25 Musicals That Are Darker Than You Think

Sometimes people tell me – apologetically, but not really – that they don't really like "the new musicals." They like Rodgers & Hammerstein because they "just want escape." You know, like the "escape" of World War II in the Pacific, or the "escape" of watching the King of Siam lose his culture and then his life, or the "escape" of watching Jud Fry buy pornography from Ali Hakim, then try to murder Curly and Laurie, then die in a knife fight...

Escape is awesome.

But it's not just Rodgers & Hammerstein. Jerry Herman's shows are just as dark. Hello, Dolly! is about an aging widow so desperate to remarry she'll lie, cheat, and manipulate to get what she wants And she does.

So I thought, wouldn't it be fun to take a new look at musicals that people love and expose their stories for what they really are.

Por ejemplo...

The Music Man is about a con artist who tries to cheat a town full of honest, hard-working people, using their kids as bait, until he gets caught thinking with his dick.

Carousel is about a serial womanizer and abuser, and petty repeat offender, who dies in the commission of a violent crime and leaves behind a wife with PTSD and a fucked-up daughter who tries to find validation in the arms of other men.

Man of La Mancha is about a psychotic old man – or in a more charitable interpretation, an old man with Alzheimer's – who surrounds himself with enablers and repeatedly places them in danger with his delusions.

Mame is about a nonconformist who is repeatedly forced to conform.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown is about a bunch of kids who are drowning in a sea of moral relativism and bullying.

Avenue Q is about a bunch of whiny millennials who over-share.

Pippin is about a whiny college grad who moves back home until he can find his dream job, which he never finds...

Wicked is about two sisters from a dysfunctional home who take incompatible paths.

Anything Goes is about the debasing of religion by turning it into show biz, and the American habit of treating violent criminals as cherished celebrities.

Annie Get Your Gun is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Kiss Me, Kate is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

Guys and Dolls is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

No, No, Nanette is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men.

My Fair Lady is about the subjugation of strong women by insecure men. Or to be more specific, My Fair Lady is about a narcissistic misogynist who keeps a young woman hostage in his apartment, using psychological torture to break her will and brainwash her, in order to make her socially acceptable.

Camelot is about the attempted burning-at-the-stake of a strong woman by an insecure man, for the crime of being sexually active.

Beauty and the Beast is about a young woman with Stockholm Syndrome, imprisoned by an insecure monster.

The Sound of Music is about a damaged young woman who falls for an angry, abusive, distant daddy figure.

Once Upon a Mattress is about how women have to be twice as good as men to get the same job.

Bye Bye Birdie is about the danger of commercializing teenage sexuality.

42nd Street is about labor abuses in New York theatre before labor unions.

The Drowsy Chaperone is about a lonely old man who has nothing left but memories and friends that aren't real.

Tell Me on a Sunday (Song and Dance) is about a woman who has learned to define herself only in terms of the men in her life.

Maybe my hidden agenda behind this exercise is to restate one of my central themes – audiences do not go to theatre (or movies) for escape; they go for connection. To quote my own recent post:
I think this fundamental lack of understanding is connected to the idea that audiences want "escape." That's not true. If it were, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. Humans tell stories for a really specific set of reasons, and none of those are escape. We want connection, not disconnection. From the seemingly most mindless zombie movies to King Lear, storytelling is fundamental to human existence and survival. We go see romantic comedy movies not to escape our lives, but to be reminded that we all face the same emotions, obstacles, setbacks, fears, etc. Seeing others confront and tackle the obstacles of life (even on Tatooine) helps us in our own lives. Seeing others find love keeps alive our hope that we can find love. . . We do ourselves a disservice when we consider what we do anything less than important, when we give our audiences anything less than what they deserve, when we think of our work as "just" entertainment or "just" escapism. We are the storytellers. We are the shamans. We are the light.

It really bothers me when I hear professional theatre artists dismissing what they do as "escape" when I know it's so much more than that. Nobody actually goes to the theatre for escape; whether or not they're conscious of it, they go for connection.

The main point of this game was to have fun, but I think it also reveals a truth that is often ignored. The still widespread perception that musicals are silly and shallow is demonstrably untrue. Even Anything Goes has a considerable dark side in its pointed social criticism.

Which is why we New Liners are talking seriously about producing Anything Goes at some point. It really is a New Line show; it's just that nobody knows that yet...

Long Live the Musical!

A Secretary Is Not a Toy

As Trump stumbles through the ritual of a President-Elect casting – sorry, I mean, selecting – his cabinet secretaries, my stoner brain has been imagining General Bullmoose from Lil Abner being a perfect fit for Trump's cabinet as Secretary of Defense, with Caldwell B. Cladwell from Urinetown as Secretary of Treasury, and Mister Mister from The Cradle Will Rock as Secretary of Commerce.

A liberal nightmare.

But then I thought, who would I choose if, god help us all, I was the President? So here are my picks, all characters from musicals, by the way... What would yours be?

Secretary of State – Angel Dumott Schunard. Could you imagine anyone better suited to be our "diplomat to the world"? You know she wouldn't take shit from Putin or anyone else. And it would send a powerful message to the world to have a trans person of color in this powerful, high-profile position.

Secretary of Treasury – Billy Crocker. I know, I know, why not pick Alexander Hamilton? Honestly, I'm not sure I want a personality that big and that aggressive in my cabinet. Billy is a stock broker, but he clearly does not worship at the money shrine as too many of his colleagues do. He puts people ahead of money. He's a problem solver. I think Crocker might be just the guy to stand up to Wall Street. Plus he'd make Cabinet meetings way more fun.

Secretary of Commerce – "Miss Mona" Stangley. As much as politicians pretend to venerate "small business," have we ever had a Secretary of Commerce who's actually a small business owner? Much less, a woman who's a small business owner...? Like Angel, Miss Mona won't take shit from anybody, and she'll charm the pants off any foreign dignitaries. Literally.

Secretary of Defense – Superman. It's true if you didn't know it, Superman is a character in the 1966 musical It's a Bird... It's a Plane... It's Superman! He's smart, level-headed, unemotional, knows the world well, plus he's Superman.

Secretary of Interior – Johnny Appleweed. Just listen to him and see if you agree...
I suppose I should tell you something about myself since we’re going to be spending some time together. I’m I guess what you’d call a stoner, a professional you might say, and it’s such a fuckin’ pleasant thing to be that God laid it on my heart to strike out into the bosom of America, sharing the joy and good fellowship of the Goddess Cannabis by spreading the seed wherever I go, and leaving behind a little chewy goodness for my brothers and sisters and those in between.

As fortuosity would have it, my actual last name is Appleweed, so I was the obvious choice for the job. God provides me with the seeds, I know not exactly how, and I crisscross America planting the nutritious goodness of the marijuana plant nestled safely in the bosom of Mother Earth. Trust me, she don’t mind and on occasion has been known to thank me for it.

I can guarantee there'd be no oil drilling in federal parks with Johnny in office...

Secretary of Agriculture – Seymour Krelborn. Again, this seems an obvious pick to me. Who else in the world of musical theatre knows more about plants?

Secretary of Labor – Larry Foreman. As a 1930s labor activist, I couldn't find a better pick for the Labor Department. Under Larry Foreman, we would see the return of labor unions as a force in this country.

Secretary of Health and Human Services – Caroline Thibodeaux. To be honest, I'm not exactly sure what qualifications you'd need for this job. Wikipedia says, "The duties of the secretary revolve around human conditions and concerns in the United States. . . The Department of Health and Human Services oversees 11 agencies including the Food and Drug Administration, Center for Disease Control, National Institutes of Health, Administration for Children and Families, and Centers for Medicare & Medicaid Services." As one of the people who needs the services of HHS, I think Caroline would be an exceptional pick to run the agency.

Secretary of Housing and Urban Development – Wade "Cry-Baby" Walker. I don't think you could find a man more in touch with and more empathetic to "the least among us." According to Wikipedia, "The Department's mission is to increase home ownership, support community development and increase access to affordable housing free from discrimination." Sounds like a job for a crusading populist like Cry-Baby. After all, he proved you can beat the system.

Secretary of Transportation – Riff Raff. Again, an obvious choice. Imagine all the technology he could share with us!

Secretary of Energy – Leo Szilard. Again, lucky for me, real-life atomic physicist Leo Szilard is a character in the musical Atomic. So that was easy.

Secretary of Education – Hedwig Schmidt. I think Hedwig could teach us all a lot about how we teach our kids, what we teach our kids, and all the ways kids can be beaten down by the world around them. I can't think of a better advocate for children and progressive education. Which means we'd have two trans people in the Cabinet!

Secretary of Veteran Affairs – Claude Bukowski. Another obvious choice. What other musical theatre character could understand the horror of war better than Claude? Who would have more compassion for our returning veterans?

Secretary of Homeland Security – Celia Peachum. Seems to me we need a tough, no-nonsense, shit-kicking, ball-buster in this job, and who better than Ball Buster in Chief, Mrs. Peachum? This new-ish department oversees the Coast Guard, the Federal Protective Service, U.S. Customs and Border Protection (including the Border Patrol), U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement, the Secret Service, and the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Who could keep all those big egos in check? Mrs. Peachum.

Attorney General – Veronica Sawyer. We assume she's going to law school, right? She's smart as hell, strong as hell, and cannot stomach injustice. Veronica would be amazing as the chief law enforcement officer and chief lawyer of the United States government. When Veronica enters in the final scene of Heathers, she sings:
Listen up, folks.
War is over.
Brand new sheriff's come to town.
We are done with acting evil,
We will lay our weapons down.

We need that mindset right now.

Vice President – Alexander Throttlebottom. The perfect man for the job with virtually no actual duties.

As an artsy liberal, I am very unnerved by many of Trump's picks for his Cabinet. This is my way of dealing with that, finding a better, or at least a more decipherable, world in my musicals than in Real America right now. After all, what did the electorate really say in this election? Trump won the electoral college fair and square, but 2.5 million more Americans voted for Hillary. Among voters who said the economy was their most important issue, Hillary won. Among voters who wanted a candidate who "cares about me," Hillary won. And about a quarter of Trump voters said they didn't think he was fit for the office. And, perhaps most unsettling of all, about half the electorate didn't vote for either major party candidate. About a third of millennials voted for a third-party candidate.

Characters are always so much easier to understand than people are.

In case you're not as hardcore a musical theatre fan as me, and you're wondering what shows these characters are from... Angel/­Rent, Billy Crocker/­Anything Goes, Miss Mona/­Best Little Whorehouse, Superman/­Superman, Johnny Appleweed/­Johnny Appleweed, Seymour Krelborn/­Little Shop of Horrors, Larry Foreman/­The Cradle Will Rock, Caroline/­Caroline, or Change, Cry-Baby Walker/­Cry-Baby, Riff-Raff/­Rocky Horror, Leo Szilard/­Atomic, Hedwig/­Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Claude/­Hair, Mrs. Peachum/­Threepenny, Veronica/­Heathers, Throttlebottom/­Of Thee I Sing.

I love this Cabinet. I wish these were all real people and I got to choose the Cabinet. Out of 16 positions, ten are men, six are women (including two trans women), three are nonwhite, and two are aliens... actual aliens. Anything in the Constitution about that...?

This is how I deal with the encroaching Trump presidency. Judge me if you must.

Long Live the Musical!

Top Ten Hidden Gems on the New Line Website

New Line was one of the first theatre companies in the St. Louis region (possibly the first) to have a website, first launched in 1997. But more recently, I've been concerned that New Line's website didn't look great on mobile devices, and in this new age, that's a problem. So a couple years ago, we started paying for a service that automatically turned our site into a mobile site, but it didn't really look that great.

This fall we hired local web designer Cristopher Ontiveros to design an all-new website for New Line, this time a site designed to work on any and all platforms, desktop, smartphone, smartpads, whatever.

I wrote a blog post a while back about the cool things you can find on New Line's YouTube Channel, and I did a list of the 15 coolest shows New Line has produced. But as much as I brag about New Line's "full-service website," I usually don't get a chance to brag on the cool stuff contained therein...

So now I will.

When we produced The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas back in 2003, I jumped into the research like I would on any other show. I read the book The Whorehouse Papers, an hilarious, behind-the-scenes tell-all, written by Larry L. King, who wrote the script for the musical, based on his own amazing "gonzo journalism" article for Playboy. So now that original article is on our site so you can read it too. Unless you're easily shocked, you really have to read it...

People forget that when Grease debuted off Broadway in 1971, one of its most direct ancestors was Hair (note both titles are about era-defining hair-dos), and it was every bit as vulgar as Hair was, and every bit as non-linear. Later, when Grease was licensed to schools and regional theatres, they un-vulgarized the script considerably.

But the whole reason I wanted New Line to produce Grease in 2007 was to show people what the real, original Grease was like, ugly, vulgar, shocking, mean, aggressive. Like Hair, Grease gave us a snapshot of a turbulent moment in American history, a cultural pivot point.

So I got hold of the original published script and made a chart of all the original Grease obscenities, complete with page numbers in the rental script, so that people could see what the original dialogue was, if they were interested. When we produced it, we put all these vulgarities back, and it really changed the show, made it much darker, less musical comedy and more social document – as it was meant to be.

Another of the resources I've created, which I'm very very proud of, and which I hope are as useful for others as they were for us, are my Source Rock lists. When we produced Grease, part of my research was to listen to as much early rock and roll as I could get my hands on (Amazon has a bunch of collections!), specifically from the years the Grease kids were in high school, 1955-1959. My theory was that since I knew one of the show's writers was writing from his own life, I figured the songs in the show would be deeply informed by the actual songs of the period. And I was right. I wanted to find the real songs that inspired the Grease songs. In many cases, I found what was obviously the inspiration ("Eddy, My Love," for instance); and in other cases, I found probable or likely inspirations. In many cases, I could sing the Grease song in counterpoint to the actual 1950s song. So cool. At the time, I made mix CDs for the actors and musicians, so they could get the authentic sounds in their heads, and then I uploaded my Grease "Source Rock" Chart onto our site, so others could use it as well.

When we started work on High Fidelity, I emailed composer Tom Kitt about his score. It was clear that each song was in the voice of one of Rob's rock gods, including a Beatles song, an Indigo Girls song, a Ben Folds song, an Aretha Franklin song, you get the idea. But I wanted to know if Kitt had particular songs in mind when he was writing, the way the Grease guys obviously did. Within half an hour, Kitt had emailed me back an amazing list of all the real songs that inspired the High Fidelity songs. Again, I made mix CDs for the actors and band, and I uploaded my High Fidelity "Source Rock" Chart to our website.

I also did a Source Rock list for Return to the Forbidden Planet...

I've always hated the (relative) barbarity of auditions. As playwright James Kirkwood once said, "The audition system, especially for musicals, is the closest thing to the Romans throwing the Christians to the lions. It really is brutal." I agree. To make it a little less intimidating, early in New Line's history, I started accumulating Audition Tips, and soon after, I posted them to our site. I've been told by both actors and teachers alike that they're very helpful. I hope so!

I started my blog, The Bad Boy of Musical Theatre, on January 1, 2007. The reason was clear from the start. I had always devoured every behind-the-scenes book on musical theatre I could find, so I was determined to create a real-time, behind-the-scenes chronicle of every show New Line produces, to give students, audience members, and everybody else a real look at our process, the easy parts and the difficult parts, the successes and the failures. It's something I would have killed for this as a 17-year-old drama kid.

In between shows, I decided to blog more generally about the art form, sometimes as fanboy, sometimes as public intellectual, sometimes as creative explorer. But after seven or eight years of blog posts, I realized it would be hard for people to find my posts that weren't directly related to shows (for which you could use the dates to find them). So I started a subject index for my blog, and I've been told it's very helpful

A sampling of topics: under the general heading of Musical Theatre, there's Terms and Definitions, The End of Rodgers & Hammerstein, Meta-Musicals, The New Golden Age of Musical Theatre, The Neo Musical Comedy, The Neo Rock Musical, The New Movie Musical; as well as topics like Respect for Musicals, Acting in Musicals, Choreographing a Non-Dance Number in a Musical, Directing Musicals, Emotion in Musicals, The Lie of Escapism, Musicals and Shakespeare, Musicals and Star Trek, Musicals and Storytelling, Adult Language, Audiences, Auditions, Comedy, The Hero Myth, and Silence.

There are also a lot of posts containing lists, among them Top Ten Reasons It's Great to Be a Musical Theatre Fan, 25 Reasons to Love Musical Theatre, Top Ten Reasons Why St. Louis Theatre Rocks, New Line's 15 Coolest Shows, Ten Alternative Musicals You Might Not Know, Ten Older Shows New Line Should Do, Ten Musical Theatre Titles We Take for Granted, Ten Great Musicals Pre-1964, The Most Interesting Musicals Throughout History, Musicals Live on Video, Great Documentaries about Musical Theatre, Top Ten Desert Island Musical Theatre Books, Non-Musical-Theatre Books and Videos for Musical Theatre Artists, Top Ten Novels That Musicals Are Based On, Ten Lesser Known Movie Musicals, Ten Great Movies About Musicals, Top Ten TV Christmas Musicals, The Worst Types at Auditions, and one of my faves, "Fellini, Fosse, Woody, Sondheim, and Stew."

And all accessible through my handy-dandy blog index.

One of the things that gets the most visits on our website is my show analysis chapters, including all my essays that haven't been published yet, about shows like bare, Bukowsical, Cry-Baby, Evita, The Fantasticks, I Love My Wife, Kiss of the Spider Woman, A New Brain, Next to Normal, Passing Strange, Reefer Madness, Return to the Forbidden Planet, The Robber Bridegroom, Two Gentlemen of Verona, and others. Just go to our Sitemap, and go to the far right column at the bottom.

Since I started my blog in 2007, my show chapters are an accumulating and rewriting of my blog posts, and I haven't been keeping up. I still have chapters to write on Hands on a Hardbody, Bonnie & Clyde, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny, Heathers, American Idiot, Atomic, and Celebration. But if you're interested in those shows, you can still read my blog posts.

Since the beginning, New Line has had a dual purpose, to promote our work but also to promote the art form. From the beginning, New Line's website included links to all the theatre companies in the St. Louis area. We did this partly because I read that the more your site is an "authority," a place people know to go to for information, the more traffic the site will get. But the other reason was to make it clear that New Line is not in competition with other area theatres. Our shows run four weeks; if someone sees a show at Upstream this week, they can still come see us the other three weeks we run. To further reinforce all that, we also give free program ads to small companies in almost every program.

Also, fairly early in our online history, we added a page of Upcoming Musicals in the St. Louis area. As I said, New Line promotes the art form, not just the musicals we produce. It's fun to keep this list up-to-date. We get a wonderful variety of work every season, even within the genre of musical theatre. We don't keep school productions and church groups on this list, because it would be too difficult to keep up with, but otherwise, it's a pretty comprehensive list. And I can tell from our statistics, that people use it a lot.

Two publications did lengthy feature articles about New Line leading up to our 25th season. American Theatre magazine, the national magazine for professional theatre in our country, did a beautiful feature about New Line in 2014 called "Those Magic Changes" (although I don't think the writer knew about my deep love for Grease), and the tag line was, "In case you haven't noticed, the American musical is changing keys and adding new voices. Scott Miller's small theatre in St. Louis is keeping score." Seriously, what could be better than that?

The article's writer Rob Weinert-Kendt wrote:
Survey today's new-musical makers and you'll find that many have a similar New Line story: about how Miller secured the rights to their show not long after its initial run, auspicious or otherwise, and ended up staging a production that found a receptive, even ecstatic audience in St. Louis, a town with no shortage of musical-theatre options. . . There are edgier theatre companies in the U.S., but it would be hard to find a musicals-only company with programming as consistently provocative or as reluctant to proffer theatrical comfort food. . . You might say he's in the business of changing people's minds: about shows they thought they hated, about subjects they didn't think could be sung about, about the musical form itself. The key to Miller's success may be that – for all the ego necessarily involved in running a theatre and writing several books and blog posts expounding your point of view – what has guided him above all is his willingness to have his own mind changed, even occasionally blown.

The following year, The Riverfront Times did another long, awesome feature story about New Line, as we were about to open our 25th season, called, "How Scott Miller Is Revamping the Musical – and Putting St. Louis Theatre on the Map," and the tag line was, "His sharp, smart musicals have gained a national following." Again, what's not to love?

Of course it was nice to read all those compliments about the cool work we've done over the years, but more importantly for us, both these articles now serve as outstanding calling cards, objective sources testifying to our artistry, our fearlessness, our excellence, our adventurousness. When the usual struggles of running a small non-profit get overwhelming, I re-read one or both of these articles, and it reboots me.

The thing on our website of which I'm personally proudest is our Show Pages. Every New Line show going back to 2002 (plus a few before that) has its own webpage, including details about the show and the New Line production, but all the links to related material, articles, books, interviews, analyses, websites, videos, etc. I have to admit, we've only recently converted our website to an multi-platform design, so the older show pages are not all really mobile-friendly. We'll get to that when we have some time...

All in all, a pretty cool website, no? And you can find even more coolness browsing around our Sitemap. Our productions are obviously the most important part of what we do, but our website is important too, more so than most websites. We hope you find lots there to intrigue you, to inform you, and to inspire you.

Long Live the Musical!

The Most Happy Fella

It's always a valuable exercise for me, at this time every year, to think seriously about what I'm thankful for. After all, I really do have my dream job, running my own musical theatre company. And yes, it's often very hard, but it's still my dream job. I don't ever want to take any of that for granted.

Most years when I do this, I write about the obvious things I'm thankful for – the writers who write our shows, the actors and designers and musicians who create our work, our faithful contributors and funders, and of course our audience, who comes back show after show after show, no matter how crazy we get. But let's be honest, I would be a total dick if I weren't deeply, deeply grateful for all those people making our adventures happen, wouldn't I? So can we just stipulate all that...?

With all that in mind, this year I want to focus on just one thing I'm thankful for – well, two things, really – Ken and Nancy Kranzberg, two of the coolest, warmest, most genuine people I've ever known. They've been strong supporters of the arts in St. Louis for many years. Until last year, most people knew their name because of the Kranzberg Theatre and Cabaret spaces in Grand Center. But now the Kranzbergs are responsible for the Marcelle Theatre on Samuel Shepard Drive, New Line's new home, and also the brand new .ZACK theatre space on Locust, an arts incubator which opens next week with Tesseract Theatre's world premiere of Adverse Effects.

And there are more spaces to come. A couple years ago, the first time Ken and I talked about the possibility of creating a new space for New Line, he told me his goal was to open 5-6 more theatres in Grand Center, to create a genuine, thriving theatre district.

He's well on his way.

The Kranzbergs first started coming to New Line shows five or six years ago. They've been assaulted by Jerry Springer the Opera, Bukowsical, American Idiot... but they told me the only show over that time that they didn't really like was Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson. But that was the only one.

I'll never forget getting a text from Nancy after they saw American Idiot, telling me that they were listening to Green Day. How awesome is that.

It was just about this time of year, two years ago, that Ken called me and told me he had a building that might work as a blackbox theatre for us. I went to see it, we talked about the basic logistics, and within a couple months, work had begun. Ken hired New Line's resident set designer, architect Rob Lippert, to design the new theatre for us, which meant that everything was designed with our needs in mind. How often does any company get that luxury? A year ago, October, we opened the first show at the Marcelle, New Line's Heathers, which sold out every night.

We had worked in a blackbox theatre for seven years at the ArtLoft downtown, and it's absolutely wonderful to be back in one again. The possibilities are literally limitless, and we've returned to the kind of serious intimacy we had at the ArtLoft. For the first time in twenty-five years, New Line has a permanent home. A really beautiful home. And we have Ken and Nancy to thank for that.

Personally, I really couldn't be more grateful. Ever since we left the ArtLoft in 2007, all I've wanted was to get New Line back into a blackbox. It's where we belong.

So when I sit down for turkey today, my thanks go to the Kranzbergs.

Long Live the Musical!

Attend the Tale of Donald Trump

All theatre is political, including all musicals.

Some are more wholly political like Assassins, Of Thee I Sing, Cabaret, Evita, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, or Hair; some only partly so like Purlie, The Scottsboro Boys, Li’l Abner, Camelot, Finian’s Rainbow, Hairspray, or Ragtime; and some even subliminally political like Man of La Mancha, West Side Story, Hands on a Hardbody, or The Rocky Horror Show. But once you look for politics in the musical theatre, you find it everywhere.

For instance, in Annie Get Your Gun, the fierce sexism of the plot and the songs “The Girl That I Marry” and “You Can’t Get a Man With a Gun” are disturbing enough from a modern perspective, but the idea that Annie has to lose on purpose in order to win Frank couldn’t be more abhorrent today. You might argue that we shouldn’t look at old shows through a modern lens, but it was a political choice to tell that story that way with that ending. It mirrored and reinforced the dominant view of gender in America.

Kiss Me Kate swam in the same politics, juxtaposing a fictional, past, male-dominated world against a real world in which women were becoming increasingly uncontrollable. Both shows came at a time when America was trying to wedge women back into their old, prewar subservience. Just a couple years later, women in musicals would start to get stronger, in shows like Pal Joey, among others.

Political trends have been present in almost all musical theatre storytelling over the years. Casts became integrated as America became integrated. Female characters became overtly sexual (in shows like On the Town and Pal Joey) when American women became overtly sexual. Musical comedy morality became more ambiguous as mainstream American culture moved away from the certainties of traditional organized religion. Every choice made by writers, directors, and designers was political, and each choice either reinforced or challenged prevailing social and political values. No, No, Nanette was about wealth and its implications. Anything Goes was about American culture’s preoccupation with celebrity and the growing commercialization of religion. Gentlemen Prefer Blondes was about America’s reinvigorated postwar hypermaterialism. It was all political.

So in that spirit, I offer up my own personal reaction to the 2016 election season that has just concluded, in the only language I know. What a blast it is having a front row seat to this amazing pivot point in our political and cultural history! Don't worry, we'll learn to navigate this new age soon enough...

In the meantime, I hope you enjoy my lyric. If it's not obvious, you should sing this to the tune of "The Ballad of Sweeney Todd" and if anyone wants to record themselves singing it for me, that would be awesome! Okay, to be honest, I'd really love for someone to stage and sing this on video and put it on YouTube. Just sayin'.

You can tell whether or not you're a real musical theatre nerd by whether or not you actually sing the song out loud as you read the lyric. You will. So without further ado...

With apologies to Uncle Steve...

Attend the tale of Donald Trump,
A pumpkin face and a doughy rump,
A comic comb-over, swept up front
(A nearly miraculous structural stunt).
He stumbled on, from stump to stump,
Did Donald Trump,
A whiny, (not-really-)rich bitch.

He swore that he would beat this chick,
To compensate for his tiny dick.
No self-awareness or self-control,
The neediest sort of a Twittering troll,
Was Donald,
Was Donald Trump,
The crazy, cluelessly kitsch bitch.

Monetize their rage, Donald!
Copyright their gloom!
For your sin,
You'll soon be in
A rubber room!

It's clear Americans have lost;
It cost much more than the price it cost.
He tossed us into the toilet bowl;
He cost us the loss of our national soul.
The game is up and we're the chump.
Thank Donald Trump,
That nasty, carnival pitch-bitch.

Bulls in china shops aren't this bad!
He's much worse than the worst we've had;
Worse than Ben Carson,
Worse than Ted Cruz,
Ask all the people he constantly sues.
Cheats employees and vendors too,
Steals like repeat offenders do.
Donald was deft, he saw his moment.
He hid his cash in his hair when he'd comb it.
Donald! Donald! Donald! Donald! Truuuuump!

Attend the tale of Donald Trump.
He found a shitload of sharks to jump.
He plays with fire, we get burned;
But lucky for us, there's a lesson we learned:
Be more than
That tiny man,
That un-American

Long Live the Musical!

It Was Great When It All Began

I have a problem with Rocky Horror.

I love and understand it too much. Having directed the show for New Line back in 2002 and written a chapter about it for my book Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, I love it even more now than I did as a crazy high school drama kid seeing the film more than 80 times at the old Varsity Theatre (now Vintage Vinyl).

But my obsessive love has its drawbacks. It's very hard for me to see any production of The Rocky Horror Show now, because too many people doing the show don't understand it, so their productions are chock full of missteps. When I directed the show, I watched every movie mentioned in "Science Fiction Double Feature." I researched every cultural reference. I read interviews with the original cast and designers. I got to know Rocky intimately. And that makes it nearly impossible for me to see productions of the show. I know it too well.

I watched most of the recent TV remake of Rocky Horror, and it was better than I expected, though still a bit tame... A local production of the show just closed, but I couldn't go see it, mainly for the reasons just listed. And to be clear, this post has nothing to do with that production.

But as far as I'm concerned...

Rocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s. Though Rocky fans will often declare that it's a sendup of 1950s B horror flicks, that's not really true. No, Rocky Horror uses the language of sci-fi and horror films (from the 1930s and 50s) to get at its real point, which is a satire of the Sexual Revolution (embodied by Frank) and how Americans reacted to it. Half the country was Brad, terrified by this new freedom and openness; and half the country was Janet, embracing the New Sexuality perhaps too enthusiastically. But the show also uses other pop culture references, to Steve Reeves movies, to magazine ads for Frederick's of Hollywood, to Charles Atlas ads in the back of comic books, etc.

This isn't a show about sci-fi and horror; it's a show about changing sexuality. Horror is just the language of the story, because most classic horror stories are about sublimated sexuality. It's the perfect language for this story.

Rocky Horror doesn't make sense if it's updated and torn from its original cultural context, at the peak of the Sexual Revolution, when all these old movies were playing on local late night TV. The story has to be set in the early 1970s because glam (proto-punk) rock was the only rock genre in which gender was fluid, if not irrelevant. Frank chooses glam-punk because it suits him. (A number of pop culture historians say that Rocky costumer Sue Blaine invented the British punk look with her original Rocky costumes.) The Rocky revival in 2000, costumed all in black leather (and the many productions that have imitated it) utterly missed the point of the show. This isn't a story about S&M or B&D, and it's not a story about sex in general; it's a story about a major cultural shift around sexuality.

Productions that yank Rocky out of its intended context are as wrong-headed as productions of Chicago that remove its central vaudeville metaphor in favor of black leather. What's the deal with black leather and musicals these days?

Maybe these folks think they're making Rocky and Chicago more relevant by making their settings more contemporary, but they're not. They're only short-circuiting the smart, insightful social commentary at the heart of both shows, stripping out fundamental elements, turning both shows into naughty romps instead of the fierce, searing satires both shows are when treated with respect.

You wouldn't take Grease or Hair out of their historical contexts; why would you do it to Rocky Horror?

Even the wonderful film version of Rocky Horror made some missteps – after all, on stage Rocky was punk, not goth. The filmmakers' decision to go gothic makes sense considering the sci-fi and horror language of the storytelling. But goth is less subversive and less aggressive than punk.

Maybe directors and designers are trying to distance themselves from the original, maybe thinking they must "re-invent" Rocky for some reason; but when they do, they often lose the incredibly clever concept behind the costuming. Frank and his fellow aliens are trying to imitate Earth attire, but they do it badly because they're not terribly bright. That's why Frank originally wore an upside-down corset. This "wrongness" is both funny and endearing. And sexy.

I wish companies would produce the original stage version; luckily New Line was able to, back in 2002. But now, companies have to use the script from the misguided revival, which added a chorus to the show, to better imitate the movie. In the original script, there is no party over at the Frankenstein place, just a small family gathering. Adding the chorus turns Rocky into a musical comedy instead of the dark concept musical it really is.

I love the original stage show and I love the movie, as different as they are. But I don't like losing what's wonderful about the original in the service of imitating the movie. The TV Rocky was too often a pale imitation of the original film, often reproducing exact shots.

Maybe worst of all, in my opinion, is encouraging audience participation at performances of the stage show, which was not meant to have audience participation. The wild (and admittedly awesome) practice of the audience talking back to the film is the result of truly terrible pacing; watch the movie on video and you'll see what I mean. There's just so much room for vocal reactions...

But any well directed stage production does not have room for the audience to talk back. Rocky is a comedy and the secret to comedy is pacing. If dialogue is constantly being interrupted by the audience, if the audience is singing along badly (as usual), if the audience is screaming at the actors, it becomes about the audience instead of the story. Maybe that's fun for some folks, but it makes for lousy theatre and lousy storytelling.

The movie is exactly the same every time we see it. A stage show is not.

I remember reading that for the 2000 revival, the producers wanted audience participation, but regular Broadway audiences paying $100 a ticket didn't know the jokes, so the producers started putting "plants" out in the audience to get them going. Apparently it still didn't work. When you're supposed to yell at the actors, it becomes a far less subversive act – which is the only reason it's fun.

And really, can you think of anything more disrespectful than yelling at actors onstage during a live performance? There's a difference between yelling at a movie screen and yelling at people.

I know, I know, I'm too much of a purist. But I don't think that's the problem here. I think the real problem is most people doing Rocky Horror don't even know how smart and insightful it is. They think it's just a silly, dirty show that sells really well. It's so much more than that, as I described in depth in my Rocky chapter.

Like Grease (which has also lost its original bite), the wildness and sexual anarchy of Rocky disguises its intelligence and wicked sharp social satire. But both shows have so much more going on than most people recognize, which means most audiences get clueless, shallow productions of this brilliant, beautifully crafted piece of theatre. As I wrote in my Rocky chapter:
At its core it tells a tale we’ve heard many times before, back even before Shakespeare, of braving a wilderness, of surviving lost innocence, of sexual awakening, about acceptance of difference, about birth and death, forgiveness and redemption, about the fall from grace of a transgressive god.

And yet we often get a Rocky Horror that misses all that. Maybe people assume Rocky doesn't deserve serious respect because it's so "dirty." Maybe it's Americans' perpetual hangups about sexuality that keep most folks from recognizing the brilliance and artistry behind this iconic show.

Whatever the reasons, it's a shame. Sure, Rocky is fun even when it's shallow; but it's so much more fun when it's not shallow, and it reveals fundamental truths about America. As a culture we are still completely freaked out by sexuality. On the one hand, I wish we'd get past that; on the other hand, if we did, we wouldn't need Rocky Horror anymore.

And that would be a shame too.

Long Live the Musical!

All I Know Is Up Until We Have to Go, I Want to Celebrate!

We weren't sure what people would think of Celebration. It is a weird show. After all, it really was an experiment. But it's also really funny and rowdy and utterly original. And we've had such fun putting this crazy story together. I keep using the word wild when I describe our show, but it's an apt word.

Though Celebration hasn't sold as well as better known shows, the reaction from our audiences and from reviewers has been truly wonderful. People really love the show, even its weird, ambiguous ending...

It's always nice for the budget when we produce a well-known "favorite," but there's nothing better than getting to share a really cool, lesser known piece of challenging theatre with hundreds of people who totally embrace it. Take a look at some of these review quotes...

“A sort of deconstruction and laying bare of the elements that make life so fantastic and worth living. New Line Theatre, in its visual and titillating production of Celebration, embraces the conceit with skill and fluidity. . . All the details fit together well and the effect is marvelous, creating the atmosphere of an exclusive party at a decadently fading disco. . . The songs are showy and catchy and the dialogue witty, allowing lead actors Larissa White, Zachary Allen Farmer, Sean Michael and Kent Coffel to shine. A little quirky and weird, Celebration is a delightfully provocative musical gem filled with intentional pomp and theatrical circumstance.” – Tina Farmer, KDHX

“I’m so glad New Line Theatre opened their 26th season with this fanciful and tune-filled musical. Through their superlative efforts we’re able to see the premiere of a version that’s been revised by Tom Jones. I’m not sure what was changed, but what we’re privy to is a very engaging and entertaining production that will make you wonder why it isn’t performed with more regularity. The score itself is gorgeous, and I cannot recommend this neglected gem highly enough. . . a genuinely fun experience. . . With a truly memorable score and many amusing moments, one wonders why this musical isn’t more well known and successful. That’s why I urge you to check out New Line Theatre’s wonderful production of Celebration.” – Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

“Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor have assembled an amazing cast to add polish and luster to Tom Jones’ and Harvey Schmidt’s musical. But they’ve also resurrected the forgotten style of a more beautiful time in this delightful piece. Aging hippies take note, your heart will find a home in Celebration. . . Part fable, part love triangle, and part 1960s hippie/Brechtian/Fantasticks-style love-in, this seldom-seen show succeeds brilliantly thanks to its post-Vietnam urgency, its post-Civil Rights egalitarianism, and perhaps even a soupçon of pre-Watergate naiveté—along with excellent leads and the sheer wit and exuberance of the whole ensemble.” – Richard Green, TalkinBroadway

“In a world full of remakes, rip-offs and rehashes, it’s nice to know that there are still surprises. . . New Line Theatre has proven time and again that what stumbles on the big stage can spring into life in a black box theater. Under the direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, New Line’s current staging of Celebration is a mystical journey that brings rebirth and rejuvenation.” – Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

“New Line Theatre’s world premiere of the revised Celebration features fantastic performances. . . This is a show that is a bit shocking, very funny and ultimately speaks volumes about the human condition. . . Once again, Scott Miller’s cast is top-notch. . . I’m extremely excited and honored to have been among the first few people in the world to see his revised version. I wouldn’t want to see it done any other way.” – Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

“The rediscovery of neglected work is one of New Line’s strengths, and this jazzy life-cycle fable has a lot to recommend it. . . .Co-directors Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor make everything sing with the winsome, alluring voice that we’ve known and loved since The Fantasticks debuted in 1960.”“ – Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“Brisk and lightweight in appearance but abetted by universal themes of hope and beauty, age and death, Celebration is an intriguing musical written by the creators of The Fantasticks, which it strongly resembles in style and execution. The two-act story, first performed in 1969 and recently revised by bookwriter Tom Jones for New Line Theatre, is breezily performed by New Line’s cast within the cozy confines of the company’s Marcelle Theater under the watchful direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor. . . It’s rarely performed by professional companies in America, so do yourself a favor and make a resolution to experience the seasons of Celebration at the Marcelle Theater while there’s still time.” – Mark Bretz, Ladue News

“Being an allegory, it’s a plot that must be experienced to be appreciated. Add the bouncy, cynical, often jazzy score and you’ve got the makings of yet another musical that fits perfectly into the black box of the Marcelle that is the home to New Line. . . Sarah Nelson leads a strong band which brings out the clever and exciting score. Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor co direct and set the mysterious and sometimes eerie feel of the story beautifully to stage.” – Steve Allen, Stagedoor St. Louis

“New Line Theatre is the first to premiere this revised version. Under the lively direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, the intimate black box space at the Marcelle seems like a marvelous fit.” – Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

“Under the innovative co-direction of Scott Miller and Mike Dowdy-Windsor, this restless relic gets a new dawn, and a swell cast seizes the day, strange as it may seem. . . Music Director Sarah Nelson crisply leads four other superb musicians in Schmidt’s unmistakable compositions. . . While the show was created in turbulent times, pleading for a sliver of hope to emerge, its message — to survive in a very cold, cruel world is tough, but the noble choice, no matter how hard the struggle — remains timeless.” – Lynn Venhaus, Belleville News Democrat

“The theme and mood of the production is stylishly presented, lending much to the overall entertainment value of the production and augmenting the performances of the excellent cast. Celebration is an entertaining production inventively staged. It’s not for everyone, as like almost all of New Line’s shows, this is for mature audiences. For the most part, Celebration is a witty, energetic, and extremely well-cast show that’s well worth checking out.” – Michelle Kenyon, Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts blog

Yes, ticket sales could be better, and we'll have to struggle with the budget after this show, but it's been worth it. We got to do a brand new revision of this iconic but rarely produced show, people seem to really love it, and the show's bookwriter and lyricist Tom Jones is flying in this week to see our last two performances. What could be cooler than that?

There's a lot going on right now on local stages, but so many people still choose to come to New Line, even for a show they've haven't heard of, because they know we'll give them an adventure. So many people have said to me after performances of Celebration, "It's not at all what I expected!" Yep, that's what we do. We hear that after many of the shows we produce. That's the whole point. Stages and The Muny will give you what you expect, and I'm sure some folks find that comforting. New Line does something else...

We've already had a number of repeat customers whose minds were so blown the first time they saw Celebration that they just have to see it again. I love that.

We have three performances left. The show's bookwriter and lyricist Tom Jones will be here for our last two shows. If you haven't joined us yet, you really should. Not only is it a great, funny, rowdy, adult, jazz musical, it's also a show you will likely never get a chance to see again. And it is truly like nothing else you've ever seen.

I couldn't be more grateful, to our ever fearless New Line artists, to our audiences, and to our local reviewers. This awesome adventure continues... but not for long... Get your tickets now...!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Despite the amazing reception for Celebration, we still struggle with balancing the budget. Please consider making a contribution to help New Line keep thriving... Just click here...

Anything We Dream

With some New Line shows, you gotta just go for the crazy ride.

Shows like Anyone Can Whistle, Hair, Johnny Appleweed, A New Brain, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny... and Celebration. If you, as an audience member, insist on understanding every moment of shows like these, you'll get just frustrated. You have to let go of the need for signposts and conventional structure, and accept that that's not the kind of experience you're having. When you watch Law & Order, you always know where you are in the story, what's going on, and what may be coming next. When you're watching Bukowsical, you do not.

Celebration asks you to let go of pretty much every expectation you usually have when you sit down to watch a musical. That's harder for some people than for others. But to my great delight, our audiences have totally embraced our wild show, followed the plot (which is actually really straight-forward, despite the other weirdnesses), caught the jokes, and enjoyed the ride. One friend of mine, on the way out of the show, said to me, "Thanks for the LSD trip, man!"

Okay, it's not THAT weird...

On the other side of things, it's been a similarly wild ride been behind the scenes, putting this show together. This was one of those pieces that we discover and understand gradually over the full course of the rehearsal process. Luckily, I figured out some fundamental things pretty early on, thanks to some notes bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones sent me about his show, and also some photos he sent me of the original production. Even though our production -- and Jones' revised script -- is pretty different from the original, seeing those photos revealed a lot to me about what this show is. Even though we were doing a somewhat different, revised version, even though our show would not look at all like the original, still those pictures helped.

There were several Big Moments in our creation process, which marked big leaps forward for us.

The first was when I read Jones' notes and his intro to the published script, and I understood that our show is not a narrative form; it's a ritual form. It is literally an experiment in musical theatre. The central story arc is the changing of the seasons, the passing of time, even though it seems like the arc is Boy Meets Girl, Boy Loses Girl, Boy Gets Girl. Without this understanding, we would have gone far astray.

Another important moment was when we realized that the four lead characters represent the four seasons, which connects directly to the core of the story. It's not something that's important for the audience to know, but it was like iambic pentameter for us, there when we needed it. It helped us focus scenes, clarify the longer arc of the story, and make sense of Jones' new ending; and it gave Sarah Porter a cool, specific palette for costumes.

One of the most impactful moments was the arrival of Scott Schoonover's amazing, leather, custom-made masks for the Revelers. By that point, I think everybody had a basic understanding of what we were doing, but the masks freed the Revelers in a way nothing else could have. Not only did it give them a freeing kind of anonymity, but it also placed them firmly inside our freaky New Year's Eve story. Because they're made of leather, and because they're individually sculpted, they took on a vaguely animalistic look. The second they put the masks on, the Revelers came to scary, awesome life.

Another big moment happened between Sean (our Orphan) and me, as we discussed who Orphan is, what he's like, how much of a musical comedy style to give him, etc. When an actor is searching for their character, I just keep throwing ideas at them, metaphors, concepts, descriptions, parallels, anything I can, because eventually there will be one thing I say that works like magic, and the actor will find what he needs. I never know which thing that will be, but I always find something that helps.

In this case, Sean and I had talked about the idea of a musical comedy style for Orphan, and he found that style in his performance. But it was when I told him that early in Act II, when Orphan finally stands up to Mr. Rich, that Sean needed to think of Orphan, from that moment on, as a Hero. With a capital H. From that moment on, he had to stand up straight, feet shoulder-width apart (like Superman), and become a Hero. The next time we ran the show, all of that was there, and I realized this is Orphan's "obligatory moment," the moment toward which everything before it leads, and from which everything after it results.

Just that small change in mindset completely transformed and clarified Act II. For the first time, Orphan was a formidable foe for Mr. Rich. Orphan became the man that Angel could be drawn to. Orphan became the man who could beat Mr. Rich. Sean has found all the richness of Orphan now, and the rest of our cast has done the same. I couldn't be happier with our show.

As I write this, we're halfway through our run. Our audiences have been small-ish, but they've really been tuned in and really had fun with it, and the reviews have been outstanding. My sense is that we'll have much bigger houses going forward.

And yet, we have continued to fiddle with the end of the show.

In the original, the show ends with a reprise of the pulsating title song, which takes us out of the story and back into the framing device in which these Players have been telling us a story. But I think that gives the audience a distance that isn't right. In the original Orphan and Angel realize they have to go out into the world, the world "outside the theatre," and that lets the audience off the hook. It's just an allegory. But that framing device is gone in this revised script; our story describes real life, despite its mythic storytelling.

Orphan and Angel are in the real world from the beginning.

Also gone is the title song reprise at the end. This isn't a musical comedy, and the show doesn't have a conventional ending, because this story never ends. There's always a "To Be Continued"... I've been impressed at how many of the reviewers got and embraced the show's ending.

In this revised version, the end is a very somber, very ritualistic, very symbolic final act. One review and a few people in our audience have said to me that the end felt to them too sudden. But the final sequence takes a good 2-3 minutes to play out. That's not sudden.

Before we opened, I had decided to end the show, after the final moment, with a return of the tom-tom beat that opens the show, to help the audience get that this is the end but also a time loop. It didn't work, or at least, not enough. So since we've opened, I've kept tweaking it. First, we added a drum roll at the very end, for punctuation. That helped. Then I asked Kent (Potemkin) to wait longer to start his final cross to Orphan, and also to do it more slowly, to make it weightier, more obviously ceremonial (it helps that he's wearing his dark grey Father Time robe). Then I asked our drummer Clancy to start the tom-toms earlier in the last scene, and we moved the final light fade even later, to give the whole moment some room to breathe. I also gave both Orphan and Potemkin something a little more complicated to play in those last moments, to draw out and underline the ending. (I"m being a bit vague so as not to spoil it for anyone who hasn't seen it yet.)

We've now played the show with all those changes for three audiences, and though the ending may always be a bit challenging for folks, I think we've made it as clear as it can be. We'll see what Tom Jones thinks when he comes to see us at the end of the run. I much prefer this ending to the original. In fact, I think all his rewrites were for the better, and yet the majority of the original script remains intact, and there are only small changes to the score.

I've loved this show for more than thirty years. I never thought I'd get to work on it. Once again, I count myself incredibly lucky. Who knows, maybe we'll do Philemon one of these days too...

The amazing adventure continues. Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!

Each Seed Conceals a Mystery

Now that we've decoded the roots of Celebration (see my blog posts here and here), it hasn't been hard to put this exquisite, vulgar, wild piece of theatre together. The hardest part lately has been just figuring out traffic patterns on our altar-like stage and out in the aisles (one of my favorite tools from our ArtLoft days), and figuring out the logistics of some of Tom Jones' crazier moments.

I haven't really had to talk to the actors as much as I had expected about what this show is and how it operates. I think they've come to an understanding of all that as we've put the pieces together.

Maybe the most important thing I told them was to think of the entire show as a ritual. Celebration follows certain conventional musical theatre rules, it appears to follow others, but it ignores even more. It's a wonderful, subversive, quirky combination. As Tom Jones has said repeatedly, this show was an experiment. It would have been harder for all of us if we'd been thinking about this show as a traditional linear narrative love story with an obvious antagonist. As I quoted in my last post, Jones wrote in his intro to the published script, "When we moved Celebration into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn't feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn't a Broadway musical."

Understanding that was the most important thing about our process. I had a sense of this before we started work; I knew that I needed a hand-picked cast for this one, including actors who have done other shows with me that made up all new rules. Those of us who navigated the wild waters of Hair, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Bukowsical, Jerry Springer the Opera, Threepenny, and American Idiot are more or less comfortable going out on the artistic tightrope without a net (pardon the mixed metaphor).

The characters in Celebration have arcs, but not necessarily the arcs we would expect. They all fit musical comedy archetypes, but awkwardly. Mr. Rich is clearly the musical comedy villain (I'm not sure I've ever seen Zak have this much fun), and yet almost the whole story focuses on him. His desire to feel emotion is the central plotline. Angel seems like an old-fashioned musical comedy heroine, but she isn't looking for love, just advancement. While Hope Harcourt may have used her "feminine wiles," Angel uses her bare breasts.

Orphan seems to be a typical musical comedy hero, cousin to Billy Crocker and J. Pierpont Finch; but really, he's closer to Leaf Coneybear. Though Orphan falls for Angel – and can you blame him, the first time he ever meets a woman his own age and her boobs are hanging out there like that? – his central motivation has nothing to do with love. All Billy Crocker wants is Hope. All Orphan wants is his Garden.

Would it be too crass to say Orphan wants Angel to be his new garden...?

The other thing that's just now occurring to me is that the usual musical comedy hero is a good guy but also a smartass, going all the way back to Little Johnny Jones in 1904, and as recently as Nick Bottom in Something Rotten. But Orphan is never sarcastic. There's no darkness in him. He's like a character from one of my own musicals, Johnny Appleweed, no judgment, no ulterior motives. That's not a musical comedy hero. That's an archetype in a religious ritual. Which is why Orphan doesn't have a name.

And then there's Potemkin, con artist and self-preservationist. It occurs to me that Pippin's Leading Player is an almost exact twin to Potemkin, just more show-bizzy. When Fosse inserted this new character into Pippin for Ben Vereen, had he seen Celebration? The difference of course is one of stature. Leading Player is God and Satan. He controls reality. Potemkin, on the other hand, starts the show warming his hands over a trash can. He controls a freaky pageant in a rich guy's ballroom. As much as I love Pippin, I think I prefer Potemkin.

So here we are, a week before opening the show, and I'm feeling pretty great. All that's left to do is figure out the last few logistical things, especially a couple things related to costumes, and polish and tweak the small stuff.

One thing I know -- one major ingredient has not yet been added. Masks. Our ensemble, called Revelers (because the action is set on New Year's Eve), wear masks throughout the entire show. And Scott Schoonover, local scenic designer and mask maker, is making custom leather masks for this production. I've seen pictures of three of them, and they are fierce. The night they first wear those, everything will change, and I'm pretty sure it will take us right where we've been heading.

People are going to have so many mixed reactions to this show. If you ask them afterwards what it was about, they might not be able to put it into words. It's less a story than an experience, a ritual that mirrors the cycles of life, or as I put it in the press release, "the freakiest New Year's Eve party you'll ever attend." It's very funny (the line that cracks me up every night, as Potemkin sticks a giant hypodermic needle into Mr. Rich: "What do you think I am, a jazz musician?"), it's vaguely R-rated, and you'll have these melodies in your head for a month.

But, if only on a subconscious level, I think everyone will sense the universal truth in this story of ours. And they will laugh a lot. I think this show will work a lot like Hair.

So tonight we have our last non-tech run-through, and do our best to work out all the little problems. Saturday is our lighting cue-to-cue, and Sunday the band joins us for the sitzprobe, the one rehearsal in which we run through the entire score with the band and actors, focusing only on the music.

Next week, we'll have three full tech run-throughs, then a preview next Thursday, and opening night on Friday, with our after-party! There's nothing more fun than adding these final elements to the work we've done, as we get to see our assembled puzzle for the first time.

I cannot wait to share this with our audiences...

Long Live the Musical!

Hey, Mr. Somebody in the Sky!

Celebration is an experiment.

In my last post, I was trying to figure out exactly what this show of our is, how it works, what its rules are. I could sort of identify the elements of a Hero Myth story, but it really didn't exactly match up, and it broke a lot of those rules.

So the other night in rehearsal, I'm watching our actors do a first run-through of Act I, and I realize that this has nothing to do with Hero Myths, any coincidental similarities notwithstanding. You can see how this story feels kind of normal, with our Young Lovers, and our obvious Villain. But it doesn't fit any of the forms we're used to -- because it's just not the kind of story we're used to. It has a different purpose than the stories we're used to.

In bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones' book Making Musicals, which I'm currently re-reading, he writes:
Before I finished my college education, I came gradually to realize that there were two kinds of theatre: one that I liked, and one that I didn't like as much.

The kind that I liked was what might be called "presentational" theatre, "poetic" theatre, the theatre of Shakespeare and the Greeks and Thornton Wilder and Bertolt Brecht. The kind that I didn't like as much was what might be called "realistic" theatre, "prose" theatre, the theatre which almost totally dominated the stage for the first half of the twentieth century.

I didn't like stage sets very much. That is, I didn't like "realistic" stage sets -- sets which purported to be the actual environments where the action took place. I didn't like living room walls and charming bric-a-brac and pretend windows with pretend bushes outside. Something in me resisted the whole thing, as if someone were trying to trick me. I felt the urge to say: "Come on, who are you kidding? I know that's not a real door. I know that the tree outside is made of papier-maché and held up by a stage brace."

On the other hand, if little or no pretense was made to literally depict a place, I had no trouble in believing in its reality. A suggestion was all I needed, all I wanted. Any more than that took away the fun, the magic, the creation. It robbed me as an audience member of my part in the proceedings. It limited my imagination. The whole thing was a paradox: Try to convince me that it was really real and I resisted. Admit to me that it was false and I could believe in its reality.

Also, and in a similar way, I didn't like plays where the actors spent all of their time just talking to each other and never acknowledged the presence of the audience. It seemed stupid to me. And rude. And again, it robbed the experience of the direct involvement and participation of the audience.

By the way, that's exactly how I have felt since junior high.

Jones writes:
"The theatre, after all, is surely one of the last bastions of the spoken word. In an increasingly Visual world, the theatre provides a place where people may gather and have a group experience induced primarily by the power of words. And, surprisingly, these needs are still deep within us. They will not be dropped so quickly. They are part of us, part of our species. To gather in a circle and have a story told, to experience a group reaction (possibly even a group revelation) this is a basic need. Too bad the theatre nowadays so often forgets that."

Though all theatre is ritualistic in some way, Celebration isn't just a modern descendant of ritual; it is actually ritual itself.

Jones wrote in the introduction to the published script:
Celebration is different. For one thing, it is mostly in prose. For another, it requires a bit more explanation. It is "different" from other musicals. In fact, I'm not even sure it is a "musical" at all. Not in the usual sense of the word. It is a fable. It has ritual overtones. It is based upon ancient ceremonies depicting the battle between Winter and Summer. It was suggested by an editorial in the New York Times about the meaning of the Winter Solstice. It annoyed the hell out of some people. It delighted others. It ran for only 109 performances on Broadway. But it is done often around the country and the world. And it has been phenomenally successful in Scandanavia (where the Winter Solstice is something to be reckoned with.)

There is no subplot here, no secondary couple, no eleven o'clock number. No, as Sean, our "Orphan," pointed out to me, our four leads are the four seasons. But this isn't just a story about nature; this is a story of nature. This isn't a story about the passing of time; this is the story of time. There is no Fourth Wall. And our stage is infinite. Which means the audience's imaginations will do much of the work. Which means our audience will be engaged.

My favorite kind of theatre!

Potemkin tells us himself in the show that he's autumn. Rich is obviously winter, cold and dying, which makes Orphan summer (he has his a garden, after all). And Angel has to be spring since she's the only woman here, the only one who can give birth.

Once you see that structure, everything else makes more sense.

This really isn't like any other musical you've ever seen. (I find that's true of a lot of the shows we produce.) This is ritual disguised as linear narrative. This is a storytelling experiment. The "story" here is just the changing of the seasons and the calendar, and the climax is literally the clock striking twelve on New Year's Eve.

But there's so much more here in addition to that, so much more put into the service of this ritual story Tom Jones created...

The more we Google elements of this show (especially the character names, Potemkin, Orphan, Angel, Rich), the deeper we get into the origins of this wild story that Jones has fashioned for us, with so many different strands going back to the ancient world, all woven together into this quirky, smartass, unexpectedly powerful, contemporary musical comedy.

This show is chock full of references and devices going back to our earliest human history. I've already blogged about Angel's roots in the Sumerian fertility goddess Inanna, who name means "Lady from Heaven," coincidentally (not). The action of Celebration essentially follows Inanna's ancient Sacred Marriage rite. How crazy is that?

I've been thinking a lot about whether Angel is being "used" for her sexuality, or if she's "using" her sexuality as power, as a tool? And depending on that answer, is she in charge here or are the men...? Is the story unintentionally sexist because it's originally from the late 1960s? Or is sexuality just Angel's nature (as a stand-in for Inanna), something which she must "use"?

An article on AncientHistory.net, says, "Contrary to claims that Inanna's priestesses engaged in ritual prostitution, it is more likely that they were in control of their choices of bed-mates along with the high priestess engaging in the ritual re-enactment of the sacred marriage between Dumuzi and Inanna with a young man of her choice once a year on the Spring Equinox. The tales of Inanna make it very clear she was not shy in picking lovers and promoting them to Kingship and her priestesses would have followed her example."

As I read about Inanna, I also came across The Ancient Green Man, who sounds somewhat like Orphan. That same site says, "During the Neolithic Age, which was the era when, as some say, God was a Woman, the Goddess and Her Son, the Green Man, were venerated by people worldwide for annually bringing forth the Earth's material abundance. A universal legend about them arose that began with the annual impregnation of the virgin Earth Goddess by the Sun, the 'Father in Heaven,' and the subsequent birth of Her Son, the Green Man."

Sounds a lot like Christianity. Long before Christianity.

It's worth noting that three times during Celebration, Orphan sings, "The sun! The sun! The sun!"

The article goes on: "This important event occurred annually at the time of the Winter Solstice, when the spirit of the Green Man that had been slumbering underground in the underworld was shaken back to life. But although his dormant spirit had been stirred, it was not yet fully awake. This did not occur until a few days later, on December 25th, when the Sun or Solar Spirit completely reversed its downward path and took measurable steps along a northerly route."

This sounds kinda like Celebration...

Another parallel struck me. The same article says, "In order to awaken Dionysus from his slumber at the time of the Winter Solstice, female representatives of the Goddess would loudly bang pots and pans as they danced their way in ritual procession to the snowy summit of Mount Parnassus. And then after receiving his new set of clothes at the following spring equinox, the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego, Pan, a name meaning 'the All,' as in All of Nature.

Likewise, in Celebration, Angel and her backup girls, The Hittites, do a big dance number early in Act I, and soon after, Orphan gets a big number himself, "My Garden.". In the second part of "My Garden," Orphan sings his song, even making up a bridge on the spot, and the Revelers all sing with him, in echo. That sounds a little like, "...the Divine Son would cavort in nature along with his own reflection and alter-ego..."

Now, in terms of our friendly guide and con artists, Potemkin...

According to Wikipedia...   "In politics and economics, a Potemkin village is any construction (literal or figurative) built solely to deceive others into thinking that a situation is better than it really is. The term comes from stories of a fake portable village, built only to impress Empress Catherine II during her journey to Crimea in 1787. While some modern historians claim accounts of this portable village are exaggerated, the original story was that Grigory Potemkin erected the fake portable settlement along the banks of the Dnieper River in order to fool the Russian Empress."

Unlike most narrators, Potemkin is built to deceive. He's literally a con artist. And he pulls a helluva con on Mr. Rich.

So what does all this information mean for us?

It will all just help us (sometimes directly, other times indirectly) find the best, clearest way to tell this crazy, wonderful story Jones and Schmidt have given us. But also, all these gods and goddesses are windows into the humans who invented them. That these gods still serve our story today says a lot about how universal they are, how deeply human these feelings are, even after thousands and thousands of years.

I was saying to Sean last night that I think this story is, at its heart, about the choices we all make that forge the path of the human life ahead of us. The whole show is about these people making choices, and the show ends with Orphan faced with yet another choice. Jones refuses to tell us what's next. That's not the point. The season has turned. Winter has died, and here comes Summer. What happens happens.

Boil it all down and it's so primal. Angel/Inanna's true nature is to create life (as goddess of fertility and sex), exactly like Orphan (with his garden). Rich's nature is nothing but appetite, to destroy, to consume. Angel and Orphan are Life (the New Year), while Rich is Death (the old year), which is why he has to die when the clock strikes twelve. If Angel were to choose Rich, that would be against her nature. She belongs with Orphan because together the two of them can create life. She must choose Life because she's the fertility goddess. Which is why the show first presents her nearly naked, not for sexist titillation, but to present and make central to the story the female body itself, the crucible of Life.

But how can our story be about choice if it's about the relentless, unforgiving cycle of the changing of the seasons, the turning of the calendar, the passing of time? Aren't the perpetual cycles of life and death inescapable?

Maybe their (our) choices are illusory, and they're really all just cogs in a cosmic machine that just keeps going. Maybe there will always be Angels and Orphans and Riches, whose battles and triumphs keep the calendar turning. It's The Story of Humanity, or maybe of Time. After all, there's always another New Year's Eve...

Tom Jones wrote in his book, "I decided that the American musical offered a wonderful opportunity to pursue the kind of theatre that I felt in my bones was the real theatre." Theatre like Celebration.

As Sean/"Orphan" wrote to me a few days ago, "So. Many. Layers." Yes indeed.

At the end of his intro to the 1973 published script, Jones wrote, "We did Celebration first at our Portfolio Studio. It felt good there. It belonged. When we moved it into the Ambassador Theatre on Broadway, it didn't feel as good. It seemed somewhat silly up there, not because it was less effective than a Broadway musical, but because it wasn't a Broadway musical. Who knows? Perhaps we will do it again someday. With revisions. And in a proper place."

Tom Jones has given New Line the honor of premiering the revised Celebration, right here in St. Louis in our beautiful blackbox theatre. A proper place, indeed.

Long Live the Musical!