The Power of the Truncheon

The term "environmental theatre" can mean two different but related things. Sometimes it refers to site-specific theatre, meaning the show takes place in the actual, real-world environment where the story takes place, a restaurant, a donut shop, a bus stop, etc. For example, a recent New York revival of Sweeney Todd took place in a pie shop.

But the way the term was first used was to describe a show that uses the entire environment of the theatre as a playing space, playing scenes out in the house, in the aisles, etc., so the audience is inside the story, essentially eliminating the distinction between performance space and audience space.

New Line has only sort of accidentally done the first kind, with The Cradle Will Rock, because we recreated that historic opening night, so the setting for our show was a theatre. But we've done quite a few of the second kind, with shows like Sweeney Todd (1998), Into the Woods (1999), A New Brain (2002), Bat Boy (2003, 2006), Urinetown (2007, 2022), and a few others.

In the case of Urinetown, it's extra funny because ours is an environmental production of a show about the environment. So I guess that makes our production environmental environmental theatre.

But even when Urinetown is staged on a proscenium stage, the environment is still this theatre on this night, and the audience is dragged inside the action early on. And the stunning metatheatrical bottom line is that this very serious story and these very vulnerable people are trapped in a musical comedy. Their environment is a stage, and everything about their lives is restricted by the rules and conventions of mid-century, George Abbott, musical comedy. And they all know it. And they don't like it.

The story of Urinetown doesn't belong in a musical comedy. That's the central joke of the whole show. This is the wrong storytelling form for this story, and that dissonance reveals so much that's funny (ridiculous?) about both the storytelling form and the story itself. It's very funny, in a wacky, meta kind of way when Lockstock and Sally discuss the show's structure, conventions, plot, etc. It's not just funny because musicals don't do that. It's not just funny because Sally challenges so much about the show. It's funny because we all know her lines criticizing the show are part of the show that the writers wrote and she rehearsed. It's also funny because Sally senses something wrong that she can't quite articulate.

They're all in the wrong storytelling form! If this is a musical comedy, Bobby should be a charming, funny, romantic hero, like Billy Crocker or Cry-Baby Walker. Instead, he starts a political movement over an issue he doesn't understand, and he fails the rebellion. Hope should be a well-mannered, sheltered, young lady like Hope Harcourt or Sarah Brown. Instead she is slowly but thoroughly disillusioned and then takes over an underground rebellion. Pennywise should be a gentle, wise, older woman who guides our heroes, like Nettie Fowler or Aunt Eller. Instead she's an Eva Peron who stayed poor. Little Sally should be more like Winthrop Paroo.

Cladwell should be a formidable but sympathetic villain who gets a song to explain how he got this way. Instead, Cladwell is a Bond villain who sings about killing bunnies. Cladwell shouldn't get an old-school, dance-filled, MGM-style introduction like "Mr. Cladwell;" he should get a song like "Lonely Room" from Oklahoma! But they're trapped in this musical comedy.

The brutal, cold-hearted cops Lockstock and Barrel ought to get a song like "Stars" from Les Miz or "The Stuff" from Reefer Madness. Instead they get a faux rap song in favor of police brutality, again the wrong form for the content, and in this case, a really wrong form. This is the hybrid monster that comes from this unholy (but hilarious) coupling of musical tragedy and musical comedy. Urinetown is clearly the child of The Threepenny Opera, but while Threepenny's agenda was serious; Urinetown's agenda is more mischievous. The more I work on it (and having worked on Threepenny), I realize that Urinetown is just Threepenny turned up to eleven.

Just look at this lyric, and keep in mind, it's a pro-brutality rap number...
It's a hard, cold tumble of a journey,
Worthy of a gurney,
A bumble down,
A slapped face,
Smacked with a mace,
Certain to debase,
Is our stumble down.
It's a path that leads you only one place,
Horrible to retrace,
A crumble down.
A hard, cold tumble of a tourney,
Jumble of a journey
To Urinetown.

There's a lot to unpack there! Even if we don't know the Big Secret of Urinetown yet, this is pretty intense. If we do know that secret, the word down takes on a different color. Notice how fast the violence escalates, in one line from "a slapped face" to "smacked with a mace"! Not surprisingly, this "journey" is "worthy of a gurney" -- and if you're on a gurney, you're either gravely injured or dead. And if there are any doubts about the intention, they assure us their actions are "certain to debase." And after all, isn't that the point of police brutality, to debase, to dehumanize?

This is a funny show, but it's a really ugly story. We're laughing all night, but the characters aren't. The cops sing:
There are those who think our methods vicious–
Overly malicious,
A bunch of brutes.
But it's we who gather for the people –
Tavern to the steeple –
Lawful fruits!

Now here's the justification (as always) for the brutality; it's to preserve law and order, to serve the people, from those at the moral bottom of society ("tavern") to those at the moral top ("steeple"), so that "law-abiding citizens" can live safe, fruitful lives, to gather the fruits of their honest work, like God wants.

Of course, it's all about the definition of "law-abiding," right? And who gets to define it. The song goes on...
Our task: bring a little order –
Swindle out a hoarder
From what he loots.
As the book says, "certainly a season" –
Trample out a treason,
With hobnail boots!

Notice that the police will bring "order" even if it means "swindling" someone. They vow to "trample out" treason (in other words, treason like peeing for free), with the heaviest of violent metaphors, hobnail boots, the heavy boots historically worn by invading armies. And to make it even worse, Lockstock even quotes the Bible to justify their brutality, Ecclesiastes 3:1-8. But this is no random citation. Look at that verse:
To everything there is a season,
A time for every purpose under heaven:
A time to be born, And a time to die;
A time to plant, And a time to pluck what is planted;
A time to kill, And a time to heal;
A time to break down, And a time to build up;
A time to weep, And a time to laugh;
A time to mourn, And a time to dance;
A time to cast away stones, And a time to gather stones;
A time to embrace, And a time to refrain from embracing;
A time to gain, And a time to lose;
A time to keep, And a time to throw away;
A time to tear, And a time to sew;
A time to keep silence, And a time to speak;
A time to love, And a time to hate;
A time of war, And a time of peace.

To Lockstock's mind, this is the time to kill, the time for war. And you'll forgive the digression, but this verse applies to much about Urinetown. First, they had the good years, but then they had the dreaded Stink Years, and now here they are. And in a more meta way (okay, this is a big digression), many of those lines could describe the contrast between tragic pop opera and old-school musical comedy, which is one of the things Urinetown takes potshots at. Okay, enough of the Bible.

"The Cop Song" continues on its creepy way...
Years past, all lived in a jungle,
Scooping out a bungle,
Nature’s bowl.
Life of constant deprivation,
Certain aggravation,
Took its toll.

Here, the cops remind us of the Stink Years, when the economy fell apart, a major Depression hit, and the city became a "jungle" where people found food wherever they could, foraging like our primitive ancestors. And living in constant need of food and shelter, it drove people crazy (or so believes Lockstock), and so the only solution was force -- the "truncheon" or nightstick.
Soon learned power of the truncheon.
Organize a function,
King to pawn.
So if peace is what you're after,
Urinetown's the rafter
To hang it on.

The combination of bureaucracy ("a function, king to pawn") and brutality, is what delivers "peace" to "the people." And so, the reasoning goes, Urinetown should be a shining example to other cities of how to keep the peace. Despite the wacky dissonance of the musical style, these cops take their beliefs and their jobs very seriously. They believe they are protecting order, and therefore democracy, and therefore freedom. Of course, freedom is what the rebels think they're fighting for too.

And if all that weren't creepy enough, the song identifies several case studies of people who broke the law by peeing for free, clearly meant to be cautionary tales.

It's a very funny song, largely because of its bizarre dissonance of form and content, and yet it's not funny. It's a song about how people have been brutalized and jailed (well, killed, actually) because of where and when they peed. The punishment is satirically outsized compared to the offense. And yet, how often in our real world do we see people -- let's be honest, black men -- being brutalized and/or killed over things almost as trivial.

Yeah, then it's not as funny....

And that's the genius of this ground-breaking neo musical comedyUrinetown. It's hilarious, but it's also subtextually pretty serious. It paints a vivid picture of how emotional, and therefore stupid, many people tend to get over politics and specific issues, and how much people love to join a "movement." It makes them feel less alone, and even more, it makes them feel important, like they matter. But that's the trouble -- it's about how it makes them feel instead of what they think.

America was founded on the freedom of belief, but the dark underbelly of that are the millions of Americans who still today conclude that their beliefs are more valid than facts and information, that the 2020 election was stolen, that wearing Covid masks was a violation of freedom, that vaccines cause autism, that Hillary Clinton was part of a child sex ring run out of a pizza parlor. Now, anything anyone believes -- anything -- is considered sacred because it's a belief, and therefore, unassailable and unrefutable.

Can we blame Bobby and the rebels for believing they should have the right to pee for free? Can we blame them for not thinking it through and foreseeing the consequences? Does the American electorate ever do that? Do lawmakers ever do that? Did the Supreme Court do that in their striking down of Roe v. Wade?

We don't usually think about the political environment when we talk about environmental theatre, but maybe that's the thing that keeps Urinetown endlessly interesting, funny, insightful, and painful over the years, as the real-world political environment keeps getting closer and closer to the insanity of Urinetown.

I have a reproduction of a prop from the original production of Urinetown, the fee hike proclamation. At the very bottom, in small type, is the date it was printed by the government -- 2027. Does that mean we're in the Stink Years now? Did Trump take us into the Stink Years? I guess so...

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Urinetown Fucks With Us

I've written a lot, here on this blog and in my books, about how much musicals like Urinetown fuck with our art form, with audience expectations, with storytelling itself. But there's macro-fucking-with, and micro-fucking-with.

Or to put it another way, overt fucking-with and subliminal fucking-with.

Urinetown fucks with us on a surface level, by challenging our assumptions about politics, about government, about political movements. And it fucks with us on a level just under the surface, by up-ending our assumptions about musicals, about musical comedy, about character types, about musical theatre song types, and of course, about happy endings.

But on a deeper level, Urinetown also fucks with us subliminally, by not conforming to the basic storytelling rules and conventions we assume it will conform to; or to put it another way, by blowing to bits those rules and conventions.

Look at the way the show opens. The first words are from Officer Lockstock, who is both a character inside the story and an omniscient narrator outside the story. And he tells us all of that immediately, starting the show with, "Well, hello there. And welcome... to Urinetown! (pause) Not the place, of course. The musical. Urinetown the place is...well, it's a place you'll hear people referring to a lot throughout the show."

Right away, before anybody even sings, the writers have already thrown us off balance. The word Urinetown is both a place and a musical. In other words, we can't always be sure what words mean in this world. We can't trust language. And notice he doesn't refer to "actors" but instead to "people." These are the people of Urinetown the place, inside the story, and they are people (actors) of Urinetown the musical (outside the story). Outside the story, they know how it ends. Inside the story, they don't.

The first verse and chorus are inside the story:
You'll get Urinetown!
Off you'll go to Urinetown!
Away with you to Urinetown!

And because it's in the second person ("You'll get Urinetown!"), it implicates the audience in this dystopian world too. But the second verse and chorus are outside the story, though still second person. This song is all about the audience.
You our humble audience,
You have come to see
What it's like when
People can't pee free.
First act lasts an hour;
Don't assume you're fine.
Best go now;
There often is a line!

This is Urinetown!
One restroom here at Urinetown!
It's unisex at Urinetown,
All by design!

There's intentional ambiguity here about the word this in the phrase "This is Urinetown." We've been set up by the beginning of the song to think this should mean this place and time within the story, but by this point in the song, our frame has shifted, and this now means this performance in this theatre. The show will keep us on this reality seesaw all night, tossing us back and forth between the "reality" inside the story and our reality sitting in theatre seats watching this show. And they'll never warn us when they're about to switch without telling us.

The "rich folks" sing:
It's the oldest story –
Masses are oppressed;
Faces, clothes, and bladders
All distressed.
Rich folks get the good life,
Poor folks get the woe.
In the end, it's nothing you don't know.

Notice how often the lyric dips into the second person, directly addressing the audience as "you." The lyric also essentially tells us the plot of the show -- a class struggle -- and suggests that this story is nothing new. Which is also a big, funny lie. And then, not only does the show acknowledge itself as a musical -- in fact, quite explicitly as a fucked up musical -- but Kotis and Hollmann go even further in their meta-mania, referencing the larger context, the mechanics of buying tickets, coming to the theatre, etc. The show itself -- the writers, the actors, the characters, whoever -- even assume Urinetown's own offensiveness by comically foreseeing a rush for refunds after the opening number.
You're at Urinetown!
Your ticket should say "Urinetown!"
No refunds, this is Urinetown!
We’ll keep that dough!

The song ends with a big vocal counterpoint section, with half the ensemble singing:
This is Urinetown!
Here are are at Urinetown!

Again, the audience is left not knowing if we're talking about Urinetown or Urinetown, and of course, we're talking about both. And maybe the craziest twist our writers throw us is that Urinetown inside the story is really "Urinetown," in scare quotes, because it's just an idea, not a concrete place. So both meanings of Urinetown are essentially abstract, one a myth, the other a musical. You'll notice that we're not in Urinetown; we're at Urinetown. Fairly early in Act I, the show short-circuits our assumptions, and redefines the word "Urinetown," when Lockstock says:
Because it's a secret, that's why. Its power depends on mystery. I can't just blurt it out, like "There is no Urinetown! We just kill people!" Oh, no. The information must be oozed out slowly, until it bursts forth in one mighty, cathartic moment! Somewhere in Act Two. With everybody singing, and things like that.

Not only does the show commit a huge spoiler on itself, but it also tells us quite specifically and accurately how that info will "come out" in Act II (implying that they are aware that they are currently living in Act I). And while Lockstock tells us this spoiler, he also tells us it would be wrong to tell us the spoiler.

So why is this meta-self-betrayal so funny to an audience? Because it follows the two cardinal rules of comedy; it's both a surprise and it tells the truth. In fact, it tells the truth about the story and about the musical. And it's a surprise simply because we all know it's wrong to spoil a plot surprise. All throughout the story, Little Sally and Officer Lockstock discuss Urinetown ("Urinetown") and Urinetown, pointing out the musical's obvious "flaws" as a musical comedy, and its relentless violations of musical comedy conventions we all unconsciously accept.

Like the convention that the Hero is actually the Hero. Spoiler Alert: He's not.

Why has this perverse musical comedy become so successful, so embraced by audiences? I think it's because it's so perverse, because it finally acknowledges the silliness and dishonesty of the Rodgers and Hammerstein (not) naturalistic musicals. A musical will never be naturalistic. The audience will always be aware of the performance. And also the silliness and dishonesty of the Fourth Wall, especially for musicals.

Urinetown swept away (or at least, began the process) the nonsensical conventions of Broadway musicals that dated back sixty years or more. Forever after, a straight-forward, old-school musical comedy would feel kind of stupid, and the neo musical comedy would take root, using the forms and devices of old-school musical comedies, but with a more cynical, ironic, socio-political agenda.

It's also important to point out that today, meta-theatre -- theatre that acknowledges itself as theatre -- is no longer a gag or a joke. Now theatre that acknowledges its own artificiality as storytelling seems more honest to us. Think about shows like Hadestown, Hamilton, A Strange Loop, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, the revised Color Purple, and my personal favorite, Bat Boy. We know we're in a theatre, we know those are actors onstage and we know they've rehearsed every moment of the show. Rodgers and Hammerstein tried to make us forget all that, but how can you, when the story keeps taking off into music? Why build a story on the lie of the Fourth Wall? That just gets between the actors and the audiences.

Theatre is about connection. The Fourth Wall is about disconnection.

In the mid-1800s, music was divorced from theatre for the first time in its history, and by the end of the century, there were non-musical plays and there were musicals, two different enterprises. And a few decades later, for some reason, writers like Rodgers and Hammerstein decided "serious" musicals should operate more like plays; and the idea of the "integrated musical" was born, blending all its disparate elements into one beautiful unified whole. But that's only one way to write musicals, and also it never really worked. Sometimes it's more interesting to set those elements against each other, like in Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, and Head Over Heels. This is the Age of the Mashup, after all.

People find Urinetown so funny because it's so honest in ways that it's not supposed to be, in ways that are fundamentally subversive, in ways that musicals just weren't until the mid-1990s, and in ways that make us think about what we think about musicals. But also because no matter when the show is produced, it feels newly relevant to that moment. Watching the hilariously angry dance number "Snuff That Girl," inevitably makes me think of MAGA rallies. And the vague, feel-good song "Look at the Sky" reminds me of the Obama years.

And so, here in 2022, it's easier than ever to relate to the mindless fear of change among the characters in Urinetown, because more so than at any time past, Urinetown is now just a funhouse mirror held up to today's actual politics, driven not by facts or issues or policies, but by slogans and by fear, with most of that fear focused on fear of the Other. Even though it was written at the tail end of the last century, Urinetown predicts with frightening accuracy the mindless politics of 2022.

But then again, I may well feel the same way in 2032. And now that I think about it, if Urinetown is always relevant, we're really in trouble.

The commercial musical theatre in New York had been pretty barren during the 1980s, mostly because the art form had disconnected itself from the mainstream culture, ever since the 1960s. But Jonathan Larson, and those who came with and after him in the 90s, were determined to heal that disconnect. Not only was Rent musically "of the moment," its story and characters were also "of the moment." Rent gave us new rules, or sometimes just revisions of the old rules, and it changed the trajectory of our art form.

It's hard to believe Urinetown is more than twenty years old! I remember seeing it on Broadway and being thrilled by this wild, new creature before me. At various points in my life and artistic evolution, I've seen shows that blow my mind and make me think, "Wow, musicals can be this?" It happened to me with Rocky Horror, Hair, Rent, Company, Robber Bridegroom, A New Brain, Bat Boy, and of course, Urinetown.

I'm so grateful to everyone who keeps New Line Theatre alive. I'm so lucky to get to work on brilliant, ground-breaking material like this. I hope you'll come see this inspired lunacy in June!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Not the Place, the Musical.

When Urinetown opened on Broadway in 2001, it broke the musical comedy. In a good way.

In a perverse way, it was the most honest musical to be written in decades.

Evil musical theatre geniuses Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann (also creators of the amazing Yeast Nation) took the long-perfected machinery of the American musical comedy, passed down to us from Cohan through Abbott, and they threw several big wrenches into that machine, pulled out some of its gears, smeared peanut butter on a few of the belts.

They fucking broke it. In a good way.

Even the weirder experiments of the past never broke it. They may have used that machinery for subversive and/or outrageous purposes (Little Shop, anyone?), and in the case of Sondheim's Merrily We Roll Along, he ran the machine backwards, but they always kept the machine running.

Okay, Threepenny Opera broke it too, which is why Urinetown is built on Threepenny's model.

The opening number of Urinetown violates every rule of musical theatre openings -- except for one, maybe the most important, Sondheim's Ten Minute Rule, which requires laying out all the ground rules for the evening in the first ten minutes of the show, ideally in the first song. (Think of Into the Woods, Company, Hamilton, High Fidelity, Next to Normal, Bat Boy, Be More Chill, Heathers, and so many other great shows.) Urinetown does in fact set up all the rules for the evening in the first song, but these are really different rules.

In this show, there is no Fourth Wall, the central story is actually about urine, and while most stories weave the central theme throughout the story, Urinetown bludgeons us repeatedly all night with water and pee imagery. This world is familiar, but also different from ours, like a fun house mirror of our real world, distorted, but still a mirror. We can count on certain things making sense, but not all things, and we can sort of see our reflection. The great secret mystery of the story is intentionally spoiled in the first number. The hero of the story isn't really the hero. The big love song is about the lovers' hearts, not as symbols of love, but as anatomic organs. The storytelling is unnervingly serious and perversely literal. The heightened style of acting mashes together the high formality of Classical Acting with a gleefully silly plot and ridiculous characters and dialogue.

One of the bookwriters of Bat Boy (to this day, one of my Top Five Favorite Musicals) had a saying to describe the acting in their show. And while Bat Boy is goofier on the surface than Urinetown is, it applies to both shows, as well as Little Shop of Horrors, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, Head Over Heels, and so many others.

"The depth of emotion, the height of expression."

It means the emotions still need to be real and honest, even complex, but the presentation, the expression of those emotions, is big and exaggerated. It's fairly hard to do this at first, not least of all because it feels so unnatural, but actors usually acclimate to it pretty fast. It's a very effective style that suits these stories so perfectly.

Long ago, I saw John Cleese say that he learned early on that the funniest thing in the world is watching someone try not to laugh, and the saddest thing is watching someone try not to cry. That really stuck with me, and the more I think about it over the years, the more I see how true it is. We've put that idea into practice in several shows and it really works. And it connects back to "the depth of emotion, the height of expression."

Comedy isn't for amateurs. Seeing someone trying to be funny onstage just isn't that funny. It's much funnier for an audience to discover what's funny. Seeing someone really "underline" a punch line is much less funny than when the actor underplays it, and lets us find what's funny about it.

In 2015, I wrote a blog post about neo musical comedies like Bat Boy and Urinetown, and I wrote this:
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 seriously 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.

We can't let the audience catch us trying to be funny, because that's just not that funny. And this material is comedy gold! We don't need to add a thing, we don't to "help" it be funny (the idea makes me cringe), we don't need to "sell" it. We need to take it seriously, REALLY seriously, like the End of Humans seriously, like Charlton Heston at the end of Planet of the Apes seriously. That's literally what the story is. And that's when the show will be its funniest -- and most true to what Kotis and Hollmann wrote.

We have to think in terms of letting the show be funny, by following it, rather than making the show funny.

In some ways, Urinetown asks actors to actively go against their best acting instincts. But I've seen this weird alchemy work. I saw the original cast on Broadway and was thrilled by it. And I directed the show for New Line fifteen years ago, with a fearless cast (the first New Line show for both Zak Farmer and Michelle Sauer!). They found the weird, wonderful, unsettling style and had so much fun with it. It's a blast to return to this upside-down world again.

This is not a musical comedy. It's a neo musical comedy. They are a different animal. Come see New Line's Urinetown and you'll see what I mean.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Click Here to buy tickets!

Tearing Up RENT's Origin Myth

You would be truly amazed at how many fans of Jonathan Larson’s Rent pretend to be experts on Puccini’s opera La Bohème and Henri Murger’s 1851 comic novel Scènes de la vie de Bohème – without in fact seeing the opera or reading the novel, by the way.

There is a common belief that Rent is based on the famous opera, but it’s not. Believe, me, I have studied the opera and the novel and the stage play and Rent. When Rent opened it was an easy shorthand to say it was based on La Bohème, rather than explaining the story’s long actual history, but it’s not true.

If you read the book, you will see that I’m right.

Scènes de la vie de Bohème didn’t begin life as a musical, or an opera, or even as a novel. Writer Henri Murger was an authentic, twenty-something Bohemian (i.e., starving artsy), a poet in Paris in the 1840s. Though he later wrote other novels, he’s most remembered for Bohème. Like his own character Rodolphe (Roger in Rent), Murger edited a fashion paper, the Moniteur de la Mode (Fashion Monitor), and a magazine for the hat industry called Castor. In 1844, Murger joined the staff of the daily paper Le Corsaire (which is French for The Pirate), which was helpfully subtitled, “journal of shows, literature, arts, and fashions.”

A friend and editor of another magazine, L’Artiste, suggested to Murger that he focus less on poetry and instead write stories. But among the Bohemians, prose was for amateurs; true artists wrote only poetry. Still, luckily for us, Murger took the advice to heart. So in 1848, he began to write the serialized stories The Bohemians for Le Corsaire, “autobiographical fiction” about Murger and his starving artist friends, all of them re-named. Among those friends were the famous painter James Whistler, the great poet Charles Baudelaire, the great writer Alexandre Dumas Jr., and the novelist and art critic Champfleury, among many others.

In the biography The Legend of the Latin Quarter: Henry Murger and the Birth of Bohemia, authors Evalyn Marvel and Arthur Moss write, “The stories appearing in Corsaire were attracting considerable attention. While the controversy of Realism versus Romanticism was being waged, they slipped in neatly to bridge the gap. They were sentimental, pathetic, romantic – but they were also witty, comic, reportorial.”

At the crossroads of the Romantic movement and the Realism movement, Murger managed to walk a tightrope in his stories between the two, realistic and cynical enough for the critics and academics, romantic and funny enough for the average reading public. Marvel and Moss write, “Bohème is replete with sentiment but its humor redeems it from being mere sentimentality. Murger knew his Bohemia and he could laugh at it as well as weep over it. Murger’s humor, even today, does not pall. It is essentially modern in its keen sense of the ridiculous, in its grasp of the absurdities of situations.”

His stories caused a sensation in literary circles, but Le Corsaire was a small paper and didn’t reach a huge audience. And yet a Parisian publisher collected the stories into a single volume and sold out 70,000 copies.

Then, a young playwright, Théodore Barrière, asked for permission to adapt Murger’s stories for the stage. The subsequent play, La vie de Bohème in 1849 was a huge hit. Murger wanted to include some of his poetry in the play, so Barrière agreed, but only if they were set to music. Almost accidentally, the show became an early proto-musical comedy. Murger also wanted a happy ending, but Barrière insisted that Mimi had to die, that the integrity of the entire show depended on telling the truth at the end. After all, the real life version of Mimi (well, one of the three), Lucille, did die.

The play enjoyed an all-star gala opening night on November 22, 1849. Anyone in Paris who liked the theatre was there. Most of Murger’s real life friends were in the audience to see their fictional selves onstage, and they were delighted. After the huge success of the play on stage, publisher Michel Levy offered to publish the stories as a full novel. So Murger and Levy collected and ordered the stories, and Murger did some revisions.  The novel was published in 1851 and was a bestseller.

Murger didn’t invent the world of alternative, unconventional, iconoclastic, artsy “Bohemia,” a world of starving artists and unpaid rent, a world of “art for art’s sake.” But he was the first to write a novel about this community and these people – all based on his own experiences as one of them. Murger died suddenly at the age of 39.

Decades later, composer Giacomo Puccini and his two librettists, Illica & Giocosa, based their 1896 tragic opera La Bohème on the popular stage play, and not the novel, despite publicly saying otherwise. Another composer Ruggero Leoncavallo wrote music to his own libretto and opened his tragic opera La Bohème a year later in 1897. Both were successful, but Leoncavallo’s opera was largely forgotten, while Puccini’s became world famous.

A century and a half later, Jonathan Larson would follow a path incredibly parallel to Murger's, writing about his life and his community, and then dying suddenly at the age of (almost) 36, leaving us Rent. As crazy and wild as Murger’s stories are, they are sketches of real life and real people. These things really happened and these characters actually existed. 

When Rent opened, everybody made a big deal out of its connection to La Bohème, largely because the opera is very well-known and the novel is not. But Rent is not an updating of La Bohème. While La Bohème romanticizes suffering and death (which was very trendy in 1896 when it premiered), Rent celebrates life with all its might, as evidenced by all the references to life in the show (the Life Café, Angel’s group Life Support, and others). While Bohème is tragic, Rent is joyous like the novel. While the world of the opera is romantic and poetic, the world of Rent is tough, gritty, angry, and real (again, more like the novel). And of course, where Bohème has the lovely “Musetta’s Waltz,” Rent has the cynical “Tango Maureen.”

Larson used so many details from Murger’s novel. The book is unlike the opera in many ways, particularly in its wonderful sense of humor. The book is funny, first and foremost, and the four friends are much more like the four friends in Rent than they are like the characters in the opera. The book is chock full of rampant casual sex and other delightful decadences, a remarkable thing for a book written in the 1840s. Also in the book, Mimi’s great tragic death of tuberculosis really belongs to a one-chapter character named Francine, who was in love with a man named Jacques, who died of grief soon after Francine.

Lots of small details in Rent come from the novel: the importance of Collins’ coat, their regular restaurant where they often order nothing and don’t always pay the bill, the burning of manuscripts and letters for heat, Marcel/Mark’s decision to sell out his art, and the structural significance of Christmas Eve. The novel makes a strong (and constant) point of the fact that the four bohemians are irresponsible, selfish, and immature, a complaint leveled by critics against Larson’s character, but they’re also endlessly clever and charming.

In the book, Rodolphe is able to write his one great poem only after Mimi has left him, paralleling Roger’s song “Your Eyes.” And just as the song revives Mimi in the musical, Mimi in the novel sees Rodolphe’s poem in a magazine and it’s (indirectly) what brings them together again. The novel is organized into a couple dozen short stories, so when critics complained about Rent’s structure, they didn’t realize it mirrored the original novel. It’s a legitimate storytelling structure, a series of snapshots, a book of days, that ultimately come together like a jigsaw puzzle to form a rich tapestry of characters, relationships, and truths.

The trick that both Murger and Larson pull off is that the incidents aren’t really random and unconnected at all; they only seem that way. Content Dictates Form, as Sondheim always said. Instead of telling the story of these characters in a conventional, linear narrative, they unfold like a collage, in more of a cumulative narrative. Like Company, Follies, Passing Strange, Pippin, and other shows, you don’t see the whole picture till you get to the end. But there are long arcs of story and character, and we do see our four central characters grow and learn and change over time.

I first read the novel years ago when I first studied and wrote about Rent. I’ve now really studied it closely and I’m so impressed and so entertained by what Murger has done, making us love these incorrigible, selfish, whiny, crazy, whimsical, talented people. Anybody who thinks the book isn’t a novel, just because it began as a serialization, probably hasn’t read it.

And now there's a new edition of the novel especially for Rent fans, more readable, more accessible, and as outrageous as ever. If you love Rent, you'll love the novel. This edition is called La Vie Bohème! and there's an essay of mine in the back about Murger and Rent (from which some of this post is poached).

I've always loved reading novels that musicals are based on. It's such fun for me to see what's the same and what's different, what got left out or changed, what the novel can tell me about these characters that I didn't know from the show, etc. I have three shelves in my bookcase full of these novels, including quite a few I haven't read yet. Some of my other favorites so far are Candide, Be More Chill, Aspects of Love, Pal Joey, High Fidelity, 42nd Street, Show Boat, and Kiss of the Spider Woman.

But I think La Vie Bohème! may be my favorite (although I just call it "the Rent novel"). Maybe because I relate to the four main characters so completely, maybe just because it makes me laugh out loud.

If you enjoy fiction, and you like Rent, give La Vie Bohème! a shot. And let me know what you think!

Long Live the Musical!

Our Beat Is Divine

After a night full of wacky, goofy, deeply human misadventures, all upending our usual notions of gender, love, sex, attraction, connection, Head Over Heels leaves us with something quite sublime.
Go round and round,
Like light and light,
Descending day,
And breaking night.
Our roads shall shortly separate;
What may endure we now create;
Remember now this present sweet;
We are alive.
We got the beat.

It's such a lovely goodbye to the audience. Life is about circles and patterns and cycles (which is a poet's term. So.), and the trick is to learn from these circles so that each time they roll around again we handle it or understand it a little better, and maybe grow a little too. That's essentially the plot of Head Over Heels, and not incidentally, almost every story based on the Hero Myth (Star Wars, Wizard of Oz, etc.).

Our actors mock me because I use circles so often in my staging, but that's because I learned from Hair that the circle is very, very powerful. It represents pretty much everything in life. Including Life.

Just as the Arcadians in Head Over Heels go in search of themselves and end up back where they started, so too did the New Liners over the last two years. This story of a weird and circuitous journey back to the beginning, was itself a weird and circuitous journey that led us back to where we started, so that we could finish.

Way back in March 2020, we opened one of the wildest and most meaningful pieces of theatre we've ever produced, the improbable Head Over Heels, one of those shows that shouldn't work, if you really think about it, and yet it's brilliant. And our audiences fully embraced our powerhouse cast and these powerhouse Go-Go's songs in this universal -- and wonderfully subversive -- tale of the road to self-discovery.

And then the world shut down in the middle of our run. But I was determined to return to Arcadia someday. It seemed important to me in a way I didn't fully understand. And now we have.

Head Over Heels is a show like Hair -- working on it changes you, how you think about the world, about life, about others, about difference. About storytelling. And also like Hair, we didn't fully understand the magic and power of this show, until we had it up in front of an audience.

(And even cooler, we staged it in what we call "a bowling alley" setup, with the playing space down the middle, and audiences on both sides facing each other. That intense intimacy made this show in particular so much funnier and more emotional in all the right ways. I gotta give props to our set designer Rob Lippert for suggesting this configuration. It was so right.)

Many in our audience were shocked by how this crazy, silly comedy could affect them in such a powerfully emotional way. But despite the chaotic insanity of the story and its events, this is a deeply human, deeply honest story about the most complex part of human existence -- love and sex. Head Over Heels subtly teaches us, the audience, the same lesson about stories that Pamela has to learn about herself, that surface is not all. This story goes surprisingly deep. Stories like this remind us that we all stumble, we all say the wrong thing, we all get tongue-tied and awkward, we all have lost love. We learn many things from stories, but the most important is that we are not alone. We are never the only one suffering or confused or hurt.

And yet also, everyone is Different. Head Over Heels celebrates that glorious difference, and suggests that it's more universal than we admit.

As a musician all my life, the metaphor of The Beat as a life force is so potent for me. And that phrase, "We got the Beat," will never be the same for me again. Now, it's a companion piece to "I Got Life" in Hair. It's a defiant refusal to be beat down by the world. No matter what comes at us, we got The Beat.

And in a larger, less intended way, The Beat is also a powerful metaphor for what New Line Theatre does. We tell stories through music. The Beat is literally New Line's life force. After a nearly two-year enforced hiatus during the Pandemic, that simple little phrase means more to me than ever. For the Go-Go's it was a defiant insistence in the 1980s that "girls" can rock too. For us, it means we have that magic amulet from the Hero Myth -- not ruby slippers, or a light saber, or a magic ring -- no, our magic amulet is Music. It's The Beat.

And as long as I can keep New Line afloat, as long as St. Louis embraces the kind of stories we tell, then we got The Beat. And as long as we're faithful to The Beat, it will serve us and protect us, and take us into the future. And yet we know that each time we embark on another artistic adventure, we must "craft a beat anew."

I can't imagine a better show with which to emerge from a terrible pandemic. We needed a story about Life Force and acceptance right now. I am so grateful I got to make that happen, with the help of a couple dozen wildly talented artsies. Thank you once again, St. Louis!

As we sang in the show, "Our Beat is divine!" 

Yes. Yes it is. And the theatre is my church.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Here are my Head Over Heels posts from 2020...
Head Over Heels
We Are Alive. We Got the Beat.
We Can Make It Our World

Miscast / Misstep

After two looooong years, New Line Theatre is back in business, and Head Over Heels is also back, to finish the run that the Great Pandemic cut short in 2020. When we first started work on it two years ago, we knew it was cool. We just didn't know how cool. Once we opened, we found that our crazy, wacky, musical comedy was deeply, seriously meaningful for people.

After two years with this show in my head, I now have a much better grasp of why audiences embrace Head Over Heels so utterly. It's about dignity. There's such a powerful sense of dignity around these characters' feelings and relationships. The only foolishness is in those who haven't yet found self-awareness, who haven't found their own innate dignity.

Beneath all the wacky hijinks, there's something very serious going on, dealing with the most powerful human drives: love and lust. It's a smart, sneaky, brilliant piece of theatre, which uses its "spoonful of sugar" (in this case, the Go-Go's) like a laser-guided missile. The show disassembles nearly all our preconceptions about love, sex, gender, identity, body type, you name it. It presents The Other as Not Other, but does it in such a charming and funny way, we don't consciously notice this incredibly subversive act.

In Head Over Heels, gender is essentially irrelevant, and our preconceptions are repeatedly burst. One character, Pythio, the new Oracle at Delphi, is explicitly "non-binary," and again, our preconceptions about them set us up for the most delightful surprise right before the finale. It's fun for both actors and audience to deflate, mock, and dismiss concepts we all take for granted (until we see how silly they really are).

Parallel to that, lots of theatre companies and choruses around the country often put on concerts of show tunes, in which the singers sing theatre songs that were written for characters that these singers ordinarily wouldn't be considered for. In other words, men sing Velma and Roxie's anthems from Chicago, adults sing "Tomorrow" from Annie, gay performers sing songs written about heterosexual love and sex, like "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I.

The new context -- or the ignoring of the original context -- can be revealing in wonderful ways, exploring the lyrics' wider resonances and even unintentional relevance. We can see that at work in New Line's Head Over Heels, taking the songs of The Go-Go's and recontextualizing them for these times.

There's nothing particularly new or unconventional about exploring new context. That's the whole point of taking a song from the dramatic stage and reinterpreting it for the concert stage, right? After all, Frank Sinatra recorded "Send in the Clowns," which was written for Desiree Armfeldt. New Line's three revues, the Out on Broadway series, took show tunes about straight people and put them in the mouths and lives of gay people. Like I said, it really is interesting how the songs change, expand, even without changing the words.

There seems to be a renewed (or newly discovered) focus right now on reassigning songs in this way for musical revues; but for some reason the folks putting these revues together give their shows inherently insulting names. There is no dignity here. Almost all the titles include the words backwards or miscast. This has always bothered me, but any challenge to these awful titles is met inevitably with high dudgeon. And too often, these folks vehemently defend the performances within the show, pretending my objections aren't about only the title.

Why do these folks want the idea of wrongness defining their show? Is it wrong for a woman to sing a song written for a man? Is it wrong for an older woman to sing a song written for a young man? Is it wrong for a gay man to sing a song written for a straight man?

No. None of those things are wrong. And they are not backward! They are merely different.

Every time I see one of those revue titles, all I can think of is the gay, effeminate, high school drama nerd, who sees or hears these titles and gets the unmistakable message, loud and clear: this kind of casting, even in a concert, is WRONG or BACKWARDS. He can not play Harold Hill or Clyde Barrow. The heavy girl who wants to play Marian the Librarian also sees that casting against type is WRONG, even comically WRONG.

When I challenge these titles (as I have several times over the years), and explain why they may send a destructive message, the people who conceive and title these shows shut down tight. They won't even consider that their title might be hurtful, that other titles may be just as good without being hurtful. As just one example, why not change the title Magnificently Miscast to Magnificently Recast? Why not change Broadway Backwards to Broadway Reimagined? In other words, get rid of the idea of Bad. Is it just about the alliteration? 

One person explained that they were "taking the word miscast back." But what does that mean? Was that word taken from them somehow? Sometimes, marginalized groups will "take back" a slur used against them, as the gay community took back the word "queer" and redefined it. But miscast isn't a slur; it's a word they use to describe themselves. They choose to label their own shows as wrongly cast.

Some of them will argue they're using the words miscast and backwards in a funny way, to make fun of conventional casting practices. Some of these shows even have opening numbers explaining that. But still, the show's title, its public identity, literally tells us this idea is Bad. Casting against type is wrong. Casting against type is backwards

Spoiler Alert: No it isn't.

Perhaps the most baffling part of all this is that none of these folks producing these shows will even think about the negative effect these ill-considered (or maybe un-considered) titles may have. I think of a black teenager who wants to play Mama Rose in the spring production of Gypsy. What message does she get from these revue titles that explicitly label unconventional casting as wrong and backwards?

And don't tell me it's just semantics. It's so much more. It's a mindset, a subliminal, usually unacknowledged, potentially toxic worldview. Haven't we learned anything from the #BLM and #MeToo movements? Haven't we learned to question our own assumptions and preconceptions? If not, we're in trouble.

Our world is changing fast. We'll all make mistakes. We'll all say the wrong thing. We'll all need time to adjust to all these changes. But we have to be willing to think about things like this, rather than just defend the status quo or defend our missteps. Everything Americans once thought about age, gender, sexuality, race, body type, family, etc., all of it is up for grabs. That's why Head Over Heels is selling like wildfire. People need stories to make sense of their lives and the chaotic world around them. We have to be willing to embrace this change, not cower from it. 

And we must remember the words of Uncle Steve: "Careful the things you say -- children will listen."

It's a new world. And that's a good thing. And words matter.

Long Live the Musical!

Dramatical Cats

Earlier this month, I published yet another book! I've been more than usually prolific as a writer since the Great Pandemic started. I mean, what else have I had to do? So my output may slow down, now that I'm actually making theatre again!

Although, full disclosure, I do have six or seven ideas for books I'd like to write, and four ideas for shows I'd like to write. I wish I could write faster.

The awesome Ted Chapin at the Rodgers & Hammerstein Organization recently said to me in an email, "You really know how to milk a topic, Scott!" I laughed out loud. It's so true. It's kind of a quest for me.

Yes, in addition to my eight collections of musical theatre analysis, which I consider the Soul of my writing life, I also wrote a history book, and then just in the last few years, I decided there were other kinds of things I wanted to write, books that I think of as Novelty Books.

But they're not just novelty books. They also explore the musical theatre today as an evolving art form, why it's important, how its processes works, how its artists work, how it started, how it has evolved, and where it may be heading. I really believe that my place in the world is to help people know and understand this amazing art form, the full depth and breadth and power of musical theatre. I hope all my books do that, even the sillier ones.

And there has also been a second motivation for me to write in recent years.

Musical theatre fans today, in the US and around the world, have a musical theatre "fan culture" like never before in the art form's history. The internet (and YouTube!) is the biggest reason, but there's also BroadwayCon, the Lights of Broadway trading cards and the Squigs caricatures (carrying on the Hirschfeld tradition), the amazing New York venue Feinstein's 54 Below, and the reopened Drama Book Shop (thank you, Lin and Tommy!) And there are more nonfiction books about our art form on the shelves than ever before. Looking at the future releases on Amazon is like walking into a candy store for me! 

And I want to contribute to that culture, a culture I wish had existed when I was in high school. I realized I want to create (informative) novelty books, so that actors (and others) in high school, college, community theatre, regional theatre, New York theatre, would all find something funny in them, and familiar, even meaningful.

My first book was the quiz book It's a Musical!: 400 Questions, and as with all my projects, I designed it to entertain, waste time, open up your perspective, challenge your preconceptions -- but mostly, just to be fun. I can only imagine how much geeky-artsy fun we would have had with this book in high school, on the bus ride from St. Louis to Muncie, Indiana, for the International Thespian Conferences.

Next up for me was a real dream project, a collection of short "weird fiction" called Night of the Living Show Tunes, combining my love of musicals and my love of horror fiction, and dedicated to "the Stephens, Sondheim and King, true giants of American storytelling."

But the pandemic was still raging, so I had more time to fill. Again, I tried to think what teenage fanboy Scott would've loved, and that led to an inspiration -- a book of Broadway Musical themed Christmas carols. I shit you not. These are traditional carols with entirely new lyrics about musicals; plus the traditional four-part vocal arrangements, though tweaked and "freshened up" a bit. I had so much fun writing these. The one title that still makes me giggle is "Away in a Mame Tour." My hope was to contribute in a fun and enlightening way to this wonderful, evolving culture around musical theatre fandom. It's pumping so much energy into the art form.

So my next book was the most non-threatening, non-pretentious, easily accessible treatment I could muster -- an overview of the musical theatre, the art form, as a whole, written for "civilians." It's called The ABCs of Broadway Musicals: A Civilian's Guide, a small format, fairly short book, a kind of one-stop shop for a surprisingly thorough but easy-to-digest crash course. It can be read straight through or in little pieces. (Don't tell anybody, but there are going to be more volumes of my ABCs books coming!)

Every time I start on a new project, I think about the tweens and teens just discovering musicals; the hardcore high school drama kids; the serious college theatre majors; the crazy people like me who literally give their lives over to this beautiful art form; and the people who sit in our audiences show after show -- I think about what these people would enjoy, what might surprise and delight them, and what might also surreptitiously educate them, spoonful-of-sugar-like.

It was with all that in mind that I started off on this latest project, Theatre Cats: The Old Producer's Book of Dramatical Cats, again with illustrations by my actor buddy Zak Farmer (who also illustrated our Dr. Seuss style Shellie Shelby Shares the Spotlight). I've written a bunch of stage musicals, but I had never written a collection of poems before. And it was hard! And it was fun!

Artists often say that they make the best art under the most limitations. That sort of describes the entire history of New Line Theatre, doesn't it?

When director Michael Mayer decided to adapt American Idiot for the stage, he set himself some tough limitations. He chose to keep the songs in the exact same order as the album (though with a couple songs from Green Day's next album interpolated), and he didn't change any lyrics. He knew that limits breed creativity. I have found this to be true repeatedly throughout my artistic life.

I saw the truth of it when I was forcing myself to follow the rules, form, structure, etc. of W.S. Gilbert, in writing The Zombies of Penzance and Bloody King Oedipus!, and forcing myself to conform to Edgar Allen Poe's rules when I wrote the Poe-esque poem, "Nothing More," for my horror collection. I've discovered the joys of writing "light verse" and the never-ending fun of really playing with language!

When I set out to write Theatre Cats, I likewise forced myself to follow T.S. Eliot's form, structure, rhymes, interior rhymes, all of it, even though the text is entirely new and largely unrelated to the original poems. But those practical limitations helped enormously; I had to find exactly the right words, to say something meaningful but funny, and to rhyme. Just like I got better at the New York Times crossword puzzles the more I did them; I've also been getting better and better at "light verse" after working on these projects -- and after closely studying Hamilton's astonishing use of language and rhyme, for my book Hamilton and the New Revolution

Zak and I also hope that Theatre Cats will be a stealth educational tool. Several of the poems are cautionary tales, designed to describe how not to act in the theatre, like "Mermananiac the Screlty Cat," "Little Chernobyloff the Nuclear Cat," "Random Brando the Method Cat," "F'rocious Olivier the Projecting Cat," and "Laffaminnit the Comedian Cat." Some of the poems are about unsung heroes, like "La Maestra the Music Director Cat," "Pocketwatch the Backstage Cat," and "Chris the Character Cat." And there are a couple direct tributes to my heroes -- Hal Prince, as "Calico Prince the Director Cat," and musical theatre fans, as "Miss Teppercat the Fangirl Cat." Several of the poems reveal some details of backstage life, but the last poem, "The Directing of Cats," is the only poem devoted entirely to the work, the artists, and the respect they deserve. I really love that last one.

Just as T.S. Eliot disguised human behavior as cat behavior, Zak and I have done the same with behavior in the theatre, like I wrote on the back cover, "the good, the bad, and the finicky." If you love cats or musicals, you'll enjoy these poems. If you love both cats and musicals, this book will delight you. Take it from the artsy fanboy with a cat named Hamilton and a former cat named Pal Joey.

Yes, I'm that obsessed. No point in trying to hide it, right?

So think about picking up a copy of Theatre Cats, one for you, and one for every theatre friend you have. And maybe also The ABCs of Broadway Musicals too. And one for your parents. 

I've always thought of the musical theatre as my church. And now I realize that this exploding fan community is part of that church as well. They are its life. It's not theatre without an audience. And now, that audience is no longer just in New York; it's all over the country and all over the world. Musical theatre is growing and evolving like never before in this new Golden Age for the art form.

I want to contribute to that in any small way I can.

We start rehearsals again in January for New Line Theatre's Head Over Heels. I. Can. Not. Wait.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. You can check out all my books here.