Chaucer, Rabelais, BALZAC: A Music Man Glossary

Meredith Willson’s The Music Man contains dozens of words and phrases that most of us have never used or even heard, many of them things that Willson himself must have heard growing up in turn of the century Iowa. I so often get emails asking about one or more of these, so I figured, let's get them all together in one list.

The movie version changed some of these references, fearing the audience wouldn't know them. But as the show proves, it's not important for the audience to know every reference -- it's just important for this world we create onstage feels honest and authentic to the audience. As long as the actors know and understand all the references, it will contribute to the "reality" of this fictional version of 1912 Iowa.

Below is a list of those oddities and what they mean, along with some other references you may not know... Enjoy!

kibitzing -- talking, joking, chitchatting

notion salesman -- a guy who sells small personal items

button-hook -- a small metal hook for pulling buttons through buttonholes.

hard goods & soft goods -- Hard goods are durable merchandise, like cars, machinery, furniture, appliances, etc. Soft goods are merchandise that isn’t as durable, like clothing, rugs, and other textiles.

noggin -- a small cup or mug of wine, usually a quarter-pint.

piggin -- a small bowl with a ladle for serving cream.

firkin -- a small wooden tub for butter or lard.

hogshead -- a large container holding sixty-three gallons of wine.

cask -- a bottle of any size, but usually one holding liquor.

demijohn -- a large wine bottle with a narrow neck and usually a wicker enclosure around the bottom.

Model T Ford -- a very popular car. In 1912, U.S. auto makers were manufacturing 115,000 new cars a month, about a quarter of them Ford Model Ts. Ten years later, 50% of the cars in America were Model Ts.

Uneeda Biscuit -- soda crackers introduced in 1889 by National Biscuit Company (now better known as Nabisco), the first crackers to be sold packaged with a brand name instead of just out of a cracker barrel. This marketing experiment paid off and by 1900, Uneeda Biscuits were selling more than ten million packages a month, while all other brands of packaged crackers combined totaled only 40,000 packages a month.

Mail Pouch – a brand of chewing tobacco

teirce -- a wine cask holding forty-two gallons.

mandolin -- a stringed instrument (like a very small guitar) shaped like a pear

Jews-harp – a small metal musical instrument you hold between your teeth and pluck

tarred and feathered -- covered with tar and feathers (which is often deadly) as punishment

rode out on a rail -- banished from a community, as punishment (often after being tarred and feathered), often literally carried out on a fence rail

two-bit -- cheap (literally twenty-five cents)

thimble-rigger -- con man or thief

Hawkeyes -- residents of Iowa

livery Stable -- stable where horses are kept and hired out

billiards -- a table game like pool, without pockets

Horse sense -- practical common sense

three-rail billiard shot -- a shot that banks off three sides of the billiards table

balkline game -- billiards

pinch-back suit -- a suit with a coat that is gathered in the back, the sign of a city slicker

Jasper -- slang word for a (usually) a white guy who is simple or naive

Dan Patch -- a champion harness racing horse at the turn of the century, at a time when the jockey rode behind the horses in a cart, not on them

frittern -- frittering – wasting time

beefsteak -- a slice of beef for frying

cistern -- a tank for storing water that had to be kept full (by pouring water into it manually) for the family to use, before people had indoor plumbing

knickerbockers -- knee pants that gather at the knee, worn by young boys at the turn of the century.

Bevo -- a brand of non-alcoholic near-beer, from Anheuser-Busch, but it wasn't introduced till four years after our story is set...

Cubebs and Tailor-mades -- various kinds of hand-rolled cigarettes. Cigarettes were illegal (and considered highly immoral) in Iowa at that time.

Sen-Sen -- a popular breath freshener, very small but very strong.

arm'ry -- armory -- headquarters for a National Guard unit

libertine -- morally or sexually unrestrained

scarlet -- adulterous. It refers to Nathaniel Hawthorne’s novel The Scarlet Letter.

ragtime -- syncopated jazz music, popular at the turn of the century, so called because of "ragged" (off-the-beat) style

dime Novel -- cheap, paperback adventure novels, in vogue from the 1850s through the 1920s.

Captain Billy’s Whiz Bang -- a racy monthly humor magazine first published in 1919, which reached a circulation of 425,000 in 1923. (Technically, this reference is anachronistic, since the show is set in 1912.)

Balzac -- Honoré de Balzac (1799-1850), a French novelist

Paul Bunyon -- a giant from American folklore

Saint Pat -- St. Patrick, the patron saint of Ireland, a missionary who brought Christianity to Ireland

Noah Webster -- (1758-1843) American essayist and lexicographer, who created one of the earliest American dictionaries

cross-hand -- a piano piece that requires one hand crossing over the other to play a note or chord

"This Ruby Hat of Omar Kay-ay-ay"- -- The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, erotic 12th century Persian poetry

stereopticon -- a slide projector with two light sources, so the pictures appear to fade from one to the next. Also, a hand-held device that lets the user look at two identical pictures at the same time, giving it a three-dimensional effect.

tablow -- tableau -- a grouping of people in costumes to create a still "picture"

Springfield Rifle -- a kind of rifle developed after the Civil War

ruffian -- a bully or lawless person

crick -- dialect for “creek”

pest house -- a hospital or house for people infected with pestilential diseases (bubonic plague, for example)

Pompy-eye -- Pompeii, an ancient city buried in the ash of an erupting volcano

Gilmore -- Patrick S. Gilmore (1829-1892), a famous Irish-American bandleader who wrote “When Johnny Comes Marching Home Again” (under a pseudonym).

Liberati -- Alessandro Liberati (1847-1927), an Italian born cornet player, bandleader, and composer, who came to the U.S. in 1872 and played with many bands, including Gilmore's. He had his own touring band from 1889 to 1909, and was active in music (opera, other bands, teaching) until his death

Pat Conway -- (1867-1929) a conductor, bandleader, and teacher, who directed several bands from the 1890s until his death and was the founder of the Air Force Band in World War I. Conway and Sousa were friends, and their bands often performed together.

The Great Creatore -- Giuseppe Creatore (1871-1952), an Italian conductor and composer who brought a band to the U.S. in 1902 to tour. He was active as a conductor through the 1930s.

W.C. Handy -- (1873-1958) a famous American blues composer and bandleader, who wrote “St. Louis Blues.”

John Philip Sousa -- (1854-1932) a world-famous bandleader and composer, who was known as “the March King” for writing many of the famous marches that marching bands play today.

(Harold's comment in the intro to “76 Trombones” about all these famous musicians coming to town on the same day, appears to be a joke, although an obscure one. The joke is that it would have been essentially impossible for all these extremely famous men of widely varying ages to actually come to one small town, especially all on one day. Hill is just throwing out names that sound impressive, names that the River City townspeople might know from their piano sheet music.)

cornet -- a different version of a trumpet, shorter in length (the same amount of tubing, just wrapped around more), with a longer bell and a somewhat darker sound.

tympani -- big bass drums

horse platoons -- military units of horses (in this case, used for a parade)

euphonium -- like a baritone, which is itself like a small version of the tuba, but the euphonium has a larger opening in the bell and produces a mellower sound and better low notes than the baritone.

Harch -- variant of “march”

Frank Gotch and Strangular Lewis -- two early 20th-century American wrestlers

Jeely Kly -- exclamation, variant of “Jesus Christ”

Perpetual Motion -- the theoretical ability of a mechanism to continue to move forever by itself without any loss of energy or speed. The joke here is that Tommy thinks he “nearly had” perpetual motion a couple times, which is impossible.

class of aught-five -- class of 1905

canoodlin' -- slang for romantic activity. According to Wesbter's (I love this), "The origins of canoodle are obscure. Our best guess is that it may come from an English dialect noun of the same spelling meaning "donkey," "fool," or "foolish lover," which itself may be an alteration of the word noodle, meaning "a foolish person." That noodle, in turn, may come from noddle, a word for the head. The guess seems reasonable given that, since its appearance in the language around the mid-19th century, canoodle has been most often used jocularly for playful public displays of affection by couples who are head over heels in love."

"For no Diana do I play faun" -- Diana is the Roman goddess of the hunt and the moon, and the faun is a mythological creature that is a man with ears, horns, tail and hind legs of a goat. This is probably a reference to the famous painting Diana and Her Nymphs Surprised by the Fauns (1638-40) by Peter Paul Rubens. Harold's line apparently means he's not chasing after any women.

Hester -- Hester Prynne, the heroine of Nathaniel Hawthorne's novel The Scarlet Letter, who had to wear a red “A” in punishment for her adultery.

agog -- highly excited

on the que veev -- on alert, watchful, a corruption of qui vive, French for “who goes there?”

Pianola -- a brand of player pianos

Delsarte -- François Delsarte (1811-1871), a French musician and dance teacher who taught a dance and acting method based on the mastery of certain bodily attitudes and gestures. Look at the drawings, and see how the Ladies Auxiliary for the Classic Dance is trying to imitate these moves with their "Grecian Urn" performance.

Gilt-edge -- of the highest quality, literally edged with gold

Chaucer -- Geoffery Chaucer (1340-1400), English author and poet who wrote the very racy Canterbury Tales

Raballaise -- François Rabelais (1490-1553), a French satirist and humorist, who wrote the very racy Gargantua and Pantagruel, which many thought was obscene and blasphemous

Balzac -- Honore de Balzac (1799-1850), the notorious French novelist who wrote Droll Stories, a racy collection of thirty short stories

malfeasance -- wrongdoing. The joke here is that implication that Harold could get a permit for malfeasance.

flugelhorn -- like a cornet, but with a larger opening in the bell.

"Minute Waltz" -- famous waltz by Chopin that, if played very fast, takes less than a minute

Quaker -- a member of The Society of Friends, a religion that rejects luxuries, modern technology, and anything that isn’t mentioned in the Bible.

St. Bridget -- an Irish saint, who founded the first nunnery in Ireland

O'Clark, O'Mendez, O'Klein -- comic reference to three famous musicians who were not Irish, the famous cornet player Herbert L. Clarke, the famous Mexican trumpet player Rafael Mendez (another anachronism, since he was born only six years before our story), and apparently the famous Jewish trumpet player Manny Klein (but again, he was born only four years before our story).

St. Michael -- an Irish saint, who first brought formal education to Ireland in the fifth century

hod -- a portable trough

mavorneen -- mavourneen -- Irish word for “sweetheart,” derived from the Irish Gaelic mo mhuirnín, meaning "my beloved"

Tara’s Hall -- a music hall in Dublin

Hodado -- dialect for “how do you do”

Epworth League -- a Methodist youth organization, founded in 1889

Black Hole of Calcutta -- a small prison in India in which the more than a hundred Europeans were killed in 1756.

Wells Fargo Wagon -- a stagecoach delivery service started in 1851, which allowed mail order sales to flourish

mackinaw -- a thick, blanket-like coat, usually plaid, named for a kind of blanket that northern and western native Americans made.

double-boiler -- a small pot that fits into a bigger pot. Water is boiled in the bigger pot to cook things in the smaller pot.

D.A.R. -- The Daughters of the American Revolution, a patriotic women’s organization

"Minuet in G" -- very famous classical piece by Ludwig von Beethoven

Tempus fugits -- hurry up. It’s a Latin phrase meaning “time flies”

frazolagy -- phraseology, or choice of words

"Rustle of Spring" -- turn-of-the-century piano piece written by the Norwegian composer Christian Sinding, that was very popular in the US

Grecian Urn -- the ladies are doing interpretive dance, based on the poem “Ode on a Grecian Urn” by John Keats.

Shipoopi -- this is just a nonsense word

Capulets -- one of the warring families in Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet

Mississippi sturgeon -- a fish

Galileo -- Galileo Galilei (1564-1642), Italian physicist and astronomer, who figured out that the earth revolves around the sun and not the other way around.

Columbus -- Christopher Columbus (1446-1506), Italian navigator who is credited with discovering America.

Bach -- Johann Sebastian Bach (1685-1750), famous classical composer whose work is the basis for modern music theory.

Well-Tempered Clavichord -- refers to a famous piece of music by Bach. A clavichord is an early version of a piano.

Redpath Circuit -- one of several vaudeville circuits in the U.S., a group of theatres to which performers would travel

Criminee -- a slang expression of dismay, a corruption of  "Christ"

Tintype -- an old-fashioned photograph

Hector Berlioz -- (1803-1869), French classical composer. (Harold couldn’t be getting a cable from him, since he had been dead for almost forty years.)

Cat-boat -- a small boat with one mast and one large sail.

Buster Brown -- a comic strip character

Privy -- outhouse

Shropshyre sheep -- English sheep known for very white wool and good meat

From time to time, I'm contacted by a dramaturg who wants to work with us, but I love doing this kind of research. As I write this, we recently closed the amazing Sweet Smell of Success, which was just loaded with 1950s New York references. It was so much fun discovering what they all meant and sharing that with the actors. Like I said above, understanding all that stuff is so key for the actors.

Right now, I'm reading everything I can about the culture and pop culture of the 1930s, as I start thinking about our upcoming production of Anything Goes later this season.

One of the great joys of this blog is being able to share cool stuff like this with so many people. Hope this list is entertaining and/or helpful...

Long Live the Musical!

Fuck the Fourth Wall

I've always found the idea of the Fourth Wall to be silly at best, and dishonest at worst. We all know there's no wall there; isn't it dishonest for the actors to pretend that a wall is there... and that the audience isn't...?

There were a lot of ways in which I wanted to explore, new ideas, new directions, new focus, when I founded New Line Theatre in 1991. One of the most obvious ways was our content, with shows like Assassins, In the Blood, Sweeney, Passion, The Ballad of Little Mikey, Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, et al.

But we also explored, from the very beginning, the idea of space and the artificial divide between actors and audience. A lot of New Line's history has been spent playing with those ideas or shattering them altogether. And I thought it would be fun to look back over some of the fourth-wall-fucking we've done over the last twenty-six years.

I couldn't put it into words until more recently, but a big part of the impetus for starting New Line was about embracing work outside the frame of 50s musical comedy and Rodgers & Hammerstein drama. I don't think I knew exactly what I didn't like about R&H when I started New Line, but I do now. It was the deeply flawed idea that musical theatre could work as mid-century naturalistic drama, that the performance of a musical could ever be naturalistic. They created (or at least regularized) the idea of a musical internal monologue, to excuse characters singing full front to the audience; but it's a ruse. The writers and actor really are telling the audience what the character is thinking.

It's Fourth Wall breaking without the guilt.

My work with New Line has almost always been about rebelling against all of that. It's dishonest. The actors are telling us this stuff. It's called storytelling. There's nothing shameful about a soliloquy. If it was good enough for Shakespeare...

Imagine the emotional heft of Billy Bigelow directly sharing "Soliloquy" with the audience, talking with them, not just at them. Like Tevye does in Fiddler.

After hearing way too many times that the staging for The Great Comet was "ground-breaking" (it was really great, but American directors have been using staging like that since the sixties), I've been thinking about the various ways we've played with space over New Line's history, rebelling against naturalism and the proscenium. It's interesting to see how our experiments got bolder over time. It started with invading the audience's space personally, and then over time, more generally moving the show off the stage...

The very first show New Line produced was A Tribute to the Rock Musicals, which I created. It was essentially a concert tracing the history of rock musicals, with some minor staging here and there. But in looking for a new way to frame the evening, I created a Professor (played by John Gerdes, who's currently working on the music for The Zombies of Penzance for New Line), who actually gave a "lecture" on the history of the rock musical.

The actors all started in the house, quickly overcome by the opening number, dancing and singing in the aisles, then moving up onto the stage to become the "examples" of the Professor's lecture. Looking back, I can't believe I made audiences listen to a lecture, but people loved the show. We only got a couple reviews back then, but they were both very nice. At the time I was just experimenting, but I realized that the actors coming out of the audience made them the audience's surrogates, and we all "learned" together, while rocking out to some killer show tunes.

New Line's second show was a neo musical comedy I wrote called Attempting the Absurd, about an unusually self-aware twenty-something who has figured out that he's only a character in a musical. In 1992, long before [title of show]. My senior year in college, I got this idea, and my roommate and I discussed the details and the logical implications of my premise for the entire school year -- if the other characters think they're real, then they don't know they're singing. If they don't know they're singing, what is going on in their reality? When I got home, I had honed my central premise and I wrote the show.

But since the "entire world" -- everybody and everything in Jason's life -- is a musical, then the audience is part of the story too, as the musical's audience. So once again, we started the show out in the house, this time with Jason and his girlfriend arguing across the center section of the audience, and then both of them slowly moving into one row, pushing past audience members, ending up dead center between two rows (a comic device I used again fifteen years later in Urinetown). It was impossible for the audience to be passive after that. They were part of this. Throughout the show, Jason talked to the audience, although his mother sometimes asked him why he was talking to the wall. My favorite bit was right after the first big scene. Jason sits on the front of the stage and talks to the audience:
It was three things that led to my discovery that I'm only a character in a musical comedy: I have the overwhelming feeling that everything I do is controlled by someone somewhere behind a typewriter, I have only a sketchy memory of my past, and I never go to the bathroom.

(He senses disbelief in the audience.)

You laugh, but haven't you ever felt like the things that happen around you aren't real? Just couldn't be real? Kind-of set out too perfectly? Like when you pick up the phone to call somebody and they're already on the line. Hasn't that ever happened to you?

It's been two years, no – longer, three years since I started really thinking about who I am, why am I here... And then not long ago, I suddenly realized that I'm only a character in a musical. I realized that I only exist within this musical. Of course, since everyone else thinks they're real, they think I'm nuts.

(Slowly and with great import:)

See, I'm a fictional character in the Real World, while all the people around me are real people in a fictional world.

(A long pause while he lets it sink in. He smiles. He knows how confusing he sounds.)

I bet you'd give anything to see Hello Dolly! right about now, wouldn't you..? Musicals used to be so neat and tidy... Ever since Sondheim, it's been all… downhill...

Eventually, Jason is arrested, for generally being crazy, and the charges are dismissed when Jason presents the Judge with the script for Attempting the Absurd.

I was meta before meta was cool. In case you're wondering, the title came from a line in the show, "Only by attempting the absurd can you achieve the ridiculous." The perfect title for this show.

Our fourth season, we did Pippin, with a woman as Leading Player, back in 1995 before that was trendy. We were in the St. Marcus, a theatre in a church basement. We built a runway off the front of the stage, out through the house to the back, and we used it a lot. The St. Marcus was a perfect place for this show, seating about 150, with the front row about three feet from the stage. It was really intense, really freaky.

I was particularly proud of some of the moments I created in that show. My favorite was the opening. The house went to black, and a pinspot came up slowly on Pippin, out on the runway, in the middle of the house. He takes a breath and raises his hand -- which is holding a gun -- up to his temple. He closes his eyes... and that note fades in... and he looks around... and "Magic to Do" starts. He slowly turns around and sees the Players emerging from the darkness...

What I loved about that moment was that it was incredibly intense, which gave the whole evening some serious balls, but it also set up the show's climax, when Leading Player tells the audience, "Why, we're right inside your head." This whole story has happened in Pippin's mind, so the Grand Finale is, by definition, suicide. I'm not sure audiences always get that, and I think this helped.

We produced Sweeney Todd in 1996, and for the first time, we did something I had been wanting to do for years. We used the entire theatre, including the audience, as the environment for our story. I had read an interview with Sondheim, in which he said he had wanted Sweeney to be a small, chamber musical, with the actors popping up behind the audience, scaring the crap out of them. I loved that idea!

So for our production, the aisles became the streets of London. Because we were in a basement theatre, there were support poles in the audience, and we dressed them all up as streetlamps. In addition to the small permanent stage at the St. Marcus, we built two satellite stages; and two of these three stages had revolves. Each time the chorus would sing "City on Fire," they would literally be inches behind the back row of the audience.

It was so much fun, and people really loved the intensity of it. The show became a real horror show again, instead of ironic social commentary.

In 1999, we did Into the Woods in much the same way, but going even further, this time setting a cross-aisle halfway through the audience, and again using all the aisles as paths in the woods, and now dressing up those poles as trees. Every time the cast would do the aphorisms, they'd all be walking briskly up and down the aisles, through the cross-aisle, behind the back row. It was completely stereophonic, and there was so much to look at.

As we did with Sweeney, we played big hunks of the show out in the house. One of my favorite moments evolved out of a problem. Our cast was slightly smaller than the original, and after Jack's Mother is conked on the head -- in the middle of our cross-aisle -- I needed the Steward to help carry her out of the way. But the Steward was holding the royal staff. So we decided he had to get rid of the staff somehow. Our solution was that he would slide it under the chairs in the front row, then whisper to whoever was on the end, "Say nothing or you're next!" The reactions were wonderful.

We don't usually do what you'd call "immersive" theatre, but every once in a while, there's a moment that comes close.

With Floyd Collins, also in 1999, we kept the show onstage almost the whole time, with one exception when Floyd's down in the cave and he sings his cave calls. We placed the other actors all around the audience to sing Floyd's multiple echos. It was a really wonderful effect.

It's not really fair to say we rejected the Fourth Wall when we did Hair, since it never had a Fourth Wall to begin with. As I said to many people about Hair, it's not a show, not a performance, as much as just a happening, an experience. Every night before the show even started, our tribe was out in the house, greeting the audience and passing out daisies (as the original production had done). They spent a lot of time in the audience during the show, and at the end (again, like the original), they invited the audience onto the stage to dance. You'd be amazed how many people did. There was never a divide between actors and audience. The whole space was open to us. It was so freeing.

Then we moved into the ArtLoft Theatre in 2001. It was our first time in a blackbox, and it was like someone had just taught me to fly...

One of my favorite experiments was our 2001 production of the 1937 labor musical The Cradle Will Rock. Our production recreated the show's real opening night -- when the government had shut it down, the producers had found another theatre, and then the whole audience walked twenty-one blocks uptown to the other theatre. But the actors' union forbade them from appearing onstage, so much of the cast performed the show anyway, but from the audience. You can hear original producer John Houseman tell that amazing opening night story here.

My director's notes in our program for Cradle gave the audience its backstory, that they had just walked twenty-one blocks uptown, etc. Then Orson Welles greeted the audience and introduced me as composer Marc Blitzstein, to play his/my show from the stage. As it happened in 1937, just a few notes in, an actor stood up in the house and started singing, and soon the entire show was playing out in the audience. It was really thrilling theatre.

For both Bat Boy in 2003 and 2006, and Urinetown in 2007, we returned to the idea of playing lots of the show out in the house, in the aisles, between rows. You can watch our Urinetown Act I finale here, to see how much fun we had. I remember during that run, I watched most of the show from the booth upstairs, because it was a great view, but I always came downstairs into the back of the house for the Act I finale, because it was so wild, it just left you breathless.

Another interesting experiment was our Sunday in the Park with George in 2003. I had this idea to create something close to the two-dimensional world of the painting. So we built a stage eight feet wide by thirty-two feet long, down the middle of the theatre, with audience on both sides, facing each other. I almost gave up on the idea in blocking rehearsals -- it's incredibly hard to block on a stage like that -- but we figured it out. And the final effect was very cool.

In case you're wondering, the "painting" reversed between the Act I finale and the Act II opening, so both sides got a good look at the painting.

When we did Man of La Mancha in 2004 we built a small 16' x 16' stage in the middle of the space, and made it look as old and gross possible, and we made the entire theatre space (an old warehouse, which was perfect) into our dungeon, with the audience on all four sides. During the show, the entire cast sat around the stage watching when they weren't in the story. And because the front row of audience was only a couple feet behind the "prisoners," it pulled the audience into the action really powerfully, bringing them into the dungeon with us. It also made the rape scene very hard to watch. The one time the ensemble disappeared (gradually slipping underneath the stage) was for "The Quest," so Quixote could really be alone in the courtyard.

Our Robber Bridegroom and The Fantasticks, both in 2005, followed in our experiments with Bat Boy and Urinetown, playing all over the theatre throughout the whole show. It was fun thinking about the implications of playing out in the audience so much. Different people sitting in different places see different shows. We decided to embrace that and added lots of little details that only a handful of people could see or hear, depending on where they're sitting -- and that prompted a lot of repeat customers.

We left the ArtLoft in 2007, after Urinetown. For seven years we were at the Washington University South Campus Theatre, which was very nice, but after seven years in a blackbox, it felt a bit constraining sometimes. Now we're back in a blackbox at the Marcelle, and we've having lots of fun with it.

It's been so much fun and so educational having this wonderful laboratory -- our company -- in which to experiment with our art form, particularly now in this new Golden Age, when the material is so often extraordinary. So far, we've tried four different configurations in our first two seasons at the Marcelle.  My favorite so far was Atomic, with the playing space down the middle, and audience on both sides, watching this show about America's creation of the Bomb, with other Americans as a backdrop. Pretty cool.

Our next show, Lizzie, is another piece that fucks with the Fourth Wall. The actors won't leave the stage, but the show is a kind of hybrid of rock concert and rock opera, and much of it works best full front, directly singing to the audience. But there are also dramatic scenes, in which there's a vague sense of a fragile Fourth Wall. The toggle between the two is really interesting, and it makes for some intense storytelling!

New Line is not an "experimental" company. We're not "avant garde." The label I use is "alternative musical theatre," in other words, not mainstream, but not way outside, just different, alternative. But we have experimented a lot over our past twenty-six seasons, and I'm sure there will be plenty more cool experiments to come.

Stay tuned. And don't miss Lizzie!

Long Live the Musical!

It's a Musical!

St. Louis loves musicals.

Often at this time of year, I will marvel yet again at the amazing musical theatre scene we have here in St. Louis, so many shows produced by so many companies, and with no duplicates in the list! If you're curious, here are lists for 2014 and 2015, and also my blog post from last year on The Top Ten Reasons St. Louis Theatre Rocks.

Ever since the New Line website was created in 1997, we've kept a page on our website listing all the theatre companies in town, and another page with all the upcoming productions of musicals in the area.

It's so inspiring to browse the list every year. So much cool, interesting theatre...

Aug. 18-Sept. 3 – In the Heights, R-S Theatrics
Aug. 25-Sept. 2 – The Hunchback of Notre Dame, Next Generation Theatre Co.
Sept. 8-Oct. 8 – South Pacific, Stages St. Louis
Sept. 8-17 – Bye Bye Birdie, Monroe Actors Stage Company
Sept. 15-24 – Meet Me in St. Louis, Christ Memorial Productions
Sept. 28-Oct. 21 – Lizzie, New Line Theatre
Oct. 3-15 – The Bodyguard, Fox Theatre
Oct. 6-15 – Into the Woods, Alpha Players
Oct. 5-21 – Spring Awakening, Stray Dog Theatre
Oct. 10-22 - Evil Dead, Grandel Theatre
Oct. 13-21 - Next to Normal, Take Two Productions
Oct. 13-21 - The Rocky Horror Show, Alfresco Productions
Nov. 2-5 – William Finn's Elegies, Fontbonne University
Nov. 3-12 – Spitfire Grill, Hawthorne Players
Nov. 3-12 – Little Shop of Horrors, Act Two Theatre
Nov. 3-12 – The Drowsy Chaperone, Over Due Theatre Co.
Nov. 7-12 – Disenchanted, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
Nov. 7-19 – On Your Feet!, Fox Theatre
Nov. 21-22 – Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer, Fox Theatre
Nov. 28-Dec. 10 – The King and I, Fox Theatre
Dec. 26-28 – Elf, Peabody Opera House
Dec. 27-31 – Cinderella, Fox Theatre
Jan. 3-28 – The Marvelous Wondrettes, The Repertory Theatre of St. Louis
Jan. 9-March 31 – Menopause the Musical, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
Jan. 13-14 – Kinky Boots, Peabody Opera House
Jan. 16-28 – School of Rock, Fox Theatre
Feb. 2-4 – The Sound of Music, Fox Theatre
Feb. 9-10 – Buddy! The Buddy Holly Story, Peabody Opera House
Feb. 23-25 – The Wizard of Oz, Fox Theatre
March 1-24 – Anything Goes, New Line Theatre
March 2-4 – Chicago, Fox Theatre
Mar. 9 – Gentlemen's Guide to Love and Murder, Peabody Opera House
March 20-April 1 – The Color Purple, Fox Theatre
April 3-22 – Hamilton, Fox Theatre
April 12-28 – Jesus Christ Superstar, Stray Dog Theatre
April 17-May 6 – A Closer Walk with Patsy Cline, The Playhouse @ Westport Plaza
May 3-20 – The Phantom of the Opera, Fox Theatre
May 4-13 – Guys and Dolls, Kirkwood Theatre Guild
May 29-June 3 – The Book of Mormon, Fox Theatre
May 31-June 23 – Yeast Nation, New Line Theatre
July 24-29 – It Shoulda Been You, SCC Center Stage Theatre
Aug. 2-18 – The Robber Bridegroom, Stray Dog Theatre

And lest we forget,. next summer is The Muny's 100th Summer Season!

The New Liners are certainly doing our share to keep our scene vibrant. Our coming season includes the wild, fierce, four-woman rock opera Lizzie in October, followed by a public reading of The Zombies of Penzance for one night in early January, then the classic satire Anything Goes in March, and the brilliantly crazy new musical Yeast Nation in June, from the creators of Urinetown.

People sometimes ask me why I'm not working in New York. Who needs New York?

I can't wait to see so many of these shows! St. Louis rocks!

Long Live the Musical!

Master of the House

As long as I live, one of the things in my artistic life that will stay with me forever, is this: from the moment I started New Line Theatre, as a cocky 27-year-old, both Steve Woolf, artistic director of The Rep, and Ron Himes, artistic director of The Black Rep, treated me with total respect, like I was legitimately their peer. That meant so much to me.

Steve and Ron have both always been there for me, for advice and encouragement. But today, Steve announced his retirement, in two years. I will miss his steady hand at the Rep. He's definitely one of my artistic heroes.

The first time I staged a show in-the-round, I called Steve and asked if he had some time to talk. As he always does, he took some time out of his day to sit and talk with me, and he gave me one of the best pieces of advice I've ever gotten: when directing in-the-round, never sit in the same place for very long in rehearsal, because the actors will want to play to you. The more you move around, the more the actors' performances will play to the full house. It totally worked.

I also called him the first time I was directing a play, after decades of directing musicals. His advice was awesome: it's not that different. He told me to use all the same tools I use with musicals, and we also talked about the different kinds of energy and "size" in plays and musicals. He told me he thought it would be easier for me to transition from musicals to plays than it would be for someone to go the other direction. I think that's true.

In 1999, I was writing for In Theatre magazine, reviewing St. Louis shows, and writing an occasional feature, and I pitched them a story about Steve and the Rep. Steve is, in a real way, the representative of our entire theatre community. Here's the article I wrote.
Steve Woolf, artistic director of the Repertory Theatre of St. Louis, sees pretty much everything he does as interactive, as a discussion with the community. "We are the repository of things live," he says. "Entertainment is getting less and less live these days, but every night seven hundred people come together in our theatre to celebrate things live." He smiles and adds, "It's civilizing."

He was also gracious enough to do one of my earliest podcasts, which you can listen to here, detailing each step of the process of producing a play. It's such fun to talk theatre with him.

But nothing matters more than the amazing artistic and institutional legacy Steve leaves us. It will be sad to see him go, but he built such an amazing company, and he has shared his considerable talent with us through so many brilliant, thrilling productions. I will never forget his productions (as director) of Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Arcadia, Betrayal, Red, Frost/Nixon, Other Desert Cities, All the Way, The Crucible, Art, As Bees in Honey Drown, all of them smart, thrilling theatre, and that's only a partial list.

His production of Virginia Woolf was a real revelation for me; I understood the play so much better after seeing that brilliant cast under Steve's brilliant direction. It was the first time I understood how desperately George and Martha love and need each other, how much they appreciate each other's mind, and most significantly for me, in this production, they laughed at each other's quips a lot. All that made the final moments of the play more potent than I could have imagined. It was absolutely the best production of Virginia Woolf I've ever seen, and I've seen quite a few.

Steve's Arcadia was one of the coolest things I've ever seen onstage, so rich, so playful, so smart, so emotional. I saw that production three times.

But he's also responsible as artistic director for bringing us so many other brilliant productions that he didn't direct, thrilling shows like Ambition Facing West, Side Man, Follies, Fly, Clybourne Park, The Bomb-itty of Errors, Avenue X, Book of Days, and so many others. I had the great thrill of reviewing Books of Days for In Theatre, and then being quoted on the back of the published script!

One of my favorite pastimes is emailing Steve after seeing a Rep show, usually gushing about how much I loved it, asking questions, positing theories. He's always so open and cool about having those conversations with me.

I speak for myself, but I think also for our whole city -- I am so grateful to Steve Woolf for all the great art he has brought into my life, and for building here in our city a world-class regional theatre, a theatre that regularly produces the very first productions after Broadway of new and important work, as well as world premieres. We are very lucky, and we owe Steve everything.

We will miss him at the helm of the Rep, but we know he and the people around him have built a ship sturdy enough to keep on sailing for a very long time.

Thank you, Steve!

Long Live the Theatre!

I've Come to Sing a Song About Hope

Out on Broadway: The Third Coming has come to an end. We closed the show tonight. I never thought in 1996, when I created the first Out on Broadway, that twenty-one years later, we would still feel the need for a show like this. But we do still need it.

This has been a deeply personal show for all of us. These five actors and I all live openly gay lives, but it's so empowering, so gratifyingly defiant, putting our gay lives and emotions and challenges and insecurities and joys onstage, insisting that the Others aren't in fact Other at all.

I'm monumentally proud of this show of ours. It didn't sell out like the first two editions, and we'll never know if that's because the gay community is more a part of mainstream culture now, because Will & Grace happened and is about to happen again, because there's so much more cool theatre in town now (including the Fringe Fest, Ragtime, In the Heights) than there was twenty-one years ago, or because we're still rebuilding our audience after our move a year and half ago.

Whatever the reasons, we spent very little on this show, so it won't hurt us financially. Plus our audiences really loved our show. The word I heard most often in the lobby after performances was "wonderful." People both straight and gay found so much to connect to in these amazing theatre songs and in the honest, heartfelt performances of our five actors.

The critics all agreed...

“If you've ever been in love with musicals, don't miss this show.”
– Richard Green, TalkinBroadway

"Brassy, sassy, tender, and touching."
– Lynn Venhaus, OnSTL

“A wonderful evening of musical theatre.”
– Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

"A celebration of life and love for all."
– Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"An easygoing mood, favoring sophistication over splash."
– Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Well-disciplined velvety voices."
– Keaton Treece, St. Louis Limelight

“A collection of songs which underscore the ever-changing musical vitality of Broadway."
– Mark Bretz, Ladue News

Keith, the only actor to appear in all three editions of our show, was scared shitless this time because I gave him three comedy songs. "I'm not funny!" he whined. "No," I replied, "You're honest." And he is, and so his comedy songs were really funny, but also really rich and truthful and human.

More than anything, I just feel profoundly proud and grateful. Putting a song list together for a revue or concert is an art, and through the first two OOBs and the five concerts we've done at the Sheldon, I've gotten better and better at constructing an evening of songs.

The guiding principle for the show has always been Dignity. Since the first edition all those years ago, there were just two rules. We didn't mock any orientation, or each other, and we didn't sing about how hard it is to be gay. Our OOB shows have always been about our shared humanity, more than anything else, the idea that a love song written for a hetero couple really doesn't change at all if two men sing it instead. (I hate the Broadway Backwards events in NYC. It's not "backwards.")

It was a genuine privilege to work with these five amazing members of our gay community, Ken Haller, Keith Thompson, Sean Michael, and Mike and Dominic Dowdy-Windsor (and our token straight guy, our music director Nate Jackson).

I am beyond grateful that I get to run a company like New Line, that I get to create theatre pieces like Out on Broadway, and that St. Louis audiences keep coming back for more. Thank you, St. Louis, for believing that what we do is important to you. I am a very, very lucky guy. Thank you.

I'll leave you with OOB3C's penultimate number, "Everything Possible," by Fred Small, one of two non-theatre songs in our show, one of the few songs that has appeared in all three editions of Out on Broadway. This is why we did the show.
We have cleared off the table, the leftovers saved,
Washed the dishes and put them away.
I have told you a story and tucked you in tight
At the end of your knockabout day.

As the moon sets its sails to carry you to sleep
Over the midnight sea,
I will sing you a song no one sang to me;
May it keep you good company.

You can be anybody you want to be.
You can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads,
And know I will love you still.

You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around,
You can choose one special one;
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you're gone.

Some girls grow up strong and bold;
Some boys are quiet and kind;
Some race on ahead, some follow behind;
Some go in their own way and time;
Some women love women, some men love men;
Some raise children, some never do.
You can dream all the day never reaching the end
Of everything possible for you.

Don't be rattled by names, by taunts, by games,
But seek out spirits true.
If you give your friends the best part of yourself
They will give the same back to you.

You can be anybody you want to be.
You can love whomever you will.
You can travel any country where your heart leads,
And know I will love you still.
You can live by yourself, you can gather friends around;
You can choose one special one.
And the only measure of your words and your deeds
Will be the love you leave behind when you're gone.

And now onward to Lizzie, directed by our associate artistic director Mike Dowdy-Windsor. We start rehearsals Monday. Another wild, awesome adventure. I'll keep you posted.

Long Live the Musical!

Just Like Our Parents

We started the Out on Broadway series in March 1996, brought it back in August 1996, then created Out on Broadway 2000 (aka OOB2K) four years later. It's weird this many years later to return to this series, and even a few of the same songs. The world was so different back then. As I said in my last blog post, when our first edition opened, Will & Grace hadn't debuted yet. When we did OOB2K, not a single state had legalized marriage equality yet, but the Orwellian "Defense of Marriage Act" had been passed.

But we face our share of challenges today, particularly in our cultural adversaries and the politicians who are incapable of feeling empathy for gay Americans until someone in their own family comes out.

It seems each edition of our series is a response to a cultural and political moment, and Out on Broadway: The Third Coming is no different. But to connect back to the the impulses that drove us in 1996 and 2000, I went back to the director's notes I wrote for our programs, and I found lots of value there...

March 1996

Gay men and lesbians have been playing straight characters since time began. They've had to sing about a kind of love they never felt, never able (until recently) to sing about the feelings they actually have. Stars like Danny Kaye, Larry Kert, George Rose, Jack Cassidy, and many others never had a chance to explore in their work the issues they faced in their daily lives.

Gay or bisexual writers, including Stephen Sondheim, Cole Porter, Jerry Herman, Leonard Bernstein, Noel Coward, Lorenz Hart, Arthur Laurents, Howard Ashman, and so many others have had to “transpose” their feelings in order to write for the characters in their shows.

Only a few gay musicals have ever played on Broadway. And though TV and movies are finally accepting gay characters as something more than a punch line, the Broadway musical is much slower to do the same. However, in regional theatres gay issues are being explored in many new musicals by writers like Mark Savage, Linda Eisenstein, Chris Jackson, myself, and others. Two songs from Mark Savage's new musical, The Ballad of Little Mikey will be performed tonight. This spring, an album of songs from gay musicals will be released by AEI Records, including songs from The Ballad of Little Mikey and the gay vampire musical In the Blood, which New Line premiered last season.

So tonight we present the history of Broadway musicals the way it should have been.

Every song you'll hear tonight was chosen for a reason. “You Have to Be Carefully Taught” was written about racism, but its message against intolerance is as relevant today as ever, as religious extremists demonize gays and lesbians. “In My Own Lifetime” and “Do You Hear the People Sing” are particularly potent, reminding us of the all the work we have to do. “Children Will Listen” is a warning to those political and religious leaders who would promote prejudice and fear instead of understanding. And in this explosive election year, “Our Time” and “Everybody's Got the Right” are no longer just show tunes – they are battle cries.

“Everything Possible” is the song we all wish someone had sung to us when we were little, a song that we hope will be sung to children from now on.

Very few of these songs were written in the context in which you find them tonight, but I think you'll be surprised at how easily they work this way. The experiences we're exploring tonight are universal. A love song written for a straight couple fits a gay couple no less perfectly: One lyric sums it all up: “They're writing songs of love, but not for me . . .” Well, tonight these songs are for us all.

August 1996

Well, here we are, back “Out” at the St. Marcus Theatre.

This is the first time New Line has ever done a show a second time. It's the first time we thought a piece was important enough. We decided that if we can reach people this time that we didn't reach the first time, then it's worth doing again.

We didn't realize this show was as special as it is until we put it in front of an audience last March. It's the only gay revue I'm aware of that doesn't make fun of gays and also doesn't ask for pity for gays. It's a very proud, brave, and occasionally political look at being gay in America. This is a show that sees gays as regular people, with the same kind of joy and heartache as everyone else, despite their often unique societal obstacles. And I think that's a big part of what made it so incredibly popular the first time around.

Only a few gay musicals have ever played on Broadway. And though TV and movies are finally accepting gay characters as something more than a punch line, the Broadway musical is much slower to do the same. However, in regional theatres gay issues are being explored in many new musicals by writers like Mark Savage, Linda Eisenstein, Cindy O'Connor & Larry.Johnson, Chris Jackson, myself, and others. Two songs from Mark Savage's new musical, The Ballad of Little Mikey (which New Line will produce in June 1997) will be performed tonight.

We've made some small changes since the last time we were here – a few songs cut, a few added, a few moved. We hope you like the show even better. Very few of these songs were written in the context in which you find them tonight, but I think you'll be surprised at how easily they work this way.

Many of the experiences we're exploring are indeed universal. As Congress passes new (possibly un-Constitutional) laws to exclude gays and lesbians from legal marriage, as Bob Dole and his friends work to prevent us from enjoying other equal rights, as national religious leaders misuse and misquote the Bible to demonize us, this is an important lesson for us all to take with us.

March 2000

When we put together the first Out on Broadway in March 1996, we had no idea that there would be such enormous public demand for more performances that we’d have to bring it back in August of that same year. We never thought there’d be a cast album. And we certainly never thought we’d be doing a sequel four years later.

But here we are.

So much has changed since 1996. Will and Grace is on television every week, getting great ratings, and three more shows with gay lead characters are planned for next season. And for good or bad, gay Americans are every bit as visible as straight Americans on Jerry Springer and the other talk shows.

Gay marriage has become one of the top issues in the country, with the Vermont Supreme Court ordering the state legislature to give gay couples equal rights, with Californians voting on a referendum against equal marriage rights for gay couples on March 7, and with the Hawaii gay marriage case still rumbling despite setbacks. In contrast, a study just released says 2.5 million gay Americans are currently in heterosexual marriages.

The issue of adoption for gay couples is coming before courts around the country. Anti-gay discrimination in groups like the Boy Scouts is being actively challenged in the courts, and in some cases, is being condemned.

As the presidential races heat up, gay issues are on the agenda everywhere you look. Both Al Gore and Bill Bradley are actively courting gay voters. And even the most conservative Republicans are being forced to acknowledge us and address our issues.

And yet, Matthew Shepard was brutally murdered in Wyoming just for being gay. Billy Jack Gaither was murdered in Georgia for the same reason. And they’re not the only ones.

One of the purposes of the original Out on Broadway was to tell gay teens and closeted gay men and women that it’s okay to be gay, that they can be gay and still be proud of who they are, that being gay is not a sickness. With all the increased visibility for gay Americans, perhaps that’s not as necessary today as it was four years ago.

The other purpose of the original show was to demonstrate how alike gay and straight people are, and how alike gay and straight love is. That is still necessary because, even though we are all alike deep down, the world still does not treat us alike. It’s amazing how easy it was for most of these songs, originally written for straight characters, to work in a gay context – but they do, precisely because gay people think and feel most of the same things as their straight friends and families. And that message can’t be spread far enough or fast enough.

So enjoy the show. Laugh along with us, cry along with us, but most importantly, remember that we are your brothers and sisters, parents, friends, neighbors, and co-workers. Remember that many of us want to marry. Some of us want to have kids. And all of us want the respect we deserve.

So now here we are in 2017. When we did Out on Broadway 2000, we included a mildly militant piece called "Marry Us," and a song actually written for a gay couple called "Just Like Our Parents." This time, our show will have a married gay couple in the cast.

We've come a long way, but we've also been set back to some extent. And many of our victories are fragile ones. We still need Out on Broadway. We still need to remind ourselves, our friends and families, and our audiences that we are more alike than different, and that we're each basically following the same Hero Myth story.

This new show is divided into five sections, that vaguely chart a gay man's life. Act I includes "Finding Your Place" and "Finding Love." Act II includes "I Do," "I Thought I Did," and "Now What?" And we are very grateful that Jason Robert Brown has given us the rights to open our show with his new song, "Hope," which he wrote the morning after the 2016 election:

I come to sing a song about hope
I'm not inspired much right now, but even so
I came out here to sing a song. So here I go
I guess I think
That if I tinker long enough, one might appear
And look! It's here
One verse is done
The work's begun

I come to sing a song about hope
In spite of everything ridiculous and sad
Though I'm beyond belief depressed, confused and mad
Well – I got dressed
I underestimated how much that would take
I didn't break
Until right now
I sing of hope
And don't know how

So maybe I can substitute "strength,"
Because I'm strong
I'm strong enough
I got through lots of things I didn't think I could
And so did you
I know that's true

And so we sing a song about hope
Though I can't guarantee there's something real behind it
I have to try to show my daughters I can find it
And so today –
When life is crazy and impossible to bear –
It must be there
Fear never wins
That's what I hope
See? I said "hope."
The work begins

Yes, the work begins again, and our show is part of that work. I hope you can share it with us.

Long Live the Musical!

Out on Broadway: The Third Coming

Out on Broadway: The Third Coming is the third installment of something I never expected to have a second installment.

Back in 1996, I put together an evening of theatre songs to be sung from a gay perspective -- no rewriting other than gender words -- and we called it Out on Broadway. OOB, for short. Without rewriting anything, we gave songs like "We Kiss in a Shadow" from The King and I, and "In My Own Lifetime" from The Rothschilds entirely new context and new resonance. The show had very little staging, no "costumes" really, and just a black stage with a piano and a couple stools. Looking back, I think my model was the original Side by Side by Sondheim.

The show sold out the run in March, so we brought it back for another sold-out run in August, with a couple tweaks to the song list.

A few years later, our cast album for the original OOB was finally being released (yes, you read that right, we made a cast album!), and it occurred to me that a second edition would be fun, so I created Out on Broadway 2000, quickly dubbed by us OOB2K. This time we did a few songs from the first show, but found a lot of new ones.

Then last year, talking about New Line's season, our associate artistic director Mike Dowdy-Windsor mentioned Out on Broadway -- could we do another one? The more I thought about it, the more I liked it. Twenty-one years after the first one debuted, we need Out on Broadway right now more than thought we would. But what to call this third chapter? Of course -- Out on Broadway: The Third Coming. What else?

Anybody who's offended by the title would be offended by the show too, so...

Again, we've found a few of our favorite songs from the other two shows (like the impossibly beautiful "Everything Possible"), and added new songs that weren't even written yet in 2000. As the title suggests, we will explore religion, but the main topic of the evening is just to take a look at gay lives and gay relationships, more than anything, to reveal how much like our straight counterparts we are.

And yes, because this is a very personal piece of work for all of us, it is narrowly about the gay male experience; but just as the Japanese found such cultural resonance in Fiddler on the Roof, the very act of these five gay men singing these songs that were written for straight characters (though often gay actors) proves the universality -- both of the songs and of our lives.

When we did the original OOB in 1996, Will & Grace wasn't on the air yet, and in fact, the odious, Orwellian-named Defense of Marriage Act was passed just a month after we brought OOB back for an encore run that August. Even for our second edition in 2000, gay people still didn't have equal marriage rights anywhere in America. It's a different world now. But it's still a world that needs to hear our voices, maybe right now more than ever.

As I was going over the song list for this third edition one last time before rehearsals started, I realized there were a couple songs that didn't feel right, and I realized that with the first two editions of OOB, there were quite a few funny songs, but the overall tone was relatively serious. I had started this edition with a big wacky opening and I decided that was wrong.

Now our show will start with Jason Robert Brown's new song "Hope" (he gave us permission to use it in the show!), and then we'll go back to the earliest feelings of being Other, with the wonderful song "Mrs. Remington" from The Story of My Life. The first act of our show will (sort of) trace the life of a modern American gay man. Act Two will explore gay relationships.

The cool part is that, because we're using mostly songs that were written for straight characters, the very idea that gay men are singing them about their own lives with no alterations, proves how much alike we all are, how truly universal human emotions are. A straight friend asked if he'd feel "left out" at our show. Exactly the opposite is true. Our straight friends and families will find resonance in every song, because almost every song was originally written for them.

Which is the whole point of creating the Out on Broadway series in the first place.

I wanted a new cast for this edition. This cast we have now is more diverse in age and we have an actual married gay couple in the cast. But to connect back to our earlier work, I asked back Keith Thompson (who you may have seen as Jerry Springer in our Jerry Springer the Opera), who will be the only actor to do all three editions. He does Sincere really well.

Since we've been doing these shows, an annual event has popped up in New York called Broadway Backwards, an evening of songs written for men but sung by women, and vice versa. I still hate that word Backwards in the title. It makes it seem like there's something wrong or mistaken about crossing gender lines. It's not wrong; it's just different. Which is the point of Out on Broadway.

We've put together a terrific song list for our show. If you've seen the last two editions, you'll love what we've kept and you'll also love the new gems we've found...

I don't want to give away our song list, but I will tempt you by saying that we have songs from Hamilton, Heathers, Kinky Boots, Ragtime, The Book of Mormon, Into the Woods, Songs for a New World, Cry-Baby, Chicago, Follies, Cabaret, A New Brain, The Wild Party, Bye Bye Birdie, City of Angels, Dreamgirls, March of the Falsettos, Once Upon a Mattress, Nine, Company, The Robber Bridegroom, Ordinary Days, Tell Me on a Sunday, and that's only a partial list...

This is going to be a much faster rehearsal process than we're used to, but I don't foresee a lot of stress. It will be really easy to stage, since there will be very little staging, there's no band to worry about, no costume changes, no props. Just our five guys, Dominic, Mike, Ken, Sean, and Keith, a piano player (music director Nate Jackson, our token straight guy), and some of the greatest songs you'll ever hear, from throughout the history of our art form.

What could be better than that?

We're only running this show for three weeks, and we expect to sell out, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

There's a Road We Must Travel

I recently came across a surprising article called, "Should There Be All-White Productions of Hairspray?"  Talk about click-bait! I was dying to read this and see what the hell it was about. Of course there shouldn't be all-white productions of this show about race in America, so who's asking this question...?

Then I read the article. and to my astonishment, the show's writers and their licensing agent Music Theatre International are both okay with this. In fact, for all-white productions of the show, MTI provides this letter to put in the program:
Dear Audience Members,

When we, the creators of HAIRSPRAY, first started licensing the show to high-schools and community theatres, we were asked by some about using make-up in order for non-African Americans to portray the black characters in the show.

Although we comprehend that not every community around the globe has the perfectly balanced make-up (pardon the pun) of ethnicity to cast HAIRSPRAY as written, we had to, of course, forbid any use of the coloring of anyone’s face (even if done respectfully and subtly) for it is still, at the end of the day, a form of blackface, which is a chapter in the story of race in America that our show is obviously against.

Yet, we also realized, to deny an actor the chance to play a role due to the color of his or her skin would be its own form of racism, albeit a “politically correct” one.

And so, if the production of HAIRSPRAY you are about to see tonight features folks whose skin color doesn’t match the characters (not unlike how Edna has been traditionally played by a man), we ask that you use the timeless theatrical concept of “suspension of disbelief” and allow yourself to witness the story and not the racial background (or gender) of the actors. Our show is, after all, about not judging books by their covers! If the direction and the actors are good (and they had better be!) you will still get the message loud and clear. And hopefully, have a great time receiving it!

Thank You,
Marc, Scott, Mark, Tom & John

As in Marc Shaiman, Scott Wittman, Mark O'Donnell, and Tom Meehan, the creators of the show. Wow... so... um... what do we do with that?

And John Waters also signed the letter, the guy who wrote and directed the original film, who actually lived through the cultural moment Hairspray describes. Even if we can dismiss Shaiman, Wittman, O'Donnell, and Meehan, can we dismiss Waters, who's writing from his own experience...?

Then again, once you really starting thinking about all this, it just gets more complicated. After all, as progressive as Hairspray feels, it's still true that the black folks in the story can't get their Happily Ever After until the "white savior" steps in on their behalf...

So I did what I often do with complex theatre issues and questions -- I posted the article, both on New Line's Facebook page and in our St. Louis Metro Area Theatre group, and asked folks what they thought. That's when an even bigger surprise hit me...

In the Metro group, everyone was adamantly against the idea of a white actor playing a black character, and the actors of color who commented felt understandably hurt by this; but no one seemed  to know how to grapple with the fact the writers disagree with them. That's what's hard for me. These four white guys write an insightful piece of theatre about race, but they also make this decision that suggests that they don't understand the issues around race after all, a decision that really upsets black theatre artists.

On the New Line Facebook page, people started posting angry, abusive, insulting, condescending comments about what a stupid question it is (even if the show's own creators don't think so), and how bad New Line looks for bringing it up -- even though we didn't endorse the decision, just shared the article. The writer of the article and I both agree that we don't like the idea at all, but we can't just dismiss entirely the creators' opinions, can we?

Honestly, I could tell from the comments on New Line's page that most of the people commenting had not read the article, so they probably didn't know that the article (and I) agreed with them. I could also tell that most of them were white and most of them hadn't really thought much about race or the incredibly complex set of issues surrounding race. They just had a knee-jerk reaction and, like too many people on Facebook, commented on an article without actually reading it first.

Best way to look like a fool.

The big takeaway from the article for me is that this shit is complicated. And one sentence posted on Facebook does not resolve or explain it. My big takeaway from the reaction to the article is that most white people don't really think much about race and they/we/I don't understand the issues nearly as well as they/we/I think.

One local black woman, Jasmine French, wrote very insightfully about this in the metro St. Louis group:
And yes, [black actors] can say with a straight face that we understand the show better than the writers... When it comes to the black characters, the writers were coming from a place of observation... They and their loved ones weren't in the shoes of those black characters... My grandmother always talks about when the schools integrated. When family would travel to visit her and how everyone would wait up for them, scared that the police or KKK caught them... My grandfather barely speaks on what he saw (he's from Alabama so we can all just picture how peachy that was). I sang "I know Where I've Been" for my grandparents, for the civil rights movement, for the black lives matter movement. The writers wrote it for ticket sales. Its a wonderful song, don't get me wrong, but just because they wrote about black characters doesn't mean they understand a black person's experience, and them attaching that letter co-signing and allowing this is proof that they don't.

Like I said, this is complicated stuff.

We just announced New Line's next season, which will include the classic satire Anything Goes, but that show's "Chinese converts" pose some tough questions as well. Their portrayal in the script is borderline racist, and there's a long creepy history of white actors playing these two Chinese guys, which I knew we could not do. We're still figuring out a way to get the plot point across without being unintentionally racist. I think we may have a decent solution, still thinking about it...

Bottom line, we'll never fully understand or solve the issues around race in America unless we can have a conversation about them. But clearly this article was too provocative..

So I finally deleted the post and the link to the article on the New Line page. The conversation was shut down by people who weren't interested in thinking these complicated questions through. In contrast, in our Metro St. Louis group, everybody was against the idea, but they had a conversation. Yes it got emotional (as would be expected), but not nasty.

Personally, I would not go see an all-white production of Hairspray. I hate the idea, on both a practical and an artistic level. But I don't know what to do with the creators' position. These guys obviously have thought through these issues, while writing the show, so I can't just dismiss them.

Not every issue is clear. Most aren't. And those are the ones most worth thinking and talking about...

No answers here...

Maybe we should let one of the show's writers have the last word. Marc Shaiman wrote this to The Huffington Post about an all-white production of Hairspray in Texas in 2012:
A recent article out of Plano Texas reported of a children’s theatre production of HAIRSPRAY that featured not a single black actor.

Many years ago, when MTI started preparing for the release of HAIRSPRAY for licensing to regional, community and children’s theatre, the subject of 'color-blind casting' was hotly debated. Starting the discussion with 'absolutely no production can exist without actors who are the race of the characters,' I was asked by a rep of MTI 'Ok...what about in Japan?.' 'Oh...' I replied.

'How about South America? Scotland? Sweden?' they said. 'Oh...' I replied.

I then remembered when Scott & I went to his summer stock alma mater when they performed HAIRSPRAY. Up to Vermont we drove only to see two Asian actors in Velma Von Tussle’s 'Nicest Kids In Town.' This was a company of young actors put together to put on a bunch of shows that summer. Were we to stop the production because it was unrealistic that Velma would allow Asian teenagers to be on The Corny Collins Show? Would that not be a form of racism?

I thought back of when I musical directed a community theatre production of WEST SIDE STORY in Plainfield NJ in the early 70’s. 'Anita' was played by a African American (a beautiful woman named Audrey) who was probably in her 40s. And she was, probably, the only non-white in the cast. Should we not have been allowed to tell this story of the consequence of bigotry. Should Audrey not have been allowed to play Anita because she was black? Or 40?

By the way, the kid who played Tony was REALLY cute.

I have grown to realize that when you write a show — particularly one you are lucky enough to see have a long life — you are, in effect, giving birth to a child. And you try your hardest to teach that child what’s right, instill good values — and a sense of humor — and then, when the time comes, send it out into the world. My mother and father raised me right, but would they be proud of every single choice I have made in my life since leaving home? Probably not. But they did their best, I do my best and we authors of HAIRSPRAY do ours.

A few years ago, we were horrified when pictures appeared online of a one weekend only bootleg production of our show in Italy that had people in full blackface. Really terrible images. By the time we saw the photos, the production had come and gone but we were put on red alert to what some people out there might do. So, we authors wrote a program letter that acknowledges that not every community on earth has the correct racial make-up to portray the characters in HAIRSPRAY as written. But that we did not feel it was correct to tell an actor they are incapable of portraying a character and hopefully moving an audience by inhabiting that character, regardless of their skin color. Which, ironically, is a huge part of the message of HAIRSPRAY. But that blackface was forbidden. Who knew we would even have to say that?

We also stress to every group that licenses it that the best solution is to look outside their community until every avenue is exhausted. There are literally (and lucky for us) thousands of productions out there. It is simply impossible to police every single one but MTI does a remarkable job. As do the folks who license it throughout the world.

I would ask for everyone to consider what I am saying here before assuming that greed and only greed has led to the decision to allow HAIRSPRAY to be performed to the best of the ability of each troupe that takes it on. This is an ongoing learning process, and we authors are doing our best to spread the right message and learn the lessons each production and each year brings us.

Marc Shaiman

Is it okay or is it racist to let a black woman play Anita in West Side Story? Is it okay or is it racist to allow a white woman to play Motormouth in Hairspray? Two very different questions, I think. In a cultural vacuum maybe the two are the same. But we don't live in a cultural vacuum...

I'll leave it there for now. But I won't stop thinking about this... and neither should you.

Long Live the Musical!

You Never Know When, Where, and How

In Sweet Smell of Success, many of the songs have an ironic under-layer; sometimes the singer is aware of the irony, others times they're not.

All through the scene-song "I Could Get You in J.J.," we already know Sidney can't get either of them in J.J.'s column, that in fact Sidney is a two-bit con man. We also already know that Susan has had dinner with J.J., even as Sidney is promising to get her in J.J.'s column.

Dallas' gorgeous ballad "I Cannot Hear the City," is straight-forward the first time we hear it, but when it returns late in Act I, it takes on a double-meaning, also reminding us that Dallas really doesn't understand how the Big City works... as we watch J.J. slowly realize he's being lied to. Dallas is in the big leagues now, and he's really not ready...

I've already blogged a bit about Sidney's big "aria" in Act I, "At the Fountain." It's another brilliant exercise in subtle irony. This big, gorgeous music camouflages the needy, creepy lyric. As I wrote in my other post:
More so than the movie ever does, this helps us understand why Sidney goes along with everything J.J. wants. Sidney is metaphorically at Schwab's soda fountain, and he fancies himself a "star" being "discovered" by J.J. He thinks he's the next Lana Turner. It's ironic that in the earlier scene in the Voodoo Club, Sidney's bullshit agent's pitch to Susan includes the line, "The Voodoo Club could be your Schwab's," but it turns out to be Sidney's Schwab's instead. He thinks.

But also notice, Sidney thinks J.J. looked into his soul and saw greatness. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) Sidney thinks meeting J.J. was Fate. (No, J.J. looked into Sidney's face and saw an easy mark.) The grand, powerful emotion of the music takes us inside Sidney's head. This is how he sees himself.

Dallas' clubby, sexy "One Track Mind" works both as an authentic period jazz number, as Brubecky as the real thing, but this is also Dallas' case for the nobility of impoverished happiness (we're to assume Dallas wrote this song), in stark contrast to the previous scene in which we learned, in waltz time, about the dozens of famous, rich, and powerful people who frequent the Hunsecker penthouse. Notice that J.J.'s music is all old-fashioned -- a hymn, a waltz, a vaudeville number...

Subliminally, the music tells us that J.J.'s penthouse world is old, creepy, oppressive, isolating, while Dallas' world is new, adventurous, romantic. The penthouse is (musically) minor and dissonant, while Dallas' club is major and playful. These are two very distinct worlds that Susan has to choose between. And when J.J. realizes she's made that choice, all hell breaks loose.

Likewise, "Rita's Tune" is a companion piece to "Somewhere That's Green," an ironic charm song about how little this women needs to be happy, all while we know she won't get even that. But "Rita's Tune" is even darker and more ironic. It succeeds brilliantly on three levels at the same time: 1.)  as a great, period pop tune celebrating domesticity; 2.)  as unintentional irony because we already know Sidney's a louse and bad shit is coming; and 3.)  like "Somewhere That's Green," it's such a naked, honest, simple plea, and we know she won't get any of what she needs. She won't get killed, like Audrey, but she'll come damn close.

As the song begins, we either know or suspect that Sidney's about to pimp out his "available" girlfriend, then we watch Rita sing of domestic bliss, and then we actually watch Sidney pimp her out to Otis Elwell, in exchange for getting an item in Otis' column. That's some heavy irony. And then after Sidney leaves, the writers drop one more irony on us, as Rita admits to Otis that yes, he does recognize her because she was pimped out to him two years ago. Holy shit.

Another example of shattering irony is "Don't Look Now," J.J.'s old vaudeville number, which he performs on his telethon.

This lyric is a fictionalized version of the real 1880 vaudeville staple, "The Fountain in the Park" (usually known as "While Strolling Through the Park One Day"). This number serves both as a J.J.'s famous signature song from decades ago, but also as a postmodern song-and-dance that slyly, almost subliminally, describes the danger of New York nightlife. The nostalgic music and choreography work ironically against the deceptively dark lyric, which literally describes the brutality taking place during the song, as Lt. Kello and his thugs beat Dallas unconscious. You just don't notice that's what it's doing...

J.J. starts the song, with a startlingly honest intro:
Magicians always tell you
They've got nothing up their sleeve,
But why would someone tell you that,
Unless it's to deceive?
There's always been a lie
To misdirect the eye,
Since Adam did his magic tricks for Eve.

Here, the song itself is the magic trick -- the music and dance misdirect us from the dark, violent content of the lyric.
Don’t ever trust a gent
Who pulls a bird from someone’s ear,
Who makes his living
Making you believe that he's sincere.
He's looking for a chump,
Expectin’ you to jump,
When he pours on all the charm and says,
“I need a volunteer.”

Underscoring continues as Sidney and Kello arrange the beating of Dallas over the phone. Dallas is the chump, the lyric is telling us, the "volunteer." And J.J. is the guy "who makes his living making you believe that he's sincere." It's both a conventional song and it isn't, at the same time. This is the territory of the neo musical comedy, the new form that uses the conventions of old-school musical comedy for more ironic, more socio-political aims. Sweet Smell of Success is not a neo musical comedy -- it's a thriller -- but this number works on the same principle.

J.J. sings the first verse now, surrounded by a chorus.
Don't look now
But somethin' that you had is gone.
It's somethin' you depend upon.
Don't look now...

Is J.J. talking to Dallas? Or Sidney...? Or is it a warning to the rest of us? Maybe it's the writers reminding us that everyone loses in this story. And in life...
Take a bow;
Someone made a fool of you.
You're standin' there without a clue.
Don't look now...

Again, which of J.J.'s victims is the object of this? Or is it all of J.J.'s victims, and all his victims to come...? Everybody (else) is a patsy...
He took you to the cleaners,
Don't you know.
He walked you like a dog,
The so and so...

Say "bow wow,"
A piece of what you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You're wonderin' when, where and how?
Well, don't look now.

The magic act -- J.J.'s column and the power it brings with it -- goes on and on. Both the opening and closing numbers tell us that "on and on and on it goes..." The closing also tells us, "There no end to the column..."

There's a short dialogue scene in which Sidney lies to Dallas to get him to the docks, where Kello will beat him up. The chorus continues the song, with a lyric that mixes the benign with the sinister, set to a sweet, swinging, old-fashioned softshoe:
Strolling along the avenue,
Cutting across the park,
Rushing to make a rendezvous,
You could become a mark.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone in the dark.

You could become the "mark," the sucker, the victim of a con or a crime, alone in the dark. Are Kello and his goons "the magic [that] will find you"...?
Maybe we get to pick our spots,
Maybe we choose the date,
Maybe we get to call the shots,
Maybe it's up to fate.
Somehow the magic will find you,
Find you alone,
Alone in the dark.

Are they talking about dying...?? Is this a threat...?
Don't look now,
But somethin' that you had is gone;
The magic act goes on and on.
You never know when where and how...

Now we start to wonder if "somethin' that you had" is your health or even your life, as Kello and his Goon beat Dallas to the beat of the music, while the chorus continues:
He'll make your bunny disappear
Along with your hat;
He'll saw your girl in half,
And then he'll leave her like that.

What the fuck...?
So don't look…
Don't look…
Don't look now!

Don't look, he says, because if we pay attention, people like J.J. can't get away with nearly as much. The whole script and score are this rich, this complex, this subtle, this beautifully crafted. It's been such a joy working on this show! I love my job!

Long Live the Musical!