Hail, Zombies!

Hail, zombies, thou heav’n-made dead,
Forsaken by the God we dread;
Great metaphor for all we fear!
All hail the end of all that we hold dear!

It was back in 2013, after watching the movie Abraham Lincoln, Vampire Hunter (coincidentally starring BBAJ's Benjamin Walker). It was just a few hours after watching the movie that I started thinking about what kind of similar mashup I might concoct in the realm of musical theatre. I've always been fascinated by the idea of art made from other art. Maybe that's because so many musicals are based on stories in other forms, plays, novels, movies. Also, I had been wanting to read Pride and Prejudice and Zombies, but hadn't gotten around to it yet.

But if I wanted to adapt an existing piece, I realized I needed to find a work in the public domain. I couldn't fuck around with Carousel or Damn Yankees. And then it hit me -- one of my favorite shows ever, the very first show I ever saw on Broadway, The Pirates of Penzance. It first debuted in 1879 and it is in the public domain.

So I would write The ZOMBIES of Penzance. And yes, I was mega-stoned at the time.

I already knew the show by heart, backwards and forwards. And the plot wouldn't have to change much at all. Major-General Stanley still wouldn't want the title characters to marry his daughters, though for slightly different reasons. I went through the plot in my head, figuring how each plot point would translate. It seemed pretty straight-forward.

In fact, that was the key for me. I realized it would be more an act of translation than a rewrite. How do we tell this same story, but in the language of zombie movies? As I've said in other posts, the real appeal for me was the delicious mismatch of form and content, an aggressive, comic rejection of Sondheim's Law, that Content Dictates Form (much like another New Line show, Bukowsical).

I started with a test for myself. I decided I would first work on the new zombie lyric for "I Am the Very Model of a Modern Major-General." If I could do that well, I knew I could do the whole show. I started that same night. It took me three days to finish it. I've changed only a handful of words since then.

So I set to work. I don't think I could have done it with a show I knew less well. It took me four years, though there were periods when I had to put it aside for a while. I finished it in summer 2017, and passed it off to my buddy John Gerdes, who had agreed to arrange the score and orchestrate it. He finished our piano score in November, we went into rehearsal, and we presented a public reading in January.

And the response was wonderful. Even with no set, costumes, makeup, or band, our overflow crowd totally loved it. They caught all the jokes, they followed the plot, and it was confirmed that you didn't need to know The Pirates of Penzance in order to enjoy The Zombies of Penzance, but knowing the original does offer extra laughs here and there.

The response from the talkback after the reading was so helpful. I took a few months, did some rewrites, added a song and a half, and reconstructed the last part of the plot. Then I gave it back to John, who had already finished most of the orchestrations. In August, we went back into rehearsal for this first full production of The Zombies of Penzance, or At Night Come the Flesh Eaters, Gilbert & Sullivan's long-lost treasure.

As I mentioned in my last post, in translating the central conflict to one about Monsters instead of Bad Guys, it also shifted the show's thematic content. The Pirates of Penzance is about the absurdity of social class, but The Zombies of Penzance is about the "Othering" and demonizing of those who aren't like us, usually by those who claim the highest morality. Of course, as befits Gilbert & Sullivan, the conflict is raised to ridiculous proportions in this case, since the Others are actually zombies.

Zombies that sing really well.

And partly because I cut the Policemen, this rewrite has also empowered the Stanley Daughters, much more than most (any?) of Gilbert's other women characters.

I know some hardcore Gilbert & Sullivan fans will be terribly offended at what I've wrought. But that's part of the point, part of the central meta joke, that I've chosen the single most inappropriate storytelling form to tell a zombie apocalypse story -- polite English light opera -- and the larger meta joke, that Zombies actually is Gilbert's first draft, rejected by his producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte.

There is a long and interesting tradition of art made from other art, including, but not limited to, half or more of the great American musicals, most of Shakespeare's plays, and one of the greatest short films I've ever seen, Todd Haynes' brilliant Superstar: The Karen Carpenter Story. Of the nine other musicals I've written, two were based on true stories, but the rest were all original stories. So this has been a fascinating experiment for me, and it has been really wonderful living in the language of Gilbert all this time, writing in his peculiar voice, both in the hilariously overwritten dialogue and the heavily rhymed lyrics. I kept every rhyme scheme!

The best part of all this is seeing it onstage and getting to share it with our audience. People seem to be really excited about it. There will be some hardcore G&S fans who will be horrified by this, but that's really kind of the point of it all...

I'm so grateful to this superb cast, who not only sing Sullivan's glorious music like they're a cast of forty, but they also nail the wacky, silly, ridiculous, but always straight-faced Gilbertian humor. I often say that I can't make musicals without lots of other talented people, but this time I needed lots of very talented people. And we got them. And my co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor added so much, as he always does, including the most obvious, most perfect final moment -- which hadn't even occurred to me till he said it...

I cannot wait to share this with our audience now. I'm really happy with how it has all turned out, and I'll dare to say that I think Gilbert would enjoy my adaptation, after getting over his outrage that I've rewritten his show, of course...

Come join the crazy fun. When will you ever again get the chance to see a zombie operetta...?

We preview tonight and open tomorrow!  Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

We'll Hunt the Dead and Mount Their Head

Now that we're running all of The Zombies of Penzance at each rehearsal, it's easier to assess my writing, and I'm pretty happy with it. The public reading we did in January was enormously helpful, and I did tons of small rewrites, and several big rewrites, after that, including 1 1/2 new songs. Watching it now, I think those changes were all good ones.

It's still weird for me because Gilbert & Sullivan's Pirates of Penzance has been a part of me since I saw it on Broadway in 1981, and I've known the show, and the Kevin Kline cast album, by heart ever since. So even though I wrote all these new lyrics, I still hear the originals in my head.

It's fascinating to see the results of my transforming (translating?) of these Penzantian Pirates into Zombies. On the one hand, the essential plot outline changed very little, and the core motivations of the characters changed very little.

But changing mediocre criminals into actual monsters did change some things. As comically high as the stakes are in Pirates, they're considerably higher in Zombies. Sure it's terrible to be kidnapped and married against your will (what is it with musicals and forcible marriage?), but it's much worse to walk the earth as the living dead for the rest of eternity. The horror elements of our story have changed, even super-charged, Gilbert's satire. But also, the Gilbert & Sullivan storytelling form has changed the horror elements.

Unlike a horror movie, our show is populated by funny, clumsy, vaguely charming, and seriously gullible zombies, who are hard to find terrifying when they're singing intricate, Victorian-era, operetta lyrics. And so we get to like these goofy zombies, even root for them (and pity them) a little.

And then Act II opens, and we discover that the proper young Victorian ladies we met in Act I have all been trained as zombie hunters! They sing a creepy lullaby to their troubled father:
Oh, taste the glistening blood,
The giver of life and breath;
Your loving children ache
To hasten the undead death.
You trained us from the cradle,
We must kill again the dead.
We’ll hunt the dead and mount their head,
As Father has said.

The next time we see them, they're all decked out as hunters. We realize we formed opinions about them in Act I -- because of the G&S form, the period costumes, etc. -- and we accepted the convention that women are weak, that they are to be victimized and then rescued. But now they have weapons and they're singing about "a headless zombie running 'round the garden." We realize these women are more complicated than most G&S women; partly because they live in two competing story forms, but also because they live in two competing worlds, 1879 polite society vs. the dangerous, physical, visceral world of zombie hunting. These women have found a way to synthesize those two parts of themselves. Both personas are part of them.

Although, does any of that actually matter in a zombie apocalypse? You'll have to see the show to find out.

Gilbert loved plot twists. He loved subverting his audience's expectations. He also loved toying with his audience's allegiances over the course of the story. In The Zombies of Penzance, this transformation of the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, after we've come to like these zombies (we spend a fair amount of time with the zombies before we even meet the daughters), leaves us torn when the conflict comes to a head. Do we really want the zombies to be killed (again)...?

In The Pirates of Penzance, when the story reaches its climax, Frederic's nursemaid Ruth shows up with some important information, which resolves everything quite tidily. I hope Zombies will be lots of fun for people who know Pirates really well, because we will subvert their expectations around every turn as well. There is no Ruth in our version. So when that big moment comes in our version, the hardcore Pirates lovers will have no idea what happens next! I love that.

When I first thought about writing The Zombies of Penzance, I knew I had to make several important decisions. The center of the plot would remain unchanged -- Major-General Stanley doesn't want the title characters to marry his large family. I tested myself by writing the Major-General's big patter song first. The title ended up being, "I Am the Very Model of a Modern-Era Zombie Hunter," which forced me to make the character a retired zombie hunter. But he needed to be older and retired because that character is really passive throughout the whole story; and that also let the daughters become the heroes. I figured out how to resolve the central conflict ultimately, in a parallel but different way from the original. The new resolution is only barely logical and supremely silly, and I think Gilbert would approve.

All these decisions made me realize I no longer needed Ruth. Revealed information can no longer save the day at the end of our story. This is a zombie apocalypse. I spent a long time wondering if I needed the Policemen and I realized it would be much cooler to turn the Stanley Daughters into zombie hunters, and give them all the Policemen's songs. I was worried it would throw the show out of balance, but it doesn't.

In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, the story is a satire about the absurdity of class. The big deus ex machine at the end of the show is Ruth revealing that the pirates are all actually "noblemen who have gone wrong." Since they're of the correct class after all, they can marry the daughters.

But The Zombies of Penzance is a satire about Othering, the practice of dehumanizing those not like us, so that it's easier to hate and/or oppress them. (Some might call that America's Pastime.) It's why soldiers usually have derogatory nicknames for the enemy -- it makes them less human and easier to kill without remorse. Today in America, we see on the political right the Othering of Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, the press, and more. As long as people are "illegals" (they're not even worth a noun), it's easier not to be humane to them, not to think of them as families, not to see them the same as the Italian and Irish immigrants a century before. And frequently that Othering is done by those who profess most loudly their Christianity.

In The Zombies of Penzance, the Major-General and his daughters profess loudly and often their Christian beliefs. But in the song "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing," they also give us a few hints that their Bible-based morality might be flimsier than they would admit. In fact, several of the things they predict (or warn about) in this song will come to pass by the Act II finale. The contrast among their devotion to the Bible, their burgeoning though still sublimated sex drives, and their ferocious hatred for zombies makes a fun parallel to today's fundamentalist Christians, and their demonizing of gays, atheists, feminists, etc.

It's been cool working on this, taking this piece I love deeply, and making a new piece of art out of it. I often thought of the process as "translating" the story from one form into another. I often thought of a professor friend in college, Norman Shapiro, who translates Feydeau farces (among other things), and the conversations we had about the process -- and art -- of translation. I'm seriously thinking about trying another "new" Gilbert & Sullivan show, but next time, not just a variation on the original plot, but a completely different story. That will be harder to write, but should also be fun.

We open next week! Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

The New Regional Arts Commission

To our great surprise and horror, after 27 years of funding New Line Theatre, the Regional Arts Commission (RAC) decided not to fund us this season. We were truly baffled by the decision -- we get rave reviews for every show we produce, we have a national profile for both excellence and risk-taking, and Broadway writers periodically come see our productions of their shows, particularly when those shows were destroyed on Broadway, but brought back to life by New Line.

One article about RAC's new direction said, "Among the plan’s recommendations is that arts groups work with local organizations to help solve community problems. Arts groups can play a role with efforts to build affordable housing, improve public safety and other civic initiatives, RAC executive director Felicia Shaw said."

I think this is seriously misguided. You don't drive a nail with a pair of scissors. Same principle here.

Theatre and other art forms often address social and political issues (at New Line, almost always), but it is not the job of an arts organization to build housing or make neighborhoods safe. We are storytellers, not the police and not construction workers. We make our communities better places already by telling important, relevant stories that make people think. Does she not understand that?

Felicia is essentially telling us, though she may not realize it, that if we want to be funded by RAC again, we have to change the nature of what we do, change our mission statement (which does not currently mention affordable housing or neighborhood safety), etc.

In another interview, she said, "The focus of the report is how can the arts play a larger role in making St. Louis a better place to live."

The arts already do that in spades. In every city that creates an arts district, neighborhoods around that district thrive, because the arts automatically make an area a better place to live.

One person commented about all this in a St. Louis Theatre group on Facebook, "I believe though that sometimes we have to go beyond our comfort zone for what the community needs. I think that’s what RAC is trying to accomplish."

But it's not about comfort zones; it's about mission statement. People don't donate money to New Line to build affordable housing; they donate to us to tell them interesting, thought-provoking stories that intersect/interact with the issues surrounding us in the real world.

There's also something much more, much bigger going on here. Felicia's comments reveal something far more concerning, an underlying assumption that the arts are not "enough," that creating art and sharing it with the community, the entire point of a nonprofit arts organization, isn't sufficiently valuable in her eyes; that feeding the soul and the brain and the heart are less worthy endeavors than feeding the stomach.

All this despite the fact that storytelling is one of the most basic, most necessary of human functions. It's how we learn, how we connect, how we cooperate, how we govern, how we record our history and our culture, how we work through problems, how we grow collectively and individually. Storytelling is one of the most basic of human needs, going back to the first pictographs on cave walls.

To disrespect that long, proud, noble history, by telling us we only have value when that storytelling is augmented with "real world" service, is truly disappointing. Felicia obviously doesn't understand that, as important as building houses will always be, just as important is building empathy and understanding and connection, through the very real magic of storytelling. We shouldn't have to help build housing to prove our worth.

Let's look at the IRS and nonprofit status...

1894 – The Tariff Act of 1894 provided the first statutory Federal income tax exemption for charitable organizations: “nothing herein contained shall apply to … corporations, companies, or associations organized and conducted solely for charitable, religious, or educational purposes.”

1909 – The Payne Aldrich Tariff Act of 1909 exempted from a general corporate excise tax “any corporation or association organized and operated exclusively for religious, charitable, or educational purposes, no part of the net income of which inures to the benefit of any private stockholder or individual.”

But what counts as educational...?

1973 – Revised Ruling 73-45, 1973-1 C.B. 220, holds that an organization formed to develop a community appreciation for drama and musical arts by sponsoring professional presentations such as plays, musicals and concerts qualified for exemption under IRC 501(c)(3).

In other words, the arts are inherently educational. They teach us about life, about our world, about each other, and about ourselves. Even without the express "educational programs" that funders love, the arts are inherently educational. They don't need to add activities in order to serve their communities.

One of Felicia's other focuses is talking about how the arts generate economic activity. That's great, but it also buys into the notion that what we do is not sufficiently worthwhile. We also have to prove that we generate money. Again, how terribly misguided. By accepting that premise, she normalizes the idea that we should measure the arts in dollars.

We shouldn't.

The title of her new plan is chilling:

Arts &
A Creative Vision for St. Louis

The title tells us all we need to know -- that the arts by themselves aren't enough. We have to create "art and..." Also, I love that the "creative vision" is that the creative arts aren't worthy unless they're combined with something else. I love irony.

On the first page of the Plan, it says, "That’s why we are pursuing a cultural vision to benefit and elevate not only the arts and culture in St. Louis but also to benefit and elevate St. Louis." So the art will be elevated by having to take on non-arts projects...?

The Plan summary also says, "But if all people in St. Louis have access to create and engage in the arts, and if the arts are understood and assumed to be for all, not just for some, then the arts can be not only an equalizer but also a ladder to opportunity, a job creator, a bridge between communities, an educational asset, a source of civic pride, an attractor of visitors, a draw for transplants, and a true economic engine."

The arts are already all those things in St. Louis, and have been for quite some time. 

One "Community Leader" is quoted in the report, saying "What is new [in St. Louis] is that if you want to be the creator -- a program, an event -- people aren’t asking for permission as much, they are just making it happen."

That's not new. That's been happening in St. Louis for decades. Anybody remember Theatre Project Company at New City School, the very "alternative" work at the St. Marcus Theatre and the ArtLoft Theatre, City Players at the shut-down Coronado Hotel, the Black Rep at the 23rd Street Theatre...?

Nobody asked permission to start New Line 28 years ago.

At one point, the report says, "Many artists said that they see and experience the same disparities of race, gender, and ability that are pervasive in society in both the nonprofit and commercial arts sectors. Barriers raised by racism and segregation add to the challenges they already face as working artists, further hindering their careers."

That is a real problem. But it's worth noting that New Line regularly has some of the most diverse casts on St. Louis stages, and that's been true for a decade or more. It's extremely rare for a New Line show to have an all-white cast.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

Felicia wants arts organizations to tackle important issues. New Line has been doing that for 28 years. Felicia wants young people and people of color to have the chance to shine. New Line has been doing that for decades. In our last show the actors playing our "royal family" were white, black, and Asian. Felicia wants local ogrniazations to hire local artists. New Line has hired only local artists for 28 years.

But New Line got zero-funded by RAC.

The report says, "The arts are already working at the intersection of health, community and economic development, transportation, tourism, faith, education, and other sectors. But what we heard from participants is that they want to see even more connections between the arts and other nonprofit and social sectors, because they see this as a key way that the arts can help advance positive social change."

You know how the arts can best help advance positive social change, RAC? Changing the way people think, through the most powerful persuader known to humans -- storytelling.

Take for example, the very silly Zombies of Penzance, which we're about to open. I'm sure Felicia would not find our production particularly worthwhile in terms of social service. But if you look closely, Zombies is not just a silly romp; like all of Gilbert & Sullivan's shows, it's a satire. In its original form, as The Pirates of Penzance, it was about the absurdity of class distinctions. Now as The Zombies of Penzance, it's about the "Othering" of people not like us, the way we become "Us" and "Them," the way we see the Scary Other (Mexicans, Muslims, Gays, Transgender Americans, etc.) as less than human, so we can hate and even oppress them without any guilt.

We are in a particularly dangerous time of "Othering" right now, and this story will be particularly potent right now. But it won't help with affordable housing.

In the conclusion of the report, it says, "This process made clear that the time is right for RAC to expand its capacities beyond its role as grantmaker and consider ways to fulfill a bolder mission." RAC has always been much more than just a grantmaker. Under Jill McGuire's decades of leadership, RAC supported the arts community in so many ways, some of which Felicia has already ended.

Why do new people always feel the need to trash those who've gone before? Why did this report need to imply falsely -- and classlessly -- that in the past RAC has done nothing more than disburse grants?

It seems likely that New Line will never again get RAC grants, but we will apply again next year. In the meantime, please support small arts organizations in our area, particularly those several dozen that got cut off by RAC this year.

We will keep soldiering on, and somehow we will make up for the $12,000 per year RAC took away from us. If you think New Line's work is already worthwhile, help us make up for the indignity of this loss by making a contribution to New Line whenever you can.

New Line will continue to tackle the issues of our world, through provocative, intense, and yes, sometimes silly, adult musical theatre. The incredible praise for our work over the years, the rave reviews, the contributions that increase every year, are all the proof we need that we're on the right track.

We open Zombies of Penzance next week! Ticket sales are great! Get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

We Triumph Now, God Only Knows How

We've blocked our zombies and zombie hunters, and we've run the two acts separately. Next week we move into the theatre, and start running the whole show. The vocal music is sounding amazing, in part because we're spending a lot more time than usual reviewing music in blocking rehearsals, which makes the actors so much more comfortable. We're now at that point now where they have to put down their scores, and that moment terrifies some of them.

The score is learned, the show has been staged, and now we put meat on the bones. I realized a number of years ago, that comic book art is a really good metaphor for our creation process. I think that's because comic book art and musical theatre are both (usually) very collaborative work, which ultimately needs to look like it came from one artist.

We block a show relatively fast, and we don't run scenes a lot until all the pieces are in place. I think about that part of our process as my pencil drawing. I define the work ahead and lay down the ground rules. Then together, the actors and I "ink in" my pencil drawing, we add clarity and depth and focus, and we make a lot of choices. Then I sort of stand back and let the actors "color" their performance.

I'm a director who doesn't want to give an actor too much direction up front. I once saw an interview with Hal Prince, where he said that the job of a director is to put everybody on the same road, make sure they all stay on that road and don't stray onto some other road, let them do the work, and then edit and polish that work to create a coherent whole. I love that idea. I firmly believe that our show will be better and richer if the actors actively collaborate with me, actively create our show as much (or more) than I do. It won't be nearly as cool if all the ideas come from me.

That's unnerving for some actors, who'd rather I ink and color their performances. But most actors love the freedom. Then again, freedom isn't free. With great power comes great responsibility. But The Zombies of Penzance is a crazy, meta, artistic tightrope, so that freedom is a little scarier than usual.

I've asked the actors, now that they're comfortable with the music, to really focus on the text, to read it out loud (a good idea with any lyric), to make sure they totally understand everything they're singing (that's not always easy with G&S, or G&S parodies), to think about all the lyrics like they're dialogue, to think about why they repeat things...

But also, we all have to keep in mind that Gilbert & Sullivan operettas are almost entirely about showing how ridiculous we all are (yes, even zombies), and part of that ridiculousness is how Very Seriously the characters take themselves and each other. It's always Very High Stakes, literally life or death -- or undeath -- in our story.

But also...

We always have to keep one eye on the central meta joke of the show -- that this is the most wrong-headed storytelling form possible for telling this particular story. To be honest, that was the biggest appeal of the project for me initially. So we have to underline and revel in that wrongness, in this wild mismatch between our story and our storytelling.

Remember, The Pirates of Penzance was already making fun of the conventions of opera, like almost all the G&S shows do. But with The Zombies of Penzance, we add another meta-layer to it. Here, we're telling a horror story in the language of English light opera. So inside the story, everything is terrifying and insane and literally life or death; but when the actors step outside of the story to directly tell the audience things (which happens a ton!), they're in a quirky, ever so polite English light opera. And yet they're still in character and period the whole time. The actors have to find that dual reality and realize that if they're comfortable with it, the audience will accept it.

I guess our meta-meta musical is closer to The Mystery of Edwin Drood than any other musical I can think of. It's interesting that both Zombies and Drood are American shows based on British sources and British theatre forms.

What makes Gilbert & Sullivan shows work is getting the audience to accept the barely logical reality of the story, to accept the story's usually ridiculous rules and conventions, to care about the characters, no matter how crazy they are. In fact, it's often the most ridiculous G&S characters that we bond with most. The way all that happens onstage is for the actors to live completely and honestly within that crazy reality, no matter how crazy it gets, no matter how tenuous its logic gets. It's just like doing Little Shop of Horrors or Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson -- the actors have to make peace with the odd, unconventional rules these shows invent for themselves, and then audiences will do the same.

Actors who don't do musicals often think musical theatre acting is somehow "lesser" -- less serious, less skillful, less honest -- than acting in non-musical plays. The opposite is true. The kind of acting most musicals require (particularly post-1964) is much more difficult, much more complex, and requires more and different training. That's why so many famous actors have sucked in musicals. Our actors in The Zombies of Penzance have a much harder job to do than people realize.

It is a truism of theatre (and I assume other forms) that audiences will follow strong, confident storytelling wherever it takes them. We New Liners have seen that proven over and over again throughout our history, with shows like The Wild Party, Love Kills, Forbidden Planet, Floyd Collins, Passing Strange, American Idiot, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success. But audiences will not follow tentative or clueless storytelling; they will disconnect.

We now have two and half weeks to just run our show at every rehearsal, tweak it, polish it, but most of all, to let the actors collectively find that dual reality, the style and tone, and construct the magic "clockwork" that pulls everything together into a unified whole.

Our intrepid music director Nicolas Valdez and our truly brilliant cast have shaped such a gorgeous musical sound for our show. Now the actors have to put down their scores, so they can explore and invest in these wacky characters and this wild, barely logical story. The sooner they put down the music and the more time they give themselves to play in this world, the richer our show will be.

This is the part where I sit back and let the actors explore. It's the most exciting part.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

A Zombie Hunter's Life's a Bloody Drag

In adapting The Pirates of Penzance into The Zombies of Penzance, part of the process was reverse engineering my crazy meta origin story. Our origin story says that Gilbert & Sullivan wrote The Zombies of Penzance first, but their producer Richard D'Oyly-Carte refused to produce it, so they rewrote it as the now famous Pirates of Penzance.

Just to be clear, that didn't actually happen.

So as I was figuring out how to translate the original story into a zombie story, I was also imagining Glibert's fictional rewrite process. In The Zombies of Penzance, General Stanley's daughters have been raised to be zombie hunters. But when Gilbert rewrote the show as The Pirates of Penzance (are you confused yet?), he couldn't find an equivalent for the daughters as zombie hunters, so he invented the bumbling police. In Zombies, the story begins with Frederic as a freshly made zombie. But since being a pirate isn't a blood disease, Gilbert had to find some other reason for Frederic to be trapped in his pirate family. So he created Ruth, the leap year device, etc. Gilbert even moved a song from Act II to Act I to introduce Ruth.

If you're keeping up... none of the above is really true.

But some of the changes I made as I rewrote the show had a cool, but unintended consequence. By cutting Ruth and the policeman, I made the roles of the Stanley Daughters much bigger and more important. And because of the way it all worked out, we ended up with a cool double-cross on the audience. It was an accident, but I think it will be very effective.

In Act I, the daughters are pretty much the same as they are in Pirates, very girly, very Damsels in Distress. As Act II opens, they seem the same outwardly, but they mention during "Dry the Glistening Tear" that they've been raised to be zombie hunters. And then the next time we meet them, mid-Act II, they're dressed as hunters; and ultimately, the daughters save the day. Almost.

Our audience will start will preconceptions about the daughters, based on knowledge of the period (1879) and/or knowledge of Pirates of Penzance, and Gilbert and Sullivan generally. We won't mess with those assumptions in Act I, but we will comically shatter the audience's preconceptions in Act II, by turning the Good Girls into ruthless zombie hunters who find the slaughter of zombies rather funny. At the same time, the daughters will transform, over intermission, from Gilbert and Sullivan characters into horror movie characters, in a long tradition of kickass female heroes who kill the monsters in horror movies.

And then there are even two more surprise reversals after that, which get our story to its eventual resolution...

I didn't set out to do all that. I just wanted to write a zombie version of my favorite operetta. The idea itself seemed funny, interesting, and wrong in all the right ways. It's the worst possible storytelling form with which to tell a horror story. But however it happened, this is where it took me, and it delights me. I imagine the surprises will be particularly fun for fans of Pirates, who'll be expecting the police to show up in Act II.

But all of that also presents challenges for the women in the show, to find an internal logic that includes both their period-appropriate behavior in Act I and their horror-movie-appropriate behavior in Act II. I think the answer is that these women are both these things. They've been raised by their father, and trained to be killers; and yet they also know there are rules about Polite Society and women's "role" in their culture.

But we get a hint that these are not the blushing flowers of Pirates of Penzance, in Act I when the women almost discuss some sex acts, before Frederic reveals himself and prevents their detour into improper topics. Though they strive to live proper outward lives (as detailed in "We're Christian Girls on a Christian Outing"), there are adventurers and cynics among these women. At the end of "Christian Girls," they sing:
All our lives our Bible has protected us;
For this moment Jesus has selected us
To be paragons of pure,
All of this week, to be sure!
To be paragons of pure,
But predictions would be premature!
Ev’ry moment brings temptation,
And despite our inclination,
Satan could just win and we could
Waltz with sin!

They'll do their best, they're telling us, but they're not promising anything. These aren't the women from Pirates, but we only get hints of that this early in the story. At the top of that same song, we realize how sexual they are, even though most of them don't realize it themselves. Their sexuality is still sublimated, metaphorical:
We’re Christian girls on a Christian outing,
No bad words and please, no shouting,
Far away from male temptation carnal;
Where our nethers never quiver,
By the ever-throbbing river,
Swollen where the summer rain
Comes gushing forth;
Gushing forth in spurts and sputters
Sloshing through the roads and gutters,
Pounding through the virgin hills below us.
Scaling rough and rugged passes,
Working out our shapely asses,
There are greater joys, we know, in purity!

In Act II, we'll find they're not only brave and battle-ready, but also smart and quick-thinking. In this version of the story, without the character of Ruth, it's the daughters who deliver the G&S deus ex machina at the end, to resolve our plot. Although, in true-G&S fashion, there's a second, horror movie deus ex machina right after that...

For people who know Pirates, there are lots of funny moments where the text is almost the same as the original, but just different enough to be funny in this new context. But more fun than that, even if you know Pirates well, you will not know where our story is headed until the very end...

We're still blocking the show, but I cannot wait to share this delicious lunacy with our audiences. We move into the theatre next week! The adventure continues!

Long Live the Musical!

Buy Your Tickets Now!

A Potent, Little Metaphor

In the late 1980s, I wrote a musical called Attempting the Absurd, about a young man who has figured out he's only a character in a musical and doesn't actually exist, and that knowledge causes him lots of grief. Ultimately, he wins the day by producing the script for Attempting the Absurd. I recently published the script and vocal selections for the show on Amazon, and I described the show as "meta before meta was cool."

But you know who did meta way before any of us? Gilbert and Sullivan.

Their operettas frequently referred to themselves and occasionally to each other, and more than that, half their agenda was mocking the conventions of opera, as they used them. Since we did our public reading of The Zombies of Penzance in January, I've been reading books about Gilbert & Sullivan, and seeking out videos of their shows (I highly recommend anything from Opera Australia). I had seen some of their shows, but I'm discovering the others now as well.

And what I realize is that half the G&S agenda is mocking polite society, politics, and human nature; and the other half is writing operas that mock opera. Gilbert's lyrics mock opera (with wildly inverted sentences, overblown imagery), Sullivan's music mocks opera (the repetition, the bombast, the self-indulgence, and once in a while, forty notes to one syllable), and the two of them together mock opera's seriousness, it's pomposity, its faux exoticism. Gilbert and Sullivan "broke" old-fashioned opera. They laid bare the silly conventions and cliches by both using and abusing them all at the same time. In term's of today's musical theatre, we might call G&S shows neo musical comedies, in the language of opera.

In fact, I think that's what I called Jerry Springer the Opera when we produced it.

Writing The Zombies of Penzance was technically very hard for me, but it wasn't hard conceptually. I get G&S and I've been in love with The Pirates of Penzance since I saw Kevin Kline do it on Broadway in the early 1980s -- just a few years before I started writing Attempting the Absurd, now that I think about it. It was enormously fun getting into Gilbert's voice with this show. Writing the dialogue in his voice was a breeze, but writing lyrics in his style is insanely difficult.

Here's one of my favorite moments of dialogue:
FREDERIC: Oh, would that you could render this extermination unnecessary by accompanying me back to civilization! No doubt the doctors and scientists have by now concocted an antidote, or failing that, they could cut all your heads off with a clean, sharp knife.

KING: No, Frederic, no, no, no, that cannot be. I don’t think much of this tedious, soulless, shadow life we endure, but contrasted with the forty-hour work week, it is comparatively fulfilling. No, Frederic, I shall live and die – and then live again and likely die again – a Zombie King!

But Gilbert wrote some incredibly complex rhymes, and I'm pretty sure I kept every rhyme scheme he set up, interior rhymes and all. This is my rewrite of "Climbing Over Rocky Mountain."
We’re Christian girls on a Christian outing,
No bad words and please, no shouting,
Far away from male temptation carnal,
Where our nethers never quiver,
By the ever-throbbing river,
Swollen where the summer rain
Comes gushing forth;
Gushing forth in spurts and sputters
Sloshing through the roads and gutters,
Pounding through the virgin hills below us.
Scaling rough and rugged passes,
Working out our shapely asses,
There are greater joys, we know, in purity!
Fit and healthy virgin lasses,
Keeping pure our virgin asses,
There are greater joys, we know…!

The one exception to my fidelity is in "Modern Era Zombie Killer," where I added one syllable to the title phrase though it still scans to the music correctly.
I am the very model of a modern-era zombie killer,
I can cut off heads and yet be gentle as a caterpillar.
Since the early days when the initial virus circulated,
When you think of me, you think of walking dead decapitated.
I’m very well acquainted, too, with matters metaphysical,
I understand the issues, both the obvious and quizzical.
If I could slaughter zombies, I would cross the River Styx for them.
I’ve seen Romero’s movies and I’ve memorized all six of them!

I like to make them suffer but I don’t think they can feel a lot;
Decapitation’s fun, I know, but zombies really squeal a lot!
In short, I can be fearsome or be gentle as a caterpillar;
I hereby present myself, a modern-era zombie killer.

But I don't think I changed anything else (other than making it into a zombie story). Despite the wacky origin story, I want Zombies to be as authentic a G&S show as this fanboy can make it.

But now as we're blocking the show, I realize, this is a really different kind of performance for the actors. There are so many songs and sections of songs in which the characters turn to the audience and explain the situation, their opinion of it, what they want, etc. Sometimes at great length. For musical theatre actors, that's so unnatural, to just stand and explain.

But as I think about it, I realize that's exactly what Threepenny does. Next to Normal does it a lot, also Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, High Fidelity, and so many other shows. Even Sweet Smell of Success, which we produced last season. In these shows, the actor has to be both (or alternately) inside the scene and outside the scene -- but still the character either way -- both narrating and living through the moment, both in the place and time of the story, but also aware of and talking to the audience. That's a hell of a tightrope.

Also, like the original G&S show, we have a small stage and a relatively big cast, so staging is limited when everybody's onstage -- which is the last 10-15 minutes of both acts. I know being so physically static onstage for such a long time also feels weird to the actors. But having seen a lot of G&S shows now, they really do work this way. The music and text are so funny, and the plot is so insane, that the audience doesn't get bored in the least. The audience needs time to focus just on the words.

In fact, G&S shows usually follow a rule I learned from Hal Prince -- the more complex the content, the less active the scene should be physically. Think of brilliant musical theatre moments like "Being Alive," "The Ladies Who Lunch," "I'm Still Here," "Rose's Turn"... there's not a lot of movement, because there's so much going on emotionally, narratively, thematically.

If we make the audience choose between visuals and content, they'll choose visuals. Humans are visual creatures. We have to make them choose content sometimes -- well, often in a G&S show.

So our actors have all kinds of obstacles thrown at them this time. To find that neo musical comedy style, exaggerated, highly stylized, but still really honest -- that's not always easy (especially when you're playing an unusually high-functioning zombie). To find that reality that contains both the crazy inside world of our story and also our performance and audience. To get comfortable in the slow telescoping time of opera, even slower than musical theatre time. The scripts for musicals are much shorter than scripts for plays, because it takes longer to sing words than to speak them, because music operates on a different kind of time, a slower time. In musical theatre, actors learn to live inside those extended moments of time, fully alive but staying in that moment, that emotion, that reaction. Opera slows time down even more, because the music is even less in constant service of the storytelling. And Gilbert and Sullivan sometimes slow time down opera time even more than that, to mock the repetition and narrative pace of opera. Mabel's first entrance in Pirates/Zombies is one example. So are both act finales.

So the challenge for our actors is to create an interesting performance not in physical zombie shtick as much as in character, reaction, backstory, social context, and our wonderfully absurd set of circumstances. The idea of zombies eating, then marrying these girls has to seem to be a Very Serious Matter Altogether.

'Cause really, are marriage-friendly zombies any more ridiculous than man-eating flytraps? The secret to Little Shop is for the actors to take it totally seriously, to believe that Audrey II is a genuine threat. The material takes care of the funny. It's the same for us.

But our guys are playing zombies, after all. They have to be recognizably zombies. Zombies who sing operetta, including patter songs. Even though they can't walk very well. Because, did I mention, they're zombies.

All this reminds me of a great, weird show we produced called Bukowsical. The central joke of the show is that it tells the dark, ugly, cynical life story of the brilliant American writer Charles Bukowski, but in the most inappropriate form possible, a cheery, colorful, upbeat musical comedy. And that's essentially what The Zombies of Penzance is. It's a horror story told in the most inappropriate form possible, a bouncy, dry-humoured British comic opera.

And that wrongness, the frequent self-reference, the mismatch of form and content, and the constant violations of period (even though we're pretending this was written in 1878) are all part of the meta joke.
My zombie hunting habits, though a potent, little metaphor,
Are really more subversive than the critics give me credit for.
In nineteenth cent’ry operetta, comedy or thriller,
I am still the very model of a modern-era zombie killer!

We're telling the audience Gilbert and Sullivan wrote Zombies in 1878, but as you watch the show, we're constantly reminding you that Gilbert couldn't have possibly written these references to movies, to George Romero, to Pepto Bismal or the Aqua Teen Hunger Force, and he certainly never would have used the word fuck, which our show does a few times.

The fact that I rewrote Pirates as Zombies, and then concocted a ridiculously meta origin story, means it's a meta meta musical. It was already self-aware as Pirates, but now The Zombies of Penzance carries with it, every second, an awareness of Pirates, and for people who know Pirates well, there's even more fun to be had there, in how close to the original my "translation" often is.

Meanwhile, our actors will find their way. They always do. We often do shows that are just so weird or so unique in their particular rules that it takes the actors a while to figure out how it all ticks and how they fit into that clockwork. Luckily, they all trust me, so I just keep moving forward and they keep lumbering along beside me.

So much fun ahead. The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Buy Your Tickets Now!

"New Line Theatre is Saving the Musical."

New Line will soon start our 28th season. And I'm feeling more optimistic right now than I have in a long time. We have some long overdue good fiscal news...!

Believe me, this has never been an easy journey. I knew that when I started the company in 1991, but knowing it doesn't make it any easier. Throughout most of our history, we've generally stayed on an even keel fiscally -- one season might end in the hole a few hundred dollars, or less often, a few thousand, but the next season would always compensate. Only once were we in real fiscal trouble, after we had to close an already badly selling run early, due to a death in the New Line family. But the Regional Arts Commission stepped in with a loan, and within a year, we had corrected the imbalance and repaid the loan.

That was the only time, until a couple years ago.

Suddenly, for various reasons, we lost two big donors, a foundation grant, and then we were hit with the indignity of getting zero-funded by the Regional Arts Commission (under new management) after twenty-seven years of funding. More than fifty local organizations were similarly cut off by RAC for the coming season. So since 2016, we have been struggling mightily and we've completely retooled our budget, reducing it by about a third. But still we soldier on, and all this time we've have had amazing support, incredible loyalty, and venders with the patience of Job.

And now, I'm extremely happy to report that our 2017-2018 season ended with a surplus for the first time in three years, and two-thirds of our debt has been erased. If the season ahead sells half as well as we expect, we'll soon retire the rest of our debt.

I would be remiss if I didn't point out at this time that donations made before our fiscal year ends on August 31, can make that surplus even bigger and put us in an even better position as the new season begins! (hint, hint)

I make that pitch because New Line needs to replace that funding we lost. So we need to step up our fundraising efforts, and we hope all our supporters and fans will help us with these increased efforts. Ticket sales cover only about 40-45% of our budget. The rest is grants and donations. (Here's a post of mine that explains why nonprofits work this way.)

You can make a donation right now by clicking here. You're welcome.

And let me make a pitch to my readers who don't live in St. Louis about why you should still support New Line. For much of our history, New Line has been the only company in the country producing only alternative musical theatre. Today, we're thrilled that small companies around the country now frequently do the kind of work New Line does. But New Line is still unique in our ability to bring back to life shows that were ill-served and left for dead in New York, and to bring national attention to weird, lesser known, but brilliant shows, like Night of the Living Dead and Bukowsical.

Our art form, the American musical theatre, is in a new Golden Age, and New Line is one of the forces moving us forward. But don't just take my word for it...

Broadway composer-lyricist-bookwriter Kyle Jarrow says:
I love New Line Theatre. Not just because they did a great production of one of my plays -- not just because Scott Miller is one of the most thoughtful, passionate and engaged artistic directors I’ve ever interacted with -- but because New Line Theatre is saving the Musical. The musical is one of the most iconic American popular art forms. And yet, it’s struggling to stay relevant. As I see it, this is the result of a number of factors: ticket prices rising, the average age of theatergoers rising, as well as the commercial pressures that bring more and more unnecessary film adaptations to Broadway. For the next generation of audience, for whom theater is competing with film and television and video game systems, it’s not surprising that musicals often don’t feel like a very good investment of time and money.

But it doesn’t have to be this way. A great piece of musical theater can have incredible power. Music has the ability to drill straight into our emotional cores, to elevate drama in a profound way. New Line Theatre understands this. From my discussions with Scott, it’s clear that his company approaches musicals as drama -- committed to digging deep to excavate the best in the works his company chooses to produce. In every production, they work to prove why the musical form is important. They demonstrate why this form deserves to live on, and why it deserves to evolve with the times.

I don’t know of any other theater that does the kind of programming that New Line does. They take chances on new, cutting-edge works. They revisit quality shows that flopped on Broadway but deserve another look. And they do game-changing reinterpretations of classics. It’s a varied, exciting mission, and I’m honored to have been included in it. I very much hope to be again. New Line deserves your fullest support. What they’re doing is truly important.

Broadway composer-lyricist Amanda Green says:
I have had the honor and pleasure of having two of my shows produced at New Line Theater: High Fidelity (twice!) and Hands on a Hardbody.

New Line was the first theater to produce High Fidelity after its brief run on Broadway. I went with trepidation. I came away floored by the intelligence, scrappy fun, big heart, talent of the actors and acumen of the production. It was a reclaiming to me of the show I wrote and loved, produced in the right spirit. Led by Scott Miller, New Line proves you can do a lot with a little. In a way, this production was more satisfyingly right to me than the Broadway production – and got to the heart and humor of the story.

I knew as soon as I walked into New Line’s production of Hands on a Hardbody in 2015, that once again, Scott ‘got’ the material and it was in excellent hands. Entertaining, funny, deeply moving, performed in an intimate space, with a supremely talented cast. Scott’s masterful understanding of the show, and ability to draw the audience in, made for another transformative experience.

I know I’m not alone in being a Broadway professional who holds New Line Theater in high regard: Ann Harada (Avenue Q), Stephen Sondheim (!) and a host of others count themselves vocal fans and supporters.

I am not only a grateful author, I am a donor to New Line Theater. I believe in Scott Miller’s vision, in the talent, ability, and dedication of this community of actors, designers and audience members he has created. This is what theater is all about: bringing bold new work, undiscovered overlooked work to the community – with intelligence passion and heart Transforming both those who produce it and their audience..

New Line Theater deserves to have a long healthy life in St. Louis.

Broadway producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper (author of the Untold Stories of Broadway series), says, “New Line Theatre is an essential maker of musicals. Their work over the years in bringing worthwhile, lesser known shows to life for the St. Louis community is commendable. I recently saw New Line's production of Yeast Nation and was wholly impressed by the top-notch work of every artist involved. New Line has made it a priority to present challenging, thought-provoking musicals rather than prioritizing shows that happened to be the biggest commercial hits. In that, they are unique among theatre companies. Their integrity and their follow-through over many seasons of great work are extraordinary.”

Broadway actor Ann Harada says, "Their success proves that there's an audience for musicals that might be just a little bit outside the mainstream. Even though everything in life is only for now, I hope these guys are now and forever."

John Waters -- yes, that John Waters -- called us “the coolest theatre in town.” He says, "New Line Theatre can make it work. They know how to make a show biz dollar holler. St. Louis, you're lucky to have this gang. Theatre-goers, put your money where you mouth is!"

American Theatre magazine wrote, in a glowing profile of New Line, "There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. . . But by staging contemporary musicals of wildly varying styles and pedigrees, with attention to detail but minus needless frills in an intimate setting, and by advocating for them tirelessly, even quixotically, Miller is, in his quietly ornery Midwestern way, advancing and reifying the American musical-theatre form as it has come kicking and screaming into the 21st century."

Our own Riverfront Times did a wonderful profile of New Line, writing, "New Line has won a national reputation not just for launching new productions, but for saving shows that have been savaged on Broadway."

We New Liners have been ridiculously blessed over the years to have the kind of support we enjoy from our community. My friends running theatres in other cities are very jealous. But we have to do better in our fundraising efforts to keep our company healthy, and we hope you'll all help us. Think about making a donation before the end of August -- it would help us immensely.

And don't forget, season tickets are still on sale through Sept. 3. You don't want to miss this season -- The Zombies of Penzance, La Cage aux Folles, and Be More Chill...!

Thank you, St. Louis, for being such an amazing place to make cool musical theatre!

Long Live the Musical!

I’m Just Like My Country -- I’m Young, Scrappy, and Hungry

I think about history a lot, and most of that thinking is about American musical theatre history. That's why I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band, and why I created our YouTube History of Musical Theatre, on New Line's YouTube channel.

Back in 2014, on a whim (or possibly because I was reeeeeally stoned), I re-sorted the list of New Line shows into chronological order by when the shows originally debuted, to get a look at how our company has explored the history and evolution of the American musical theatre. It's cool to see how the art form has changed and reacted to world events over the twentieth century, but also how wide-ranging New Line's programming actually is. 

It's worth noting that never, in twenty-seven years, have we ever violated our mission to produce adult, socially and politically relevant musical theatre. Even shows usually dismissed as shallow, like Anything Goes or Grease, reveal surprising new depth and sharp social critique when treated with some respect and thoughtfullness by the New Liners.

I've added to that 2014 list all the shows we've done since I wrote that post. Here's the updated list...
The Zombies of Penzance (1879)
The Threepenny Opera (1928)
Anything Goes (1934)
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)
Zorba (1969)
Celebration (1969)
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)
La Cage aux Folles (1983)
Into The Woods (1987)
Assassins (1990)
Kiss Of The Spider Woman (1990)
Return To The Forbidden Planet (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)
Sweet Smell of Success (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)
Yeast Nation (2007)
Passing Strange (2008)
Cry-Baby (2008)
Next To Normal (2009)
American Idiot (2009)
Lizzie (2009)
Bonnie & Clyde (2011)
Night Of The Living Dead (2012)
Hands On A Hardbody (2013)
Heathers (2013)
Atomic (2013)
Be More Chill (2015)

Note the obvious pockets of creativity in the 60s and 70s, and then starting again in the mid to late 1990s. Also notice the absence of shows from the 40s and 50s – the Rodgers & Hammerstein era. Notice that once we get to the nineties, none of these shows follow the R&H structure anymore. Admittedly, other shows did follow the R&H rules during this period, but look at how many didn't. We're in a post-R&H era. Woo-hooo!

For many years, we've kept an online History of New Line, with full production details and links to the individual shows' webpages. We do this partly because we hope other adventurous companies like ours might get some cool ideas about shows to produce by seeing what we've tackled (I look at other companies' schedules all the time. That's how I found Night of the Living Dead); and to make it easy for them to find good, show-related resources once they are producing a show. But also because no other company has ever done what we're doing. (So far.) No other company is devoted solely to socially and politically relevant, alternative musical theatre. Some companies do some of this work, some do quite a bit, but as far as we know, nobody else does only this. And we want there to be a record of our adventures

A few years ago, the local theatre reviewers created the St. Louis Theater Circle Awards, and they honored New Line with a special award for our body of work over the years. It was a very nice compliment, a real honor coming from the people who see almost all the theatre in town (some of them, for many years), and it was way better than "winning" something "over" someone else. It was one of the few times I've spoken in public without being nervous and without notes. I knew what I wanted to say:

In 2014, American Theatre magazine (which I've been subscribed to since high school) did a really long, really smart, really wonderful feature story about New Line, our work, our history, and our relationship to our art form, as it continues to evolve. I could not imagine a cooler portrait of our company. American Theatre has run short items about our shows before, but never anything like this. And it's not just complimentary, it's really respectful. It takes us New Liners and our work seriously. It treats us like we have something of value to say with our work, and with our approach to contemporary musical theatre. That's very cool validation.

In 2015, our own Riverfront Times also did a very cool feature story about New Line and our relationship to our art form, again a really nice validation that what we're doing is interesting and worthwhile and important. As much as we struggle from show to show, this kind of recognition and respect is so nice.

We're all incredibly psyched about the season ahead -- the world premiere of The Zombies of Penzance in October; an all new, more intimate look at the classic La Cage aux Folles in March; and the new sci-fi rock musical Be More Chill next June. All three shows are going to be loads of fun, all three will surprise the hell out of you, all three have genuinely amazing casts, and we're cautiously optimistic that all three shows will sell really well.

Season ticket sales are going great this year -- to order yours, click here.

Yet, as much recognition as we get, as successful as our shows are, it's always still hard to balance the budget (we had to raise ticket prices for the coming season, for the first time in six years). Ticket sales cover 40-45% of our budget -- the rest is grants and donations. If you'd like to contribute to New Line and join us on our adventures, click here. If you'd like to sponsor a show, click here.

But, despite how hard it is, all in all, things are good. The adventure continues and awesome people keep wanting to work with us. And that's pretty much all I need.

But if you wanna throw $10,000 our way, we would not object...

In a couple weeks, we start rehearsals for The Zombies of Penzance. I. Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

Who Lives, Who Dies, Who Tells Your Story

More than anything else, Assassins is about a battle for control of the storytelling. Every moment in the show is about that.

And isn't that a metaphor for all our lives?

On one team, Balladeer, as a stand-in for American pop culture and entertainment throughout our history, simplifying and misrepresenting the truth. His music is pure Americana, but his lyrics are shallow, simple-minded. Storytelling is central to any culture, but the Balladeer's songs show us how American culture distorts the complexity and nuance of the truth.

On the other team, the Assassins, all presented without judgment, allowed to tell their own stories and make their own cases, in their own voices. And with each assassin's song, the musical form matches both the period and the personality of the assassin.

With two exceptions, the entire score is written in styles appropriate to each assassin’s time, and all in traditional American song forms. For Sondheim, those forms include not only folk songs and cakewalks, but also John Philip Sousa marches, barbershop quartets, show tunes, even 1970s pop ballads. The exception to this is “Another National Anthem,” the one song in which the overall dramatic situation of the show actually changes. Appropriately, this is the one song that is not a period piece and not a traditional American song form; it is pure Sondheim, full of rich dissonance and interesting melody. It is in “Another National Anthem” that the assassins first reject the Balladeer’s American Dream and realize that there is safety – and power – in numbers.

The other exception is "Something Just Broke," which wasn't in the original version, doesn't follow the rules of the rest of the show, and interrupts the amazing original transition from Oswald's shot through to the finale. Can you tell I don't like it?

But it's “Another National Anthem” that shares the now famous theme with Hamilton, "Who lives, who dies, who tells your story."

The assassins onstage literally solicit the audience to become assassins. Led by Byck, they tell us that they’ve tried the traditional American Dream, the one proffered by the Balladeer, and it doesn’t work. They’ve found a better American Dream, another national anthem. They sell it to us, asking us to pass on their message, singing over and over, “Spread the word.” They know that we (the audience) all have unrealized dreams just like they do; they know that we all want the same thing, and they know how to get it now.

In a way, it becomes the most optimistic song in the show, precisely because the assassins have found the answer. But it's also infused with great anger, carried to enough of an extreme to justify their extreme acts. Byck compares the fairy tale of the American Dream to Santa Claus, and we realize how meaningless the Balladeer’s empty optimism is to them. For these assassins, the American Dream really is as silly as Santa Claus and the Easter Bunny.

As the Balladeer spouts his homespun clich├ęs about a country built on dreams, we see how little this means to this group of people consumed by despair, grief, rage, and feelings of abandonment. For most of us in the audience, it will be the first time we’ve looked at the American Dream in such a harsh light, and realized how irritating it must be to the disenfranchised members of our society who can never have what we tell them they should have.

Are we, as an audience, complicit in that?

These assassins are newly empowered. They have taken over the Balladeer’s role – that of passing on stories – and they literally chase the Balladeer off the stage in the middle of the song, silencing the only voice in the show still in favor of "old-fashioned American values."

The Assassins become a new voice of authority and they take control of the show as they realize that they have even greater power as a group than as individuals. They see the Balladeer’s and America’s Great Lie – that the mailman, the delivery boy, even the usherette can have the American Dream if only they try hard enough. These assassins have listened to that lie for too long, and have seen it for what it is – a con..

They decide it’s time for them to be heard. They have learned how to get their message across. The Balladeer tells them their acts have meant nothing, but it’s not true. They know that now...
They may not want to hear it,
But they listen,
Once they think it’s gonna stop the game...
No, they may not understand
All the words,
All the same, they hear the music...

The ballpark is mainstream society; the game is the American Dream. Though the assassins can’t get into the ballpark, they can certainly interrupt the game.

With their newfound confidence, they pick up on one of the Balladeer’s themes – that you have to keep on trying. Maybe they can’t have the prize they were promised, but there are other prizes to be had. For those who wanted fame, they got it. For those who wanted to effect political change, they at least called attention to their cause.

For those who wanted to “connect,” they have done just that. They have become a new voice of America: “We’re the other national anthem.” They realize that they really can effect change. They sing, “There’s another national anthem and I think it just began...” Their anthem is playing now. It’s their turn.

They have changed who tells their story.  The genius of Stephen Sondheim and John Weidman.

New Line has produced Assassins three times, in 1994, 1998, and 2008. It's a genuine masterpiece, though I didn't love the changes the revival made, like adding a devil figure, which totally lets the assassins off the hook. And yes, I wish we could leave out "Something Just Broke." But it's truly one of the greatest works of our art form in the last fifty years.

As much as we know Lin-Manuel Miranda loves Sondheim, it's not a stretch to think that the themes of Assassins were in the back of his head when he tackled Hamilton. The two shows are companion pieces in so many ways, both about storytelling, about point of view, moral gray area, both about America itself.

See why I love musical theatre?

Long Live the Musical!