change...
A couple weeks ago, I wrote a blog post analyzing Atomic's powerful Act II number, "Only Numbers," and the motivations of the three characters who sing it, our hero Leo, his girlfriend Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets. I was convinced we had figured it out. But as we continued to run the show, I began to rethink my ideas about Tibbets in this scene. I don't think my earlier ideas are "wrong" and what follows is "right," but I think I have a better, and certainly different, grasp on it now...
I decided: 1.) this would confuse the audience; and so, 2.) we needed to pick a road and commit to it.
Maybe my problem was initially thinking of "Only Numbers" as a Serious Song. That can be a deadly trap. It is that, but as soon as we impose Serious on it, it becomes melodramatic. The content should define the seriousness more than the delivery.
We were imposing an awareness on the lyric that Tibbets would not have. He doesn't know it's a Serious Song. We were approaching the song from the point of view of the entire story (or at least from the point of view of Leo and Trude), rather than from the point of view of this one hotshot pilot on this one mission, in his cockpit en route to Japan. Tibbets knew some details of the mission, but (at least in the show) he does not seem to have a real understanding of the power and magnitude of this weapon.
We can't impose upon him our judgment from 2016. What this guy knows are his orders, and that he's doing this for god and country. We shouldn't make him into a big tragic character – he's still a cocky smartass. It's our knowledge of history that makes his mission so tragic. But in that moment, he should still be the same guy who sang the jingoistic "Stars and Stripes."
Our first take on this guy was valid, but this is a much more interesting, much richer approach.
Maybe what makes "Only Numbers" so interesting to me, and so intense, is what Tibbets doesn't know, that dissonance between Leo and Trude's horror versus Tibbets' shallow patriotism; and between Tibbets' relative ignorance about this weapon versus the audience's knowledge of history. We all know the Enola Gay; Tibbets just knows it's his mother's name. Leo and Trude are all wrapped up in moral questions, but Tibbets has the (relative) comfort of moral certainty. He's giving it his all.
That contrast is so much more interesting, and also I think, more truthful – science versus military, always-questioning versus never-questioning, one of the themes of the story. This way, the song is an expansion and complicating of the contrast between Tibbets and Leo that we've seen in the two bar scenes.
Tibbets starts "Only Numbers" with this lyric:
Those people down below,
Nobody that I know,
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all.
There's nothing inherently dramatic or grand in those lines. In fact, they're pretty shallow. It's our knowledge of the rest of the story (and hearing the other two characters) that makes it powerful and sad. That shouldn't come from Tibbets himself. In early rehearsals, we were talking about Tibbets as if he has lots of layers to him. I no longer think that's who this guy is. Not everybody has layers.
So how different is this from how we first approached him? The difference is very subtle, entirely interior, but it changes how Tibbets sings those lines.
Maybe the distinction between our two approaches is this: initially we weighted him down with the morality of killing people, but now what weighs on him is the importance of his mission, the responsibility to his country and comrades in arms, his part in moving the war effort forward (or ending it!), his fervent belief that if he doesn't do his duty, Hitler will invade America. In Tibbets' mind, the entire war effort is on his shoulders. But that's not the same as grappling with the moral questions behind the bomb.
That's just about winning.
We didn't decide to make him less human, just less mature, less interior, less self-aware.
In the dialogue leading up to the song, Tibbets declares that one kind of bomb is "more humane" than another kind of bomb. That's not a mature or serious statement. And the flippant way he snaps his fingers to show how fast the bomb will end the war – he thinks it will be "humane" because of how fast "they're gone," not killed or dead, "gone." He is not grappling with this. He is not thinking seriously about any of the consequences of this, just doing his duty and winning the war.
The difference in Jeff's performance is very subtle, but it's there. And it's a lot richer than if we hadn't re-calibrated. I think this is the part of my job I find the most fun and the most interesting. When you're working on a show this good and a story this human, there's always more buried treasure just waiting to be discovered...
Come see Atomic! It's totally blowing people's minds. Pun intended.
Long Live the Musical!
Though these three characters, Leo, Trude, and bomber pilot Paul Tibbets, all sing the title phrase "only numbers" (usually together), it means something very different for each of them – and so the song itself means very different things for these three. And the lyric does a really good job of making that complexity clear.
Usually people singing together in a musical means they are connected in some way. If they sing in harmony, we hear that they belong together, whether they are a community, a family, or a couple of lovers. If they sing in unison, we know they are one.
But this is something else.
In "Only Numbers," Tibbets is in his plane, on his way to Hiroshima, while Leo and Trude are each in their own very personal, abstract space. The music to their verses constantly shifts back and forth between major and minor, embodying the moral and emotional chaos in these characters. Tibbets sings first, with a kind of desperate strength, trying hard to convince himself:
Those people down below, just numbers;
Nobody that I know, just numbers.
It wasn't me that made the call,
But if it ends the war,
Then I'm giving it my all.
His verse is about consciously shutting down his empathy, shutting down his humanity, so that he can accomplish his mission without completely falling apart. His only salvation is in thinking of the people he's bombing only as numbers, "casualties," not humans, not men, women, and children. He has been trained to put on this mental armor, to shut down doubt and moral questions. He assures himself that he's only following orders... which takes on some chilling historical resonance...
But a close look at the music shows even more craft and complexity than is immediately obvious. For instance, in that first verse by Tibbets, the music is minor under "Those people down below," but it turns major for "just numbers." Then back to minor again... Within a single line of music, composer Philip Foxman has painted for us a clear picture of Tibbets' emotional ambivalence. And the whole song works on this level.
Further into Tibbets' verse, the music turns first major for "It wasn't me who made the..." then minor for the word, "call." In other words, "It wasn't me" is a good thought (major), but "the call," the decision to drop this bomb, is a bad thought (minor). Tibbets will not accept responsibility for this horror, though the guilt may be inescapable. And then the music turns major again for "But if it ends the war, then I'm giving it my all." Patriotism is Major. This music is so carefully built, that even though Tibbets' words obscure his emotions, the music still tells us the truth.
Then we hear from Trude, as she grapples with the scale of the Holocaust:
Count the dead in the road toll, just numbers;
Same as last year maybe more, just numbers.
It's one thing when a number's in the news;
Another when he's everything to you.
How does she deal with it? She sees the numbers in the newspaper, but unlike Tibbets, she can't let herself forget the people behind those numbers, her people (she's from Austria) being slaughtered. In Act I, Trude is horrified to read in the paper that "up to two million" Jews had been killed. She has no concept of the real scope of this horror, but even a fraction of the real number is horrifying, almost paralyzing.
Then Leo sings:
The seconds of a life, just numbers;
People always die, just numbers,
We lose so many when we fight;
Will one more number set things right?
In 1949, after the war, Szilard wrote a fictional piece for the University of Chicago Law Review, titled, "My Trial as a War Criminal," in which he imagines himself being convicted of war crimes for his work on the bomb.
But like Trude, he's also overwhelmed at the scale of it all. How could he think he could make a difference...? If everyone is just a number, then so apparently is he. And a number can't set things right.
All three sing the bridge together, but still in their three separate mindsets and spaces:
When you know what it is
You have to do,
Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Try and see it through.
Talk all you want;
Here at the end,
When it's life or death,
You or them,
Someone's got to lose.
Read that again. "Here at the end, when it's life or death, you or them, someone's got to lose." Damn. But that's the nature of war, right? Unless you want to argue for no war ever, this is the reality of it. Leo thinks it's immoral to drop the bomb? Well, war is immoral. Someone's got to lose...
But also, during this bridge section, the alternating between major and minor speeds up. Now the first two lines of each stanza are both minor and major within the same measure, then minor again for the next two lines, then back to major for the last line. But here, the connection between happy thoughts and major chords breaks down in moral gray area. The complexity of their cage leads us to a major chord under "Someone's got to lose."
We'll win. Patriotism is Major. And morality is up-ended.
The three of them keep singing the phrase "only numbers," as they each get solo lines in between...
It's time to choose.
They’re only numbers…
Play or lose.
We've got to try.
The day we don't fight is the day that we die.
Another really powerful moment in this song, though these three people are fighting three different things. Tibbets is fighting both the Japanese and his own humanity. Trude is fighting her feelings of guilt and powerlessness. Leo is fighting to end the war – or is he just fighting not to recognize that he is utterly powerless?
In fact, all three of these people are essentially powerless at this point.
Trude sings by herself for a moment, in a short, second bridge:
When the number has a name,
And the number has a face,
When the number is your life,
And it cannot be replaced...
Very sobering stuff indeed.
When you've done all
You can do…
And said all you can say…
Take a breath,
Close your eyes,
Blow a million dreams away…
And as they sing those last words, the music transitions to music we've heard before, music that earlier in the show accompanied the lyric, "Dreams can make you; love can break you." It's almost as if the instrumental music is replying to the last line of the lyric. But here, as it invokes that earlier lyric, maybe it's also a hint at the pain that these characters' human empathy has caused them. Love for their fellow humans is indeed "breaking" them...
It's also interesting that this song doesn't really end. It segues into underscoring. There's no release through applause for the audience, because our writers are building palpable tension from here to the end of the show. Denying an audience their release keeps them in tension...
This is real lyric-writing craft. The lyrics in Atomic are rarely poetic or expressionistic; that's not this show. These lyrics are mostly written in very ordinary, concrete language; it's the ideas that take precedence here, not aesthetic beauty. This is not a story about beauty. These people don't have time for metaphors.
Emotion is what musicals do best, because musicals have the abstract but very powerful language of music, which can convey emotion far better than the concrete language of words. (Which is why West Side Story works better than Romeo & Juliet.) "Only Numbers" is the proof of that. Reading the lyric on the page only hints at the power this song has in performance, particularly once we're this deep into this story and these moral questions...
Now that the show is staged and we move into the theatre on Monday, this is the kind of richness we'll explore for the next couple weeks. We get nine full run-throughs before an audience joins us, three of those run-throughs with the band and full tech.
So much still to explore here...
Long Live the Musical!
In this new Golden Age of the art form, the neo musical comedy and the neo rock musical have become the new default forms, and rock has become the default musical language. While early rock musicals were about the rock (JC Superstar, Evita, Tommy, Hair), now rock is just the common language between writers and audience.
It always cracks me up when musical theatre fans complain that period shows shouldn't use rock and roll, because rock isn't period. Yeah? I wonder how many people in 19th century Siam were jamming to Rodgers & Hammerstein foxtrots... (And, BTW, lots of open fifths doesn't actually make the music Asian.) I'm sure Capt. Macheath and the Peachums wouldn't be singing Kurt Weill's dissonant 20th-century jazz, either. And so what? We can be pretty confident that President Andrew Jackson wasn't a rock and roll fan, but rock is still the only appropriate language for the rowdy, aggressive, smartass Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.
As rock has taken over the theatre's musical vocabulary, it has also imposed its more fundamental value on our theatre: authenticity. No more the wink-wink bullshit of the Fourth Wall or the R&H Interior Monologue. Those are lies. The rock musical shares many values with German theatre artist and philosopher Bretolt Brecht. The most authentic act we can make is to admit the artifice, to admit that there is no Fourth Wall, and that the audience is sitting right there the whole time.
But contemporary audiences also want authenticity and honestly in the acting and the emotions, in the storytelling and its themes. Why does everybody enjoy Shrek so much? Because it admits the "lie" of Disneyfication and its cleaning-up of reality.
We've finished blocking Atomic, and I realize one of my initial fears was misplaced. The thing that's hardest for me to stage is a "clever" number. I need character and story to physicalize a song well. And though Atomic feels like an intense mashup of thriller and rock concert, that's not really what it is. It's a rock drama. I've found as I stage the show I essentially have two jobs: make the story as clear to the audience as I can, and traffic control.
This show moves like lightning, with instantaneous scene changes. Don't get me wrong; this is my favorite kind of show, what I like to call "a perpetual motion machine." There's so much story and it moves so fast. We literally move through three countries within the span of a few minutes, but I have to offer up some props to our writers – they really do make it work.
So I don't have time to think about clever. I have to get this story moving like a Swiss watch, and then make sure I get out of its way and let our actors and musicians ride it where it goes. Nothing but lean storytelling. There's too much plot to treat it otherwise. I'd get in its way. It really is a thriller, though I doubt that will register consciously on anyone.
We have to find the authenticity in Atomic's times and politics, in these moral arguments, in these complex emotions and relationships, in the pressure and freaky high stakes under which everyone is working. If we get at the truth of all that, everything will be richer, and the audience will be fully engaged – not just in the events and people, but in the moral positions. What if we had to make these choices? Which would we choose?
As in 1776, Atomic earns lots of authenticity points for painting these characters as real, flawed, fucked up people, who nonetheless achieve great things. In both shows, the accomplishments are all the more impressive considering how "human" and combative its creators are. Most of them really are not team players. Who could expect them to be (other than the military)...?
Or maybe the point of Atomic is really how gray it all is, how complicated, how not clear. How human. That's authenticity.
Authenticity is the most important thing an artist can have. Once you can fake that, you've got it made. Hee, hee.
Apparently, the internet can't decide whether I stole that from Jean Giraudoux or George Burns. Either way, the point of the joke stands. Since the 1960s, we judge a person by their authenticity. Nobody wants to be a phony or a poser. Before that, it seems, the main criterion was Decency. I prefer it this way. I value truth over nice.
You may not have recognized it as such, but you've made this distinction when you see a piece of theatre. You surrender yourself, or you don't, to the storytelling. You identify with, or you don't, the protagonist. You recognize your own experience, or you don't, in the events onstage. It all boils down to authenticity. Are the emotions and ideas being presented honest? Do they reveal truth about us and our world?
It's why so many people like Bernie Sanders, who is so joyfully unpolished, over the rigorously trained and controlled Hillary Clinton. It's why they like the freaky chaos of Donald Trump over the obviously and overly practiced college debating skills of... [weighty dramatic pause] ...Ted Cruz.
I mean really, who wants to have a beer with a guy from the debating team?
And likewise, who wants to watch a phony, dishonest performance from an actor? Acting isn't about imitating emotions; it's about experiencing them. Don't show us what a sad person's face and body language looks like; feel sad and we will read it on your face and in your body, and we'll feel it too. We want to go on the journey with the actors; we don't want to look at vacation pictures later.
And that's particularly difficult in the inherently artificial world of the musical theatre, where people break into song, sing harmony, and dance in unison.
But difficult is not impossible.
Perhaps that tightrope is most treacherous when it comes to comedy. Great comedy is always two things, both a surprise and the truth. Cheap comedy is just a surprise. Too many directors and actors apparently don't think real life is very funny (they're wrong), because any time they want to create comedy (any time), they go for shameless, over-the-top, wacky, muggy, full-front silliness, along the way totally abandoning authenticity and honesty. They deliver surprise (which wears thin fast), but no truth.
People routinely ruin Bat Boy, Urinetown, High Fidelity, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and other great shows this way, all of which work best when they are the most honest. Directors often cast comedians for these shows, when they should be casting really strong actors.
I think many storytellers in our culture today don't respect storytelling. They don't understand their place in our culture and how important it is.
Just look at the phenomenon of Hamilton, which is a genuine masterpiece, by the way. Look how powerfully that story – and in particular, Lin-Manuel Miranda's storytelling – connects to millions of us. Look at how Rent and Wicked and Hair and so many other shows have touched millions of people.
We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans.
We are the light.
No, most of us don't earn enough as theatre artists to live on, but neither have our artistic ancestors for the last several thousand years. Actors and other storytellers have never been well paid or well respected. We are on the outside, just like many of the characters in Atomic. "Normal" people can't really understand us or our art. And that's okay. That outsider status and lack of financial resources is part of what makes us the artists we are, and part of what allows us to stand back and observe the people and the world around us, with genuine insight and understanding.
And maybe other theatre people will disagree with me, but I can't complain about how little I make, about how hard it is to pay bills, because I love what I do. I feel like the luckiest guy on the planet, getting to work on amazing shows like Atomic, with incredible artists, and then share them with big, enthusiastic audiences. I can't muster feelings of indignation that I don't make "a living wage" making theatre. Almost all my friends make more money than I do, but not one of them is happier than I am.
Nobody owes me anything. If anything, I owe the world something. No, strike that. I owe the world a lot.
We open Atomic in a few weeks. Ours will be the second production after off Broadway. As we've learned these great songs, and I read about the real world events behind our story, as we launch this new adventure, I can't help but feel so fucking lucky.
Long Live the Musical!