It Implants in Your Brain and It Tells You What to Do

There are several narrative threads running through Be More Chill. One is the Science Run Amok / World Domination story. The other is Jeremy's Hero Myth (and Faust story), following his journey to Growing Up. Interestingly, as we're watching Jeremy finally grow up, finally give up selfishness in favor of sacrifice, the same thing is happening with his father. Both of these characters have to stop wallowing in self-pity and instead put their loved ones' needs ahead of their own.

By the end of this story, we know both of them will be okay. They've both gained important enlightenment and both have found their paths. We hope. As our story opens, Jeremy and his dad are too comfortable in their current positions, and only a crisis will knock them out of complacency and into action.

And even though Michael seems as "stuck" as Jeremy, he's not. We come to realize over the course of the story that Michael is Jeremy's Wise Wizard figure (like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch). In many (most?) Hero Myth stories, the Hero loses the Wise Wizard shortly after he sets out on his journey. Here the sci-fi angle of the story allows for a clever parallel; here the Squip literally blocks Jeremy's ability to see Michael, so Jeremy's Wise Wizard is taken from him -- by technology.

And it probably goes without saying that the Squip is the Evil Wizard in this story, seducing our hero to cross over to the Dark Side. And just as Darth Vader is largely machine, representing his lost humanity, in Be More Chill, the villain is pure technology, no humanity to lose. Jeremy Heere is close cousin to Anakin Skywalker, both crossing to the Dark Side, but for the Right Reasons.

Sort of.

Okay, not really.

It reminds me of my favorite bit of Star Wars dialogue. Anakin asks Palpatine, "Is it possible to learn this power?" Palpatine pauses dramatically, turns slowly to Anakin and says, "Not from a Jedi."

Anakin's Hero Myth is a tragic story because he does not learn the right lessons and he does not stay on his path. Jeremy has a happy ending because he does learn the right lessons, and he does find the right path for himself.

In many Hero Myths, the Hero has to go to the Underworld (think of the cave on Dagobah in Empire Strikes Back). Maybe in Be More Chill, the underworld is Jeremy's time under the influence of the Squip, maybe even more explicitly, the Halloween party. He has "died" to his former life of nerdiness -- and warmth and compassion, BTW -- and has become one of the (moral? intellectual?) dead. But Jeremy doesn't escape The Underworld just yet...

Their zombified Midsummer Night's Dream -- think about this, a romantic comedy about the walking dead -- also stands in as a great metaphor for the Underworld; and it's in that scene, backstage, that Jeremy finally escapes the Dark Side.

Even though we may not be consciously thinking about the Hero Myth parallels, we sense the Halloween party is a dark place, and Michael has come to "rescue" Jeremy, to bring him back to the world of the living, but Jeremy hasn't learned what he needs to learn yet.  And we sense, though maybe subconsciously, the various symbols and metaphors for death all over this story -- including Jeremy's metaphorically "dead" mother, who has left them.

The grief over this loss and all that comes from that is a central part of this growing-up story. Loss and death are part of life, Be More Chill is telling us; we lose people and we go on living. That's something we learn to do (or we don't), along with the million other lessons of becoming an adult. Jeremy and his dad both have to learn to let go of this pain. They both have to learn that other people don't make us happy; we do that (or don't) ourselves.

We choose.

Be More Chill is all about choices, bad ones and good ones, immature and mature ones. It's about the gazillion mistakes we all make along our clumsy way toward adulthood, only in this case, blown up to literally world-shattering proportions. After all, this is a Faust story -- what could be higher stakes than selling your soul to the (cyber-) devil?

Or world domination?

The show is so much fun, such a roller coaster ride, and the characters are so incredibly engaging, but this is a serious story. Like I argued in my first BMC post, this is a thriller. We don't realize it till we're smack in the middle of this adventure, but the show's title is a seduction -- Being More Chill sounds good, but giving up independent thought is bad (that's how we got Trump!). And in this case, giving up independent thought is how the Squip literally is going to take over the world.

Our story is a cautionary tale about surrendering your opinions or choices to others (whether in politics or religion or school), about the destructive potential of digital connectivity, about popping pharmaceuticals as an easy fix to complex problems, about bullying and peer pressure and other ways that humans inflict pain on other humans. We blame the Squip for the destruction, this soulless micro-computer, but somebody made that damn thing. Some human designed the Squip to do what it does. It's still humans hurting humans.

It seems that every theme in this story connects directly to 2019. I'd like to think that's part coincidence, and part not. I think artists, consciously or not, are always responding to the world around them, often before they even realize it themselves. The brilliant novelist Ned Vizzini created this story fifteen years ago. How'd he know what a pitch perfect metaphor his sci-fi story would be for the culture and politics of America in 2019?

He probably didn't, but I guess that's what great artists do. Lucky for us.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!


Be More Chill

Two years ago, I had never heard of Be More Chill, the novel or the musical. And tonight we start rehearsals for the musical -- even as it's running and breaking house records on Broadway. So what's the big deal?

Some of the reviews off and on Broadway have been very positive, others more mixed. It seems many of the reviewers don't quite understand what it is they're seeing. This isn't an adult world's point of view; this story comes from the point of view of these high schools kids. And to them, none of this is funny. To them, the stakes are impossibly high. We all remember those days, right?

Stylistically, Be More Chill is cousin to Little Shop, Heathers, Bat Boy, BBAJ, Urinetown, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Spelling Bee, and other shows in the new-ish category of neo musical comedy, shows that use traditional devices and conventions but with a more personal, more subtle, more complex, often more subversive, more political agenda.

There are politics here, but they're subliminal.

In Be More Chill, the premise is ridiculous, but inside that world, everything makes sense. It's much like what Howard Ashman wrote in his preface to the published script for Little Shop:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

I remember first reading that -- after already having seen and loved the show off Broadway -- and it really had an impact on me.

And besides, I'm not convinced Be More Chill is a comedy at all. It's actually a pretty serious, dark story, despite the many laughs. The same could be said of High Fidelity or La Cage aux Folles. But again, like Little Shop, Heathers, and Bat Boy, this is a thriller. That's not obvious at first when you're watching the show, because the show itself pulls a wonderful "fake" on the audience...

For much of Act I of Be More Chill, we think we're following a (sort of) traditional Hero Myth story, with Jeremy in search of the wisdom he lacks. His journey is about finding his path, his Real, as Passing Strange would put it. But Jeremy spends most of our story on somebody else's path, so it's impossible for him to get where he's going. Ultimately, he has to learn that he has to follow -- and embrace -- his own path in life.

We might even argue that Michael is the Wise Wizard figure in this Hero Myth story, with the Squip as the Evil Wizard....?

But really, Be More Chill is not Jeremy's story, and it's not a Hero Myth story. It's not till early Act II that we discover the real story here -- it's really a science fiction, world domination story, complete with the ubiquitous 1950s sci-fi theme of Science Run Amok.

It's halfway through our story that we discover we've been duped -- exactly as Jeremy has been -- because the Squip has hidden its real agenda. We start to realize that we're not following a young man trying to find his way; no, we're following a megalomaniac AI computer trying to take over the world.

That's a little different.

And that's where Be More Chill escapes any label or category you might try to impose. The true story, under the clever cloak of Jeremy's story, is about a malevolent force (a cousin to Terminator's Skynet?) that uses our greatest human weakness -- disconnectedness -- to seduce and conquer us. Jeremy's -- and our -- only salvation is in real human, face-to-face connection, without technology intervening, selecting for us, tailoring to us, manipulating us.

Could this theme be any more relevant at this moment in our cultural history?

But wait, there's more...

The zombie references that are peppered throughout the show, and the zombie apocalypse the drama teacher imposes on Midsummer Night's Dream, all point toward something fairly subtle amongst all this sci-fi-ish madness. Everybody is a zombie in Be More Chill, in one way or another -- and the show is arguing, many of us are zombies, stumbling purposelessly through our everyday lives. Jeremy's Dad is an emotional zombie, walking around, but "dead" inside. Jeremy and Michael are social zombies, walking the halls of school, but "dead" to the social elite. Even the popular kids are metaphorical zombies -- maybe they're moral zombies? -- following blindly without thought or question.

And all this is a stand-in for the real-world, teenage "digital zombies," walking through life with the eyes glued to their smartphones. The show even updates the classic "Telephone Hour" with "The Smartphone Hour." Again, it couldn't be more timely.

Jeremy's salvation is in breaking the zombie spell, forcing all these people to think for themselves, rather than blindly think and do what they're told. It's a subtle but potent metaphor.

This show is no silly confection. This is a rich, complicated look at life in the Digital Age, about teen depression, about bullying, and through it all, about the profound power of human connection; and therefore, subliminally, about the profound power of live theatre.

With all this in mind, it's clear to us that taking these characters less than seriously betrays the characters and betrays the audience, because the audience has lived these experiences. The writing is very honest and authentic -- and funny -- so if the performances aren't honest, we'll throw the show out of balance. There are some very deep, complex, serious emotions running through this story. The running joke about Dad's pants is funny, but ultimately, it leads to an incredibly powerful payoff in Act II that is packed with meaning and emotion.

This show has been so carefully wrought, and it's also so honest and big-hearted and authentic. The writing is so good. As much as everybody loves it on Broadway right now, I can't wait to share this with an audience in our intimate, little blackbox theatre -- all those emotions are going to be so overwhelming, so impossible to escape, so powerful.

Dowdy is the lead director this time, though we'll direct the show together. I can't wait to work on this material, and then to share it with audiences! Our actors are crazy excited to start work! And BTW, ticket sales are already really strong, so get your tickets now!

Another amazing adventure begins!

Long Live the Musical!


When Your World Spins Too Fast

It's an ugly time in our culture. I see pundits on cable news trying to explain why it's ugly and what we can do about it. But almost all of them miss the central point.

America is changing in big ways, very quickly, and to a substantial minority, that is terrifying. And right now, for those folks, fear motivates everything in them. These people fear losing power (that they never really had), fear losing social status (that they never really had), fear losing their culture (which was never as White or European as they think it was), fear losing the America they love (that never actually existed except in midcentury sitcoms).

And you know what the Jedi teach -- Fear is the path to the dark side. Fear leads to anger. Anger leads to hate. Hate leads to suffering. It's not hard at all to see the truth in that, displayed every day in our culture.

Many years ago I was talking to Steve Woolf at the Rep, and I was noting a theme (the use and abuse of money) that ran through every play in that Rep season, and I asked him if that was on purpose. He said that no, that kind of thing was never on purpose for him, but also that halfway through each season, he would become aware of that season's theme. And then in retrospect, he could see how that idea had been swimming around in his brain and in the zeitgeist as he was programming the season.

I think the same thing happened to me and Dowdy when we were planning New Line's current season. We can now see that the theme that emerged, that connects the three shows in our season, is The Triumph of the Other. All three of our shows are built on that theme, but neither Dowdy nor I were at all aware of that when we set the season.

After working on La Cage the last couple months, and now, sharing it with our audiences, I see that this seemingly lightweight 1983 comedy, slightly revised in 2008, has profound weight and relevance in 2019. Even more than I anticipated.

I realized last night, watching our show, that the club in our show is America. The conservatives are fighting to close that club, but the people of La Cage ultimately win, not because of any arbitrary morality or lack thereof, but because the people of La Cage are demonstrably better people -- more open, more loving, more accepting, and less judgmental. In this story, the conservatives are a small, weak, ineffectual, scared group.

It's America in 2019 in micro.

In our country right now, "the La Cage people" -- i.e., social liberals -- are in the majority, according to every poll, and conservative America is shrinking. Conservatives still cause lots of noise and lots of trouble, but the Dindons of America can't shut down this new world that's forming itself right in front of our eyes -- a browner, more diverse, more socially liberal America than ever before, with no racial majority.

But also notice the complexity of this story. We see from both Georges and Albin some initial anti-straight bigotry. They do move past that fairly quickly, but that's their initial impulse, to be as fearful, as insular as their in-laws-to-be.

I think of all this as America's perpetual battle between the 1950s (conservatism) and the 1960s (liberalism). So many great musicals are about that battle -- Hair, Grease, Rocky Horror, The Fantasticks, Cry-Baby, and others.

But that's not what La Cage is about. There is no genuine threat here -- even if you don't know the story, you probably sense that the bigot and bully won't triumph, right? The question is whether the Good People will hurt each other in the process. The fun of the show's climax is the complexity of the problem they've created and the suspense of how they will extricate themselves and deliver the happy ending we assume is coming.

Right before the Dindons arrive for dinner, Jean-Michel says to the family:
All right, you three. Listen carefully. For the next twenty-one hours there will be people of a lifestyle far removed from the one you live. I beseech you, for the next twenty-one hours to dispense with everything you take pride in and everything that brings you personal joy. My future depends on it.

It's a funny line and it gets a laugh, but it also stings like hell. This is not just about disguise; it's about the suppression, the rejection of their very life force, of the joy and fun that gets them through each day.

I keep telling people that, at its heart, La Cage is really just about a middle-aged married couple and whether or not their relationship can survive this crisis. The brilliance of the show (and the original play and film) is that, just as in a John Waters movie, the Others are Normal, and it's the Ordinary People who are the true Others.

And so, even if we're not Other in the real world, we identify with the Others throughout this story. That's a pretty neat trick.

But on an even more basic level, this is a story about Joy, and whether or not Fear is more powerful.

La Cage aux Folles is all about joy -- both in the show's form (the joy of singing and dancing) and in its content. After all, what is our story about? How does our middle-aged couple survive the crisis? Their lives are filled with joy, and they share it liberally. That's how. The central conflict hinges on the potential destruction of that joy. But really, the action of the show can be charted as Joy embraced, Joy suppressed, Joy betrayed, and finally, Joy as healing.

It's all about joy. Which, I'd argue, is what the musical theatre is all about.

Once in a while, New Line produces a well-known show and we shock the hell out of our audience with it. Not because we change anything (we don't), not because we impose crazy new concepts on it (we don't), but because we take it seriously and we work hard to find all that's meaningful and beautiful in the material.

It stunned us last season that our Anything Goes was such a revelation to so many people. All we did was take the material seriously, to reveal how brilliant and smart and wickedly insightful the show (at least the 1962 version) really is. The same thing is happening now with La Cage.

Everyone is stunned by the emotional power of this story, but we didn't add that to the show; we just revealed it. They're stunned at the subtlety of Zak's performance as Albin, but all we're doing is bringing these characters to the most honest and authentic life we can. But again, we're not adding anything to these characters; just revealing what's already there. The story is overflowing with human truth.

Maybe too many productions don't do this simplest and most fundamental of things, taking the material seriously. But it's not magic; it's our job. And it's fun!

Ultimately in La Cage, Joy wins. As it will in the middle-aged relationship that is America. But as we learn from La Cage, it wins only through love and a little ingenuity. And the gays.

The whole run's been selling out. Just four more electrifying performances!

Long Live the Musical!

Mine Have Naked People

Midway through Act II of La Cage aux Folles we get the number "Cocktail Counterpoint." It doesn't really feel like the other songs in the show. I used to think it was just filler because they felt like they needed a song there.

I was really wrong.

This is a deceptively complex piece that delivers so much information. On the surface, it feels like just an Irving Berlin style stunt, introducing several independent melodies, then combining them into counterpoint. But it's more than that. Berlin did it for the stunt; Jerry Herman does it to further the storytelling.

In terms of structure, what does this music tell us? These people all may be singing at the same time, but they're not singing together. No one is singing the same thing as anyone else. For the most part, they're not even singing to each other. Everyone is at odds with everyone, even in terms of musical styles. And yet the fact that this chaos actually makes harmonic sense represents the civilized facades they each present, despite the deep contradictions underneath. The fact that they all sing different things at once, no one listening to each other, stands as a great metaphor for the story's central conflict.

Form becomes content!!

It's also worth noting that the song builds, in its second counterpoint section, to a climax that gets interrupted by Albin's entrance ("Here's Mother!"). The music finishes, but the vocals never do. Nothing has been resolved yet. All these tensions remain.

Significantly, in the scene after this one, at Jacqueline's, they will finally all sing together in "The Best of Times," not just the same words at the same time, but in harmony, and with choreography! Excepting M. Dindon, these people will be literally in harmony with each other.

The magic of musicals.

But the lyric for "Cocktail Counterpoint" is even more interesting than its music. There's so much important information here. Each lyric tells us so much about the point-of-view of that character, and why that point-of-view is a problem. Notably, each family thinks the other is weird. Eye of the beholder, and all...

Geroges is the first one to sing. There's a double joke in his lyric. First, he's so nervous meeting these people and trying to maintain the lie, that he's mixed up Jean-Michel's lie (that Georges is with the French Foreign Service, i.e., a diplomat), with the symbols of hyper-masculinity he earlier tortured Albin with, at the cafe, so the original lie weirdly morphs into the French Foreign Legion (i.,e., the army). And not just the French Foreign Legion, but a particularly gay point-of-view of the Legion...
I joined the Foreign Legion
With a sabre in my hand,
And crawled across the desert
With my belly in the sand;
With men who loved their camels,
And their brandy, and I swear,
Nobody dished, nobody swished,
When I was a Foreign Legionnaire.

Wait, what? The first four lines tick off the Beau Geste movie cliches, and then... WTF? Georges gets lost again in his outsiders' view of conventional masculinity. Read it close -- he's saying the Legionnaires may have been drunks and camel fuckers, but nobody was gay! And by comic extension, Georges is offering up camel fucking and drunkenness as obvious markers of masculinity -- even more than that, as proof of his masculinity, because he himself was a Legionnaire. Except he wasn't.

What does this tell us about Georges? He's a terrible, though admittedly enthusiastic, liar. He's terrible at being someone he's not. Exactly.

And then Jean-Michel passes out hors d'oeuvre plates, not stopping to think about what's on these plates he's been using for years. Madame Dindon sees two Greek boys having anal sex, but she's so sheltered, so brainwashed, she's can't even conceive that this might be exactly what it looks like. She does her best to find an alternate explanation...
Oh, what lovely dishes;
They're so delicate and frail.
Mine have naked people,
I believe they're only male.
Oops, I think they're playing
Some exotic little game...

And Jean-Michel snatches the plate away and finishes her rhyme for her: "Oops, I think that leapfrog is its name." A lie she is eager to accept. But look at her lyric closely. She takes in all the details. First, she sees the overall beauty of the plate, then she notices there are naked people in the middle of the plate, then she notices they're both boys, and just as she's working out what they're doing in that position, Jean-Michel rescues her, poor thing. She is not equipped to handle the complexities of the real world, which she's been sheltered from, for so long.

Then we hear from her oppressor, M. Dindon, and notice that, like most conservatives, everything comes down to fear.
This is even worse than I feared;
The son is strange, the father is weird.
To meet the wife, I’m actually afraid.
I prefer that Anne remain an old maid!

He came into this situation in fear, fear of the Other, fear of freedom, fear of difference, fear of loss of control, fear of what he perceives to be chaos. But also notice that his only complaints are really vague. He has no actual issues with them; he just doesn't like them viscerally. And his conditioned reaction is to withdraw from the world, to turn his daughter into Miss Havisham, rather than be tainted -- or worse, seduced -- by the Chaos. How many home-schooling Evangelicals today feel the same way?

In a delicious bit of narrative subversion, the cross-dressing, norm-busting, gender-fluid Jacob returns to get the last verse himself, to pass the final judgment.
It's appalling to confess
Our new in-laws are a mess!
She's a prude!
He's a prig!
She's a pill!
He's a pig!
So zis ... zis ... zis for you papa!

Jacob is the truth-teller. The Dindons are acting like Albin, Georges, and Jean-Michel are the Others, but here in this world, the Dindon are the Others. Here's it's their behavior which is inappropriate. When Albin takes them all to Jacqueline's for dinner, this process will be finished, and the Dindons will be the ultimate Others -- that is, until Marie and Anne cross over...

This song "Cocktail Counterpoint," this moment in the story, is what a writing teacher of mine called The Obligatory Moment, the moment without which the story doesn't exist. Everything before it leads to it, and everything after it leads from it. The whole first act is about the impending collision of these two very different families. This is that collision. And this writing is so good, it's a musical collision as well as a textual and thematic collision. And the rest of the show is the fallout from that collision.

What's cool is how this collision begins entirely inside their minds -- these are all "internal monologues" -- and Jerry Herman and Harvey Fierstein create wonderful tension by not letting the inevitable bomb go off quite yet. We know what's coming, even if we don't know exactly how it will play out, and throughout the scene at Jacqueline's, we keep waiting for the explosion...

And then Herman totally distracts us with one of the greatest of all earworms, "The Best of Times," and we forget for a minute about that explosion we were waiting for... And then...

Well, I wouldn't want to spoil it if you haven't seen the show yet...

It has been such a joy working on this amazing show, and the overwhelmingly positive response from audiences and critics has been so wonderful. But really, all we've done is take the material seriously. I still don't get why everybody doesn't do that.

We run through March 23! Come see us!

Long Live the Musical!

Come and Investigate the Dark Side of Your Soul

As I wrote in my first blog post about this show, the title La Cage aux Folles can be translated a few different ways, but the one that makes most sense to me is The Cage of Madwomen. And yet, while folles usually means crazy or foolish, it's also a slang word for effeminate gay men. Think about that for a second.

The name of the show -- and the name of the club at the center of our story, and the name of our show's title song about that club -- is all about ambiguity. As Georges quips in Act I, "If you can't be truthful, be vague." The title song itself, the lyric, is about how all the labels and categories are blurred, even erased, in this world.

Because we don't need them. Because the world is more complex than that.

It's the conservative Dindons' worst nightmare: social and cultural complexity. Or maybe we'll find out it's Mme. Dindon's liberation. (Fun fact: dindon is French for turkey.) The content of the show's title song is all about erasing the lines between male and female, moral and immoral, classy and tacky, "royalty" and "riff-raff," "Perrier" and "Canada Dry," etc.

What's the point? Labels are meaningless. People are individuals. People are who they are. Labels can't contain us. So whoever and whatever you are, you're safe here at La Cage. There are no expectations, no assumptions. During one of Georges' interactions with the audience, he says, "Duchess is that you? I didn't recognize you behind the moustache. It brings out your eyes." It's funny on the surface, but it's more than that. It's also about not judging, or maybe even more than that, celebrating what makes us individual.

Look at this funny, rich, subversive lyric...
It's rather gaudy but it's also rather grand;
And while the waiter pads your check, he'll kiss your hand.
The clever gigolos
Romance the wealthy matrons,
At La Cage aux Folles.

So it's gaudy (tasteless) and grand (tasteful). The waiter will steal from you and treat you warmly. And then a mention of rich women and their boy toys, right before we return to the title phrase, which means The Cage of Madwomen.
It's slightly forties, and a little bit new wave.
You may be dancing with a girl who needs a shave.
Where both the riff-raff
And the royalty are patrons,
At La Cage aux Folles.

It's both old-fashioned and up-to-date (remember, the show's set in the 1980s). And gender is ambiguous. And money doesn't mean much. And now we switch from a minor key to major.
La Cage aux Folles,
The maitre d' is dashing;
Cage aux Folles,
The hatcheck girl is flashing.
We import the drinks that you buy,
So your Perrier is Canada dry!

This place is both classy -- they have a dashing maitre d' -- and tacky -- the hatcheck girl is flashing her business at passers-by. And the "foreign" is a matter of perspective.

In other words, all bets are off. The usual rules don't apply here. In fact, virtually no rules apply here. Except one -- dignity.

The music returns to minor...
Eccentric couples always punctuate the scene;
A pair of eunuchs and a nun with a marine.
To feel alive, you
Get a limousine to drive you
To La Cage aux Folles.

The tone changes here. It's no longer self-depricatingly ironic. This is a weird place, but it's also a good place, a safe place, an interesting place, a place where you can be fully, unapologetically you. Where you can be alive... with the obvious implication that you're probably not alive anywhere else.
It's bad and beautiful; it's bawdy and bizarre.
I know a duchess who got pregnant at the bar!
Just who is who
And what is what is quite a question
At La Cage aux Folles.

This is a place of freedom and excess. Note that it's bizarre and bawdy, even bad, but it's also beautiful. The pregnant duchess embodies the ethos of this place -- Follow Your Bliss and Discover Your True Self. And don't worry about categories, definitions, norms, proprieties...
Go for the mystery, the magic and the mood;
Avoid the hustlers
And the men's room and the food.
For you get glamour
And romance and indigestion
At La Cage aux Folles.

You get everything! La Cage represents the yin and yang of our lives, in miniature. And as if in celebration of that, the music turns major as more voices join in choral harmony.
La Cage aux Folles,
A St. Tropez tradition!
Cage aux Folles,
You'll lose each inhibition!
All week long we're wondering who
Left a green Givenchy gown in the loo!

That last image is so subversive. Someone left a designer gown in the restroom. It instantly conjures questions -- was it a man or woman? what were they wearing when they left? who leaves their dress in the bathroom? But all those questions tell us everything we need to know about this place. We can't impose the rules of the outside world on the people and behavior in this world. As evidenced by the next, delicious lines...
You go alone to have the evening of your life;
You meet your mistress and your boyfriend and your wife!
It's a bonanza,
It's a mad extravaganza,
At La Cage aux Folles!

Then there's a big dance break and the Cagelles dazzle us. Eventually, Albin returns... and the music returns to minor...
You'll be so dazzled by the ambiance you're in,
You'll never notice that there's water in the gin.
Come for a drink and you may
Wanna spend the winter
At La Cage aux Folles!

Sounds like fun, no? The music turns to major one more time.
La Cage aux Folles,
A St. Tropez tradition;
Cage aux Folles,
You'll lose each inhibition.
We indulge each change in your mood;
Come and sip your Dubonnet in the nude.

That last image is even funnier when you know "Dubonnet" is short for "Dubonnet Rouge Grand Aperitif de France" (I didn't.)  Drinking that in the nude is even funnier to  me.

The Cagelles return for a can-can, the once notorious dance originally performed at the Moulin Rouge in Paris, a fitting tribute to the dancing girls that came before them. After the rowdy, carnal dance break, Albin returns and he brings the minor key -- and complexity -- back with him.
Come and allow yourself to lose your self control;
Come and investigate the dark side of your soul.
Come for a glimpse and you may
Wanna stay forever
At La Cage aux Folles!

You cross the threshold and your bridges have been burned.
The bar is cheering for the duchess has returned!
The mood's contagious;
You can bring your whole outrageous entourage!
It's hot and hectic,
Effervescent and eclectic,
At La Cage aux Folles!

Who wouldn't want to go to a place like that? We're in Shakespeare's Woods. We're through Alice's looking glass. And we're here to learn something about ourselves.

Songwriter Jerry Herman's subtle but powerful trick of switching back and forth between major and minor is really clever. The minor key gives us that sense of the dark side, the wildness, and the major key delivers the joy and playfulness. Like the rest of the show, it's ambiguous. It's the musical yin and yang of La Cage aux Folles and La Cage aux Folles, and it connects this title song to the major textual themes of the show.

In most of Jerry Herman theatre scores, he uses minor keys not to express sadness, but complexity. Look at "Ribbons Down My Back" in Hello, Dolly! and much of the score to Mack and Mabel.

He does the same thing in La Cage's "Song on the Sand," which also alternates major and minor, but for a slightly different reason. Here, the intro and first verse are about an only partly remembered past, but in the second verse when Georges switches to the present, the music moves to major. But before it ends, it moves back to the past and back to minor. The past is bitter-sweet, but the present is good. Relationships are hard, but this is a strong relationship genuinely built on love.

We think of songwriter Jerry Herman as one of the shining lights at the end of the so-called "Golden Age" of musical theatre, and we lump him in with other writers of lightweight fare. But Herman didn't write fluff. Even his earlier works, Hello, Dolly! and Mame featured decidedly subversive, nonconforming women, whose nonconformity up-ends everyone and everything around them.

Many stories have an "agent of chaos" who bring disruption to a story. But it's not usually the protagonist. Isn't it interesting that Herman's leading women are always the agents of chaos in their own stories? Merely the desire to control their own lives and destinies is disruptive to the men around them. Maybe that's why gay men like to read Dolly and Mame as subliminal drag queens.

And after all, isn't that essentially the story of La Cage aux Folles? Albin causes chaos by being who he is, and refusing to apologize for that. And isn't that exactly the kind of disruption at the heart of progressive political activism in America right now?

Who knew in 1983 that this musical would be so relevant in 2019?

We open this week! Get your tickets!

Long Live the Musical!

Toxic Masculinity

Have you seen the Gillette ad that inexplicably has conservative America's panties in a twist?

It's amazing that this ad charges into our already toxic public discourse just as we New Liners are in rehearsal for La Cage aux Folles, containing a song called "Masculinity." Imagine what the right-wingers would think of Albin! Oh, right, we don't have to imagine. That's our story.

Yes, it seems M. and Mme. Dindon are alive and well and living in America. After all, we've all seen in recent years the many and various indignities imposed on trans Americans and others by panicky Christians. As I wrote in my last post, this show may be thirty-five years old, and based on a film even older, but it's about right here and right now.

It's fascinating to me how much the controversy over this Gillette ad parallels the song "Masculinity" in La Cage. We find the song funny as we watch it, because not only is Albin terrible at performing Maleness; so is Geroges. Albin's the one being "schooled" here, but Albin arguably has more self-awareness than Georges does.

This one dialogue exchange over the song's intro is so perfect.
GEORGES. I want you to pick up that toast as if you were John Wayne.

(ALBIN prepares, does his best gunslinger swagger, then sits back down and lifts the toast, fanning himself with it.)

GEORGES: I thought I said John Wayne.

ALBIN. It is John Wayne. John Wayne as a little girl!

It's a punchline but it tells the truth. Albin is a man in his way; he's John Wayne (tough, strong) as a little girl (who loves to play dress-up and house). Makes me think of The Bad Seed. Tellingly in this world, it's Madame Renaud who does the best "masculine" walk for Albin to imitate. And when Georges points that out to him, Albin replies, "It's easy for her. She's wearing flats." His world isn't made for this kind of performance. He doesn't even have the right shoes for it!

It's only in retrospect that we realize that Act II cafe scene and the song "Masculinity" are as cruel as Jean-Michel's abuses and betrayals. Jean-Michael wants Albin gone; but Georges wants him to deny who he is -- including his real role as Jean-Michel's mother. Albin is to become "Uncle Al," not even a member of the immediate family! Which is worse? Georges sees Jean-Michel's betrayal, but not his own.

Look at the examples of manliness they offer up for poor Albin in "Masculinity." They start with movie stars John Wayne and Jean-Paul Belmondo, both of whom performed their masculinity as much as Albin performs Zaza. And really, they're not telling Albin to think of the actors, but the parts they play on the screen -- fictional masculinity.

Georges invokes the French Foreign Legion. According to Wikipedia, "Beyond its reputation as an elite unit often engaged in serious fighting, the recruitment practices of the French Foreign Legion have also led to a somewhat romanticized view of it being a place for disgraced or 'wronged' men looking to leave behind their old lives and start new ones. This view of the legion is common in literature, and has been used for dramatic effect in many films, not the least of which are the several versions of Beau Geste."

To leave behind their old lives and start new ones. That's a pretty potent reference. He invokes "Charlemagne's Men," i.e. the Christian Crusaders. That's also really chilling, considering who Georges and Albin are. And a "stevedore" is a dock worker, a manual laborer. (Makes us wonder if Georges has spent time down at the docks...)

Then the Renauds up the ante a bit, referencing Charles De Gaulle (France's World War II resistance hero), Rasputin (the notorious holy man to Russian Tsar Nicholas II), and the Biblical Daniel. No pressure, though.

Finally in the last verse, the stakes get raised to a ridiculous extreme, suggesting as manly role models the brutal and genocidal Ghengis Khan, the fictional Russian war hero Taras Bulba, the ruthless invader and plunderer Attila the Hun, and weirdly then, the gentler and largely fictional "Robin Hood's Men"...

No wonder Albin can't get it right. With competing role models like that...

In retrospect, we realize how wrong this whole scene is, how wrong it is to force Albin to masquerade as something he's not, to wear a mask not of his own choosing. In the club, Albin's mask and performance as Zaza reveal his truest self. But the mask and performance of "Uncle Al" will deny Albin's truest self. It's only when Albin rebels, discards the agreed-upon scheme, and appears in full drag as "Mother" that he's once again showing his truest self.

He is Jean-Michel's mother.

But it goes deeper than that, to a lesson we're taught in the brilliant musical, Passing Strange, that we are each on our own quest to find The Real -- our truth, our path, our journey -- but we all have to learn that our Real is different from everybody else's, so nobody else can ever tell you how to find your Real. As Stew tells us at the end of the show:
'Cuz The Real is a construct...
It's the raw nerve's private zone...
It's a personal sunset
You drive off into alone.

Here in La Cage, Albin has to find his Real, his definition of being a man, not Georges' definition, or the Renauds' or the Dindons'.

I am what I am.

Only Albin can find his path, and by the end of the show, we know that path is where Albin always knew it was. With family.

He -- and the others -- have to learn that really being a man means taking responsibility, stepping up. It's not about our culturally constructed models of masculine and feminine; it's about being strong and dependable. Being a man is about being proud of yourself and not apologizing for or hiding who you are. That's what Albin knows and what Jean-Michel has to learn.

When Albin shows up in drag as "Mother," that's when he is most being a man, showing up for his family, even though he's in drag head to toe. I told Zak (who's playing Albin) and Robert (who's playing Georges) that my biggest revelation when I started working on this show was that it's not a gay comedy. It's not a showbiz comedy. It's really not a even comedy, though it's awfully funny.

It's a drama about a middle-aged marriage and whether or not it can survive this crisis. That's the central action of the story. And I would submit, the real crisis isn't the hugely problematic engagement; it's a crisis of dignity and identity. Jean-Michel asks Georges to give up his (and Albin's) dignity and identity, and out of love, Georges agrees; but Albin saves both marriages because he refuses to give up his dignity, and he teaches both Jean-Michel and Anne an important lesson about being who you are.

And in the process, Albin becomes the role model for everybody else.


Just as La Cage shows us there isn't just one kind of family (and sometimes, the "Other" kind might just be healthier), it also shows us there isn't only one way to be a man, that "being a man" isn't always about being a man. Notice that throughout the show, the Cagelles are tough as fuckin' nails, even intimidating, even though they're always in women's clothes.

When we produced Anything Goes last season, everybody was astonished at what we revealed in the material, but all we did was take the text, the characters, the story, the themes, seriously; yes, even though it's a funny show. We're doing the same with La Cage, and though it's not my goal, I bet we get a lot of the same reactions for this one.

It's so much richer and realer and more complex than most people think. And so truthful and so funny. And unfortunately, also reeeeeally timely.

The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

To order tickets to La Cage aux Folles, click here.

La Cage aux Folles

"We are what we are,
And what we are
Is an illusion."

That's the first lyric in La Cage aux Folles, and though on the surface, it's talking about drag, it's saying way more than that. Just like the show it introduces. Those few lines encapsulate the entire story and all its themes.

Nobody realizes that the first time they hear it, but it's all there.

It introduces us to two ideas that will permeate every moment of the show. First, "we are what we are" -- in other words, we accept and embrace ourselves for who we are, without judgment or regret, without wanting to be someone or something else, and we're not changing. It's such a declarative statement. Particularly as sung by performers in drag, it's a statement of defiance and dignity. And that dignity will be greatly challenged throughout this story.

But the second phrase tells something just as important -- "what we are is an illusion." That's literally true of the men singing (St. Louis male actors playing French male performers playing female characters), but it's universally true for all of us. We all wear masks of various kinds in our lives; we all "perform" various roles, just like the characters in our story. This whole show is a deceptively serious story about identity and masks, reality and illusion.

Albin is living as a man, performing onstage as a woman, husband to Georges, "mother" to Jean-Michel, tragic diva to Jacob. When Albin shows up at the dinner party in drag, it's funny to us because we know he's about to cause all kinds of chaos, but we also register (maybe subconsciously) that this mask is "true." Albin is "disguised" as Jean-Michael's mother, but Albin is Jean-Michel's mother, in a very real way. So is it a deception?

Yes and no, both.

Like the whole show.

Like all of our lives.

When Albin takes his wig off at the end of "The Best of Times" in Act II, it's a plot device, but it's also such a compelling moment because the act of removing the wig after a drag performance is how Albin "tells the truth." He loves, even needs the mask, the safety of performance, but he never loses touch with reality. He can live successfully in both worlds.

As crazy as it is, Geroges and Albin's world has an equilibrium as our story begins. Yes, we witness Albin in full breakdown in the first dialogue scene, but we can tell from Georges' reactions that this is standard fare, part of their daily ritual. They both know the parts they play in this ritual, their lines, etc., and they both know by the end of the ritual, Zaza will go on.

This is a world of craziness and chaos, but it's also a world of family and ritual and commitment and a weird kind of stability.

People translate the title of La Cage aux Folles in various ways, but the one that seems most right to me is "The Mad Cage." The word folles is French for crazy or wild, and if you speak French, you'll notice that it's the feminine form of the word. So a literal translation might be "The Cage of Madwomen." But on top of that, folles is also French slang for effeminate gay men! When you know all that, the name of the show -- which is the name of the club above which the whole story takes place -- is a slyly subversive, multi-layered joke.

And what most people don't notice is that in the climax of the show, when all our characters are trapped in Georges and Albin's apartment, it becomes literally a "cage" of crazy people, une cage aux folles. The title tells us how our story will end.

But let's pause for a second, to note again that the slang word for effeminate gay men is a word that means crazy. That's pretty chilling. But also note that, just as gay Americans took back the word queer as a word of defiance and empowerment, so too Georges has taken back that word folles in an act of subtle, even comic, defiance.

Maybe they're crazy, but you'll pay to see them... so who's really crazy?

I first saw La Cage aux Folles in 1983 with my mom, on Broadway. It was wonderful, a big-scale, old-fashioned musical comedy that seemed gentle, but as timely as today's headlines. And even though I hadn't yet told my mom I was gay, and she didn't know any openly gay people, still at the end of the show she was deeply moved, and she said to me, "They really were in love, weren't they?"

The power of theatre.

But as much as I loved the show, it wasn't something I wanted to work on. Too big, too old-fashioned. Then I saw the 2010 revival on Broadway and all my preconceptions about this show were turned upside-down.

Ben Brantley's New York Times review of the revival cracked me up. He spent much of his review talking about how great the show is, except how bad the material is. It seems he couldn't imagine that maybe he didn't like the show in the past because other productions hadn't found everything that's there, and this latest production did. In Brantley's mind, it had to be that this production was good in spite of the material, not because of it. That was so funny to me.

I wrote a blog post about the revival the night I saw it, and I think I really got at what made it so different from the original...
I had been told that it was way darker (which we all know I love) and that in this version, the club in the show was much seedier. But that's not entirely true. What was so different may just be a product of changing expectations from the musical theatre audience. The biggest difference was the acting. So real, so honest, so truthful. They didn't play it as musical comedy; they approached the characters, relationships, etc. the way they would in a serious play. So though it's a funny story, there was no layer of irony distancing us from the emotions of these characters and events.

As much as I loved George Hearn as Albin, his was a musical-comedy Albin. But in 2010, Douglas Hodge gave us a powerful real, honest Albin, just a weary middle-aged man in a middle-aged marriage, who was also a very talented (though aging) nightclub performer. It was so much more emotional this way.
But the real highlight of the show was Douglas Hodge as Albin. His performance was nothing short of pure genius. Funny, honest, painful, subtle, joyful, and most of all, incredibly real. The kind of guy you'd love to have for a friend. Again, this was no musical comedy performance; this is an actor at the height of his power. Sometimes a naughty little boy, sometimes a weary middle-aged man, sometimes just a charismatic, lifelong entertainer who knows how to connect with an audience. His songs, "A Little More Mascara" and "I Am What I Am," both start out very quiet, very small, and that little detail made it so real, so emotional. He wasn't entertaining us with these songs; they were soliloquies from a man who isn't as sure or as strong as Albin usually is.

As I've said to a lot of people lately, the revival taught me that this show isn't really a musical comedy at heart -- the emotions and the stakes are too serious for that. There is genuine cruelty at the center of the story. No, this is a family drama, which happens to be populated by lots of colorful, larger-than-life, real people. After seeing the revival, I knew La Cage was a New Line show after all.
It's one of those productions that makes me see the material from an entirely different angle, much like the 1990s revivals of Carousel and The King and I. What I always thought of as a very sweet, fun musical comedy is now something much, much more. And what a joy it is to witness real artists of the theatre find that greater depth and subtlety in a show that isn't known for those things. It must've been there all along, hiding, waiting for actors and a director like this.

This is what I wrote about the revival's impact on me.
By the end of the cheering standing ovation, I was so overwhelmed with emotion, I could barely speak. I was supposed to meet a friend after the show, and I thought I wasn't going to be able to talk without bursting into tears. It was that powerful for me.

I can only hope that we bring that kind of honesty and resonance and power to this wonderful piece of theatre. I recently saw some footage of the original French (non-musical) play. It was very funny, but it could turn on a dime and break your fucking heart.

What could be more fun, or more satisfying to work on than that? Another wild and wonderful adventure begins! You have to see this one.

Long Live the Musical!

To order tickets to La Cage aux Folles, click here.

Fascinatin' Rhythm

When I wrote my history book, Strike Up the Band, I had two primary agendas. One was to reject the premise of all other musical theatre history books, that the Rodgers & Hammerstein musical was the pinnacle of the art form. It wasn't. The other agenda was to include in the story of our art form all the people of color, the women, the people with disabilities who helped shape the American musical theatre but get left out of almost all history books. I hope I did a decent job of re-balancing our story a little.

But the first draft of my book was about double the length they'd accept. I had to cut so much out of it, including a lot of early, little-known black shows. But I saved all that text. What really fascinated me was the musicals before the turn of the century. George M. Cohan essentially invented what we know as musical comedy in the first decade of the 20th century, with shows like Little Johnny Jones (1904); but there were shows before that, shows I guess I'd call proto-musicals, not exactly the form we know today, but something close.

And there were a lot of black shows!

As the 19th century ended, the first generation of African Americans born free in America finally was coming of age. Even though the U.S. Supreme Court had invalidated the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883, and then had upheld the controversial idea of “separate but equal” for African Americans in 1896, still for a short while, anything was possible for black men in America, especially in the North. Many became doctors and lawyers, studied classical music with the best composers, and became great poets and novelists. The good times only lasted a while, but while they did, great things were accomplished. There wouldn’t be another time like it until the Harlem Renaissance.

And so in 1898, black performers finally joined the fun on Broadway with two all-Black musical comedies, A Trip to Coontown and Clorindy, The Origin of the Cakewalk. Of Clorindy, Bernard L. Peterson Jr. writes in A Century of Musicals in Black and White, “It was probably the first to fully exploit the possibilities of syncopated ragtime music in the theatre; the first to introduce the cakewalk (a staple of the minstrel stage) to sophisticated New York audiences; the first all-black show to play at a major Broadway theatre; and the first to have a white theatre orchestra led by a black conductor.”

In fact, more than thirty all-black shows were staged in Harlem and on Broadway between 1890 and 1915, and for a while some twenty blocks along Seventh Avenue in Manhattan was commonly known as “the African Broadway” because of the number of theatres housing all-black shows. In the first decade of the twentieth century, black men were buying theatres in various parts of the country, eventually forming a black touring circuit of their own.

The big break for Will Marion Cook and Laurence Dunbar’s Clorindy in 1898 is described by composer Will Marion Cook in his autobiography, and quoted by Thomas L. Riis in Just Before Jazz:
I went to see [producer] Ed Rice, and I saw him every day for a month. Regularly, after interviewing a room full of people he would say to me (I was always the last): “Who are you and what do you want?” On the thirty-first day – and by now I am so discouraged this is my last trip – I heard him tell a knockabout act: “Come up next Monday to rehearsal, do a show, and if you make good, I’ll have you on all week.”

I was desperate. On leaving Rice’s office, I went at once to the Greasy Front, a Negro club run by Charlie Moore, with a restaurant in the basement managed by Mrs. Moore. There I was sure to find a few members of my ensemble. I told them a most wonderful and welcome story: we were booked at the Casino Roof! That was probably the most beautiful lie I ever told.

On Monday morning, every man and woman, boy and girl that I had taught to sing my music was at the Casino Roof. Luckily for us, Ed Rice did not appear at rehearsal until very late that morning. By this time, my singers were grouped on the stage and I started the opening chorus. When I entered the orchestra pit, there only about fifty people on the Roof. When we finished the opening chorus, the house was packed to suffocation.

The show was booked.

Cook was born to college educated parents and studied music at Oberlin College in Berlin, and under the great composer Anton Dvořák at the National Conservatory of Music in New York. When his mother heard him working on the score for Clorindy, she came into the room with tears in her eyes. She said, “Oh Will, I’ve sent you all over the world to study and become a great musician, and you return such a nigger!” Like many other African Americans, she didn’t like the kind of “coon songs” Cook was writing, believing they denigrated the race and contributed to dangerous stereotypes that plagued African Americans. Despite the winning of the Civil War, lynchings continued in the South, the Civil Rights legislation passed after the Civil War was virtually ignored, and there was a major race riot in New York City in August 1900.

But Cook justified his work by noting that it got black men on Broadway for the first time. It was a debate that would go on for a century.

Blacks were finally on Broadway and, most important, not as minstrels and not in black face. Clorindy was the first show created and performed entirely by blacks in a mainstream theatre for an exclusively white audience. After Clorindy’s opening, Will Marion Cook exclaimed, “Negroes are at last on Broadway, and here to stay!”

Cook had not just put blacks on Broadway, he had also put syncopation into Broadway’s musical vocabulary for the first time, something that would distinguish musical comedy music from opera or operetta, forever separating the two, marking perhaps the most important musical moment in the history of Broadway. Cook would go on to write scores for many more all-black musicals over the next fifteen years, including In Dahomey (1903), Abyssinia (1906), and Bandanna Land (1908), which the Dramatic Mirror called “one of the rare plays that one feels like witnessing a second time.” Cook became widely regarded as the leader in black musical in America. his show The Southerners in 1904 was the first musical on Broadway with an integrated cast.

Bob Cole and Billy Johnson’s A Trip to Coontown not only boasted an all-black cast, but also Broadway’s first black producer, Bob Cole. The title a conscious reference to the very popular A Trip to Chinatown, the show told the story of a black con man who tries to con an older black man out of his $5,000 pension. The show was written in August 1897 and opened in New Jersey for a trial run, before going on tour and then moving to New York.

But the tour was no picnic. Because Cole and Johnson had defected from Black Patti’s Troubadours, that group’s white manager put Cole and Johnson through hell. He convinced black theatre owners around the country to boycott Coontown and convinced black performers that if they performed in Coontown they would be finished. So the show spent a year playing the worst, smallest theatres in the country, while the creators worked on the show. Still, when it came to New York in 1899, it had become such a hit, it suddenly was playing only the best theatres.

The story of Coontown was only barely important, and the show only marginally figures in the development of the American musical, except for the fact that it was the first musical produced, directed, written, and performed by blacks. And producer Cole, after only modest success with Coontown, was determined to push black musical comedy into new, unusual, and exciting places. The show’s program described it as “the Roaring, Racing, Rollicking Musical Comedy.” One Boston review called it, “far and away, the most satisfying extravaganza, white, black, or flushing pink, seen in Boston this season.”

Most people have never heard of these truly important artists, and that's a shame.

The more I researched our art form while writing my history book, the more I discovered people of color all throughout its history -- people and shows who are left out of almost every history book. My Strike Up the Band went pretty far in correcting that problem, but like I said, there was so much more I wanted to write about.

The first time my eyes got opened to the huge role in our history of artists of color, was when I first read Allen Woll's great 1989 book Black Musical Theatre, which I've now read three times over the years. Here are some other excellent books on this topic...

Black Broadway: African Americans on the Great White Way by Stewart F. Lane

The Strange Career of Porgy and Bess: Race, Culture, and America’s Most Famous Opera by Ellen Noonan

Who Should Sing 'Ol' Man River'?: The Lives of an American Song by Todd Decker

Show Boat: Performing Race in an American Musical by Todd Decker

Reminiscing with Noble Sissle and Eubie Blake by Robert Kimball

Beyond Lift Every Voice and Sing: The Culture of Uplift, Identity, and Politics in Black Musical Theater by Paula Marie Seniors

They say of politics, if we forget history, we're doomed to repeat it. With theatre, it's more like, if we don't know -- and learn from -- our history, our artistic toolkit is only half full. And I can help.

Long Live the Musical!

A Hot Cup of Murder

One time, the Archbishop of St. Louis tried to shut down a New Line show called Sex, Drugs, and Rock & Roll. I'm not kidding. He failed. Well, he successfully shut down our preview, but we were open again for opening night. You can read about that here.

Our show was just a revue of theatre songs on those topics, three of the most powerful forces on humans, including songs from Rent, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Avenue Q, Songs for a New World, Hair, The Rocky Horror Show, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Naked Boys Singing, Company, Nine, I Love My Wife, Oklahoma!, The Last Five Years, Reefer Madness, No, No, Nanette, The Wild Party, and The Nervous Set. Sounds morally terrifying, doesn't it? Yet the Archdiocese was determined to shut us down. So bizarre.

More recently, a Christiany website tried to organize a form-letter campaign against our production of Jerry Springer the Opera (apparently they protest all productions of the show), but we only got 3 or 4 emails, and they were all identical. Some of the actors were afraid we'd have protesters at the theatre, but I knew these were the type who protested only if they could do it with one click.

Crazy shit, huh? But I can top both those stories, in terms of sheer weirdness.

One of our longtime New Liners, Colin DeVaughan, was working at Harrah's Casino in the early 2000s, and they were looking for events to bring in, that would attract busloads of seniors, who would then gamble the rest of the night. Colin told me about it and asked if we wanted to create something.

At first, I wasn't interested, but the more I thought about it, the more the idea of writing a murder-mystery-comedy intrigued me. So over the course of a few weeks, I wrote a (non-musical) comedy called "A Hot Cup of Murder." The script was recently published and you can get it on Amazon here.

Since we'd be performing the show in a banquet hall while people were eating, I set my show at a political fundraising dinner, where a rich guy named Preston Seaborn is launching a Senate campaign. But about ten minutes into the dinner, Preston drops dead in his entree, leaving his wife and bratty, 20-something kids to handle the awkward situation and unintentionally reveal all their worst impulses and secrets to the guests. And then a cop named Coffee shows up, with a mysterious past...

The cast included Colin, Mo Monahan, Robin Kelso, Troy Turnipseed, and Troy Schnider. We had a lot of fun with it.

We did the first performance at Harrah's and, despite the incredibly crazy, twisting story, the full house of seniors laughed at all the jokes, gasped at revelations, and had a really great time. We even got a standing ovation. We felt great about it.

Now here's the crazy part...

All the other planned performances were then cancelled. After all the work we'd done. No explanation. And we didn't get paid nearly what we had been promised.

Then a few months ago, I stumbled onto a website for "Parents of Murdered Children Inc.," which sends out "Murder Is Not Entertainment (MINE) Alerts" (not kidding), and on one page of the site, it had a list of their protests, and one item said:
January, 2001
Harrah's Casino
POMC was successful in protesting Hot Cup of Murder, a murder mystery hosted by Harrah's Casino.

I could barely believe it. Our little comedy was shut down by protesters!

And it made me wonder, do these folks protest every play or movie with murder in it? Or even every comic play or movie with murder in it? When would they sleep...? The truth is: murder is entertainment. Sophocles and Shakespeare and Arthur Conan Doyle and the writers of Murder, She Wrote all knew that. Oh yeah, and the Bible.

Their website says, "POMC makes the difference through on-going emotional support, education, prevention, advocacy, and awareness. POMC Vision Statement: To provide support and assistance to all survivors of homicide victims while working to create a world free of murder."

"Support and assistance" by telling everybody else what stories we're allowed to tell? While I have sympathy for parents of murdered children -- who wouldn't? -- how does this make sense? How does shutting down our play make any of those parents feel better or replace the terrible hole left in their lives?

That's easy -- it doesn't.

Just another example of people trying desperately to control strangers. It's so baffling to me. It's rare we've had issues like this, but it still happens and it will happen again. America is not past that kind of silliness quite yet.

To be clear, there were no children in our play and certainly no children murdered. And also, there are a shit-ton of movies, plays, TV shows and novels about murder, many of them dark comedies. I have a weird feeling that the operators of POMC are taking advantage of grief-stricken parents for their own agenda of trying to control the expression of others. That's pretty fucked up.

Though not entirely surprising in the Trump Era, sadly. That's okay. Imagine how all those folks' heads would explode if they'd ever see Bukowsical, Wild Party, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson... We'll always get the last laugh, because we're the ones who make the art, and it's the art that gets remembered.

Long Live Uncensored Uncontrolled Theatre!

Broadway Hot Damn!

I am in love with the BroadwayHD channel on Amazon Prime Video. I'm convinced that HD stands for Hot Damn!

When we were working on Yeast Nation, last summer, Greg Kotis told me that he and Mark Hollmann had based their story loosely on both Macbeth and Antigone. So I watched both plays on video, and it helped me a lot with Yeast Nation.

And then I wanted to see the rest of the Oedipus trilogy, which includes Oedipus the King, Oedipus at Colonus, and Antigone. One way to see them was to subscribe to the BroadwayHD channel. So I did, and I felt like Dorothy walking out of her sepia-toned house into the Technicolor of Oz. Suddenly, I had tons of theatre available to me, from the earliest plays that exist, up to the latest Broadway offerings.

If you've never seen it, I can't recommend these three plays enough. I set out to watch them more out of historical curiosity, but I fell in love with all three plays. Anybody who loves great theatre should watch all three, but make sure it's the 1986 BBC versions, translated and directed by Don Taylor, starring Michael Pennington as Oedipus, Claire Bloom as Jocasta, John Gielgud as Tiresias, and Juliet Stevenson as Antigone. Talk about powerful, compelling theatre!

Then, after watching the trilogy, watch The Gospel at Colonus, which is also on BroadwayHD, with Morgan Freeman. The Gospel at Colonus takes the story of Oedipus at Colonus and tells it in the form of a Baptist church service. It's brilliant.

I planned to subscribe only temporarily, but I'm hooked. I've already watched a bunch of my bucket list plays, like Hedda Gabler, A Doll's House, School for Scandal, "Tis Pity She's a Whore, Buried Child, Present Laughter, and others. And I have dozens still to go. There's a ton of Shakespeare (I can finally see King John!), but there's also so much more... Here's just a partial list...

Paula Vogel's Indecent
Noel Coward's Present Laughter
Rhinoceros (with Gene Wilder and Zero Mostel!)
Ah, Wilderness!
Long Day's Journey into Night
Man Who Came to Dinner
Buried Child
A Touch of the Poet
Three Sisters
Hedda Gabler
"Tis Pity She's a Whore
School for Scandal
The Misanthrope
The Iceman Cometh
The Norman Conquests

And there are a lot of musicals, as well...

American in Paris
Holiday Inn
Billy Eilliot
She Loves Me
From Here to Eternity
Sweeney Todd
Gypsy (Bette Midler AND Imelda Staunton)
Toxic Avenger
Jerry Springer the Opera
Kiss Me, Kate
JC Superstar
Jekyll & Hyde
Wind in the Willows
Sophisticated Ladies

I used to laugh at myself, because I have Charter on Demand, Netflix, Amazon Prime, Hulu, and a huge DVD collection, and yet sometimes I just cannot find something I want to watch.  But that never happens anymore because now there are always a few dozen plays and musicals waiting for me...

And really, what could be better than that?

Long Live the Musical!

Into the Words

When young musical theatre artists ask me how to get where they're going, I always give the same advice, to consume as much musical theatre as humanly possible, to see every musical (live and on screen) that they can, read scripts and biographies and history books and analysis books, listen to cast albums -- and not just the new ones.

In other words, drink all of it in. And part of that is creating a good library for yourself.

I was browsing my own considerable musical theatre script library, and though there are lots of photocopied scripts and "lost" rental scripts (shhh, don't tell anybody), it's surprising how many musical theatre scripts get published. Of course, with some exceptions (like Sondheim), it's only the most famous, most commercial shows that get published. But it's happening more now than it has since the 60s and 70s.

I noticed I have several really nice published collections of musical theatre scripts in my library, so I thought it would be worth blogging about them. So many young musical theatre fans can start a decent script library without spending too much time or money (if you get these used on Amazon!).

Great Musicals of the American Theatre, in two volumes 
Volume One includes Of Thee I Sing, Porgy and Bess, One Touch of Venus, Brigadoon, Kiss Me Kate, West Side Story, Gypsy, Fiddler on the Roof, 1776, and Company.
Volume Two includes Leave It to Me, Lady in the Dark, Lost in the Stars, Wonderful Town, Fiorello!, Camelot, Man of La Mancha, Cabaret, Applause, and A Little Night Music.
Both volumes are out of print, but you can get used copies pretty cheap on Amazon.

American Musicals, in two volumes or boxed set 
1927-1949 includes Show Boat, As Thousands Cheer, Pal Joey, Oklahoma!, On the Town, Finian's Rainbow, Kiss Me Kate, and South Pacific.
1950-1969 includes Guys and Dolls, The Pajama Game, My Fair Lady, Gypsy, A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum, Fiddler on the Roof, Cabaret, and 1776.

Great Rock Musicals
Includes The Wiz, Two Gentlemen of Verona, Grease, Jesus Christ Superstar, Your Own Thing, Hair, Tommy, and Promenade.

The New York Musicals of Comden and Green
Includes On the Town, Wonderful Town, and Bells Are Ringing

The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 1
Includes Promises, Promises (as well as several plays)
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 2
Includes Little Me (as well as several plays)
The Collected Plays of Neil Simon, vol. 3
Includes They're Playing Our Song and Sweet Charity (as well as several plays)

The New American Musical
Includes Floyd Collins, Rent, Parade, and Michael John LaChiusa and George C. Wolfe's version of The Wild Party.

Collect all these collections, most or all of which you can get really cheap and in good condition, buying them used on Amazon. (I get most of my books that way.) And then you'll have a great variety of works through which to study and get to know our art form. Believe me, read all these scripts and you will understand the history and evolution of the American musical theatre.

And then you can buy all my analysis books and dig even deeper into these fascinating shows and our fascinating history.

Pretty cool that it's that easy, no? So get reading!

Long Live the Musical!