White People Are Crazy and Dangerous.

They say the winners get to write the history books.

But I was wondering, what if the antagonists got to describe the central themes of their musicals? What would Baldwin Blandish say is the point or central theme of Cry-Baby? How would Audrey II describe what Little Shop is about? We view the story from the protagonist's point of view, but there's never only one side to a good story, right?

So light up a fat one and follow me into my fevered imagination, as I ponder what "the other side" would think about our favorite musicals...


Baldwin Blandish on the central theme of Cry-Baby – Just when America is on the brink of destruction, decent Americans unite to take our country back from the radicals and commies.

Audrey II on Little Shop – Nobodies can't stand in the way of progress, no matter how hard they try.

Mayor Shinn on The Music Man – A foreigner comes to town to cheat the good folk of River City out of their hard-earned money by exploiting their children.

Billy Flynn on Chicago – Win or lose, the only real winner is the guy who gets paid.

Inspector Javert on Les Miz – Lawlessness run rampant inevitably leads to tragedy.

Mr. Peachum on Threepenny – A light-hearted family comedy about the importance of protecting the ones you love.

Frank N. Furter on The Rocky Horror Shows – Two intruders try to ruin the best party ever.

Riff Raff on The Rocky Horror Show – The worst part of having a kids' party is cleaning up afterward.

Patty Simcox on Grease – The terrifying story of a teenage girl's descent into madness, as her whole life is destroyed by sex, rock and roll, and drive-ins.

Horace Vandergelder on Hello, Dolly! – Ninety-nine percent of the people in the world are fools, and the rest of us are in great danger of contamination.

Sgt. Krupke on West Side Story – Bad kids always get what they deserve.

Charles Guiteau on Assassins – A patriotic pageant about the indomitable American spirit and the power of one man to change history.

The Kralahome on The King and I – A disturbing morality tale of cultural arrogance and imperialism, and its dark effects on the court of Siam.

Willie Conklin on Ragtime – Real Americans want to take our country back. To the 50s. The 1850s.

Dr. Parker on Bat Boy – Sometimes you gotta do what you gotta do.

Lt. Brannigan on Guys and Dolls – The only protection from a bad guy with a gun is a good guy with a gun.

Baroness Schraeder on The Sound of Music – A fable for older women: learn to play the guitar.

Lucy Van Pelt on You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown – You have to be nice to losers, because they can't help it.

Caldwell B. Cladwell on Urinetown – The People are too dumb to govern themselves, and when they try, it just ruins it for the rest of us.

Benny on Rent – A cautionary fable about the sad fate of slackers who contribute nothing but expect much in return.

King Herod on JC Superstar – A political drama about the limitations and inevitable decline of populist movements.

Jud Fry on Oklahoma! – Nice guys finish last.

The Emcee on Cabaret – Life is a cabaret. Unless you're a Jew.

Parthy Ann Hawks on Show Boat – The wages of sin is death.

Vera Simpson on Pal Joey – Boys will be boys.

Miss Hannigan on Annie – When children run wild, everything goes to hell.

Gaston on Beauty and the Beast – Uppity bitches always end up with the ugly guys.

Kate on Kiss Me, Kate – Men are the best argument for being a lesbian.

Fastrada on Pippin – Never pass up an opportunity.

Bud Frump on How To Succeed – The ends always justify the means.

Dr. Sanson Carrasco on Man of La Mancha -- Madness can be catching.

Chip Tolentino on Spelling Bee – Life is pandemonium.

J.D. Dean on Heathers – Nietzsche was right.

Charles Bukowski on Bukowsical – Fuck this fucking bullshit.

Bloody Mary on South Pacific – White people are crazy and dangerous.


This was a fun exercise, and it was more illuminating than I expected, trying to imagine the opposite point of view of all these stories I know so well. Some of them were easy; some I really had to ponder.

What a good exercise this would be for actors – to articulate a show's central theme as their character would see it. Everybody's point of view is a little different, after all.

If nothing else, I hope you found this entertaining, and maybe if I'm lucky, a little illuminating too.

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Time and Music Make a Song

These are the things a musical theatre freak does between shows for fun.

With our big anniversary approaching, I organized all of New Line's shows, over our first twenty-five seasons, in the order in which they first debuted. In a few cases, that debut was the New Line production.

I'm sharing this list because I think it's interesting to get a sense of the wide range of work we've done, going back almost to the beginning of our art form. We produce the most current works of the musical theatre, often in their first productions after Broadway or off Broadway; but we also produce shows spanning most of the history of the musical, including four shows from before 1960 (going back to 1928!), six shows from the 1960s, thirteen from the 1970s, only three from the 80s, and sixteen from the 90s. You can see from our repertoire when the revolutions happened – the mid 60s into the mid 70s, and again starting in the mid 1990s and still going on today.

People often use the phrase "a New Line show" (as in "Bukowsical is such a New Line show!"), meaning a musical that has the qualities we look for – fearless, smart, intense, outrageous, relevant, rule-breaking. It's cool to see that there were "New Line shows" in the first half of the last century, even before the Prince-Sondheim revolution. And as we just saw in June with Threepenny, some of those older shows pack as powerful a wallop as the more recent works.

So take a stroll through New Line's and the musical theatre's history...

The Threepenny Opera (1928)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
The Nervous Set (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Camelot (1960)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Man Of La Mancha (1965)
Cabaret (1966)
Hair (1967)
Jacques Brel Is Alive And Well And Living In Paris (1968)
Company (1970)
Grease (1971)
Two Gentlemen Of Verona (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Pippin (1972)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
Chicago (1975)
I Love My Wife (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse In Texas (1978)
Evita (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)
Tell Me on a Sunday (1979)
March Of The Falsettos (1981)
Sunday In The Park With George (1983)
Into The Woods (1987)
Assassins (1990)
Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1990)
Return To The Forbidden Planet (1991)
   –[ New Line founded in late 1991 ]–
Attempting The Absurd (1992)
Passion (1994)
Rent (1994)
Breaking Out In Harmony (1994)
Hedwig And The Angry Inch (1994)
The Ballad Of Little Mikey (1994)
Songs For A New World (1995)
In The Blood (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
Woman With Pocketbook (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Urinetown (1999)
Reefer Madness (2000)
The Wild Party (2000)
Bare (2003)
She’s Hideous (2003)
The Amberklavier (2004)
The 25th Annual Putnam County Spelling Bee (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Johnny Appleweed (2006)
Bukowsical (2006)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2006)
Jerry Springer The Opera (2007)
Love Kills (2007)
Passing Strange (2008)
Cry-Baby (2008)
Next To Normal (2009)
American Idiot (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)
Heathers (2014)
Atomic (2014)

Tell the truth – Isn't that an impressive list?

There are so many trends in the art form that you can see illustrated in this list. You can see how personal the art form got in the 1990s, when for the first time, people wrote musicals not just in hopes of a Broadway production, but instead for the same reasons any other artist makes art.

More through happy accident than by design, New Line Theatre was founded in 1991 just as the idea of more purely artistic musical theatre was starting to take hold across the country. Miranda Lundskaer-Nielsen writes in her outstanding book Directors and the New Musical Drama, “After the pioneering efforts of theatres such as the Public Theater and Playwrights Horizons in New York, the idea of the serious nonprofit musical spread to theatres across America during the 1990s. While these shows met with varying levels of economic and critical success, the very existence of this alternative home for the art form began to redefine the musical, offering an alternative to both the traditional Broadway musical and the new West End shows. As the economics of the commercial theatre became increasingly forbidding, the nonprofit theatre became vital incubators for musical drama and nurtured a new generation of musical theatre writers.”

Last summer Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote a really wonderful feature about New Line in American Theatre magazine, and he noted, "What's interesting about New Line's early years is that the kind of musical the company has become identified with – essentially, shows stocked with varying proportions of the ingredients Miller celebrated in his 2011 book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll,. and Musicals – was not thick on the ground in the early '90s. At the time, the form was still in a post-'80s, post-British-megamusical doldrums. When Rent came along in 1996, the new American musical got its biggest youthful shot in the arm since Hair. In the ensuing decades, and especially in the years since 2006's Spring Awakening, the number of rock musicals – and, more important, musicals with a distinctly post-Rodgers & Hammerstein moral sensibility – has grown to the point that Miller's wish list is longer than a Cole Porter patter song."

At last in the 90s there were other places (like New Line) to have a new musical produced. And that meant a musical could be a very, intensely personal work of art, with no commercial agenda whatsoever, shows like Passion, Rent, Hedwig, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Songs for a New World, Floyd Collins, A New Brain. Of course, I'd argue that Sondheim got to that party about a decade ahead of schedule, with Sunday in the Park with George.

Notice how many of these shows in the list are directly political – Threepenny, The Cradle Will Rock, Camelot, La Mancha, Cabaret, Hair, Jacques Brel, JC Superstar, Pippin, Evita, Assassins, Kiss of the Spider Woman, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Urinetown, Johnny Appleweed, BBAJ, American Idiot, Bonnie & Clyde, and of course, Atomic, coming to New Line's stage next June.

You can also see in this list the early evolution of the neo musical comedy starting in the mid to late 1990s, with shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Reefer Madness, Spelling Bee, Bukowsical, BBAJ, Cry-Baby, and of course my own showsAttempting the Absurd (several years ahead of Bat Boy) and Johnny Appleweed.

There are several shows here about our never-ending battle between the 1950s and 1960s, including Grease, Rocky Horror, Cry-Baby, The Nervous Set, and The Fantasticks. And you can see in recent years, so many musicals about the breakdown of social institutions, like Cry-Baby, bare, Bonnie & Clyde, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, Jerry Springer, Passing Strange, Night of the Living Dead. Although, that was also a topic in the 60s, in shows like Hair, La Mancha, and Cabaret.

You can see all through the 2000s that once again the art form isn't just breaking rules, it's making up all new ones. Look at the titles in these last 15 years – every one of these shows is like no other, every one utterly different from all the rest, and every one comes with its own set of rules.

We, the artists of the American musical theatre, have learned so much from Prince and Sondheim and Kander & Ebb, but we're going further now. Those guys got us a long way on our journey. They brought us to the musical theatre's New World, but now it's up to us to explore this endlessly malleable art form even more deeply than they did, to try even more daring experiments, find new forms of musical storytelling, find new ways of using music to tell stories.

New Line's last twenty-five years outline almost the entire history of our art form. That was never my conscious agenda, but it makes sense that it has happened. Storytelling is how we make sense out of the chaos of our lives. Life is pandemonium, as Mr. Barfée likes to remind us, so we need storytelling. And the American musical in particular tells the American story, our dreams, our fears, our ideals, our mistakes, our progress, our politics and culture, all of it, all explored and preserved in the musicals we all love so much.

Judy Newmark always writes really thoughtful reviews of our shows for the Post-Dispatch, often discussing them in the context of our past work, and in the context of our art form's history and/or trajectory. (This, by the way, is what makes Judy a theatre critic, and not just a reviewer.) As an example, in her review of New Line's I Love My Wife, she wrote:
New Line has done well with Hair, which it has mounted several times. It’s also staged strong productions of Grease and Chicago, the beat musical The Nervous Set, the slacker musical High Fidelity, and Return to the Forbidden Planet, set either in the 1950s or the future, maybe both. Put them all together, and it's an era-by-era look at changing American mores. Miller’s anthropological twist on musical theater gives New Line a distinctive point of view, brainy and bold.

I'm so proud of New Line and of the hundreds of New Liners who've worked with us over the last twenty-five years, for so many reasons. But one of those reasons is that alongside our agenda of producing exciting musical theatre, we're also charting the history of our country, our politics, and our culture.

As Mark Twain reportedly said, "History doesn't repeat itself, but it rhymes." Exactly. I learned so much about 21st-century politics from working on Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and I learned so much about race working on Passing Strange.

So the New Line adventure continues, as we soon open our 25th season, in the beautiful new Marcelle Theater. An anniversary is a cool time to reflect on where we've been, where we are, and where we're headed. I wonder what the next twenty-five years will bring...

More misadventures!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous

I've written nine musicals, book, music, and lyrics. All but one have been produced, and New Line has produced four of them, Attempting the Absurd (1992), Breaking Out in Harmony (1994), In the Blood (1995), and Johnny Appleweed (2006).

Now, as we approach New Line's 25th season, as I look back on New Line's work and my own life in musical theatre, I realize that the shows I wrote were my own unconscious, accidental master class in the structures, forms, and styles of the American musical theatre. By writing very different kinds of shows, I learned how all the various forms worked, by actually building them from the ground up and then directing and staging them. It's like an auto mechanic taking a car apart and putting it back together again.

I don't usually talk about my own shows a lot, partly because in retrospect I look at most of them as worthwhile exercises or experiments that I would not produce again.

Still, even though most of them will not see an audience again, I'm really glad I've written so many different kinds of shows, and that I've almost always had the luxury of audience feedback. So many talented people write musicals but never get them produced. I've been very lucky. Seeing my shows live onstage, seeing what works and doesn't, has taught me so much; and I think I can analyze and understand other people's work better because I've had the experience of writing book, music, and lyrics. On top of that, I think it makes me much more hesitant to change someone else's writing. I never insert my own lines into a show. You'd be surprised how many directors do.

I think I direct better because I was an actor in high school and college, and I understand the process and the obstacles of creating a performance; and I think I direct better because I really understand the writing process.

I recently interviewed Broadway composer-lyricist Bill Finn for my Stage Grok podcast, and a musical theatre friend later told me she never would have thought to ask the questions I asked. I think that's because I know what it is to write a show – and also because I've directed Finn's shows March of the Falsettos, A New Brain, and Spelling Bee for New Line, so I know those shows up close and personal.

So here's a brief stroll through the musicals of Scott Miller...

ADAM'S APPLE
Affton High School, 1981
At the end of my junior year in high school, my drama teacher Judy Rethwisch declared to our theatre arts class that it sure would be nice to do a student-written show. It was like lightning had hit me. I had never even considered writing a musical before, but suddenly I was going go do it. I wrote all summer, and in August, I brought Judy my script and score (lead sheet only) for Adam's Apple, a very old-fashioned, romantic musical comedy, with a debt in equal parts to George M, Cohan, George Abbott, and Jerry Herman. She read it over and committed to producing it that fall.  The story centered on a hapless high school Everyman, who lusts for the school pump, but ultimately opts for the nice girl instead, with song titles like "The Children of Izod," "The Administrative Waddle," and "I'm Different, Unique, and My Own Person." I had written a song called "Pushers and Dealers Are People Too," but the principal made us cut it. Along the way, our hero has a falling out with his best friend, and since I hadn't yet figured out I'm gay, the friendship at the center of the story was much gayer than I or our audience understood in 1981. The show sold great, audiences loved it, and the TV news magazine PM Magazine came out and filmed a segment about Adam's Apple. We even made a cast album and sold it on LP!


MUSICAL
Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1983
Musical was my high concept meta-musical about some college kids putting on a musical, but halfway through Act II, our hero and narrator confesses that he's been writing this show as we've been watching it, and he doesn't know how the story ends, because he's run out of ideas. So the characters have to find their own path to the finale. Brecht would have been so proud. My music was definitely more interesting for this show because I had begun to take music theory class, and in retrospect I can see that I was experimenting here with subverting traditional musical theatre conventions, experiments that would continue. (My producer enjoyed telling people she had been working on Working, then doing a musical called Musical.) By this point I had seen the original productions of Little Shop of Horrors and La Cage aux Folles, and I was moving beyond the safety of Rodgers & Hammerstein and Jerry Herman. With my next show, I would toss out linear plot altogether and obliterate the Fourth Wall.

TOPSIDERS
Off-Key Musical Theatre Co., Harvard Univ., 1984
Topsiders was my musical about coming to Harvard as a freshman and the huge freak-out I had that first fall (I almost transferred). I wrote songs about binge drinking, sex, missing home, getting dumped, the last episode of M*A*S*H, cramming for finals. And I wrote an opening number modeled on the opening of Company, with lots of different voices and fragments, creating a musical tapestry. Sondheim's is better of course, but mine was pretty good. Topsiders marks the start of my romance with 1960s and 70s concept musicals. I hadn't discovered the Company cast album until '82, so this came soon after that. My models were Company, A Chorus Line, Working, Hair, and other experiments of the period. Ultimately, Topsiders was more song cycle than concept musical, but it was both; through most of the show, the characters didn't interact, but on occasion they did. The title came from my realization that the vast majority of the other students I knew at Harvard were hard-core over-achievers, they were all valedictorians in high school, and most of them had SAT scores higher than mine (and mine were pretty good). I saw for the first time that kind of scary, raw ambition in many of these fierce over-achievers. How many Harvard pre-meds does it take to change a lightbulb? Two – one to change the bulb and the other to kick the ladder out from under him. Also, during this period, I wore topsiders everywhere I went...

THE LINE
Affton Alumni Theatre, 1985
The Line was my Brechtian political musical drama, based on an actual 1982 case of book banning, Island Trees School District v. Pico, in which students sued the school board (including their own parents) over the removal of "objectionable" books from the school library. Eventually the kids appealed the case all the way to the Supreme Court, and won. This was the first time I wrote a fundamentally serious show, and the first time I based a show on a true story. I fictionalized much of it, but I used actual quotes and actual events from the case. This was the first time I wrote music that I still find genuinely interesting. I think I was finding my musical voice as a composer, as I worked on this fourth show. But I think one of my weaknesses as a writer is in narrative structure, so basing this show on a true story helped with that.

ASTRO TURF
never produced, 1986
I took a truly wonderful class in college on the history of astronomy, taught by two amazing professors, Owen Gingerich and David Latham. On the first day of class, they told us we'd have a final paper, but it could come in virtually any form, as long as they agreed to it in advance. Past projects included computer animation, paintings, poetry, so I told them I wanted to write a one-act musical for my final, eventually titled Astro Turf, and they were thrilled. So I set to work on one of the hardest projects I ever took on. I had to synthesize everything we had learned, distill it down to its essence, make it rhyme and fit to the music. That was really hard! And astronomers were going to be judging it! The show was essentially a 20-minute song cycle. Each of five influential astronomers – Aristotle, Ptolemy, Copernicus, Tycho Brahe, and Johannes Kepler – sang a song about their theories on motion and the heavens. I got an A. Here's a taste of the opening song, sung by Aristotle:
All bodies are capable of moving,
As my friends have seen me proving,
Either straight or around.
Air and fire tend to move straight up: it's
In a way, a lot like puppets.
Earth and water move straight down.
Each heavenly body can
Find its way, quite unrehearsed,
To the center of the universe –
That's Earth – and go around.

The primary body of ev'rything is heaven,
Made the first day of those seven,
It's both perfect and complete.
It can never be increased or diminished
Since a sphere's innately finished.
It's a sphere elite.
All things tend toward the
Center of the universe.
Great distances they all traverse,
And Earth is where they meet.

The stars, the planets,
The sun, the moon, and ev'rything,
Are fixed in space, just hovering,
On crystalline spheres.
Sure, I know my model has a few problems.
You can't expect perfection in 350 BC.
After all, you know, the world's not perfect,
But it's all I've got to work with. Q.E.D.

ATTEMPTING THE ABSURD
New Line Theatre, 1992
Attempting the Absurd is one of my favorite things I've ever written, a wacky story about this guy Jason, who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical and doesn't really exist, because he has "the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom." Of course, everyone in his life thinks he's crazy, because they think they're all real – until he meets a group of community theatre folks. Because this was the first show I wrote after figuring out I'm gay, I created Chaz, a gay best friend for Jason, who ends up with as solid a Happy Ending as Jason – which was pretty subversive in 1992, six years before Will & Grace. The show's title comes from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." I didn't know it when I was writing it in the late 80s and early 90s, but Absurd is a textbook neo musical comedy, very traditional in its form, very subversive and very meta in its content. I literally spent years working out the central concept. I remember discussing it many late nights with my college roommate David, in 1986 at college. I had to figure out the rules of this universe I had constructed. If Jason knows he's only a character in a musical, he knows he's singing. But the characters who think they're real don't know they're singing, because they don't know they're in a musical – singing is just the language of the storytelling. When Jason breaks the fourth wall and talks to the audience, the "real" characters must actually see that Fourth Wall, so they think Jason is literally talking to a wall. I also had to figure out how to resolve the central conflict – my solution was that Jason's mother would try to have him locked up, but he finally convinces everyone that he's right (and of sound mind) by producing the script to Attempting the Absurd. Conceptually, this was a big step for me, but I also wrote music for Absurd that was a definite step forward for me. This is a show I'd enjoy bringing back, maybe with some minor rewrites. Here's the Act I finale:


BREAKING OUT IN HARMONY
New Line Theatre, 1994
After Attempting the Absurd, for the first time in my life, I wanted to go back to something I'd already written, The Line, and take another stab at it. A decade later, I was a much better writer and composer. So I did some massive rewrites, cut songs, changed songs, added songs, wrote new accompaniment, and changed the town name from Strawberry Spring to the more ironic Harmony. The only fatal flaw was that Breaking Out in Harmony is a Big Show, with a student chorus and a parents chorus, and ten leads. So it was really hard to cast the show adequately in our early years, and we ended up with a mixed bag, some great performers, some weak ones, and we never had a cast the size I had written the show for. I think it was just too big a show for New Line, especially this early in our history. But it was still a really interesting experience, rewriting an old project. I learned a lot.

IN THE BLOOD
New Line Theatre, 1995
In the Blood was my attempt at a serious, Rodgers & Hammerstein-style musical romantic tragedy, though in this case, the doomed romance was between a vampire and an HIV+ hematologist, who discovers that there's something in the vampire's blood that counteracts the HIV virus. In the last scene of the first act, the hematologist asks the vampire to turn him, so he won't suffer and die of AIDS, and the vampire is left with a monster of a moral dilemma. I wrote my best song ever for the Act I finale, when the vampire Zach explains his own origin story, a 10-minute soliloquy called "The Tale of Zachary Church" (see the clip below, recorded at a New Line concert), built very much on the model of R&H's "Soliloquy" in Carousel, and another big step forward for me as a composer, managing to keep such a long piece both interesting and unified. I was proud of this show, and I think it may be the best score I've written, but certain parts of the show really didn't work. Maybe it would be worth trying a rewrite, but I think I'd need a collaborator, at least on the book.


JOHNNY APPLEWEED
New Line Theatre, 2006
Johnny Appleweed, subtitled An American Odyssey, was my adventure into the contemporary neo musical comedy, or as I usually refered to the show, my "stoner political satire," my response to the re-election of George W. Bush. It was about that same time I started smoking pot every night. (Thanks, Dubya!) I made myself a rule from the get-go, that I would never work on the Appleweed script without being stoned. I also found great value in writing lyrics not stoned, but rewriting them stoned. Quirkiest, most inventive lyrics I've ever written. The friendly, itinerant stoner-philosopher Johnny Appleweed drives what little story there is, as he collects a bunch of misfit friends (including Jesus and a thinly veiled Tammy Faye Bakker) to journey to Washington DC, to tell the President (a thinly veiled Dubya doppelganger) that he's fucking up our country and should stop that. I wrote my shortest song for this show, the five-measure-long "Fucking Up America," in which Johnny plans what to say to the President:
Mr. President,
Please stop
Fucking up America.
You're fucking up America.
Thanks for your time.

The show also included some genuinely strange songs like the mystical "Cannabis Dei;" the President's song about Ann-Margret, "I Tapped That Ass;" and a Presidential campaign song for Jesus himself called "What Would Jesus Do?" Maybe the weirdest thing in the show was a small inset scene early on, when "The Three Stoners" entered, very stoner-Brechtian, to explain the experience and culture of marijuana. The first part of the sequence was choral slam poetry, which segued into another really weird song called "The Scheme of Things." (Here's that full scene.) I realized toward the end of the run something that I hadn't understood when I wrote it. Johnny Appleweed is designed to make the audience feel stoned, even those who weren't (many were). It was intentionally disorienting, nonsensical, silly, poetic, free-flowing, and our heroes spent the entire first act just sitting in one place, talking about going...  Here's the show's finale, "A Great Big Cloud of Smoke."


I don't think I ever wrote a more personal lyric than the very end of the show:
Johnny lives in you,
All the things you’d love to do,
Twice the wisdom, twenty times the fun.
(So much more fun!)
Live like Johnny lives,
Give the gift that always gives,
And don’t believe in everything you read.
And thank the Lord for
Johnny Appleweed.

I haven't written any new shows since Appleweed, though I keep getting great ideas, including several ideas for Appleweed sequels. But a few months ago, after seeing the Rep's Imaginary Theatre Company do a very funny children's version of A Christmas Carol, it made me think about writing something for kids myself. So I went home and started writing a children's musical, We Saved the World Today. As the story opens, a little girl is pissed off because there's a very big, busy road next to her favorite park, and it's dangerous. She assumes there's nothing she could do about it, until her Congressman happens by, and the two of them go on a whirlwind tour of Washington DC, taking their new bill through committees, through a filibuster, and finally to the President's desk. It's sort of an expanded "I'm Just a Bill," but it's also, weirdly enough, a companion piece to Johnny Appleweed, and I even used some Appleweed music to really connect the two pieces... though I doubt the two would ever be done together.

Writing shows is very hard work, and it's truly terrifying to put your work in front of an audience of strangers. I guess I do that as a director, but it's much more intense as the writer.

But I'm always glad I've written musicals myself when I'm working on someone else's show. It keeps me from being tempted to rewrite other people's work. It makes me respect the writing in a way that many actors and directors just don't. And it's made it waaaay easier to analyze shows, because I really do understand the nuts and bolts of musical theatre deep-down. And all that makes me a better director.

In the early days of New Line, the company needed me to write new shows, because there weren't that many shows being written in the early 1990s that fit New Line's aesthetic. But now there are tons of new shows being written, seemingly just for us. We don't need me as a writer now, because people like Larry O'Keefe, Amanda Green, Tom Kitt, Pasek & Paul, etc., all are stronger writers than I am. And there is a shitload of wonderful, intelligent, new material out there now...

It's such an amazing time to work in the musical theatre. I hope you enjoyed my little trip down memory lane...

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Muny 101

The Muny season I propose...

I know, the 2015 season is already underway, but I'm playing the long game here.

I remember, shortly after Mike Isaacson was named the Muny's new artistic director, I was in his office at the Fox, and I said, only half kidding, "You know, Mike, I have a list of shows I wanna see at the Muny now." And he smiled and said, "Scott, New Line can afford to have 75 people in the audience; the Muny can't."

Fair point.

But there are quite a number of very cool older shows that were written big and probably can only be done big. In other words, only community theatres and the Muny can afford anymore to do these shows as they were intended. Being the obsessive musical theatre freak I am, you can assume correctly that I have pretty strong ideas about what shows I'd like to see at the Muny in coming years.

Okay, before I go any further, let me first sing the praises of Mike Isaacson and the New Muny. I've been going to the Muny since before I can remember. For my entire childhood, my family saw at least one Muny show every summer, and as an older kid, I spent many evenings in the free seats. I also ushered out there for eight seasons (1980-1987).

But for much of the 1990s and 2000s, the Muny wasn't what it could (should) be. The artistic quality was marginal and the programming was one big fuckin' snooze-fest. (Tell us what you really think, Scott.) Paul Blake was an artistic director without much taste or much respect for the musical theatre, and the Muny suffered greatly for it.

But Isaacson is a different kind of cat. First off, he loves the musical theatre as much as I do (though he has more traditional tastes), he's super-smart, and he's incredibly insightful about what makes a show work or not work. I can't imagine anyone better suited for this job. Second, he's produced a number of shows in New York, so his rolodex is a wonder to behold, which means he can lure the very top talent in New York and around the country, to direct, choreograph, design, and perform in Muny shows. The artistic quality has skyrocketed the last couple seasons.

Lost in an artsy stoner's haze the other night, I thought wouldn't it be cool for one Muny season to chronicle the history of American musical theatre! Then I immediately thought, no, too big a project for one season. Okay, how about the history of the musical comedy? Now you're talking...

Okay, so a Muny season usually includes seven shows. Here's my season:

Little Johnny Jones (1904)

No, No, Nanette (1925)

Anything Goes (1934)

On the Town (1944)

Guys and Dolls (1950)

Mack and Mabel (1974)

The Will Rogers Follies (1991)

Some well-known crowd-pleasers, but also some rich, lesser known shows that Muny audiences would love.

Now if I could have more shows (when I started ushering, the Muny had an eleven-show season!), I might also include Very Good Eddie (1915), Sweet Charity (1966), Bat Boy (1997), and/or Something Rotten (2015). You'll notice that my picks trace the history of the art form, but also, in a very real way, the history of American culture and politics during the 20th century. That shouldn't really be a surprise, because musicals have always mirrored our culture and politics.

Okay so then let's have a second season that chronicles the history of musical drama...

Show Boat (1927)

Pal Joey (1940)

Carousel (1945)

West Side Story (1957)

Zorbá (1968)

Follies (1971)

Grand Hotel (1989)

I understand that Muny audiences have more mainstream taste than New Line audiences do, but still, I've included some well-known crowd-pleasers again, alongside some really rich, lesser known shows. And yes, I would beg Isaacson on my knees to let me direct Follies.

And again, if I could have an eleven-show season, I'd also add The Cradle Will Rock (1937), The Me Nobody Knows (1970), Dreamgirls (1981), and Jelly's Last Jam (1992). Another really great line-up.

I can just picture myself as a 17-year-old drama kid, having an artistic orgasm over these two seasons.

So how would you program a season at the Muny...?

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

Crazy for the Red, Blue, and White

So what does the Fourth of July mean to me?

Well, first off, I love America so deeply. I love our Constitution and our system of government. I watch C-SPAN for fun. I love that we really are "the world," made up of every nationality on the planet, because that gives us the richest culture the world has ever known. And I love our national character – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted – which is exactly the same as the character of the American musical comedy.

Composer Leonard Bernstein described musical theatre as “an art that arises out of American roots, out of our speech, our tempo, our moral attitudes, our way of moving.”

Lots of people argue that the American musical theatre evolved from the older European forms – British authors think England invented it, while German authors think Germany invented it. But neither is really true. Sure, operetta and ballad opera had some marginal influence on the new art form, but the American musical was born right at the turn of the last century, invented by the great George M. Cohan. Yes, he borrowed certain things from vaudeville and minstrel shows, but his musical comedies were genuinely something new. The language, the energy, the pacing, the plotting, everything about these shows was uniquely, intensely American – brash, rough, loud, fearless, aggressive, big-hearted.

Check out the Act I showstopper from Cohan's Little Johnny Jones, in this recreation of the original 1904 production. Notice how slangy it is – that was genuinely radical...


No European show ever felt like that. Not even close.

Historian Cecil Smith described Cohan as “the apostle of breeziness, of up-to-dateness, of Broadway brashness and slang. Speed, directness, and ‘ginger’ were the chief ingredients of his musical plays.” One of Cohan's famous directions to his cast before the curtain of a musical was, “Speed! Speed! And lots of it! Above all, speed!” Cohan gave the musical comedy its tempo, its attitude, its fierceness, its sheer, aggressive American-ness.

From its birth, the American musical theatre has been a form that could have emerged only from a culture like ours, a massive mashup of all (well, mostly Western) human culture, and the art form evolved as America evolved. The casts onstage became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) as American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values in America. No, No, Nanette in the 1920s was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes in the 1930s was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity, particularly criminal celebrity. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes in the 1940s was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism.

And the American musical could have evolved this quickly only in a culture like ours, in which we're always searching for the new and exciting, and relevant. Notice the wild acceleration of that evolution since the 1990s, when this new Golden Age began, as the musical theatre has become less shackled by commercial constraints than ever before.

Only America could have birthed Little Johnny Jones, Hair, West Side Story, Guys and Dolls, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Rent, The Cradle Will Rock, Chicago, Floyd Collins, Assassins, Hedwig, BBAJ, Violet, Noise/Funk, Avenue Q, American Idiot, Something Rotten... I could keep going. In the November 2003 issue of American Theatre, performance artist Tim Miller wrote:
As I watched the national Tony broadcast last June, savoring the folks singing and dancing their way through numbers from the nominated musicals, I was struck by how cheerfully utopian it all felt. These shows and the people who made them seemed to manifest a clear, alternative political vision of our country – one where gay couples are smoochingly visible; where the short fat girl wins; where people of different races boogie together; where progressive politics is everywhere you look. The Tonys conjured up an America I wish actually existed.

It’s easy for people, even theatre people sometimes, to malign musicals as a kind of guilty pleasure – superficial, reactionary fluff; a bad habit, like bingeing on bonbons. But I believe the legacy of the musical theatre is infinitely more complicated and subversive and admirable.

Miller declared that musicals taught him everything he ever needed to know about life, love, politics, and America itself. The musical theatre is America’s mythology, a chronicle not just of America’s times, people, and events, but even more of America’s dreams, legends, national mood, politics, and its extraordinary muscle and resilience. As Ian Bradley writes in his book You’ve Got to Have a Dream, “Is it escapism or is it rather their strangely spiritual, almost sacramental quality which makes musicals deal in dreams, possibilities, and visions of what might be if only we lived in a better world?”

In the December 2003 issue of American Theatre, director Molly Smith wrote,
The seriousness I embraced in dramatic form during my early career, I have now rediscovered – to my delight – in the content of musicals. For me, this robust, craggy art form is in the bones of American culture. It is unpretentious, earthy, forward-looking and optimistic. At the same time, it is full of conflict and contradiction. As you can tell, I’ve been smitten by my rediscovery of this most robust of American art forms. Moreover I envision a future in which the American musical is the ‘serious’ theatre I so revered beginning in my twenties.

Modern American musical theatre is what opera composer Richard Wagner meant when he talked about Gesamtkunstwerk, a “total theatre” using all the art forms to create a powerful, unified work of art in an accessible, populist form. American musical theatre has grown as much in one century as other art forms have grown in several centuries. What other art form could have produced something as mature as Show Boat in the third decade of its existence? It’s as if the art form was born almost fully grown, as if it shot from infancy to adolescence overnight. And its success and its sophistication is due not only to the brilliant artists, some of them geniuses, who move the art form forward but also to the American audiences who were – and still are – adventurous enough to embrace the experiments, to buy the tickets and encourage producers to keep trying new things.

In fact, musical theatre is one of the few indigenous American art forms. Some scholars believe the only truly American art forms are American musical theatre, comic books, the murder mystery, and jazz, all forms that have impacted nearly every corner of the civilized world. American musicals overshadow British musicals even in London, even though the British have contributed mightily to the art form over the years. In Germany and other parts of Europe, as well as in Japan, audiences give standing ovations to even the most run-of-the-mill American musicals simply because they are American. They just can’t get enough of that muscle.

And neither can I. Bring on Heathers.

Happy Independence Day! I'm off to watch The Music Man, 1776, and Yankee Doodle Dandy.

And Long Live the American Musical!
Scott

I Had a Dream, A Dream About You, Baby...

I had a dream...

Some TV producer came to me and wanted me to do a reality show. (In retrospect, I have no idea why they wanted me to do a reality show. I'm only interesting artistically.) Of course I said no. What a horrifying idea. And he pushed and pushed, and I said no over and over. Then he said, "Name your price." And I said "$10 million an episode and I'll only do thirteen episodes." And he said "Done."

And I don't remember the rest.

But last night, smoked up on God's Goofy Green Goodness once again, I remembered the dream and thought about how cool it would be to have $130 million. I have often in the past pondered through the green haze (or perhaps more accurately, because of the green haze) that if someone would just give me one million dollars (and what the hell is taking so long, y'all?), I could live off the interest, without ever touching the principal, and still nearly triple my standard of living.

No, don't do the math. It will embarrass me.

So $130 million? Holy shit. That might be worth doing a reality TV show for. I know, I know, you'll end up looking like an asshat and they'll exploit you. Not if I get a hotshit Hollywood lawyer to get me a sweetheart deal, with all the right protections. (Can you tell I watch Entourage?)

And then it hit me – I would have, not just that one million dollars I fantasize about, but 130 pots of one million dollars. What that one million would do for me, it could do for my theatre friends, who have to hold down bullshit jobs so they don't starve on how little we small theatres can pay them. And it could do the same for the small theatres, who could then pay their actors much more money.

Holy shit. Think about this. (And keep in mind I was stoned.) I could set up some kind of trust (New Line actor and board member – and financial advisor by day – Keith Thompson could set this up for me) for each of my theatre friends and each of my favorite companies, and they'd get monthly checks, drawn only on the interest. And I'd make sure I set it up so that I can't un-do any of it, in case I get pissed off at one of them. No, of course, I'd never be that petty. One would hope.

If we get an interest rate of 5-7%, which the internet tells me is reasonable (Keith will be sure to tell me if it's not), that means my friends would be getting an extra $50,000-70,000 a year. (I hope I'm doing the math right.). And maybe I could set up $2 million trusts for the companies, so they'd each get $100,000-140,000 a year.

That would be really nice for The Rep and The Muny, but think what it would mean to New Line and Stray Dog, R-S Theatrics, Upstream, STL Shakespeare, Tesseract, Theatre Lab, the list goes on. Maybe I could even put a stipulation on it that half (more? all?) of the money had to go to paying actors and musicians...?

Actually, now that I type that, it would have to be even more income to seriously impact what a company pays its actors, especially since a company like New Line hires 40-50 actors each season (though that includes some repeaters).

What the hell, I'm getting 130 million, right? I'll give each company five million in principal. So that would mean at least $250,000 a year in income, divided by, let's say, an average of 50 actors a season (so I don't have to reach for my calculator), means each actor gets $5,000 more per production.

I like that. And I'd still have a shitload of money left over.

So none of this is going to happen. We all know that. But isn't it fun to dream a little...?

Long Live the St. Louis Theatre!
Scott

Welcome to the Renaissance

I've been on something of a crusade for a while now, a crusade to end comedy abuse in our lifetime.

I find myself in an interesting spot in the theatrical space-time continuum right now, coming off the uber-dark, creepy-funny Threepenny, and thinking about its many descendants that we've produced, Chicago, Cabaret, Bat Boy, Urinetown, La Mancha, Company, Sweeney, Floyd Collins, BBAJ, and so many others, and now moving on to Heathers and American Idiot. Here in the midst of this Golden Age for the musical theatre, as the neo musical comedy evolves, I've been thinking a lot about comedy.

I recently re-watched a bootleg video of the original production of Urinetown, which I first saw from the tenth row center, right after its transfer to Broadway in 2001. And although I always think of that show as an outrageous, laugh-out-loud comedy, it's not only that. In fact, much of Urinetown isn't really funny at all; much of it is pretty horrifying, just like Threepenny. Mr. Cladwell is ridiculous, but he's also intense. The same is true with Bat Boy and Hedwig.  I saw both those original productions too. And back in the 80s, my mom and I saw the original off Broadway production of Little Shop of Horrors while I was in college (with that amazing original cast!), and the same is true of that show too.

These are not old-school musical comedies. They're a much more interesting, more complex, new form, the neo musical comedy, shows that use many of the devices of old-school musical comedy, but for more serious, more ironic ends.

And yet still, many young actors and directors treat these new Golden Age shows like they're all Nunsense. These folks operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again.

First, there are many kinds of Funny, even within the musical genre, each requiring its own style and tone, ranging from pure silliness (Silence!, Toxic Avenger), to farce (Something Rotten, I Love My Wife), to gentle comedy (Fiddler on the Roof, Hands on a Hardbody), to dark comedy (Bukowsical, Rocky Horror, How to Succeed), to political comedy (Cry-Baby, Passing Strange, Hedwig), to what I'll call "serious realist comedy," tackling serious, real-world issues (Chicago, BBAJ, Bat Boy, Urinetown), and of course, lots of gradations and combinations in between.

In response to the second misconception, unless the show itself sucks, the best approach to comedy is always to get out of the way, to trust the material, and not to impose your own Funny on it. Comedy requires both surprise and truth. If a show is jam-packed with sight gags and physical schtick, the truth gets lost, and it stops being a surprise real fast.

If a show involves you, makes you laugh and then horrifies you, then makes you laugh again, then makes you tear up, that's some confident, skillful storytelling.

Actually, that's Bat Boy.

Too many actors and directors don't understand that the key to Urinetown (and many other shows like it) is honest, straight-faced, highly intense acting and emotions, coupled with ridiculously high stakes. The more serious the actors take their characters and the story, and the higher they raise the dramatic stakes, the funnier the show gets. I'm not talking about over-acting, or melodrama, or any other phony style. That puts up a wall between the actors and audience. I'm talking about a heightened, more exaggerated physical and vocal performance, with a genuinely honest acting performance, which comes entirely from character and situation, without commentary or a wink from the actor. Intensity and honesty together are very powerful – and/or very funny. It's about connection, not disconnection.

Audiences don't want to see the actors working at being funny, begging for laughs. That kind of nonsense just gets between the audience and the story. And it's less funny.

You'll notice that most people who really love Evil Dead the Musical are usually not longtime theatre-goers. What appeals to them about the show is the anarchy and subversion of the "rules" of musicals. More experienced theatre-goers find shows like Evil Dead less funny because they know all those conventions were exploded, subverted, discarded, and reinvented back in the 60s, and then all over again in the 90s. Evil Dead and Silence! are rebelling against a musical theatre that doesn't much exist anymore. But if you don't see many musicals, you don't know that.

What was so damn funny about the original production of Urinetown was content, not performance. And the content was only that hilarious because the actors all took it so seriously, and they got out of the way. Check out the original production on YouTube, and notice how utterly straight-faced Jeff McCarthy plays Lockstock, never the slightest wink. He knew he didn't have to "help" the material. If he were mugging to the audience, if he were Being Funny, he would have destroyed the show. Effort isn't funny. The same is true of John Cullum as Cladwell. He never winks at the audience or comments on his character; he just lives fully and honestly within this dark cartoon world.

It's the world that's funny. The actors are Bud Abbott and the script and score are Lou Costello.

All that directors and actors have to do is make that world real to us. When they also try to make the performances funny, they cock-block the comedy. They make it about the performance instead of the story; and sure, that can be diverting, but it leaves the audience with nothing when the show is over. Which do you think is more fun for the audience to leave with, after seeing Urinetown, some funny faces and pratfalls, or the devastatingly funny and truthful message Mark Hollman and Greg Kotis want to share with us? Or should that be "slap us with"...?

There's so much more to Urinetown than funny.

Our art form has evolved so much in the last twenty years, more than during any other period in its history. But it often seems that many actors and directors haven't evolved with the art form. They approach neo musical comedies like they're all Damn Yankees. But musical comedy changed, grew up, in the mid-1990s, with Bat Boy and Urinetown, among other shows. Once upon a time, rock musicals used to be about the rock; today, rock musicals just use rock as their default language. Likewise, musical comedy used to be about the laughs; today, the neo musical comedy uses comedy to raise political or sociological issues.

The outrageous Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson sets up an hilarious premise – our seventh President as a moody, selfish, emo teen – to make a bigger point about Jackson's limitations and the evolving view of our Federal government in the 1800s. The equally outrageous Cry-Baby sets up this metaphorical battle between old-school musical comedy and the neo rock musical, between the "good kids" (who are really the bad guys) and the "bad kids" (who are really the good guys). Not surprisingly, considering its John Waters pedigree, Cry-Baby's humor comes from the ridiculous, but very serious, morality at the center of the story. That upside-down morality is responsible for most of the laughs in the show, and it also delivers a message through those laughs about class and justice, a message we all recognize as truthful.

The scripts and scores for these shows are incredibly well-crafted, truly well-oiled storytelling machines, lean, economical writing, with nothing in there that doesn't have to be. Try to impose your own Funny on these shows, and it's like sticking a tree branch into the spokes of a bicycle. Chances are you'll go over the handlebars. (I speak from both literal and metaphorical experience.)

So why do so many theatre artists make this fundamental mistake? After twenty years of this style, why do they still not understand it? Partly because it's a hell of a tightrope to walk. When we're working on a neo musical comedy, and New Line does a lot of them, I always tell the actors the same thing: if you think of an idea that's really funny, please discard it; but if you think of an idea that really reveals character or story, please give it a try. When we know the material is great, we should follow it, serve it, not compete with it.

Check out this scene from the original off Broadway production of Bat Boy. Despite the incredible silliness of a woman teaching a half-bat-half-boy to talk (and the extra silliness of his meteoric progress), Kaitlin Hopkins as Meredith takes the scene totally seriously. She's fully living inside the story. And Deven May, as Edgar the bat boy, also fully inhabits Edgar's reality, crazy as it may be. And because they both take it seriously, we see how much Edgar is just a sweet, innocent, easily distracted child, how much he's normal, and we connect with him here. If we don't make that connection, if the actors aren't taking the characters and story seriously, then when the story turns tragic, it's far less intense, far less powerful. I'll always remember, when we did Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, that we'd have much of the audience crying at the end of the show, after an evening of belly laughs. Because the show is just that good, and we really understood it.

But again, a big part of why this often hilarious story so moved our audiences is that we all took it as seriously as the writers did. Though the show is a laugh-out-loud comedy, like Urinetown, it's not only that. It's also frequently scary, disturbing, sad.

Here's part of what I wrote about Bat Boy in my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals:
On Halloween 1997, Bat Boy made its world premiere at the Actors’ Gang Theatre, perhaps the only place where this show would be understood and properly nurtured. The Actors’ Gang is Los Angeles’ premier repertory theatre company, creating original works and reinterpreting classics, through the prism of The Style, a performance method derived from commedia dell’arte, from the work of the Theatre du Soleil in Paris, from vaudeville, from the political agitprop theatre of the 1930s, and from the off off Broadway movement of the 1960s, particularly the work of the Play-House of the Ridiculous. The Style is artificial and presentational, yet insists on deep truthfulness and high emotional stakes. All the authors agree today that The Style was instrumental in both the writing and the execution of Bat Boy: The Musical.

O’Keefe says, “The Actors' Gang is a hyperactive and politically committed theater company that teaches if you show an emotion, always make it a 10 on a scale of 1 to 10. People pay money to see a show portray terror, rage, despair and joy, so we might as well sell it in megadoses. We were consciously trying to dig up the deepest and most volcanic emotions, the most inflammatory questions in Bat Boy – what is it like to be a scapegoat? what is it like to be loved by one parent and hated by another? What is it like to have no idea who your parents are? What is it like to have an insatiable hunger for blood?”

Director and co-author Keythe Farley developed what Flemming likes to call the “take-it-so-seriously-it's-funny-but-it-also-hurts” style of Bat Boy. Both Deven May (as Edgar) and Kaitlin Hopkins (as Meredith) were in this first production in L.A. and, together with Farley, they found the extremely sincere approach that this outrageous musical demands. Farley’s mantra throughout the development process was “the height of expression, the depth of sincerity,” a style of truthful acting that marked all the work at the Actors’ Gang – something the cast took to heart and something which guided them throughout the L.A. and New York productions. Brain Flemming says of his partner, “Keythe's major contribution to Bat Boy has gone largely unmentioned, but it was great and permanent.” Unlike musicals in which the goal is to be as silly as possible (The Producers, Spamalot, Dirty Rotten Scoundrels), with Bat Boy, the goal is to be as serious as possible within the context of an utterly silly universe.

To be fair, I'd call Little Shop the first neo musical comedy, way back in 1982, but as it was with Show Boat initially, outside forces conspired to keep commercial theatre from following Little Shop's lead. It really wasn't till Bat Boy and Urinetown that the new form took hold. Musicals first had gotten ironic in the 1960s, along with the rest of our culture, but in the mid-1990s, that irony got turned up to eleven, and it launched this new Golden Age.

The musical comedy has taken on a more aggressive, more activist role today, trading in the kind of socio-political commentary that used to be reserved only for musical drama. Today, the musical comedy Hairspray can take on the same issues as South Pacific, with every bit as much (or maybe more) impact.

Which brings me to Something Rotten and its (hack) director Casey Nicholaw, whose desperate, anything-for-a-laugh approach made both Rotten and The Book of Mormon less than they should have been. That much effort at trying to be funny makes everything less funny.

Something Rotten is one of Broadway's biggest hits, but before I saw it, I wasn't sure what I would think. I loved The Producers, but I saw that the night after it opened, and really, that was more about that superb original cast and the insane high energy and joy of that original Broadway production. But I was under­whelmed by The Book of Mormon. I did find much of it funny, but I found the rest not at all funny and often cliched. Plus, while it's true that most of the shows New Line produces include the word fuck and often several others like it, The Book of Mormon uses four-letter words only to shock, not because that's how these characters talk. The four-letter word (or its approximate equivalent, i.e., "scrotum maggots") is often the joke. I think that's both lazy writing and not all that funny. Maybe that was funny back when no one used four-letter words in public, but now most (or at least many) people do. So falling back on that old "shock" feels pretty boring, unless you're from Kansas and attend a megachurch.

As I've quipped more than once, The Book of Mormon is just a 50s musical comedy with Tourette's.

Still, all in all, I really enjoyed Something Rotten. About 80% of it I love, and the rest is still very good. It's very smart. It's full of self-awareness, but always coming organically out of the premise of the story. By setting up a soothsayer who can see the future but often incorrectly, the writers gave themselves a rich device for the self-awareness of contemporary musical theatre, but also lots of humor that comes from our shared culture, specially our knowledge of how much Shakespeare is part of our everyday lives.

Though I was already aware of this, it's staggering how many dozens of Shakespeare quotes and references the show goes through, almost all of them incredibly common and well-known. It's an interesting, almost subliminal statement about Shakespeare's impact on our literature and culture. And the show works hilariously against that underlying statement by making the character of Shakespeare not just a dick, but an artistically faltering dick. That's really clever and really subversive.

But I think the material is much better than its Broadway production, despite the stellar cast. Those are all strong actors, but there are few genuine, honest moments in the show, and it's not the material's fault. They play the whole thing like Mamma Mia!, no doubt at Nicholaw's insistence. This is one of those shows that would be so much cooler, richer and funnier, if it were played straight. They don't need Beauty and the Beast joke costumes for their big production number to be funny. Give the audience a little credit! The material takes care of the wacky – it doesn't need more imposed wacky. And it sure doesn't need every laugh underlined with joke costumes and joke props and joke scenery. It's like director Casey Nicholaw thinks the audience is just too dumb to get it – Shakespeare is hard! – unless he bludgeons them over the head with each gag, frantically flashing that metaphorical LAUGH sign over and over.

This show should be directed like Urinetown.

Nicholaw is a perpetrator of accidental Brechtianism. He keeps the audience from getting emotionally involved by continually slapping them with gags that come from outside the story. It's like he's terrified that if the schtick stops for more than a second, the audience might notice that he can't direct. Maybe he thinks he's just doing old-school musical comedy, but he's not. That kind of mindless distraction is not something the legendary musical comedy director George Abbott ever did. Abbott's rule was Honest, Direct, and Clear. Nicholaw doesn't seem capable of that. He substitutes reference for wit, and desperation for energy.

Sadly, Nicholaw is not alone. Don't even get me started on Walter Bobbie ruining High Fidelity or Mark Brokaw ruining Cry-Baby. Those shows were neither old-school nor musical comedies, but these directors thought they were both. C'mon, keep up, guys!

Maybe it's just going to take a while for some musical theatre artists to catch up with our fast evolving art form. The wait may be a bit painful now and then for some of us, but we'll survive, and so will these brilliant new musicals. Still and all, what a great time to be working in the musical theatre!

Long Live the Musical!
Scott

The Most Interesting Musicals Throughout History

Back in 2005, a college theatre teacher emailed me and asked me to recommend a good musical theatre history book he could use for a musical theatre history class he would be teaching the next semester. He had read my books, and I guess he generally shared my point of view. To my surprise, it was very hard to recommend anything. There aren't a lot of books on the history of our art form to begin with, and quite a few of them are out of print, and so old that they don't know about rock musicals, much less the ironic musicals of this Golden Age.

We needed a new musical theatre history book. But that felt like a project way bigger than I wanted to take on, so first, I suggested to my editor that she find someone to write this new history book. Still though, the idea percolated in my head, and twenty-four hours later I was deciding maybe I would do it. I had already written several books, all divided up into discrete essays. I realized I could approach a history book the same way, as a series of essays on the evolution of the musical theatre, one decade at a time. That seemed way less intimidating. What would be different this time is that my history book would not be built on the premise that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form, like every other history book is, but instead look at our history from the point of view of where we are right now in the art form.

When I first started work on my book, eventually called Strike Up the Band, I began by making a list of every show I wanted to include, though ultimately I could have never included them all, without making it a two-volume set (which was discussed, briefly).

My first draft was more than twice as long as the limit they'd given me. So I had to cut out a lot of shows I wanted to write about. I got my editor to raise my word limit, but I still had to cut about half of what I had written. (Yes, I kept everything I cut.) But that original list of shows is still such a great chronicle of the most interesting work our art form has produced, from a few not-quite-but-almost modern musicals in the late 1800s, up to the early 2000s, when I wrote my book.

It occurred to me recently that no one has seen this full list but me, and it's such a cool list. So I've decided I should share it. For some of my readers, it will be a test to see how many of these you already know, and which sound like they're worth exploring. For others, it will be an eye-opening excursion through an American musical theatre you maybe didn't know existed. If you don't understand why a particular show is on my list, you might find the answer in Strike Up the Band (shameless plug).

So here's the original list. BTW, the years sometimes refer to the show's original debut, not necessarily its Broadway opening.

OVERTURE: PRE-1900

Evangeline (1874)
The Brook (1879)
A Trip to Chinatown (1890)
In Town (1892)
A Gaiety Girl (1893)
Clorindy (1898)
A Trip to Coontown (1898)
Florodora (1899)

AN ERA EXPLODING: 1900—1919

The Governor’s Son (1901)
Little Johnny Jones (1904)
The Wizard of Oz (1903)
Babes in Toyland (1903)
In Dahomey (1903)
The Shoo-fly Regiment (1906)
The Pink Lady (1911)
The Whirl of the World (1914)
Watch Your Step (1914)
Very Good Eddie (1915)
Oh Boy (1917)
Irene (1919)

I WANT TO BE HAPPY: THE 1920s

Shuffle Along (1921)
Lady, Be Good (1924)
No, No, Nanette (1925)
Dearest Enemy (1925)
The Cocoanuts (1925)
Deep River (1926)
Peggy-Ann (1926)
Show Boat (1927)
Strike Up the Band (1927)
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
Chee-Chee (1928)
Whoopee (1928)
Deep Harlem (1929)

ANYTHING GOES: THE 1930s

Brown Buddies (1930)
Singin’ the Blues (1931)
Of Thee I Sing (1931)
Love Me Tonight (film, 1932)
Hallelujah, I’m a Bum (film, 1933)
42nd Street (film, 1933)
Let ‘Em Eat Cake (1933)
The Jolly Fellows (film, 1934)
Anything Goes (1934)
Porgy and Bess (1935)
On Your Toes (1936)
The Cradle Will Rock (1937)
Pins and Needles (1937)
Volga Volga (film, 1938)
The Boys From Syracuse (1938)
Too Many Girls (1939)

OH, WHAT A BEAUTIFUL MORNING: THE 1940s

Pal Joey (1940)
Cabin in the Sky (1940)
Lady in the Dark (1941)
Oklahoma! (1943)
Carmen Jones (1943)
Carousel (1945)
St. Louis Woman (1945)
Carib Song (1945)
Annie Get Your Gun (1945)
Finian’s Rainbow (1947)
Love Life (1948)
Kiss Me, Kate (1948)
South Pacific (1949)
Lost in the Stars (1949)

SOMETHING’S COMING: THE 1950s

Musical Comedy Time (TV, 1950-51)
Guys and Dolls (1950)
The King and I (1951)
Paint Your Wagon (1951)
Singin’ in the Rain (film, 1952)
Threepenny Opera, translation by Blitzstein (1954)
The Pajama Game (1954)
Jamaica (1956)
My Fair Lady (1956)
Candide (1956)
shinbone alley (1957)
West Side Story (1957)
The Music Man (1957)
Flower Drum Song (1958)
Expresso Bongo (1958)
The Nervous Set (1958)
Gypsy (1959)
Fings Ain’t Wot They Used T’Be (1959)
The Fantasticks (1959)
Once Upon a Mattress (1959)

LET THE SUN SHINE IN: THE 1960s

Bye Bye Birdie (1960)
Camelot (1960)
How to Succeed in Business…(1961)
Black Nativity (1961)
No Strings (1961)
Oh What a Lovely War (1963)
Hello, Dolly! (1964)
Marat/Sade (1964)
Anyone Can Whistle (1964)
Fiddler on the Roof (1964)
Man of La Mancha (1965)
Promenade (1965)
Sweet Charity (1966)
Evening Primrose (TV, 1966)
Cabaret (1966)
Viet Rock (1966)
Hair (1967)
You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (1967)
Hallelujah, Baby! (1967)
The Believers (1968)
Jacques Brel (1968)
Joseph and the Amazing… (1968)
Zorbá (1968)
That’s Life (TV, 1968)
Promises, Promises (1968)
Celebration (1968)
1776 (1969)
Oh Calcutta! (1969)
Tommy (1969)

IN COMES COMPANY: THE 1970s

Purlie (1970)
Company (1970)
Godspell (1970)
The Me Nobody Knows (1970)
Don’t Play Us Cheap! (1970)
Stag Movie (1971)
Follies (1971)
Grease (1971)
Jesus Christ Superstar (1971)
Ain’t Supposed to Die a Natural Death (1971)
Two Gentlemen of Verona (1971)
Cabaret (film, 1972)
Don’t Bother Me, I Can’t Cope (1972)
Pippin (1972)
Rainbow (1972)
Candide (1973)
The Rocky Horror Show (1973)
Let My People Come (1974)
Lovers (1974)
The Robber Bridegroom (1974)
Mack and Mabel (1974)
A Chorus Line (1975)
Chicago (1975)
Boy Meets Boy (1975)
Pacific Overtures (1976)
The Club (1976)
Annie (1977)
The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas (1977)
Zoot Suit (1977)
Runaways (1978)
Evita (1978)
I’m Getting My Act Together… (1978)
Sweeney Todd (1979)

DO YOU HEAR THE PEOPLE SING?: THE 1980s

Cats (1980)
Les Miserable (1980)
March of the Falsettos (1981)
Dreamgirls (1981)
Pennies from Heaven (film, 1981)
Nine (1982)
Little Shop of Horrors (1982)
Sunday in the Park with George (1983)
La Cage aux Folles (1983)
The Gospel at Colonus (1983)
A…My Name is Alice (1984)
Big River (1985)
The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1985)
Absolute Beginners (film, 1986)
Phantom of the Opera (1986)
Into the Woods (1986)
Sarafina! (1987)
Miss Saigon (1989)
Grand Hotel (1989)

SONGS FOR A NEW WORLD: THE 1990s

Cop Rock (TV, 1990)
Jekyll & Hyde (1990)
Kiss of the Spider Woman (1990)
Once On This Island (1990)
Assassins (1991)
The Secret Garden (1991)
Jelly’s Last Jam (1992)
The Song of Jacob Zulu (1992)
Wings (1992)
Rent (1993)
Hedwig and the Angry Inch (1994)
Passion (1994)
The Ballad of Little Mikey (1994)
Avenue X (1994)
Violet (1994)
Songs for a New World (1995)
Splendora (1995)
Faust (1995)
Bring on da Noise, Bring on da Funk (1995)
Floyd Collins (1996)
Everyone Says I Love You (film, 1996)
Bat Boy (1997)
The Scarlet Pimpernel (1997)
The Lion King (1997)
Ragtime (1997)
The Capeman (1998)
A New Brain (1998)
Heading East (1998)
Dream True (1999)
South Park (film, 1999)
Bright Lights, Big City (1999)
Urinetown (1999)

AN ERA EXPLODING, A CENTURY SPINNING:
THE NEW MILLENNIUM

bare (2000)
Bamboozled (film, 2000)
The Wild Party (x 2) (2000)
The Producers (2001)
Moulin Rouge (film, 2001)
Big River (Deaf West, 2001)
The Visit (2001)
The Last Five Years (2002)
Bombay Dreams (2003)
Chicago (film, 2002)
Zanna, Don’t! (2003)
Avenue Q (2003)
Hairspray (2003)
The Light in the Piazza (2003)
Radiant Baby (2003)
Amour (2003)
Spelling Bee (2004)

Cool list, isn't it? My book was released in 2007, so my list stops mid-2000s. But there are so many wonderful shows since then that I would add to the list now:

Caroline, or Change (2004)
Taboo (2004)
Spring Awakening (2005)
Jersey Boys (2005)
High Fidelity (2006)
Bukowsical (2006)
Love Musik (2007)
Passing Strange (2007)
In the Heights (2008)
Next to Normal (2008)
Love Kills (2009)
The Story of My Life (2009)
American Idiot (2010)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson (2010)
The Scottsboro Boys (2010)
Matilda (2010)
Fela! (2010)
Night of the Living Dead (2010)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
The Blue Flower (2011)
Follies (2011 revival)
Rent (2011 revival)
Lysistrata Jones (2011)
Kinky Boots (2012)
Fortress of Solitude (2012)
Hands on a Hardbody (2013)
Here Lies Love (2013)
Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812 (2013)
Holler If Ya Hear Me (2014)
Atomic (2014)
If/Then (2014)
Fun Home (2014)
Hamilton (2015)
Something Rotten (2015)

I know, I know, I'm leaving out Wicked and Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder and [fill in the blank]. Yes I am. Those are perfectly good shows and many people love them, but this is a list of what I personally think are the most interesting – usually the most artistically interesting, but sometimes interesting for other reasons, like their impact on the art form or the sheer audacity of their conception. No judgment implied against shows not listed.

And it really is all just my opinion...

What would you add to the list?

Long Live the Musical!
Scott