This New Battle For Our Soul

I've blocked a majority of Atomic now, and I'm feeling pretty good about where we're headed. Staging this show is a real balancing act between earnestness and irony, and between rock drama and concept musical. But I think I've got the hang of it.

Even in the moments that feel more naturalistic, our writers have paced this story like a thriller, and the energy from that pacing and from the rock music is what makes the show such an intense ride. When I talk to my friends about the show, they're always surprised when I tell them that in our story, we drop the bomb not at the end of the show, but at the end of Act I.

That's only the first half of the story Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman are telling. And splitting the acts where they do is part of their storytelling – if our audiences think the moral questions in Act I are complex, wait till we get to Act II.

Like any well-structured two-act show, Ginges and Foxman build to a climax at the Act I finale, let us have the intermission to process everything, then we come back for Act II, and they complicate the story in unexpected ways. I don't know how conscious all this was for the writers, but it's a brilliant way of keeping the audience off balance. They think they're seeing the story of the dropping of the atom bomb, but that's not exactly the story we're telling. We're telling a Science-Run-Amok, Frankenstein story.

(Interestingly, the Science-Run-Amok genre of movies, like The Fly and Tarantula! was born directly from the fear of the atomic bomb.)

And in a Frankenstein echo, both the style of the show and the style of the music are intentionally schizoid, delivering us both the raw drama of the history and physics, but also the raw human emotion of the psychic and moral toll this work took on its creators.

In concrete terms, I have to be careful about keeping these two styles in balance and following the blueprint that Ginges laid out for us.

We have a good-sized playing area for this show, with a long, narrow table down the middle, and a bar at one end. As I mentioned in earlier posts, the audience will be on two opposite sides of the stage, facing each other.

The table obviously limits what I can do with staging. But it's the kind of limitation that breeds creativity. When we did Rent, I asked Rob for a giant round platform center-stage, painted like the moon, raked, and large enough to seat our cast of sixteen around it. Talk about limitations. But ultimately, that moon platform divided the stage up into great, small playing spaces, and it provided an abstract space itself that allowed us to step out of the physical world and go inside. I found several ways to use that moon. I realized later that I had unconsciously used it as a place of isolation several times in the show. You can't be more alone than being on the moon...

Our big table for Atomic is similar, but less abstract, so less versatile. Most of the time, our table is a table, though often it's a table in Leo and Trude's apartment at one end, while it's a table in the lab at the other end. It really works to have two scenes onstage at the same time (which Ginges does a lot), sort of sharing space but not really. It's a split-screen, and it shows so clearly these simultaneous events.

I learned from watching bootleg videos of Dreamgirls and Nine and Grand Hotel how to use cinematic techniques (split-screen, close-up, focus pull, pan, over-the-shoulder, etc.) in staging theatre, particularly in musicals where staging can often be more abstract and more expressionistic. These devices all work so well because audiences are already used to them. And this script is written for those techniques.

One of the devices I want to use – but I have to be careful with it – is to make the table into a stage itself. One place I know I'll use it is late in the show, in the song "Only Numbers," when there are three characters onstage, one of which is in a plane. To help the audience understand, I think we're going to place a chair on the table and have our pilot sit up there. I think separating him from the other two actors vertically will help make this triple split-screen scene work.

It will isolate all three of them, which is key to their emotions here.

"Only Numbers" is a powerful song and a pivotal point in the drama. The pilot reminds himself not to think of those people down there as people as he drops the bomb, just The Enemy, just numbers. It's the only way his mind can survive this. Trude, meanwhile, grapples with the scale of the Holocaust, too massive, too inhuman to makes sense of it, and with her detachment from the horror (and resulting guilt) here in America. Leo, on the other hand, is unable to detach. He's too much implicated in all this. His part of this song decries the dehumanizing Other-ing of war.

At one particularly potent moment in this song, all three sing, "The day that we don't fight is the day that we die." It's a powerful line, because it means something different to each of the three characters onstage, in three different places, psychologically, emotionally, and physically. It's a smart, economical way to draw the thematic threads of the story together as we head toward the finale.

There's one other moment, early in Act II, in which Leo delivers a really impassioned soliloquy-song, "Greater Battle," in which Leo (our story's moral center) realizes he now has to fight an even bigger fight than creating the bomb; now he has to stop it. The song is built as a lengthy soliloquy, constantly interrupted by quick dialogue scenes. What's cool about the scene is that Leo tells us what he's thinking and feeling when he sings, and then we see him taking concrete action, based on those feelings, in the bits of dialogue. It's a great way to employ the still useful aspects of the Rodgers & Hammerstein model, without being trapped by its more dated habits.

I think what I'm gonna do with that scene is put Leo up on the table, and keep all those quick spoken scenes on the stage, to keep Leo separate from the world around him. And also, to let him have a "rock star" moment for this rock anthem. But also in that song, the ensemble sings with him in the second half of the song. I've thought a lot about how to use "the chorus" (when that's what they are). I finally decided, at least for "Greater Battle," I wasn't going to try and impose some "clever" staging on the actors singing backup. Instead, I'm going to bring them onstage and let them just face the audience and sing. The rest of the cast aren't really "in" the scene; they really are just voices.

Yes, I think there's an argument to be made that having the whole cast sing this song does suggest dramatically that Leo isn't the only one who fears the further development and use of the bomb. But that's not really what we're doing onstage at that moment. The fact of the cast onstage is more a musical moment than a dramatic moment, and rather than try to bullshit the audience, we're going to let the actors just be music. No clever staging. Leo is the one and only focus here.

And even though I feel pretty good about these choices, I did tell Zak, who plays Leo, that if it feels really stupid being up on the table, we'll find a different choice...

At the beginning of the show, I have the whole cast standing on chairs at one moment, just expressionistic staging to ramp up the intensity a bit more. But once I did that, I realized I was creating a "rule" for our show that we were going to use this furniture as more than just furniture. That means I need to find at least a few other places in the show to do the same. I firmly believe that if we're going to break rules, that needs to be part of the vocabulary of our story, not just a whim.

It always bothers me when I see theatre in which an actor comes out in the house for some reason, early in the show, but then never again. The show sets up the expectation in the audience that the house is part of the playing space. But then it isn't. Theatre should never double-cross its audience.

Unless you're doing Brecht or Sondheim.

I believe in Sondheim's Ten-Minute Rule, that you can use any devices, any rules, as long as you set them up for the audience within the first ten minutes of the show, or preferably, within the first song. But directors have to do that as well as writers. I need to introduce the audience to our storytelling rules just as much as we have to introduce them to the characters and the plot.

Right now, I have actors up on the furniture three times. That may be enough. But I still have about two-thirds of Act II to block, so if I find one or two more places to use that, that would be nice. But only if it really enhances the moment.

The one challenge I see still ahead is keeping the whole story at a really high level of tension and energy, with only occasional moments of calm and respite, even if those moments of calm still hold all that moral complexity and frustration. Actors instinctively want to vary their performances and use all the "colors" at their disposal. But the stakes in this story are stratospheric, and the energy stays pretty high. No one is detached. No one is on the sidelines. Most of these characters are driven. And we understand why.

Leo is the lone voice of reason in 1950s Science-Run-Amok movies, the one guy who's right but nobody will listen to him. He has to save the world, yet the world keeps throwing obstacles in his way.

The key to this drama is that almost all these characters feel these high stakes, and most of them are in opposition to each other. They all think they know how to save the world, and that everyone else is wrong. They all think they should be in charge. This story embodies the metaphor of the unstoppable force meeting the unmovable object. And the atom bomb is an apt metaphor for the explosions of emotion and anger among these characters. The bosses remove and add scientists to the project like they're experimenting with protons and neutrons, making the team and the project forever unstable, forever ready to explode.

I've seen some reviews and comments about Atomic that complain about how much the show "explains," but I think those critics miss the point. First of all, almost the entire story is an ongoing moral debate, so yes, these characters are going to explain things as they make their arguments. But also, in the second-to-last scene, including the song "What I Tell Myself," that explaining is motivated and dramatically legit. When people go through a trauma, talking about it, telling its story, is part of the healing process, part of making peace with the trauma. That's what's happening in this penultimate scene, but on a larger, more consequential scale than any of us ever encounter in our own lives.

No matter how you slice it, it's not hard to argue that these scientists killed millions of innocent people. That's a hell of a trauma to get past...

With this show, we have to keep the reality of this world and these events as palpable as possible for the audience, the stakes and tensions as high as possible, and the emotions as potent as possible. We have the tools to make all that happen. I'm more than halfway through the hardest part of my job – physically staging the show – and I'm feeling really good about everything. But we have lots of work still to do before opening night.

This is such great material...!

Long Live the Musical!

One Tiny Spark Will Set It All Ablaze

We were all taught in Drama 101 that conflict is the very heart of drama, and I always loved that metaphor. Without conflict, without its heart, drama dies. Drama is life, and life is conflict. Someone once opined to me that they wished the local news would do only good news stories, failing to grasp that everything being Just Fine isn't news. And it's not dramatic.

We're now about two-thirds of the way through blocking the first act of Atomic, so this material is really sinking in now. I realized on the way home from rehearsal tonight that the reason this show and its story are so great is because its fucking loaded with conflict.

But not just that.

What's the most valuable thing a writer can give an actor? What's the thing that makes conflict compelling? High stakes. Can you imagine higher stakes than trying to stop Hitler? Or trying to stop our President from starting a nuclear arms race?

History and our bookwriter Danny Ginges have thrown together a group of brilliant, opinionated minds, at the most intense moment in our national history. Deciding what to have for dinner among these folks would be a challenge, but here we're talking about the highest possible stakes imaginable. We're literally talking about blowing up the world.

It would be silly to think that all these brilliant, accomplished men and women, from so many different cultures, would ever agree on such complex, morally murky questions. One of the fascinating things to watch in the show is how Leo never really finds comfortable alliances with anyone. He's not scientifically pure enough for Fermi, and way too pure for Teller. He's in conflict with his girlfriend Trude in a sad, but recognizable home-vs-work triangle (which brings to mind George and Dot in Sunday in the Park).

And he's at odds with all his bosses, Compton, Groves, and Oppenheimer. He has an ongoing problem with authority, not unlike the doctors in M*A*S*H. In fact the story of Atomic sets up the ultimate odd couple, the marriage of independent scientists (exploration) and the military (control). Right brain vs. left brain. Inherent, high stakes conflict.

Even within songs in this show there is often conflict. Many of the songs in Atomic are really just musical dialogue, a conversation (usually an argument) set to rhyme and music. You can hear the same device in Rent, bareNext to Normal, and Heathers. Only a few of these songs are the usual kind of theatre song, each about one big idea, written in the form of a soliloquy.

And all that means two things for me as a director.

First, I have to be careful not to over-stage the conversation songs. When you give an audience a choice between words and images, they'll usually choose images. So the less movement there is during a song with a complex lyric or lots of plot, the more the audience will focus on the content. And that information will move them forward in the story and keep them engaged.

And yet we're working in an unusual configuration for our stage this time, with the audience on two opposing sides, facing each other. (We did this once before, in 2003, with Sunday in the Park.) But that seating arrangement means I can't have actors standing still very long, because in most places onstage, their back is to a slice of the audience. It's almost in-the-round. So, contrary to my usual staging, I do have to keep things moving. Then again, that works for this show because in some respects, it's a thriller.

I love the idea of Rob's set, to make the American people themselves the backdrop for this story of these scientists making the atomic bomb in our name. It makes everything so much more personal and human. But it requires a delicate balancing act, when so many songs carry so much information...

All this also means that everything about this show – the staging, the songs, everything – depends on the most honest, most in-depth, most fearless acting we can muster. In this story about moral complexity, conflicting duties, and crazy high stakes, the acting is everything. We're lucky to have a cast with great voices to sing the shit out of this rock and roll score, but what's more important, they're all very strong actors. I can't say it enough: The Acting is Everything.

That's usually true of the shows we produce, but lots of shows can survive shallow, clueless productions. I don't think this show could.

I've also realized that this is a very earnest show, with only periodic moments of irony. This isn't our usual kind of show in that respect, but it fits the story and it fits the time. That was not an ironic time in America. Ginges and his writing partner Philip Foxman could have come at this whole story with a hipster-ironic sensibility, creating a companion piece to Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, but that would trivialize these very serious people grappling with very serious questions during very serious times. literally with the fate of humankind in the balance.

On the other hand, the anachronistic use of emo rock for the score is a really insightful, bold choice. In this very somber, very serious show, the rock allows full voice to the fears and rage and frustration these characters feel. These very visceral emotions and sky-high tensions could not be adequately expressed by period music. This dark, powerful story needs the emotional wallop of rock and roll, and to speak this forcefully to audiences in 2016, it needs this contemporary sound of emo rock.

There is certainly some serious work ahead for us, but our New Line actors love sinking their teeth into meaty, complex characters and stories like this. All we have to do is trust the script and score, and go where they lead us. So far, that's been pretty easy.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!


I'm a deadbeat blogger.

We've already been rehearsing for two weeks and I have yet to post a blog about this show, the new rock musical Atomic.

New Line's production will be the show's fourth, after its premiere in Australia (where both writers are from), a short off Broadway run, big rewrites, and a production in Michigan.

I'm so glad we get to share this show with our audiences!

We finished learning the songs last night and we all love this score. The show received mixed to hostile reviews off Broadway, though I think the writers fundamentally reconceived the show after that. I read the off Broadway version and liked it very much, but the rewrites are excellent, and it's a much stronger show now, having lost some comic relief that really doesn't belong.

I realize as we work on this that it's a rare non-ironic show for New Line. There are moments of pretty dark irony, but overall, it's a very sincere, very earnest script, because these physicists take their work and the questions around it very seriously.

The reviews off Broadway often said this was a musical about the Manhattan Project, which developed the atomic bomb, but that's not really true. The show is about the morality and moral questions swimming around the making of the bomb and its eventual use. This is a morality tale, not a history lesson.

This is a show about Dangerous Ideas. Pandora's Box. Which is why it has to be a rock musical. This is a story about big emotions, big rebellion (in various forms), big questions, and big moral complexity. Rock is the language of rebellion, of danger and wildness. What other musical language could adequately portray these people, their emotions, their rage, and their fear?

President Truman thought he could keep the details of the work secret so no one else could make the bomb. But you can never control ideas...

In thinking about the show, big picture, I realize that it's not really a Hero Myth, as so many of our shows are. This is a Frankenstein story. Leo and his fellow physicists create a monster, which they lose control of, and it rampages through the world killing people. In 2016, that's a rock story. The energy and intensity of this story demand rock and roll.

Atomic is a concept musical and the show uses its songs in two different ways. Some of the songs arise naturally out of dialogue, as in any good musical comedy or Rodgers & Hammerstein show. These songs should be staged fairly naturalistically, as an extension of dialogue. These songs amplify emotion in this very high-stakes story. The other numbers are commentary songs standing outside the narrative. These can be staged more expressionistically, and I think, more like a rock concert.

I have not yet blocked anything (we start blocking rehearsals Monday), but I've figured out the "language" and "vocabulary" of the staging. For instance, a big table and chairs will always be centerstage, and for the more conceptual, commentary songs, we can use that table and chairs any way we want. We can turn the table into a stage, or a memory, or pretty much anything.

And I want to find as many places as possible in the script to use both naturalistic and conceptual staging at the same time, to allow a dialogue scene to play out while a commentary song is being performed by the rest of the cast. The show's writers have created a dual personality for this show, part Brecht, part contemporary drama. That duality is present in the story itself, in the battle between science and government, in the emotions of these characters, in our moral assessment of the atom bomb, as we watch this story. I want to make sure our staging underlines all that.

One of the challenges of this production will be Rob's set, which extends across the middle of our blackbox theatre, with audience on both sides. So each section of audience will watch this gripping, morally complex drama, with the other half of the audience and their reactions as backdrop.

Americans will be our backdrop. And right in the middle of a Presidential election.

Like 1776 does, Atomic takes these historical figures out of the history book and gives them full, rich, complicated humanity. I can't even imagine having to grapple with questions like this...

This isn't the kind of smartass, ironic story we usually tell, and I have to be careful not to fall back on habits that better suit a different kind of show.

As with every show, my job is to understand what Danny Ginges and Philip Foxman wrote, and then figure out how to make it as clear as possible to the audience. Not to impose a "vision" or anything on it, just to follow the script and score wherever they take us. This is good storytelling and we just need to trust it.

As we always do.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Top Ten Reasons St. Louis Theatre Rocks!

People often ask me why I'm not working in New York. The answer is easy. First, I don't work in the commercial musical theatre, so I have no desire to work on or off Broadway, with all the bullshit and artistic compromise that goes along with that. And second, for a whole lot of reason, I couldn't do what I do in New York. St. Louis offers me unique opportunities because of its size, its long history of musical theatre (thank you, Muny), and its distance from New York commercial theatre.

In other words, I'm not moving to New York. I love it here. And so, here are my top ten reasons why St. Louis theatre rocks...

It would be silly to talk about the St. Louis theatre scene and not start with The Muny (where I spent eight years as an usher), one of our country's biggest and oldest regional theatres, founded in 1919 and still going strong, perhaps stronger than ever, even as it approaches its 100th birthday. Not only is The Muny now producing some of the best work ever seen there, it's also the place where most St. Louisans began their theatre-going lives, where they are introduced to the classics of the American musical theatre. And today, thanks to the leadership of the amazing Mike Isaacson, it's also the place where audiences can see some of the most exciting theatre artists working on Broadway today, including lots of up-and-coming stars. The Muny creates future audiences for every other company in town, and we should never forget that.

The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis is one of the top regional theatres in the country, under the inspired leadership of Steve Woolf. It is incredibly rare that I dislike anything I see at the Rep, and usually I'm thrilled by both their programming (often producing shows fresh off their Broadway or off Broadway runs, as well as world premieres and commissions), and the incredible quality of the artists who work there. Not only do we get to see outstanding, thoughtful, fearless theatre there all season, but it makes me so proud of our city. And even beyond all that, artistic director Steve Woolf is the best spokesman we could possibly have for the theatre community as a whole, and he takes that role – and our community – very seriously.

Ken and Nancy Kranzberg are my heroes. Not only did they create the two theatre spaces in the Kranzberg Arts Center, years ago, but now they've built a new blackbox theatre, the Marcelle, designed specifically for New Line Theatre. And there's no reason to think the Kranzbergs are stopping there... One of the greatest challenges any small theatre company faces is finding a decent performance space for very little money. The Kranzbergs understand that fully, and they're doing something about it.

When I started New Line in 1991, there weren't all that many theatre companies in town. Now, there are about 35 professional theatre companies and about 40 community theatre companies, producing everything from the oldest classics to quite a few world premieres (often by local writers) and local premieres, from the most serious to the most outrageous, from the most conventional to the most experimental. And there are new companies popping up all the time, like our newest, Theatre Nuevo. We also have four theatre festivals now, a very active cabaret scene, and four opera companies. In other words, St. Louis rocks.

Our local theatre community is positively chock full of smart, trained, inventive, fearless theatre artists. I'm always encouraged when I read casting announcements, because so many of the names are new to me – which means our community is constantly growing and evolving, with new blood and new ideas constantly being pumped into the artistic zeitgeist. At New Line, we strive to cast half new people for every show, and we usually achieve that, sometimes even exceed that. There are just that many really talented people here. And the majority of New Liners also work with other companies around town. No matter how many companies are out there, we never think of them as New Line's competitors – no, they are our fellow cross-pollinators. When someone sees really great theatre, particularly if it's for the first time, they will seek out more of it. New Line always buys ads in the programs for the Rep Studio for exactly that reason.

Judy Newmark, theatre critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, and all her reviewer colleagues are doing so much to nurture and cheer for our theatre community. When I started New Line, we usually got two or three reviews for each show, because that was how many news outlets reviewed local theatre. Today, we get ten to twelve reviews for each show, because there are now so many outlets for theatre reviews. They are our most fervent supporters and most invested in our continued success. So don't get pissed if they don't like your show...

There's a lot of Arts Press in our fair city, beyond reviews. Judy Newmark does a lot of preview pieces for the Post and its website; KDHX has both Nancy Kranzberg's Arts Interviews, and also Break a Leg!; BroadwayWorld St. Louis publishes lots of local previews, videos, photos, casting announcements, etc.; St. Louis Public Radio's St. Louis on the Air regularly covers theatre; and now there are the Stage Grok podcast (covering both local and national theatre), and the new St. Louis theatre fansite, The Scene Shop (more about that in a bit). And on top of all that, the national Playbill website often publishes articles about St. Louis companies and productions.

The Scene Shop is the latest and by far the coolest resource we have, "your backstage tour of the St. Louis theatre scene," a self-proclaimed fan website, a kind of Entertainment Weekly for local theatre, with news, listings, a calendar, interviews, opinion pieces, a podcast, and lots more. At first, they're just covering professional theatre, but they have plans to expand to cover all local theatre. It may be be just getting started, but already it's such a cool site!

The Regional Arts Commission is the best support system any small theatre ever had. RAC gave New Line our first grant even before we produced our first show. They have always been there for us, and for all the other theatres in town, not just giving out grants, but also offering workshops, panel discussions, office and research resources, even on occasion loans to get a company through a rough patch. RAC's brand new executive director Felicia Shaw has already shaken things up, creating a new funding category for small professional companies, but also re-evaluating everything about RAC's work and our community's needs. Welcome, Felicia!

But none of that matters without smart, excited, engaged audiences, and St. Louis audiences are extraordinary. When I used to co-host Break a Leg!, we would often talk with out-of-town actors working at the Rep, and every one of them marveled at the intelligence and focus of their audiences, how closely they listen, how they catch so many subtle moments – the tone of voice is always one of gratitude. At New Line, we get every age group from middle school kids to seniors, at every single show we produce, and they are smart and fully tuned in. There's no greater gift to an actor.

It's true that St. Louis doesn't have as many theatres as Chicago, but we're also a smaller city. What we do have is lots of extraordinary work being done by extraordinary artists, for enthusiastic, growing audiences. All the time. So much theatre you can't possibly see it all. Even the reviewers can't see it all. But there's always something exciting going on, and it's rarely expensive.

So everything's perfect and we're all awesome! Well, no...

All that said, there are three areas in which our theatre community still has work do do. First, many local companies do well in attracting diverse casts and diverse audiences, and they take that work seriously. But many companies do not, and we have to work on that. Our companies, our staff, our casts, and our audiences should look like our community. Second, it remains almost impossible to get any television coverage of local theatre, beyond the Fox and the Muny, and that must change. Why doesn't local news have an arts block, just like their sports block? After all, the Rep has more subscribers than any of our sports teams. And finally, the biggest challenge is to create a new mindset in everyday St. Louisans, so that when a young couple is looking for something to do on a Friday night, going to the theatre is an obvious and cool option. I don't think that's largely true now, but we can change that.

I think The Scene Shop is going to help with all three of these. They've already announced a panel discussion on race and St. Louis theatre on June 15 at the Marcelle. They plan more events like this.

With The Scene Shop, the Kranzbergs, the Regional Arts Commission, and Judy Newmark all on our side, I've never been more optimistic about the future of the St. Louis theatre scene. And you should be too.

Long Live the Musical!

And In the Darkest Night...

American Idiot has left the building.

But it will never leave me. It's a part of me now. It has changed me.

It was a spectacular, sold-out run, that garnered rave reviews and standing ovations. And as often happens when I work on New Line shows, I discovered a depth of meaning and artistry that I had only glimpsed before we started work.

I thought the Broadway production was brilliant, a kind of minimalistic spectacle, but also so smart, so emotional, so relevant. But once we started working on the show, especially after we moved into our theatre, with a playing space about fifty feet wide and about fifteen feet deep, and an audience of only seven rows; then we could all see how different the intimacy was going to make our story – just as it has done for so many other New Line shows. Our space allowed for a subtlety and naturalness of acting that would've gotten lost in a Broadway house, and also for a really immersive experience for the audience, with Johnny and Whatsername copulating about a foot from the front row, more than once, and the Statue of Liberty dry-humping Tunny (in "Extraordinary Girl") almost as close.

This is not just great music, or just an exciting night of theatre. This is an extraordinary piece of writing, even more extraordinary for the fact that these lyrics were never meant to tell a literal story onstage, and yet to the credit of both Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer, they tell a rich, meaningful, primal, universal story.

I can confess now that I sang along with a lot of the show every night from the tech platform – this was the only show we've ever done where the music was loud enough that no one would know if I were singing behind them. The greatest joy for me every night was singing "Good Riddance (Time of Your Life)" from the booth with my massively talented, massively awesome cast.

And I've been thinking about that lyric now for weeks. It's so fucking wise. It's telling us to stop worrying about shit, stop trying to control shit, just follow your road – your "Real" as Passing Strange would put it, or your Bliss, as Joseph Campbell would put it – and embrace the journey. Both good and bad, easy and difficult, yin and yang. You can't get to peace or enlightenment without understanding how to relax and accept your road.

Every lyric in the show is beautiful and complex and crazy catchy (I still can't get "Holiday" out of my head!), but the last one became my favorite. Mostly, I think because it expresses a kind of wisdom I'm clumsily chasing after...
Another turning point, a fork stuck in the road...

What a great way to start a lyric. Billie Joe Armstrong often takes cliches and complicates them, all throughout this score. Here, he takes the image of a fork in the road, a choice, and he combines it with the cliche, "Stick a fork in it, it's done." This choice is "done." You chose a road and there's no going back, so deal with it.
Time grabs you by the wrist, directs you where to go.

In other words, you can't direct your destiny; you can only stay on the road and keep moving forward. In time, you'll see where you're going, and you have to learn to embrace the journey, the struggle, the learning, rather than fixate on the endpoint.
So make the best of this test and don't ask why;
It's not a question but a lesson learned in time.

In other words, stop struggling against obstacles and setbacks and injustices. Accept that they are part of the journey, part of the soup of experience that forms the person you are. Why? is a silly question. An embrace doesn't question; it trusts. We all have to learn to trust our road, our "Real." This was a lesson I had to learn with directing shows; to stop trying to aim at a destination and instead, let the material, the "road," take me wherever it will. And my work is better now.
It's something unpredictable but in the end is right...

It's unpredictable because, as Chip Tolentino rightly told us, "Life is random and unfair. Life is pandemonium." After all, if it's random (and it is), then it must be, by definition, not "fair." But your road is right for you because it is your road. It's unpredictable, but ultimately, it is the only right road for you.
I hope you had the time of your life.

This line delights me, especially in this spot in the show, as a kind of epilogue. Our audience has just gone on three Hero Journeys, each one representing a human life, and most everyone in our audience has identified with one or more of our heroes. In sharing these universal Hero Myth stories with our audience, we have literally given them the time (90 minutes) of their lives (in metaphor). And we hope it has enriched them, even if only subconsciously.

The second verse starts:
So take the photographs and still frames in your mind,
Hang it on a shelf in good health and good time,
Tattoos of memories and dead skin on trial –
For what it's worth, it was worth all the while

I think this verse is telling us that memories are beautiful and healthy things, but living in those memories, rehashing the past, regretting past decisions, nursing scars from past wrongs will take you down the wrong road. You wonder if you made the right choices, took the right turns, but the fourth line reassures us, "For what's it's worth..." (if you'll take the word of a punk rocker) "it was worth all the while."

Every experience, every hurt, every triumph goes into making you the person you are. It is worth suffering through the bad times because they make you strong and give you perspective. It is worth making mistakes, because we learn and grow from them.

And then song repeats several times that amazing, wise, Zen-like couplet:
It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

I know I had the time of my life with this extraordinary piece of theatre. I know our actors and musicians did. And I'm pretty sure our audiences did.

I've read in several sources that this song was written as a fuck-you to an ex-girlfriend, but I cannot figure out how this lyric could be that... It's so wise and enlightened... It's hard for me to believe that the genius who wrote "Wake Me Up When September Ends," "Boulevard of Broken Dreams," and "Jesus of Suburbia" wrote a song just to say fuck off... Armstrong has so much more to say than that.

After all, the main body of the story ends with a fucking wall of sound in "Whatsername," as the entire cast sings:
And in the darkest night,
If my memory serves me right,
I'll never turn back time,
Forgetting you but not the time.

In other words, even when life is at its worst and most difficult, these characters will now remember that the past is past, that we can never really Go Back. We can only make choices and move forward. We may forget the details of what's past, but we won't forget the hard-learned lessons. We have been changed by what's past and it leaves its mark on us... we are never the same again... even if Johnny can't remember her name...

We've done several shows in the last few years that share this central theme, a lesson that most of us need to hear. To find your path and stay on it, to follow your bliss. It was the central theme of Passing Strange, and our hero, The Youth, could only become a full person and a mature artist by learning that. It was also a central theme of the outrageous musical Bukowsical, about the life and art of Charles Bukowski. Maybe it's most explicitly expressed in Kander & Ebb's 1969 musical Zorba, which we're seriously talking about doing next season.

The opening number of Zorba, its statement of purpose, is called only "Life Is" and for a good reason. Life is good and bad, wonderful and terrible. Trying to make it one or the other is always doomed to failure. Life isn't an adjective; it's a road. And the richness of life is in everything along that road.

Zorba and Passing Strange and American Idiot tell us that this existence is all there is so you have to learn to love it, to grab it and hug it to you, whether it's good, bad, trivial, or profound – not because it's wonderful in a musical comedy way, but because it's Life. At the end of Zorba, Zorba tells us that he lives like he might die any minute. That's not life-denying; it's life-embracing. I always understood Zorba's philosophy to be that he does not judge the experiences of life, he swims in them. He tells us he's free at the end of the story because he has no fear of what lies ahead. As far as he's concerned, whatever lies ahead is fine with him. It's just Life. He's very Zen-like in that way...

There isn't a conventional resolution to the plot at the end of American Idiot, no tying up of loose ends. None of our three central guys have found happiness, and only the earliest glimpses of some possible wisdom. But they are growing up. They're no longer stuck...

The central struggle of the story is not to "fix" the problems of the world, but to grow up and face them and engage with them. Like the ends of Company, High Fidelity, Pippin, Passing Strange, and other shows, we don't really know if Johnny, Will, and Tunny are going to be okay. We don't know if they'll get jobs, if they'll find lasting relationships. All we know is they're all three taking a step in the right direction.

Just like Bobby does in "Being Alive"...

What a joy it's been to work on this rich, artful material, and what a privilege to lead this merry band of awesome misfits to make this beautiful, honest, brutal piece of art. We are the light.

I am forever grateful, to the brilliant artists who write the shows we produce, to the fearless and endlessly talented New Liners who bring my ideas to vivid life, and to the smart, adventurous, incredibly enthusiastic St. Louis audiences who gave us yet another sold-out run.

I love my job! Thank you, everyone!

Long Live the Musical!

For What It's Worth, It Was Worth All the While

So we've opened American Idiot and I have so many thoughts...

Foremost among them is my gratitude to the people I work with. This fearless, smart, inventive group of actors has supplied the magic that only they can provide. In a show like this – a close cousin to Hair, as a lot of people noticed this weekend – authenticity and spontaneity are paramount. And these actors of ours have brought so much of themselves into this story, so much honesty, despite the dense poetry and complexity of the storytelling.

Judy Newmark, critic for the St. Louis Post-Dispatch, grabbed me after the opening night performance and said with great concern, "You didn't list the choreographer in the program!" I smiled and told her, no, we didn't hire our usual choreographer Robin for this show. As with Hair, I didn't want anything on that stage to look like dance steps or like choreography.

And now that the show has found its final form, I can see how right my decision was. I can also see how right I was when I initially told the actors that my "Millerography" (one of the New Liners coined that term a few years ago) would only work with strong, honest, powerful acting behind it. Now when I watch our opening number, it's everything I hoped – wild, aggressive, primal, desperate. Especially wild.

As one example, there's a move I referred to as the drunk marionette, when the entire ensemble, clumped tightly together seems to get thrown this way, then that way, then this way, seemingly yanked back and forth by the shoulders. It's a more expressionistic kind of staging than actors are used to. When I first described this to them, I could see the looks of "WTF?" on their faces, but they went with it, even though they didn't really get it. Slowly over time, as the acting throughout the show got deeper and richer, so too did that staging. Here's a video of that number I shot on my phone in rehearsal...

As I wrote about in another post, this ensemble has to play authentic, honest, real-world characters at the beginning and end of this story, and that takes serious, intelligent acting. But for most of the show, they play extensions of the leads, a city of strangers, drug-induced delusions, memories, alter-egos... While our leads get a linear, if episodic, storyline, almost every song requires a totally different mindset from our ensemble, a completely different conceptual approach, even a completely different style. And these immensely talented actors really nail every moment, every emotion, every nuance.

Although our three leads each have a more concrete, linear arc to follow, their task is no easier, because they're playing characters in a fable, archetypes, and they have to find those human details and nuances that make the characters real for the audience. Not only have Evan, Freddie, and Brendan found that reality, they've also found the real bond among the three that underpins their three journeys. Only when they come home to themselves and to their best friends, can they start to find their path. That's a lot to play behind the rich, wild, dense poetry of Billie Joe Armstrong's lyrics (my favorite: "Your faith walks on broken glass..."), but all three have settled into high-energy, intense, but honest performances.

The proof is in the payoff at the end of the show, in "We're Coming Home Again," when the three meet again for the first time since their separate ordeals, once again on the roof of the 7-11. It's like before, and it's also nothing like before, so much more emotional, no longer cocky and angry, just grateful to reconnect.

It's a powerfully emotional moment for the audience, because they're so invested in these characters by this point – because Evan, Brendan, and Freddie's performances are extraordinary.

It's been even harder for the women. After all, our three heroes are full-out misogynists, and I've heard some argue that so is Armstrong and his story. I'm not sure I would agree. As with Rent, these characters have to be whiny, petulant, lost kids who need to grow up. The story – like all Hero Myth stories – is about growing up and starting on your true life's journey. In American Idiot, as in High Fidelity, the women really aren't the point; but the way the men treat them is very much the point. So while Heather may not have a fully fleshed detailed arc, she does have an arc. She goes from victim to decision maker, and we see at the end that her rage has dissipated – she clearly is growing up – as she lets Will hold their child, the child he wouldn't even look at before now. It's a powerful moment, and Larissa and Brendan give it such emotional reality.

Sarah as Whatsername and Sicily as Extraordinary Girl have it even worse. They don't even get real names. But again, that's the point. Whatsername is lost back in the whirlpool of Johnny's addiction. Some have complained about her lack of an actual name; they say it's proof of the show's misogyny, but it's not. It's proof of Johnny's misogyny – and his first self-awareness and regret about that, in the show's final story song, "Whatsername."
She went away and then
I took a different path.
I remember the face,
But I can't recall the name...
Now I wonder how Whatsername has been...

Evan's delivery of this song is so emotionally potent, but it only works because Sarah's Whatsername is such a powerful, tragic presence in the story. Sarah found her reality, her emotional life, all the things that are only implied by the text; and that reality pays off in "21 Guns," when the three women, thinly drawn as they are, take on powerful, complicated, beautiful life in the hands of serious actors like ours.

But here's why I love watching actors create. Larissa, Sarah, and Sicily didn't impose anything on their characters; they found something worth playing in the outline sketches the script provides them with, and they found the ambiguity of their complicated relationships to these three lost men.

My gratitude also extends to the powerhouse New Line Band, seven outstanding musicians who are killing this score. Though we do a lot of rock musicals, this is the loudest show we've ever done (maybe tied with Hedwig), but the blend among the musicians and against the vocals is superb, thanks in large part to our sound designer and engineer Ben Rosemann, whose hands never leave the sound board for a second throughout the entire 90-minute show.

And then there are our fearless designers. As with many other things, we don't do design like a lot of other companies. We meet once at the beginning of the process, all of us, to talk about our plans, my take on the show, etc., and then I don't keep a real close eye on them. I talk with our scenic designer Rob more often because his work is always inextricably tangled up in my work staging the show. But I don't talk to our lighting designer Ken much at all before he designs and hangs the lights, other than practical things like where a special might be placed. I've learned that lighting designers prefer I talk to them in abstract terms, mood, impression, feeling, and let them translate that into design. And yet, Ken found that same balance that Dowdy and I did, between rock concert and musical theatre. His lighting invoked rock concerts, most of them music-bassed cues, but he also did the necessary job of storytelling that theatre requires. I also don't keep a very close eye on our costumer Sarah. She has an unerring eye for design, in any period, in any style. I knew she had this.

The one thing we had to talk about in terms of costumes was St. Jimmy. When I first saw Sarah's ideas for him, I knew that was the right direction, but it didn't seem totally right. We talked (I mentioned both Beetlejuice and A Clockwork Orange), she thought about it some more, and came back with exactly the right look. Very different from the original, but so right, even down to giving Jimmy and Johnny one costume detail in common, to connect them. And though Chris Kernan as Jimmy was doing a great job, it was Sarah's wild costume that got him to home plate. When she saw this production photo of St. Jimmy (yes, that's a fur collar and a trucker hat), she commented, "This is everything." She's awesome.

And really, a big part of why this show has turned out so great is my frequent collaborator, New Line's associate artistic director Mike Dowdy, who directs a lot of the New Line shows with me. He bring so much to our shows, both concrete ideas about staging, but also questions and challenges for our actors about their characters. He has such strong instincts, and he and I have an almost identical aesthetic, so even when we're both directing a show, it always ends up with a single point of view, a single vision. Dowdy hasn't been doing this nearly as long as I have, but I have such respect for his brain and his work, and I know my work is always better when he's working with me.

In August Dowdy will solo direct his first New Line show, Tell Me on a Sunday.

I also have a lot of gratitude for our St. Louis audiences. We had a big house for our preview Thursday, then we sold out both Friday and Saturday nights. As huge as our pre-sale was for Heathers in October, this pre-sale was more than twice as big. I think we'll sell out the rest of the run.

This has been yet another New Line show that turned out ten times cooler than I ever expected. I knew it was great. I had seen Michael Mayer's brilliant original production on Broadway, with Billie Joe Armstrong in the role of St. Jimmy! But put this story – and a 7-piece punk rock band – in a small blackbox theatre with only seven rows of audience, and it becomes overwhelmingly personal and beautiful and immediate, and ultimately uplifting. Though my intention was never to depart radically from Mayer's conception of the show, the intimacy of our space and the choices our actor have made, have taken this show to a different place, and that's very exciting.

You wouldn't think a punk musical about sex, drugs, and death would be "ultimately uplifting," but after all the hardship of our story, our last song, "The Time of Your Life," reminds us that we must embrace all of life, not just the good parts and the easy parts, but all the parts, because they make us who we are, and they teach us what we know. We are indebted to the bad times more than to the good ones. Armstrong's lyric is a philosophical statement about accepting life as it is, about laying down your arms and giving up the fight.

Because what other choice do we have?
Another turning point,
A fork stuck in the road.
Time grabs you by the wrist,
Directs you where to go.
So make the best of this test
And don't ask why.
It's not a question,
But a lesson learned in time.

It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

I don't know if I've ever heard a better explanation of the Hero Myth story – or a human life – "It's something unpredictable but in the end is right." The song goes on:
So take the photographs
And still frames in your mind,
Hang it on a shelf
In good health and good time.
Tattoos of memories
And dead skin on trial,
For what it's worth,
It was worth all the while.

It's something unpredictable but in the end is right;
I hope you had the time of your life.

As Sarah might say, this is everything. "For what it's worth, it was worth all the while." A typically cheeky, acrobatic, alliterative, and deeply truthful lyric from Armstrong.

We run three more weeks, and it will be such a joy to watch our show settle, and get richer and deeper over that time. I often remind myself how lucky I am to work with these people, who both trust me to guide us, and also bring so much to our collaboration.

Here's a taste...

It is not lost on me that I'm doing exactly what I've always wanted to do, literally since before I can remember, and doing it with the absolute cream of theatre artists.

Our wild and wonderful adventure continues. Get your tickets early!

Long Live the Musical!

It's Something Unpredictable, But In the End is Right

So here we are again. New Line's 76th musical, the incredible, iconic American Idiot, surprising us all by its shattering relevance to the rage and chaos of our 2016 Presidential election. The opening lyric ("Don't wanna be an American Idiot!") pops into my head every time cable news cuts to a Trump rally.

I can't think why.

We preview this Thursday and open Friday – and opening night is already sold out. We've always called this week in our process "Hell Week." In our early years, it was hellish. We'd move into the theatre Sunday, build the set, hang the lights, and Monday night, we'd run the show. No cue-to-cue to fine-tune the lights, and our musicians never played the score together till that Monday night. And then we opened on Thursday. I don't know how the fuck we did shows like Sweeney Todd, Floyd Collins, and Passion under those limitations, but we did.

Now, we have a much more leisurely, lower stress process. We loaded American Idiot into the theatre two weeks ago, and we've been rehearsing on the set these last two weeks. Which is such a luxury.

It's Sunday night of Hell Week. Sitzprobe is over, the band sounds phenomenal – and fair warning, friends, this really is a punk rock musical, and it will be the loudest show we've ever produced – the actors are pumped, the props are organized on the prop table, and now it's about putting all the pieces together.

It seems like it was so long ago that we started this adventure, that we learned this incredible score and these incredible vocal arrangements by Tom Kitt; but ever since the first rehearsal, we all knew that it wasn't going to sound really right on solo piano. Some of the ballads sounded decent, but none of the songs really sounded right.

Someone at rehearsal today asked me if I had had a picture of the finished show in my head all along. The answer is not even close. All I do is help our actors tell this story as clearly as possible, through staging, through discussions of character and relationships and themes, and through the other elements of our production.

I don't have a destination; I have a job, a process. At least the way New Line works, my work is just part of the puzzle. The coolest character work and detail work comes from the actors. A big part of the emotion comes from the musicians. A big part of that quest for clarity comes from the production designers.

But I don't care anymore if I know in advance what the finished puzzle will look like. If I can trust my collaborators and the material, if I know I've set us on the right road (and I usually do), then I can enjoy the fun of discovery along with my fellow adventurers. When we all discover the result of our collaboration together, it gives us all ownership in it, and our collaborative creation is richer and realer, in so many ways, than a single artist's creation would be. I just need to know I did my best job, and that I kept us all on the same road.

I've often heard that many sculptors think of their work as "revealing" the statue from within the block of marble, as just carving away all the parts that aren't the statue. That idea has always been fascinating to me, but I realize that's sort of how I think about our work. Our work is more about exploring into, rather than taking away from, but in both cases, the work of art is revealed over time and only with lots of work and artistry.

We're at that point now. We have revealed this beautiful, tough, powerful show, and much to my delight, not only does it work on a small-scale, it becomes a different kind of story, a more personal, more emotional, less epic story. When Johnny is having spasms after doing heroin, he's only about six feet from our front row. The intimacy of our theatre holds a giant magnifying glass up to the rage and grief in this story. We dare you not to be moved.

Monday night I will finally see our show in its final form for the first time. Dowdy and I will still polish this week, but nothing big will change. For the first time, we'll see this show with full band and head mics, on a finished set, with full costumes and props and video. Yes, we will use video, but pretty differently from the original.

Though it's often true to one degree or another, this time, the show is nothing without our band. Only the band can deliver the punk rock. We have a seven-piece rock band and they are blowing the roof off the Marcelle. Sue Goldford, our rehearsal pianist, and conductor/keyboardist for performances, is my hero. This isn't at all the kind of music Sue is used to playing, and I think it freaked her out quite a bit at first, but she's been so great, so dependable, and now that the whole band is here, she's a hell of a bandleader too. They sound so fierce! And extra big kudos to our poor house drummer Clancy Newell, who's trying to play punk rock, while I keep running over, going, "During that solo verse, you really have to pull back a little, or I can't understand the lyric." So far, Clancy has not reached across his high-hat and slugged me.

And what would we do without the indefatigable and unflappable Ben Rosemann, our sound designer, who is giving us both a legit punk rock sound and an excellent musical theatre mix so we can hear all the lyrics. We love Ben. He joined us a year ago for Springer and we hope he'll stick around a while.

Nothing worse than a rock musical with bad sound....

I'm feeling surprisingly little stress tonight. I'm not totally stress-free; after all, I'm steering this massive fucking ship of ours. But I work with the best, coolest collaborators I could imagine. No matter what mountain I give us to climb, we all climb it with enthusiasm and we have a really great time along the way.

There is nothing, nothing, better than making really great theatre with a bunch of really great theatre artists. It's better than sex. It's better than HBO, or my mom's banana bread (sorry, Mom), or blowing up a Donald Trump rally (what do you want from me, I'm doing a punk rock musical!).

Monday night, the show won't be at its peak; adding all these new elements will be a bit disorienting for the actors, but we've had so many run-throughs, they've got the show well in hand, so they'll be fine. Then Tuesday and Wednesday nights, we'll hit our stride, and then Thursday we get our one preview audience.

American Idiot offers important insights into a pivotal moment in our country's history, and at the same time, it's a kick-ass punk rock musical, using the only language that could adequately express the emotions of that moment. And this one.

Holy shit, this is gonna be amazing.

Thank you, Billie Joe Armstrong. I have had the time of my life.

Long Live the Musical!

This Sensation's Overwhelming

We used to call them "concept musicals," shows for which the central theme or metaphor is as important (or more so) than the story. Steve Sondheim and Hal Prince perfected the form but they didn't invent it; after all, there were The Cradle Will Rock, Love Life, Hallelujah Baby!, The Fantasticks, and a few other shows that arguably qualify as concept musicals, that came long before the Sondheim-Prince Revolution.

But the concept musical flourished and evolved in the 1960s and 70s, practiced most powerfully by Sondheim and Prince, Kander and Ebb, Michael Bennett, Bob Fosse, and Tommy Tune.

We still have concept musicals, but we generally don't use that label anymore. Maybe it's because the elements of the concept musical (i.e., Cabaret, Company, Follies, Chicago, Grease, Hair, Rocky Horror, The Wiz, Working, A Chorus Line, etc.) have become more integrated into the art form as it has evolved in this new Golden Age of musical theatre.

If we were still using that label, there would be lots of contemporary shows that qualify: Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, The Scottsboro Boys, The Blue Flower, Passing Strange, The Wild Party, High Fidelity, Bukowsical, Spelling Bee, A New Brain, Urinetown, Bat Boy, If/Then, and so many others.

And American Idiot.

It's worth noting that New Line has produced all but three of the shows I just listed.

But because we routinely produce many of the most adventurous, most difficult conceptual musicals, actors who are new to our family sometimes have a hard time understanding these shows and their place in these shows. In some cases, most notably Hair (the first time) and Lippa's The Wild Party, our actors didn't fully "get it" until all the production elements came together a few days before we opened. To be honest, with Hair, it really wasn't till we got our first audience sobbing at the end of the show...

American Idiot is one of these concept musicals. It's difficult to understand intellectually what Michael Mayer did with this story, and how he uses the ensemble.

In American Idiot, the ensemble starts the show as friends of Johnny, Tunny, and Will's. After a prologue (the title song), in which the actors are outside our narrative, announcing our intentions for the evening, they move inside the story. In the second number, the "Jesus of Suburbia" medley, the ensemble plays our heroes' community. But once we finish that medley (ending with "Tales of Another Broken Home"), everything changes.

Now we move into concept musical territory...

The whole middle part of the show, starting with "Holiday" and ending with "Wake Me Up When September Ends," largely leaves the concrete world, for an inner world of emotion, fear, dislocation, isolation, anger... And for this middle section, the ensemble acts more as projections of Johnny, Tunny, Will, Heather, and Whatsername; and/or they are the outside world through our heroes' warped, angry, drugged-up eyes. Just as St. Jimmy is a projection of Johnny's dark side, Jimmy's acolytes and mourners are a further projection of Jimmy.

So throughout most of the story, the ensemble takes on an entirely conceptual role, illustrating and extending the inner turmoil of these fucked up young men and women. Only at the beginning and end of the show, the ensemble plays real people in Johnny's real word.

In most Hero Myth stories, the hero has companions who go on his journey with him (think the Tin Man or C-3PO). In this story, our heroes' friends do accompany them on their journey, but only inside our heroes' heads.

In a normal Hero Myth story, Tunny and Will would be companions on Johnny's journey. But Michael Mayer and Billie Joe Armstrong are doing something more interesting than that with this show. They set out to tell a story about America's reaction to 9/11 and the War on Terror, but American didn't have just one response. So Mayer and Armstrong split up the usual merry band and they give us instead three hero myths and three heroes who take very different journeys.

And the ensemble spends the show jumping around from inside Johnny's head, to inside Tunny's head, to inside Whatsername's head...

All this works and the audience accepts it, partly because we've all been prepared for this kind of thing by other concept musicals. It's rare that an ensemble gets used in so many different ways within a single show, but the surrealism of much of the show (because it's almost all interior and/or drug induced) makes it all feel like a unified whole.

It also works because of the consistency and artistry with which Mayer and Armstrong use the ensemble. As one example of this craftsmanship, the character of St. Jimmy, one of the leads and arguably the antagonist, is also inside Johnny's head, and Jimmy bridges those two worlds, the concrete and the interior, the real world of the characters and the metaphorical world of the ensemble.

I'm very lucky that our actors trust me. Even when they don't understand exactly where we're headed, they accept that I do know, that I will protect them, and so they try anything I ask of them.

So much of my staging for American Idiot is expressionistic, conveying emotion rather than any concrete ideas or images. And we see now, as we run the whole show at each rehearsal, that all that conceptual stuff is making sense to the actors. We can see them making connections within scenes, and over the course of the show. We can see them fully embracing many of the wilder moments. We can see, just from the commitment and fearlessness onstage, that our actors are getting comfortable, feeling the longer arcs of the story, understanding their place in this wild, poetic, conceptual universe.

In our audition notices, we always say, "We need intelligent, fearless, singing actors who are willing to take risks onstage." And we mean it. Without the high level of talent and fearlessness we are lucky to assemble for each show, we could not do the kind of work we do. We sure couldn't do American Idiot. Lucky for us, we get the very best talent in the area working with us because of the kind of smart, adventurous, brilliant shows we produce.

The best actors, musicians, and designers want to work on challenging, brilliant material. I am very fortunate to be able to provide that material for these amazing artists to work on. I truly love my job.

We open next week!

Long Live the Musical!

Soda Pop and Ritalin

Some actors find New Line's process disorienting, or even scary, when they join us for the first time. We're kind of a hybrid of traditional regional theatres (like the Rep), ensemble-driven theatres (like The Actors' Gang and The Acting Company), and the experimental theatres in New York in the 1960s (like Caffe Cino, Cafe LaMaMa, and others).

The real genesis of our process is Affton High School, where Judy Rethwisch gave me my first real theatre experiences. New Line's rehearsal schedule is really just an evolution of Judy's rehearsal schedule. But over the last twenty-five years, as I've talked to people, watched interviews, read books, etc., I've taken what I like from other companies and incorporated those things into our process.

At the same time, I'm always looking for ways to make our process less stressful, and I think I've done really well at that...

There are a few Big Ideas that have always guided me. The first came from actor Larry Luckinbill, who once wrote to me in a letter, "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public's intelligence. They will thank you for it."

Powerful, isn't it? And sort of subversive. That became the guiding principle behind New Line.

I once read in an interview that James Lapine likes to end each week of rehearsal with a full run-through, no matter where they are in the process, no matter how much of the show they've blocked, just to see where they are. I love that. I love setting the actors off on a journey of discovery that I'm not controlling much. Lapine says that often during those run-throughs they discover wonderful things that just kinda happen naturally...

Nothing's better in the theatre than happy accidents.

Another Big Idea came from an interview I saw with Hal Prince, back around the time of Kiss of the Spider Woman. He said that he thought the job of a director was first to set everybody on the right path and keep them on that path, then to let the actors do their work and create their performances, and then at the end, the director is there to edit, to make sure it's all the same fabric, to see that the storytelling is clear.

As soon as I heard this, I knew instinctually that was exactly right – and it was put in such clear, plain terms. I always keep that in my head while we work. After all, our shows are not my work; they are our work. And our work would be a whole lot less interesting if I blocked and dictated every micro-second of the show.

But that middle part, both freedom and responsibility, scares the shit out of some actors.

Some directors think directing means just staging, and the actors are left to fend for themselves when it comes to character, relationships, motivations, themes, subtext, etc. Other directors work very slowly and meticulously through every moment, working on both staging and all the interior stuff together, working it over and over, discussing it, dissecting it, repeating a scene (or even just a couple pages) till it's exactly what they want.

I fall right in the middle between these two.

I give the actors a skeleton of the show and I expect them to bring it to life. I expect them to contribute as much or more than I do. If I tell each person on stage what to do at any given moment, I will create an interesting stage picture. But if I tell everyone on stage to create their own moment, that stage picture will be twice as interesting, because it comes from the truth of all these different life experiences. The actors are not my tools and they are not my employees. They are my collaborators. We create these beautiful works of art together.

The process I've created gives me a lot of wonderful luxuries. Usually I am able to let a show percolate for months in my head before I actually have to stage it. When I'm able to do that, I end up with a better end product.

I almost always work out all the staging in advance (usually while I'm high as a kite), even though I'll discard some of it later, and our blocking rehearsals are about me showing the actors the physicality of the show, where they walk, where they stand, where the energy of the scene is directed, whether they're sharing with the audience or not, that kind of stuff. And at the same time, I give them very broad brushstrokes about acting choices, often in terms of the bigger arcs of the story, hoping to set them on the right road without handcuffing them too much.

Then we run what we've blocked a couple times. My only agenda at this point is to make sure the actors understand my staging and the big arcs of the show. While we're running these scenes, if I see an actor going down a wildly wrong road, I'll rein them in and re-direct them, but I try not to judge too many of the acting choices.

Once we've blocked the whole show, we start running the whole thing at each rehearsal. Now the actors get to do their most difficult and most rewarding work, discovering and revealing the reality of their characters and this world, making choices about how their character live in this world. And after two or three run-throughs, my co-director Mike Dowdy and I set about editing and polishing their work.

The work we do during this phase mostly falls into two categories. One part of the work is fine-tuning the physicality, particularly after we move into the theatre (we have the incredible luxury of getting two and a half weeks on our set plus one preview before we open). Sometimes, pieces of my staging really just don't work, so I come up with different solutions. Sometimes, they work but need to be subtly altered to be most effective. Sometimes, the focus of a scene can be dramatically changed by having all but one or two actors take a step upstage... Stuff like that...

For longtime readers of my blog, you've heard this before... I think the creation of comic book art is a good metaphor for the way I think about my directing work. When we're putting a show together, my first job is to do the pencil sketch. Then the actors and I ink those lines in together. The actors fill in all the color and the speech bubbles, and I do a final edit. They bring it to life. I just give them a pencil sketch...

It's when we get to the final phase of the process – where we are right now with American Idiot -- whee I start to get to see the destination I aimed us at all those weeks ago. It's the time when Dowdy and I get to help these deeply talented, smart, fearless actors give the strongest, most truthful performances they can. There are many ways we can help them do that. One benefit of having so many long-standing New Liners is that we've learned what those actors need and don't need, what will help them and what will get in their way. And that just makes the journey a little easier.

But American Idiot is really unlike any other show. I guess, in all fairness, that could be said of many New Line shows – they are all like each other in being unlike each other. Sorry about that. I'm stoned.

This is one of those shows that operates under its own rules. I think the closest we've come to a show like this before is probably Andrew Lippa's The Wild Party, a genuine contemporary masterpiece in my opinion. Both shows are highly stylized, characters often existing inside and outside the story at the same time, both participating in and narrating at once. But it's also, by definition, a hybrid of rock concert and theatre; while I think the original veered more toward rock concert, we'll veer more toward theatre.

So for actors who haven't worked with us before, or who haven't done complex concept musicals with us before, some of this is a little scary. I don't want most of this show to look too polished. I don't want all the staging to be "frozen" (i.e., exactly the same every night). I don't want much of the staging to be too precise, lines too straight, unison moves too perfect. Of course, for punctuation, there are moments that should be very sharp and theatrical, but that's not the overall style of this show. We're doing our best to translate the punk rock aesthetic into musical theatre terms – without any of the limiting constraints of commercial concerns.

This show owes a lot to Hair, with its rough, ragged, intentionally amateurish vibe, but also in the use of expressionistic movement, not dance moves or steps, but movement that expresses emotion in a more visceral, abstract way. In our production, pounding on the floor expresses frustration, stomping expresses rage, a punch expresses rebellion, running expresses aimlessness, standing on chairs expresses defiance. But only, as I repeatedly remind the actors, if the intention behind those moves -- the acting -- is strong and fearless.

This is not movement primarily for the eyes; it's movement that speaks to the primal heart.

I guess my favorite thing during this part of the process is discovery. When my staging and the actor's interior work come together and reveal something about the character and the scene that we hadn't fully understood before. It's those moments when I think to myself, Goddamn, this writing is good.

So here we are. We've had three full run-throughs so far. One in the rehearsal hall, just to review the material, then the first one on stage to adjust to the space, get used to the platforms, etc. It was the third rehearsal when the show came to life. We'd given them some notes, but the actors really found the show's inner life, and we could see lights coming on all over the place.

Now the most interesting work happens. We have several run-throughs just to explore and solve problems. My favorite response to an actor who's worried about something is "We've got time." I could still say that this past week, but next week we'll be coming down the home stretch.

This is a show about finding The Real. If you saw Passing Strange, you'll know that The Real is your road, your path through life. Everybody's Real is different and you won't get to your Real if you try to take someone else's road. Our three heroes in American Idiot have to find their Real. As the story opens, all they know is that this – mainstream American culture – isn't it. But all of them get trapped on other people's roads, leading to other people's Real.

Ultimately, these guys have to grow the hell up and take control of their own journeys.

The beauty and joy of this piece of theatre is that is requires the Real from all of us. It's a piece of very authentic, heartfelt storytelling, coming from a punk tradition that values authenticity above all; and to get at its considerable truth, we all have to bring our individual Real to this story. The show is written for a cast of individuals, not "leads" and a "chorus." We realized in rehearsal there's really only one solo in the whole show. Like Rent, it's about community, but it's also about individual journeys within that community.

And it's about America. Johnny, Tunny, and Will all need to grow up and take responsibility for their lives and their choices; but I think Billie Joe Armstrong and Michael Mayer are arguing the same thing about America as a country and as a culture.

Ideas about how to tell this story clearly keep popping into my head, so I keep fine-tuning. I've already blogged about my struggle in figuring out how to stage the drug trip that is "Extra­ordinary Girl." I finally realized I wanted this scene in our production to be a freaky mashup of sexual fantasy and violent nightmare. After we had staged it with the cast, and I was pretty sure it was a good choice, it kept percolating in my head. There was still something about it that didn't totally click. It was the girl of the title. What does she show us about Tunny's mind? I remembered reading some analysis of the original Green Day album, where people speculated that the "Extra­ordinary Girl" is really America, and when you read the lyric that way, it is pretty intense. So I decided to turn the girl in his hallucination into America itself. There amidst the violence and all the freaky lighting and everything, this lyric is going to take on some powerful resonance – now it's America that "gets so sick of crying."

I'm anxious to see what our audiences think...

If history is any guide, the show will be in amazing shape by the time we open (we're in pretty great shape right now!), and we'll get a giant boost of energy when our kick-ass seven-piece rock band joins us for the last several rehearsals before we share it all with you...

The adventure continues... And so does the countdown...

Long Live the Musical!