Tick Tock Goes the Clock! 25 Years!

Since the pandemic has forced me to focus on only one of my two passions, writing about musicals, but not making them, at least for a while still, an interesting thought crossed my artsy brain last night.

It was twenty-five years ago that I wrote my first book of musical theatre analysis!

The spark that started it was the still very new Sondheim Review (1994-2016), a wonderful magazine all about Uncle Steve's shows! For one of the earliest issues, the editor Paul Salsini asked me to write a piece about New Line's first production (of three!) of Sondheim's Assassins. It was only a short piece, but I found that I loved writing about what makes a musical tick!

So I approached a bunch of publishers about writing a whole book, all of whom said No, except Lisa Barnett at Heinemann Publishing, who asked me for three more chapters, then agreed to publish a whole book of my analysis essays, eventually called From Assassins to West Side Story, published in 1996.

Until then, it had never occurred to me that:  a. I could write about musicals in that way, b. anybody would want to read what I had to say; and c. anybody would ever pay me to explore cool musicals.

Two books were my initial inspirations, Stephen Banfield's excellent book Sondheim's Broadway Musicals; and Joseph Swain's The Broadway Musical. Both books were largely focused on musical analysis, and together with my music degree from Harvard, I learned how to dig deep down into a theatre score. I had also read several books digging into great plays. I realized I wanted to combine that kind of exploration of the text, subtext, and context, together with the musical exploration of Banfield and Swain. But it was also important to me that this wasn't a book for academics; it was a book for people who love musicals.

And I ended up sort of creating a new genre or subgenre -- analyses of musicals that are as serious and in-depth as the copious analyses of the plays of Shakespeare, O'Neill, or Suzan-Lori Parks. And to my surprise, once my first book was published, I was instantly considered "an expert" by strangers; and I could get access to people and stuff like never before. Thanks, Lisa!

And now twenty-five years later, I am, by necessity, a full-time writer for a while, working on my eighth book of analysis! And looking back, it's overwhelming to see how much I've written about so many musicals, and knowing that literally tens of thousands of people have read my books and know what I think about musicals. Take a look...

From Assassins to West Side Story, 1996, covers Assassins, Cabaret, Carousel, Company, Godspell, Gypsy, How to Succeed, Into the Woods, Jesus Christ Superstar, Les Misérables, Man of La Mancha, Merrily We Roll Along, My Fair Lady, Pippin, Sweeney Todd, and West Side Story.

Deconstructing Harold Hill, 1999, covers Ragtime, Camelot, Chicago, Passion, The Music Man, March of the Falsettos, Sunday in the Park with George, and The King and I.

Rebels with Applause, 2001, covers Hair, Rent, Oklahoma!, Pal Joey, Anyone Can Whistle, Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, The Cradle Will Rock, Songs for a New World, and The Ballad of Little Mikey.

Let the Sun Shine In, 2003, covers Hair.

Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals, 2011, covers The Wild Party, Grease, Hair, Jesus Christ Superstar, The Rocky Horror Show, The Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, I Love My Wife, Bat Boy, Hedwig and the Angry Inch, and High Fidelity.

Literally Anything Goes, 2019, covers The Threepenny Opera, Anything Goes, The Nervous Set, The Fantasticks, Zorbá, Two Gentlemen Of Verona, The Robber Bridegroom, Evita, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Kiss Of The Spider Woman, A New Brain, Reefer Madness, Bukowsical, and Love Kills.

Idiots, Heathers, and Squips, 2020, covers bare, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success, Jerry Springer the Opera, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, Heathers, and Be More Chill.

My new book is called Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century, and it will cover Hamilton, Hadestown, The Scottsboro Boys, Come From Away, Dear Evan Hansen, A Strange Loop, Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody, and maybe a couple more. I think I should be done with it in about six months.

I also want to write a sequel to my horror fiction collection Night of the Living Show Tunes. The response to it has been so wonderful, and I do have ideas for more stories, so...

Also, Zak Farmer, veteran New Liner, and the illustrator for our book Shellie Shelby Shares Spotlight, wants to do another picture book.

So I've got lots of writing projects. I'm kinda stalled on my novel My Cat and I Wrote a Musical and Then He Murdered Me, so I've put that aside for now. I'm working, on and off, on a couple new musicals too. But Sweet Apollo, I miss being in rehearsal, I miss our audience, I miss backstage emergencies, I miss reviews, I miss hearing, "That wasn't anything like I expected!" in the lobby.

But so many people have it so much worse than me right now. At least my "pandemic unemployment" payments are (barely) paying my rent, food, and utilities. I have a decent apartment. I have my wonderful cat Hamilton to keep me company. I still think about musicals all the time. I have lots of artsy friends to call. I'm doing okay.

If you're missing our beloved art form as much as I am, maybe one or more of my books might help a little. You never know.

But meanwhile, stay safe, and get vaccinated as soon as you can. The sooner we're all vaccinated, the sooner we can all come together again in that most necessary and nurturing of human rituals, gathering in the dark to tell stories.

Someday soon, we all will be together, if the Fates allow.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're wondering, "Tick Tock Goes the Clock" was a song and dance cut from Promises, Promises. The dance half came back, now called "Tick Tock," in Company.

Organize Your Information, ‘Til We Rise to the Occasion

I created this blog on January 1, 2007. Not long ago, it surpassed one million visitors. That's more than a bit mind-blowing, the idea that so many people have read my opinions, discoveries, revelations, both here and in my books. Thank you!

The initial purpose of the blog was to document our creation process on each show we produce, both our progress through the process of learning music and blocking, polishing the show, etc.; but also my progress as I discover what makes the show tick, and also how to tell this story as clearly as possible on a stage for an audience. I thought a chronicle of all that, including our stumbles and wrong paths, would be of use to other musical theatre artists, particularly since a lot of our work is less mainstream, more like mainstream-adjacent. 

I also realized that between shows, I could write posts about other topics related to the musical theatre.  There's nothing I love more than talking or writing about musicals. Eventually I had written so many of those posts that I created a Subject Index for my blog, so it would be easier to find them.

A year ago, as we were thrust into the Great Pandemic of 2020, as the theatres were shut down (March 14, I'll never forget that date), I fell apart. Making musicals is literally the only thing I know how to do. But with the help of pharmaceuticals, weed, and my cat Hamilton, I found a new balance. For right now, I'm not a director; I will be again, but not right now. Today, I'm a writer.

So I wrote, a lot, and ended up publishing five books in 2020. And now I've started on a new book, a new collection of analysis and background essays, called Hamilton and the New Revolution: Broadway Musicals in the 21st Century. I've already written first drafts of chapters on Hamilton, Hadestown, Bonnie & Clyde, Hands on a Hardbody,, and I'm finishing up my chapter on The Scottsboro Boys.

This is not my normal life, no, but at least it's a piece of my normal life. I've been writing about musicals since 1996, but it's always been my side gig. Now it's my gig. And so, I figure my blog should shift focus just a little, and so I'll keep a chronicle here of my process in my writing this book and exploring these cool shows. I know for sure I plan to write chapters on Come From Away, The Color Purple, Dear Evan Hansen, and A Strange Loop. Not sure if there will be room for a couple others, hopefully Kinky Boots and Something Rotten, I could list more...

I wrote a post recently about one of my amazing discoveries while exploring Hamilton, but there have been so many discoveries! I genuinely believe it's a masterpiece, and that it ranks as one of the Great American Musicals, alongside Show Boat, Oklahoma!, West Side Story, Gypsy, Hair, Company, Follies, Assassins, Ragtime, and The Scottsboro Boys. 

So I thought, for anyone who loves these shows I'm writing about, here are the cool books I've found that have helped me with my research so far. As always, the more I find, the more I learn, the more I love these shows. As much as I loved Hamilton from the first time I saw it, I love it now on a whole different level after the research I did into the form, structure, variety, and roots of hip-hop music.

To write intelligently about Hamilton, I realized I needed to know more than I did about hip-hop. And to my great surprise, I found a genuinely wonderful academic book that taught me all the basics of how the art form of rap operates, what its rules are, what its roots are, how it's evolved, what kinds of rhymes and other wordplay the form uses.

Later, I found out this is a highly respected work about the form. It's called Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip Hop, by Adam Bradley. This book taught me so much about rap, and its connection back to so many other poetic forms through history and around the world; and all that in turn taught me so much about Hamilton. I also read Rhyme's Challenge: Hip Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture, by David Caplan, also a great book. Watching the show after that was different.

While writing my chapter about Hamilton, of course I read Hamilton: The Revolution by Lin-Manuel Miranda and Jeremy McCarter. But I also found some interesting anthologies: Reframing the Musical: Race, Culture and Identity, edited by Sarah Whitfield; Hamilton and the Law: Reading Today's Most Contentious Legal Issues through the Hit Musical, edited by Lisa A. Tucker; and Historians on Hamilton: How a Blockbuster Musical Is Restaging America's Past, edited by Renee C. Romano and Claire Bond Potter. I disagreed with some of the essays, but all three books were really interesting and helped me think about the show.

Two mini-series I found on Amazon Prime were very helpful in understanding the roots of hip-hop. The six-episode series  A Journey Through American Music, is hosted by Morgan Freeman. It's incredibly interesting and it includes a lot of wonderfully long musical clips of some of the greatest American musicians. On the more intellectual side is Questlove's six-episode series Hip Hop: Songs That Shook America, which takes one iconic song each episode and explores the song, the artist, the social and political context of the moment, why the song was important, how the song moved the art form forward, etc. There are lots of interviews with rap artists, including lots of wisdom and insight from Questlove, who I have discovered is awesome.

When I finished my Hamilton chapter, I decided to explore Hadestown next. I still had that weird transition period when I didn't want to let go of the last show yet. Very much like closing a run and starting rehearsals for the next show. It's always jarring to my Inner Artsy. One good thing about the pandemic -- that transition is easier when I'm only researching and writing about the show.

But damn, I do miss creating shows

I eventually turned myself to Hadestown. I had seen it and enjoyed it, but I admit I was a little afraid that I wouldn't know how to write about this sui generis show. I soon found several ways in, and I see that it's much richer and more carefully built than it seems.

I took two tracks this time. I watched other musical versions of this Orpheus and Eurydice story over time; and after my mind-opening crash course in hip hop, I dove into a crash course in American blues, jazz, and folk. After those two tracks gave me a good understanding of the materials, I looked much more closely at what these brilliant women had built with those materials. Luckily for me (and for you), the show's author and composer Anaïs Mitchell kept an artistic diary of the entire process, of what changed, what got cut, and also why, published as Working on a Song: The Lyrics of Hadestown. It's a real treat to go on this journey with the show's creator to see how it got to the form we know. Especially because she doesn't write conventional theatre songs.

I started my trip way down Hadestown with several volumes from NPR's very cool series of books: The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Blues, by David Evans; The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to Jazz,, by Loren Schoenberg; and The NPR Curious Listener's Guide to American Folk Music, by Kip Lornell. All really interesting, all of them revealing interesting things to me about the Hadestown score, and the function of the songs.

My Orpheus track started with a refresher on Greek mythology, with an excellent book, From Savagery to Civilization: The Power of Greek Mythology, by Vincent Hannity. I also found quite easily, on Amazon Prime and on YouTube, other musical versions of the Orpheus and Eurydice story. So I watched Monteverdi's 1607 opera L'Orfeo; then Gluck's 1762 opera Orfeo ed Euridice; and finally, the version I'd been waiting to see, Offenbach's very funny, very adult 1858 opera Orpheus in the Underworld.

Now I'm not saying you have to watch all that to understand Hadestown, but honestly, it did help me understand a lot about the story itself and choices that Mitchell made. And besides, I had heard of the older pieces but never seen them, so I'm glad I've seen them now. (I didn't love the first two.)

Eventually I had to leave Hadestown behind. (I was careful not to look back!) But on a side note, I did discover I can do the Hades voice pretty well. Just sayin'. Next stop was an even darker one.

I saw Kander and Ebb's final masterpiece The Scottsboro Boys during its very short stay on Broadway, and it repeatedly blew my mind. It must've been how audiences felt in 1966 after seeing the original Cabaret. I felt like I'd been psychically beaten up while also wildly entertained, all at the same time -- all while learning a really ugly history lesson that sadly, tells us all we need to know about America today.

If you don't know the show, it tells the horrific true story of nine young black men being falsely accused of rape by two white women, in Alabama, in 1931. And the show tells that story in the form of a high-energy, virtuoso minstrel show. It's overwhelming in every possible way. And it's brilliant.

So to figure what makes this show tick, despite feeling a bit icky about it, I knew I had to dive into the world of blackface and minstrel shows. But to my surprise, it ended up being a really fascinating trip. It's all so much more complex than I ever imagined. I started with the outstanding book Darkest America: Black Minstrelsy from Slavery to Hip-Hop, by Yuval Taylor and Jake Austen. They explore the history and evolution of the form, but more importantly for my purposes, all the social forces that created this form, that kept it alive for so long, and all the inherent contradictions, that all tie directly to America today. I really loved this book.

All the experts in this field of study seemed to agree that Blacking Up: The Minstrel Show in Nineteenth Century America, by Robert C Toll, was the best book on the subject. So I read that next, and they're right. It's a really detailed, insightful look at the entire history of blackface and minstrelsy. I also found useful information in Love & Theft: Blackface Minstrelsy and the American Working Class, by Eric Lott.

I wanted to see if there was anything important I was missing in terms of tap and the other dance forms of minstrelsy and early musical comedy. I found two excellent books that helped with that, the terrific Tap Dancing America: A Cultural History, by Constance Valis Hill, the best book on the history of dance in early musical theatre I've found; and also the very good Hoofing on Broadway: A History of Show Dancing, by Richard Kislan.

But behind the show biz is a very ugly reality. And even though I know the show takes some liberties with small details (as any good storytelling must), I still wanted to know the actual unbelievable story, from beginning to end. And everywhere I looked for opinions, everybody seemed to agree the best account of the case is Scottsboro: A Tragedy of the American South, by Dan T. Carter. It's an excellent book, and unfortunately, a compelling thriller, but also such a sad, ugly story.

Sometime this year (I hope), I'll have this new book finished and you can see the various conclusions and connections I've drawn. While you're waiting, you could always read my recent collection of essays analyzing other 21st century musicals, Idiots, Heathers, and Squips: The New Golden Age of the Musical Theatre, digging into into eleven musicals that represent the astonishing variety and fearlessness of this new Golden Age, including bare, Urinetown, Sweet Smell of Success, Jerry Springer the Opera, Passing Strange, Cry-Baby, Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, American Idiot, Heathers, and Be More Chill.

I love writing about musical theatre, and I'm thankful that people like you love reading about musical theatre. Thank you.

Long Live the Musical! And Stay Safe!

COVID Baby (with apologies to Mr. Sondheim)

(to the tune of Sondheim's "Broadway Baby")

I'm just a COVID Baby,
Isolating all day long,
Fearing the infected throng,
Surviving somehow.
Learning how to work from home,
Like I'm sealed inside some dome;
Apocalypse Now!

It seems to me
We should agree
To take on this task;
It's true,
The one thing you
Just have to do
Is wear a damn mask!

Captive of conservatives,
Left to wonder just what gives,
And why they're so mad.

Hey! COVID denier!
Your country's on fire!
You and QAnon --
You fell for the con!
Listen, Scary Karen, it's a marathon!

I have come as far as this,
Yet the world is still amiss;
I may lose my mind.
Listening to Schwartz & Dietz,
Ordering from UberEats,
'Cause I'm still confined.

My tiny flat,
There's just my cat,
Some weed and some woes.
I'll stick it till
I get the thrill
Of rehearsals and shows!

Someday, maybe,
When this thing has passed us by,
If I've managed not to die,
We'll go in rehearsal,
In a big Act Two reversal;
And we'll
Do fine
New Line shows!

Long Live the Musical! Stay Safe!

What Rhymes with Hamilton?

I can't begin to tell you how much I miss making musicals. It's like someone cut a leg off.

The only way I can keep my sanity during the Great Pandemic is to write about musical theatre. If I can't direct musicals for awhile, at least I can still do research and lots of pondering. I spent last year creating some really fun musical theatre novelty books -- a horror anthology, a Christmas carol collection, a children's book (that's not just for kids), and a "civilian's guide." And it was only last year that I published my musical theatre quiz book.

But what really feeds my artsy soul is digging deep into amazing musicals and writing about them. Usually, that's half my directing job; these days, it's my next book, Hamilton and the New Revolution, out sometime in 2021, including chapters on Hamilton, Hadestown, The Scottsdboro Boys, Dear Evan Hansen, A Strange Loop, Come From Away, and other shows.

As is usually the case, my research and my analysis often blow my mind. It's such fun to see how my favorites shows are not just cool, but incredibly well built and structured, with so many amazingly artful choices. Since it'll be awhile before my next book comes out, I just had to share some of what I've found so far, just three chapters in...

So far, I think my biggest surprise has been the incredible complexity and variety of rhyme in Hamilton. What follows is part of my Hamilton chapter, as a sneak preview...

Most theatre lyrics aim to be “in the voice” of the character singing, to sound “natural” in terms of vocabulary, grammar, slang, etc. The writer and their craft is never supposed to be noticed consciously by the audience. But hip-hop is a show-off art form. The artist’s voice and their craft is supposed to be easy to hear; it’s the point. So the lyrics of Hamilton are a different kind of theatre writing, in a poetic language with different values and priorities. Though Miranda establishes individual rap flows for each character, the whole show is unmistakably in his playful, fanboy voice.

So why does it make sense to tell this story in the language of hip-hop? The first obvious response is why not? Hip-hop is an incredibly expressive art form, and it’s seen as an “outlaw” art form, which seems ideal for American Revolutionaries. Adam Bradley writes in his book The Book of Rhymes: The Poetics of Hip-Hop:
Rap is public art, and rappers are perhaps our greatest public poets, extending a tradition of lyricism that spans continents and stretches back thousands of years. Thanks to the engines of global commerce, rap is now the most widely disseminated poetry in the history of the world. Of course, not all rap is great poetry, but collectively it has revolutionized the way our culture relates to the spoken word. Rappers at their best make the familiar unfamiliar through rhythm, rhyme, and wordplay. They refresh the language by fashioning patterned and heightened variations of everyday speech. They expand our understanding of human experience by telling stories we might not otherwise hear. The best MCs – like Rakim, Jay Z, Tupac, and many others – deserve consideration alongside the giants of American poetry. . .

Hip-hop’s first generation fashioned an art form that draws not only from the legacy of Western verse, but from the folk idioms of the African diasporas; the musical legacy of jazz, blues, and funk; and the creative capacities conditioned by the often harsh realities of people’s everyday surroundings. . .

Rap gave voice to a group hardly heard before by America at large, certainly never heard in their own often profane, always assertive words.

That sounds like the perfect language to tell Hamilton’s story. It also sounds like Hamilton would have made a killer MC. And telling this story of dead white men, entirely in African American musical languages is just the kind of meta irony that this show swims in. Perhaps it was to be expected that this first megahit hip-hop musical would face those questions: why rap? the Founders didn’t rap! Of course, 1950s gangs in New York didn’t dance ballet, so why use that language in West Side Story? The court of Charlemagne never heard 1970s pop, and President Jackson didn’t know emo rock, so why use those languages in Pippin and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson?

Rapper Common says, “Hip-hop has so much power. The government can’t stop it. The devil can’t stop it. It’s music, it’s art, it’s the voice of the people. And it’s being spoken all around the world and the world is appreciating it.” Because storytelling is about communicating to an audience, the best language for telling a story is one common to both storyteller and audience. Today, hip-hop is that language. Rap is the most streamed genre of music around the world. Harvard has a Hip-hop Archive and Research Institute. It’s time that musical theatre learns how to tell stories in that language.

It’s important to remember that rap is not just rhythmic speaking; it’s rhythmic speaking in counterpoint to a regular beat. It’s the interplay between the voice and the beat that makes rap interesting. The way an MC (i.e., a rapper) creates that rhythmic counterpoint is called their “flow.” Writer Jelani Cobb calls flow “an individual time signature, the rapper’s own idiosyncratic approach to the use of time.” David Caplan says in his book Rhyme’s Challenge: Hip-Hop, Poetry, and Contemporary Rhyming Culture:
Hip-hop artists dominate the contemporary art of rhyme; they remain most alert to the resources that the culture and the language provide. The effects they achieve are nothing short of astonishing, showing how thrilling rhyme can be, how sexy and appalling. For this reason, most of this book concentrates on their work – more specifically, the kinds of rhymes that hip-hop artists favor: doggerel, insult, and seduction.

Rap and jazz are special because they both “conform” by adhering to a strict beat, and at the same time, they “rebel” by improvising and exploring rhythm through the melody line. As the great composer Arnold Schoenberg said, “Composing is just slowed down improvisation.” There’s a sophistication and adventurousness in today’s rap, and in Hamilton, that is thrilling. As Bradley explains, some of the best known rappers:
have liberated their flows from the restrictions of rigid metrical patterns in favor of more expansive rhythmic vocabularies that include techniques like piling up stressed and unstressed syllables, playing against the beat, and altering normal pronunciations of words in favor of newly accented ones.

Perfect rhymes (cat and hat) at the end of lines, the kind you generally see in greeting cards and hear in Sondheim lyrics, aren’t the only kind of rhymes. The concept of rhyme is much larger than that. Even the most conventional definition of rhyme doesn’t require that the ends of words sound exactly the same. Rhyme is a correspondence between words that creates an expectation. Rhyme conditions the listeners ears to identify patterns, to connect words the mind instinctively recognizes as related yet distinct. So a good rhyme has to balance fulfilling expectations against surprise.

Critic Alfred Corn says, “The coincidence of sound in a pair of rhymes is a recommendation to the reader to consider the rhyming words in tandem, to see what meaning emerges from their juxtaposition.” Hip-hop uses many kinds of rhyme, many of the tools and devices of the English language, in new and sophisticated ways.  Hamilton uses all these devices. This score is like an encyclopedia of hip-hop poetics, while at the same time, telling a complex story really clearly.

The most common rhymes in rap songs are at the ends of lines, usually rhymed in paired couplets. But rappers also use so many other tools, like chain rhymes, multiples of the same rhyme, all in a row. One famous example is the end of “On the Steps of the Palace” in Sondheim’s Into the Woods score. There are also examples in Hamilton:
Burr, check what we got.
Mister Lafayette, hard rock like Lancelot,
I think your pants look hot,
Laurens, I like you a lot.
Let’s hatch a plot blacker than the kettle callin’ the pot...
What are the odds the gods would put us all in one spot,
Poppin’ a squat on conventional wisdom, like it or not,
A bunch of revolutionary manumission abolitionists?
Give me a position, show me where the ammunition is!

Also, notice all the interior rhymes in that quote, rhymes within a line, like odds and gods. Here's another example of interior rhymes:
Then I said, “well, I should head back home,”
She turned red, she led me to her bed,
Let her legs spread and said

Also, head rhymes, another name for alliteration:
Look around, look around at how
Lucky we are to be alive right now!

slant or imperfect rhymes:
A colony that runs independently.
Meanwhile, Britain keeps shittin’ on us endlessly.
Essentially, they tax us relentlessly,
Ten King George turns around, runs a spending spree.
He ain’t ever gonna set his descendants free,
So there will be a revolution in this century.
Enter me!
(He says in parentheses.)
Don’t be shocked when your hist’ry book mentions me.
I will lay down my life if it sets us free.
Eventually, you’ll see my ascendancy

multisyllabic rhymes:
Thomas Jefferson, always hesitant with the President,
Reticent – there isn’t a plan he doesn’t jettison.
Madison, you’re mad as a hatter, son, take your medicine.

apocopated rhymes, one word rhyming with a just part of another:
…for someone less astute,
he woulda been dead or destitute
without a cent of restitution…

mosaic rhymes, a multisyllabic word rhyming with several shorter words:
Burr, your grievance is legitimate.
I stand by what I said, every bit of it.

consonance, a kind of alliteration inside words (also used, to great comic effect, in the song “Gary, Indiana” in The Music Man):
It says the President’s assembling a cabinet
And that I am to be the Secretary of State, great!
And that I’m already Senate-approved...

assonance, the repetition of vowel sounds, regardless of the consonants:
Hey yo, I’m just like my country,
I’m young, scrappy and hungry,

transformative rhymes that conspicuously alter the pronunciation of a word to make the rhyme (found all through Gilbert & Sullivan’s comic operas):
I dream of life without a monarchy.
The unrest in France will lead to ‘onarchy?
‘Onarchy? How you say, how you say, ‘anarchy’?
When I fight, I make the other side panicky.

all of those, along with many other devices and tools that have been around for centuries.

One of the hallmarks of hip-hop is wordplay, again so fitting for the story of a master wordsmith like Hamilton. It’s true that wordplay is present in some pop songs, in some theatre songs, but it is in the DNA of rap. There are a million ways to play with words, and rap artists are finding new ways every day. Some of the common elements include simile:
Dark as a tomb where it happens.

Corruption’s such an old song that we can sing along in harmony

puns, playing on different senses of the same word or similar senses of different words:
If I throw away my shot, is this how you remember me?
What if this bullet is my legacy?

homonyms and homophones, words that sound the same:
Washington hires Hamilton right on sight,
But Hamilton still wants to fight, not write.

eponyms, using a famous name in place of a verb or adjective:
It’s the feeling of freedom, of seein’ the light,
It’s Ben Franklin with a key and a kite!

antanaclasis, the repetition of a single word with different meanings:
And no, don’t change the subject
Cuz you’re my favorite subject.
My sweet, submissive subject,
My loyal, royal subject

anaphora, the repetition of the same word at the start of several lines:
by being a lot smarter,
by being a self-starter,
by fourteen, they placed him in charge of a trading charter.

epistrophe, the same kind of repetition, but at the end of lines:
Let this moment be the first chapter:
where you decide to stay
and I could be enough
and we could be enough
that would be enough.

apanados, the repetition of a phrase that reverses two subjects or words, and chiasmus, the same repetition and reversal, except of phrases, not just single words:
Are we a nation of states?
What’s the state of our nation?

Are you as gobsmacked as I was to discover all those devices in the Hamilton score? It's so exciting to see that not only is the show brilliant, powerful, emotional, thrilling, but it's also technically astonishing.

My life's not gonna be normal for many months yet, but as long as I'm writing about musicals, things do seem next to normal. And for now, I'll take it.

We New Liners would love to go back into rehearsal in August for an October show, but that looks iffy right now. We're pretty confident we can go back into rehearsal in January 2022, for a March 2022 production, which will be the return of New Line's Head Over Heels, the show we were running when the world fell apart. Meanwhile, I'll continue work on my Scottsboro Boys chapter. 

Keep your fingers crossed, stay safe, and wear a mask!

Long Live the Musical!

This Very Minute Has History In It

So often I realize how powerfully theatre songs relate to real events. Did you notice that the amazing young poet Amanda Gorman quoted Hamilton in her inaugural poem?

So often we'll work on a show that debuted years ago, even decades ago, and discover its surprisingly strong connection to current events.

So often I've written press releases for shows, that start, "Even more relevant now than when it first debuted..."

Maybe that's because the greatest works of art are genuinely timeless and universal.

We've produced Hair three times (2000, 2001, 2008), and each time we all recognize sadly that we've never really solved the problems we were grappling with in the 1960s. And maybe that's why "Let the Sun Shine In" was so incredibly powerful for the audience and for us. That idea of begging the sun to shine in on us is so primal, and this plea necessarily implies we're asking from a place of deep darkness. 

Literally every night of all three runs, most of the audience and most of the cast would be sobbing through the final choruses of "Let the Sun Shine In." I mean, sobbing. It cut right through the protective layer of cynicism most of us cultivate, right through to the heart. There's such profound Truth in those few, simple words.

Today I came across this amazing video of Broadway actors singing "Seasons of Love" and "Let the Sun Shine In," in honor of the Inauguration. 

As the medley came to an end, I remembered again how powerful "Let the Sun Shine In" can be in context. And I remembered what I wrote about the finale in my book Let the Sun Shine In: The Genius of Hair:
“Let the Sun Shine In” is not the happy song some people think it is. It’s a call to action. The tribe is begging us, the audience, to change things, to stop the killing, the hatred, the discrimination, the destruction of our world. They are saying that we are in a time of darkness (as described in detail by “The Flesh Failures,” “Easy to Be Hard,” and other songs), that it is now time to let the sun shine in and change things. It’s significant that the lyric doesn't say that the sun is already shining and everything is going to be fine. It says we have to take action, we have to let the sun shine on the darkness around us, and the implication is unmistakable – if we don’t let the sun shine, it will be the end of us.

Wow. Talk about relevance!

(And BTW, the correct title is "Let the Sun Shine In," with an active verb; not "Let the Sunshine In," which is entirely passive. It's a call to action. And yet I will admit, the title gets printed both ways all over the place. But I did have a conversation about this once with Hair co-creator Jim Rado, and he agreed that my take on it was what they originally intended.)

Even beyond the terrible economic distress our many current crises have caused artists, there was a crisis that hit some of us particularly hard -- the desecration of Storytelling and the assault on The Truth. Those are fundamental to life. Humans have been telling stories since the beginning of language; and not because we like them, but because we need them. Stories are how we communicate almost everything. (Think about it.) And stories are worthless unless they reveal to us Truth.

Both of the songs in this video medley are telling us essentially the same Truth: Each one of us is responsible for putting light into the world; it's a collective act. We all have to implore the sun -- light, life, energy -- to shine into the deep darkness that we're climbing out of. To quote another song, this time from Next to Normal:

We need some light.
First of all, we need some light.
You can't sit here in the dark.
And all alone, it's a sorry sight.
It's just you and me.
We'll live, you'll see.

Night after night,
We'd sit and wait for the morning light.
But we've waited far too long,
For all that's wrong to be made right.

Day after day,
Wishing all our cares away.
Trying to fight the things we feel,
But some hurts never heal.
Some ghosts are never gone,
But we go on,
We still go on.

We will go on. To quote President Biden, "Democracy has prevailed."

It's looking more and more likely that New Line won't be back onstage till 2022, but whatever insanities the future holds, we still go on. We have to. We don't have a choice. We're the storytellers. Humans need stories.

Because I'm an unapologetic (or is it apoplectic?) musical theatre fanboy, and at the risk of being labeled a cockeyed optimist, I can't end this without two more show tune quotes, both from Jerry Herman, from Mame and La Cage aux Folles.
Light the candles, Get the ice out
Roll the rug up, It's today!
Though it may not be anyone's birthday,
And though it's far from the first of the year,
I know that this very minute has history in it --
We're here!

The best of times is now.
What's left of Summer but a faded rose?
The best of times is now.
As for tomorrow, well, who knows?
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love as hard as you know how.
And make this moment last
Because the best of times is now, is now, is now.
Now, not some forgotten yesterday.
Now, tomorrow is too far away.
So hold this moment fast,
And live and love as hard as you know how.
And make this moment last, 
Because the best of times is now, is now, is now.

It's been a hell of a rough ride, but oh, what a beautiful morning!

Long Live the Musical!

'Twas a Year Full of New Line, 2020 Pandemic Edition

'Twas a year filled with New Line, well, okay, not "filled;"
Our season chopped off at the knees, Covid killed.
Our Urinetown canceled, and our Something Rotten,
Such wonderful shows! May they not be forgotten!
So here is my poem, because it's tradition,
An annual event, like our annual audition,
But this year, a shorter, Pandemic Edition.

So last January -- remember pre-doom?
When people could gather, all in the same room?
We hosted a reading of my newest show,
Called Bloody King Oedipus! (Wouldn't you know?)
A new G&S comic tragic burlesque,
And based on the Greek incest-murder grotesque.
But when we can stage it is anyone's guess(k).

Last March we had opened a near sold-out run
Of Head Over Heels, full of big sexy fun,
The songs of the Go-Go's, and dancing like mad,
Among the most fun New Line actors have had!
But halfway through running, Dark Fate interfered!
The theatres closed; the Pandemic premiered!
So March the Fourteenth,
We shut down.

And now we just wait. 
And we wait.
And we wait.
To once again gather and sing and create,
For Americans finally to quit being dipshits,
To wear the damn mask without bitching like nitwits!
We must think of others now, our only choice;
So raise your mask-muffled and virtual voice,
And dream of the day we can once more rejoice.

Stay Safe and Have a Happy New Year!
Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're a glutton for punishment, here are my year-end poems from 2013, 2014, 2015, 2016, 2017. 2018, and 2019.

From Stage to Page: Pandemic Edition

I've written posts about cool musical theatre books, about cool videos, about cool theatre books not about musicals, and lots more. And it occurred to me that I've read a lot of good books since I wrote those posts, so I feel that you, Dear Reader, deserve a sequel. So here are some of the interesting books I've been reading lately...

Flop Musicals of the Twenty-First Century, by Stephen Purdy. A really fun, quirky, slightly snarky tour through the carnage of Spider-Man, Lestat, Urban Cowboy, The Pirate Queen, Rocky, King Kong, Escape to Margaritaville, Glory Days, Bullets Over Broadway, and Dance of the Vampires. It's a short book, and it's really fun to read.

The Great White Way: Race and the Broadway Musical, by Warren Hoffman. This is an incredibly interesting book that periodically blew my mind. Although I think about issues of race and inclusion a lot, this book allowed me to understand all the related issues from a different perspective. I thought I was already very aware of these issues, but this book made me much more so. Read it.

Big Deal: Bob Fosse and Dance in the American Musical, by Kevin Winkler. This is the best book about Fosse's work by far, going into great detail about individual dance numbers in all his big projects. I felt like I knew Fosse before this, but now I feel like I know so much more about how he works, and that's very cool.

Pal Joey: The History of a Heel, by Julianne Lindberg. This book gets a little dry, a little too detailed sometimes, but it's still a really interesting look at an incredibly interesting show. And yes, New Line will produce Pal Joey someday.

Oklahoma!: The Making of an American Musical, by Tim Carter. I'm pretty sure I've read every book about Oklahoma! and about Rodgers and Hammerstein, but this newly revised and expanded book took me behind the scenes and into the process like never before. There's so much rich detail, so much about early drafts, revisions, musical examples, etc. For a serious fanboy like me, this book is a five-course meal.

All That Jazz: The Life and Times of the Musical Chicago, by Ethan Mordden. This is a good book, and Ethan Mordden is a great, entertaining writer. But it does feel padded with quite a bit of information that is not about the musical. Still, if you love Chicago, you'll want to read this.

They Made Us Happy: Betty Comden & Adolph Green's Musicals & Movies, by Andy Propst. This is a really fun read, tracing the wild career of the prolific comedy geniuses Betty Comden and Adolph Green (father of Amanda Green!), from their start in sketch comedy to their long run as writers (and sometimes performers) on Broadway and in Hollywood. They wrote the Singin' in the Rain screenplay, and book and lyrics for a ton of stage musicals.

Granville Barker on Theatre: Selected Essays, by Harley Granville Barker (1877-1946). Last on my list is a book about theatre, though not specifically musicals. Still, this guy wrote these amazing essays about theatre in the first half of the twentieth century, and they read like they were written yesterday. He has truly brilliant insights into the art form, and how he thinks it should and should not be practiced. I haven't enjoyed a theatre book this much since the amazing Connecting Flights.

And here are a couple books I plan to read in the coming year...

Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way, by Caseen Gaines

Putting It Together: How Stephen Sondheim and I Created Sunday in the Park with George, by James Lapine

And I can't help but indulge in some shameless self-promotion by also asking you to check out my new books. I've published five books in 2020, Idiots, Heathers, and Squips; Night of the Living Show Tunes; Broadway Musical Christmas Carols; The ABCs of Broadway Musicals; and the Dr. Seuss-esque Shellie Shelby Shares the Spotlight, with illustrations by Zak Farmer! You can check out all my books here.

And Remember -- when you shop at Amazon, go to Amazon Smile instead, and choose New Line Theatre as your charity. Then almost every time you buy something, New Line gets a small donation from Amazon! And they really add up! Thanks in advance!

Stay Safe and We'll See You Soon!

Long Live the Musical!

12 Musicals I Will Do Before I Die

When we program a season for New Line Theatre, there are lots of considerations. Commercial potential is nowhere near the top of the list, but by necessity, it is on the list. After all, we have to keep New Line in operation, and you'd be amazed how expensive musicals are to produce.

I would love to do a season of really weird, really obscure musicals, but New Line probably can't survive doing that. Having said that, we have produced some extremely weird shows over the years -- Floyd Collins, Jacques Brel, Assassins (three times!), A New Brain, The Robber Bridegroom, Love Kills, Bukowsical, Celebration, Lizzie, Yeast Nation... I could keep going. For a long time.

So it's not out of the realm of possibility that eventually I could get to work on the twelve shows that follow. They're all really interesting, really well-crafted, really weird musicals that would be thrilling to work on, and that I really believe our audiences would like. But they're all somewhat or extremely un-commercial, and therefore risky for our budget. So you won't be seeing any of these on New Line's stage soon, but never say never...

-- This is the strangest musical I've ever encountered, and I want to produce it so much. It's sort of absurdist, sort of abstract, very silly but dealing with very serious subjects. We've done some crazy musicals with New Line, but nothing we've done compares with the lunacy of Promenade, in terms of sheer audacity and outrageousness. But it was very successful commercially off Broadway, so I think our audiences could handle it. It's one of those shows where you just have to hang on and go for the ride. I love shows like that!

Mack and Mabel -- Jerry Herman wrote the scores for Hello, Dolly!, Mame, La Cage aux Folles, and several other great shows. But his masterpiece is the dark and challenging Mack and Mabel, about the tumultuous relationship between silent film director Mack Sennett and his drug-addicted star comedian, Mabel Normand. It was originally a big Broadway show, but I am determined to bring it down to human size. As far as content goes, this couldn't be more New Line.

Ghost Brothers of Darkland County
-- the brilliant supernatural musical thriller from Stephen King and John Mellencamp based on the true story of two brothers, one woman, and murder. The second they release regional rights, we're doing it.

The Crazy Ones -- the brilliant, inventive musical by Zack Zadek about the founding of Apple Computers. It's one of the most interesting, original scores I've heard in a long time. The show has not yet been produced, but someday we will do it.

The Visit -- If you thought Cabaret, Chicago, Kiss of the Spider Woman, and The Scottsboro Boys were dark, then you haven't seen Kander & Ebb's The Visit, truly the darkest, most distrubing musical I have ever seen (and remember, I directed Love Kills!), but also fascinating, complicated, deeply human, and weirdly beautiful. I will direct this work of dark genius someday.

-- Cartoonist Gary Trudeau and theatre composer Elizabeth Swados created this musical based on his Pulitzer Prize winning comic strip. But for some reason, it doesn't really work. I have a video of the original production, shot for TV (?), and I think maybe the Broadway production tried too hard to be funny, to be cartoony. Maybe the answer is to play it all very straight. Or maybe the answer is the material just isn't that strong. I'm not sure which. But I'm really drawn to this show, and someday I will figure out its weird mystery.

Shenandoah -- this is a beautiful, incredibly well-built musical drama, based on the famous movie about one family struggling unsuccessfully to stay out of the Civil War. It's a magnificent show with a great score, but I don't know if it's possible to shrink it down to our proportions. I would really love to work on it.

In Trousers
-- this is the first chapter in Bill Finn's Marvin Trilogy. People often perform the second chapter, March of the Falsettos, and now there's the full-length Falsettos, which combines March with the third chapter Falsettoland. But hardly anybody ever produces the brilliant, quirky, wonderfully odd In Trousers. One of these days, I will.

The Life -- this is the fierce jazz-rock opera from legendary composer Cy Coleman (Sweet Charity, Little Me, City of Angels, Will Rogers Follies, etc.) about the hookers and pimps in and around Times Square in the 1970s. Lots of juicy roles for great singers and some serious Grrrl Power.

Little Me -- this is one of the funniest shows I've ever seen, based on a fake memoir by the author of Auntie Mame, about a young women who repeatedly marries rich men who then die. If that isn't funny enough, all seven men she marries are played by one actor, Sid Caesar originally, but wouldn't Zak Farmer be amazing in that?

Promises, Promises
-- this is one of my all-time favorite shows, based on the brilliant film drama about a junior executive in a big company who loans out his apartment to senior executives for their affairs. With a very smart book by Neil Simon and an electrifying score by Burt Bacharach and Hal David, this is a cynical, brutal, morally complex, funny musical, and it's everything I want my theatre to be. We will produce this show at some point.

Faust -- is Randy Newman's nasty, funny, cynical, outrageous retelling of the Faust legend, this time with God and the Devil wagering over a slacker college kid. Every number in the score is amazing, and it's probably the least uplifting musical I've ever seen, but it's also really funny and really insightful. The original version Newman released is so perfect, but the show has been staged -- and tinkered with too much. I hope it returns to something close to its brilliant original form.

If you've seen my other lists, you know I never adhere to my own rules. So in addition to those twelve, here are my Runners-Up, also shows I would love to work on, but not quite as fervently as the ones above -- On the 20th Century, Starmites, Fiorello!, The Blue Flower, and Philemon. All worth checking out!

What else do I have to do during the Great Pandemic than dream about future seasons?

Well, the one other thing is write about my beloved art form. You can check out all my recent musical theatre books here. They'd make great Christmas gifts. Just sayin'.

Long Live the Musical! Stay Safe!

We Need Some Light

I often think about theatre songs in terms of categories, I Want songs, I Am songs, Eleven O'Clock Numbers, Act Two Openers, etc. But a while back, my friend Jennifer Ashley Tepper, Broadway producer, author, and artsy wonder woman, posted (seemingly randomly though you never know with Jen), this post:
My favorite kinds of musical theatre songs, ranked:
1. Song about being a cowboy, inventor, explorer, etc. that is secretly about being a musical theatre writer
2. Large ensemble number with counterpoint
3. Song where all characters sing at the lead about how smart they are
4. Ballad

So first of all, I love her Number 1. That could only come from her brain, but I immediately see the truth in it, as I am both a musical theatre fanboy and a musical theatre writer.

And then I thought, what are my favorite kinds of theatre songs? That's not hard at all.
1. First-Ten-Minutes Song
2. Fight/Argument Song
3. Soaring, powerful Finale that makes me cry from overwhelming emotion
4. "Dirty," i.e., very vulgar or obscene, song
5. Song full of cultural references 

For me, there's nothing as cool, as exciting, and in the hands of great writers, as intricate as the opening number of a contemporary musical. I guess the model for this kind of song would be the title song from Company or the opening of Into the Woods. So much information -- textual, thematic, and musical -- so much storytelling going on, including characters, relationships, conflicts, etc.

I think my favorite in this category has to be "The Last Real Record Store on Earth," which opens High Fidelity. It accomplishes so much, all the usual stuff, but it also sets up the unusual way music is used in this score, all of it in the style of Rob's music gods, all the musical choices telling us something important about Rob and his journey. But a close second is the opening number in Bat Boy, which also sets up tons of information, all while delivering wacky laugh after wacky laugh, and introducing several of the important musical themes that run throughout the score.

Other amazing examples include the first numbers of Next to Normal, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Sweet Smell of Success, A Chorus Line, Heathers, My Fair Lady, The Music Man, Yeast Nation, Assassins...

For me, nothing is cooler in a musical than serious emotional heft, and one of the most powerfully emotional moments in a musical is often a really intense, high-stakes fight. Think about incredible moments like "And I Am Telling You I'm Not Going" from Dreamgirls, "Ever After" in bare, "Your Fault" in Into the Woods, "You Don't Know"/"I Am the One" in Next to Normal, "Goodbye, Love" in Rent, "Make Me Happy" in Lippa's Wild Party... there are so many...

I love those moments in the theatre (usually in musical theatre, but sometimes in non-musical theatre too) when the emotion is so powerful that it becomes overwhelming. Finales are especially good at this. Tears come streaming down my cheeks, not because I'm sad, but because my emotions are so massive, so uncontainable, they are literally overflowing. Same reason people cry at weddings, as described in "I Love to Cry at Weddings" in Sweet Charity. Usually, it's not just the song itself -- it's that song at that moment, expressing that emotion, sung by that character, at that spot in the story. The power comes from everything that has come before.

Here are a few prime examples of soaring, powerful finales that make me cry -- "The Impossible Dream" reprise at the end of Man of La Mancha; "One Voice" from bare; "I Feel So Much Spring" from A New Brain; "We Need Some Light" from Next to Normal; "Time of Your Life" from American Idiot; "Voices in My Head" from Be More Chill; "Being Alive" from Company; "How Did We Come to This?" from Lippa's The Wild Party; and more than any other, the reprise of "Sunday" at the end of Sunday in the Park with George. When they all bow to George on the word, "forever," the tears come in torrents. It's so incredibly beautiful and emotional.

I will admit, that no matter how sophisticated, how complex, how dark my musicals are, I love a good dirty show tune. Vulgarity, obscenity, and sexuality are all interesting topics to explore in a piece of theatre, so there's no reason a theatre song can't go there. But it's still unusual for a song in a musical to be really dirty (excepting Hair and Bukowsical, of course), so when it happens, it feels really subversive. It works best when it comes organically out of the story; nothing is more boring than dirty words just to be shocking (I'm looking at you, Book of Mormon).

Some of my favorite dirty theatre songs include the hilarious "Blue" from Heathers; "Deeper in the Woods" from The Robber Bridegroom; "Old-Fashioned Lesbian" in Lippa's The Wild Party; "Sodomy" from Hair; "I Beat My Meat" from Naked Boys Singing: "By Threes" from I Love My Wife; and "Alone at a Drive-In Movie" from Grease. Would you be surprised to know there are many more?

My other love is theatre songs full of cultural references. If it's a good show, those references give us important information about who these characters are, their time and place and culture, etc. They're fun to listen to, but if they're good, they're also fun to study and dissect.

Some fun examples include the granddaddy of them all, "You're the Top" from Anything Goes; "La Vie Boheme" from Rent; "Midnight Radio" from Hedwig and the Angry Inch; "Get Down Get Dark Get Dirty" from Bukowsical; "Initials" from Hair; "Mushnik and Son" from Little Shop of Horror; and there are lots more.

Actors hate "list songs" because there's usually no internal logic in the progression of the lyric -- it's just a list -- and that makes it much harder to memorize. But those songs are still fun for the rest of us.

We can't make musical theatre right now, but it's still fun to think about it... and write about it...  and speaking of which... check out my recent musical theatre books, if you haven't already...

Long Live the Musical! And Stay Safe!

The ABC's of Broadway Musicals: A Civilian's Guide

After thinking of myself as a director first, and a writer second, for my entire adult life (and that's quite a while, at this point), the Great Pandemic of 2020 has forced me to strike that and reverse it. For now -- for a while -- I'm a writer first, and a once and future director second.

So I've been brainstorming writing projects to take up my time while I can't make theatre.

If you're a regular reader of my blog, you know that I've already published my first two pandemic projects, my anthology Night of the Living Show Tunes: 13 Tales of the Weird, and a song book, Broadway Musical Christmas Carols. (And while we're here, I might as well plug my other 2020 project, pre-pandemic, Idiots, Heathers, and Squips: The New Golden Age of the Musical Theatre.)

And now I've just finished my third project. Or fourth.

Often people ask me what makes a theatre company successful long-term. There are obviously several reasons, including interesting programming and doing consistently excellent work. But I think the most important thing is the reason for the company -- the reason it was created by its founders. There are lots of reasons to start a theatre company but most of those reasons will result in a theatre company that doesn't last very long. It seems to me there's only one sure-fire way to start a theatre company that will last -- fill a need in the community that is not currently met, even better if that need has never been met.

Many of the companies in St. Louis that have lasted the test of time have a very specific, very narrow, very consistent mission and point of view -- the Muny, the Black Rep, Stages, New Jewish Theatre, New Line Theatre, Act Inc, St. Louis Shakespeare, The Midnight Company, Upstream Theatre, Slightly Askew...

Likewise, as I've brainstormed writing projects, I've been trying to think about what's not out there already, that people might want and/or need, related (of course) to musical theatre. I realized there are lots of great books (mine included!) for people who want to study and dive deep into musicals, but there aren't really any great books for people who know nothing about musicals and would like to know a little.

I realized such a book would have several terrific target markets -- parents of musical theatre freaks who'd like to be able to talk to their kids, high and college students just discovering musicals and needing a good introduction, college survey classes about the musical theatre. It would need to be full of info, but totally non-threatening, non-intimidating, conversational, easy to take in.

And so I started working on it several months ago, and the end product is The ABC's of Broadway Musicals: A Civilian's Guide. I'm really proud of it.

Much of the book is divided into categories: classic musicals, musical comedies, concept musicals, black musicals, women's musicals, catalog musicals, etc. And in each category, there are five examples, each with a short paragraph about them, and then a list of other shows in that category worth checking out.

Also throughout the book are Spotlights, one-page close-ups on some of our most influential musical theatre artists, like Stephen Sondheim, Lin-Manuel Miranda, Kander & Ebb, Rodgers & Hammerstein, George Abbott, George M. Cohan, etc. There's a section on "live" shows you can see on commercial video, books you can check out, even some fun musical theatre trivia. Here's the Table of Contents:
So What Is a Musical?
So Why Musicals?
5 Myths About Musicals
A Quick and Dirty History of Musicals
Spotlight on George M. Cohan
5 Leading Musical Theatre Artists
Spotlight on George Abbott
5 Useful Things to Know
5 Great Classic Musicals
Spotlight on Rodgers & Hammerstein
5 Classic Movie Musicals
5 Great Musical Comedies
Spotlight on Kander & Ebb
5 Great Black Musicals
5 Great Latinx Musicals
5 Great Women’s Musicals
5 Great LGBTQ Musicals
Spotlight on Harold Prince
5 Great Concept Musicals
Spotlight on Stephen Sondheim
5 Great Classic Rock Musicals
5 Great Jukebox Musicals
5 Great Pop Operas
Spotlight on The New Musical
5 Great Neo Musical Comedies
5 Great Neo Rock Musicals
Spotlight on Tom Kitt
5 Weird But Cool Musicals
6 Great Books about Musicals
6 Great Books for Younger Fans
17 Great Musicals “Live” on Video
Spotlight on Lin-Manuel Miranda
10 Musicals That Won The Pulitzer Prize
5 Fun Pieces of Musical Theatre Trivia

Doesn't that sound like fun?

And it's all in a small-format, short, little 72-page book. You can read it front to back, or you can open it to any page and find something interesting. Even my hardcore musical theatre friends who've seen the book tell me there's lots they learned from it.

If you love musicals, I hope you'll check it out! I promise you'll enjoy it!

Long Live the Musical! And Stay Safe!

We Are a Family

Long ago, in New Line's early days, there was a group of us who hung out together socially a lot, most of us gay men, and the weirdest topics would come up in our conversation. I mean, weird.

One of my favorite topics was Collective Nouns. There are some really funny ones in our language. We all know it's a gaggle of geese, a herd of buffalo, and many of us have heard of a murder of crows. But have you heard of an ambush of tigers? A bloat of hippopotamuses? A business of ferrets?

My little gang of gay artsy misfits decided we needed dedicated collective nouns for gay men and lesbians. I first proposed: a giggle of gay men, and a flannel of lesbians. The group decided that would work for the lesbians, but they out-voted me and decided on a pouf of gay men.

So as I sit here in my apartment during the Great Pandemic of 2020, looking for ways to feed my starved artsy brain, it occurred to me we need collective nouns for theatre. Obviously, right?

So here's my modest proposal... These are all real collective nouns (mostly for animals) that I have re-purposed...

An Argument of Actors

An Exultation of Sopranos

A Lamentation of Altos

A Glaring of Tenors

A Bellowing of Basses

A Mischief of Musicians

A Wisdom of Directors

A Leap of Choreographers

A Murder of Stage Managers

A Chattering of Chorus Members

A Battery of Lighting Designers

A Dazzle of Scenic Designers

A Clutter of Costume Designers

A Thunder of Sound Designers

An Obstinacy of Composers

A Flight of Writers

A Huddle of Ushers

A Murmuration of Audience Members

A Confusion of Critics

A Blessing of Donors

A Galaxy of Musicals

Well, that wasted some time now, didn't it? Any others you'd like to propose?

Long Live the Musical! And Stay Safe!

P.S. If you're looking for more amusing musical theatre related lists to waste your time, check out the subject index to this blog. Oh Lordy, do we have lists!

A Great Big Cloud of Smoke

If anyone from federal law enforcement is reading this, it's purely a work of fiction, and any resemblance to actual musical theatre artists, stoned or not, is purely coincidental.

Now that I got that out of the way.

If you're my Facebook friend, or if you've known me for longer than ten minutes, you know I smoke pot. And I'm very vocal about it. In a weird way, stoners are kind of like gay people thirty years ago (and in some cases, still today) -- in both cases, it's relatively easy to "pass" among civilians. But like gay people, stoners won't get their full rights and respect until they come out of the closet.

Now in fairness, and to mix my metaphors, that ship sailed a loooooong time ago for me.

I first smoked pot in 1986 (thank you, Dave Englehart!), but then smoked only two or three times a year (usually only at cast parties) for a long time. When we did Hair in 2000 and again in 2001, I smoked a ton, but just during those two runs. In 2004, due in large part to the reelection of George W. Bush, I started smoking pot every night and I started writing my musical Johnny Appleweed. Both of them turned out to be extremely therapeutic.

And in writing Johnny Appleweed, with a wise, itinerant stoner as the title character, I really thought a lot about pot, about what it does for me, why I use it, why I like it. Two of the songs I wrote, "Cannabis Dei" and "The Scheme of Things," do a pretty good job of explaining my stoner philosophy.

Here is the slam-esque triologue before "The Scheme of Things" on the video, describing what it's like to be stoned. Of course, your mileage may vary.
My mind had opened, in the truest, deepest sense of the word, and the opening brought with it a remarkable sense of well-being, a kind of healthy, informed apathy that let loose its grip on my neck and shoulders, allowing me a kind of relaxation that I had never felt before. 

That, and my feet felt like sponges. I realized in an instant that the way most people describe being high is all wrong. It doesn’t dull you, it doesn’t shut you down – it re-tunes your frequencies, it re-focuses your brain waves. Stoners can watch television with the sound down, not because they’re too stoned to care, but because they’re no longer watching the program; they’re watching the shapes, the pixels, the lines, the play of shadows, the ever more super-charged commercial graphics rocketing out into the electric of the ozone like Superman in front of a green screen, and those colors… the way blues share something with reds…

And likewise when stoners listen to music, we stop hearing just the melody and the words, and instead we hear inside. The space between, the timbre of the instruments, the pulse of the guitar against the bass, the rise and fall of individual violins inside a group of twelve, the patterns of rhyme and the dance of consonants, the way the pitches begin and then fade away, some faster than others, some never really fading away completely, the color of the notes. And the textures. The way the air moves in front of you to make way for the music.

We stoners experience the world in a way the uninitiated will never even imagine. Certain things just don’t matter anymore, money, career, gadgets, all the accoutrements of status and rabid patriotism, and only when you’re straight again, do you realize that those things didn’t matter when you were baked because they really shouldn’t matter.

The human brain processes four hundred billion pieces of information per second, but we’re only aware of two thousand of them. Marijuana dials down that editing system and opens up the Floodgates of the Mind – like a circle in a spiral, like a meal within a meal.

So now you have your pick of all those amazing, interesting little pieces of information, all those bits and bytes that usually get sorted out without our knowing it. Now the things that are supposed to be important get lost in a sea of everything-ness, no longer gripping our reality quite so tightly, now allowing new things to come swimming along, relegating the “important” things to a small swirling eddy of neuroses just over the horizon, out of sight out of mind.

In short, the holy bud sweeps away from your brain all the bullshit that keeps you from being the happy, thoughtful, engaged person you really are, a fully realized being like Yoda or Gary Busey. And the trivia washes back to shore…

But let's get down to it. There are three reasons I use pot. First, it boosts my creativity by disabling my internal editor, which in turn makes brainstorming far more fruitful. When I'm stoned, ideas come to me (whether I'm writing or figuring out staging) that my unstoned mind would immediately discard as ridiculous. But having access to those more ridiculous ideas often leads me to incredibly funny and/or creative and/or powerful moments. I'll tell you a little secret. I never work out staging anymore without being stoned. 

One side note -- I can't really do anything left-brained when I'm stoned. So I always do "office work" for the day, numbers, correspondence, reports, grants, etc., before I smoke.

The second reason I use pot is medicinal. I get very stressed out by even the most trivial everyday obstacles, delays, hassles, etc. And that stress then turns into physical symptoms, headaches, stiff neck, jaw clenching, stiff back, indigestion. And if I smoke pot at the end of my day, I'm able to let go of all the craziness and trivial ickiness of the day. In my mind I see it like a spaceship expelling its garbage into space. When I describe this process to friends, I call it "taking out the psychic trash." It allows me to not accumulate all that crap to the point of feeling overwhelmed.

Todd Schaefer and Jeffrey Wright in New Line Theatre's I Love My Wife, 2010.
And finally, let's be honest, I use pot because IT FEELS GREAT. It makes me mellow, relaxed, content, easily amused, easily engaged, easily distracted. And let me tell you, if you're smoking the good stuff, "couch lock" is a real thing. You sink into a comfortable couch, stoned as shit, and you just don't want to move. You don't even want to lift your hand to use the TV remove. You can, of course, but if you had your druthers, you won't, because that's how utterly comfortable you are. And this, friends, is couch lock. And it's awesome.

And of course, on top of everything else, researchers are constantly finding new medical marvels that pot can achieve, for sufferers from AIDS, cancer, Parkinson's, glaucoma, and lots more. A few years ago, a university study showed that pot smokers have better lung capacity and a lower incidence of lung disease than tobacco smokers and non-smokers. Studies have found recently that pot has some inhibiting effect on cancer cells, but researchers are still trying to figure that out why, how, and how much. (Although I will add this, studies have also shown that when kids use pot before their brains are fully formed around age 25, researchers think that pot might inhibit some brain development.)

At long last, marijuana is escaping its long-held stigma, which was based on a whole intricate fabric of lies and fake stories created back in the 1930s by a creepy guy named Harry Anslinger, to pass strict pot laws in the states in order to get rid of blacks, Latinos, and jazz musicians. It won't be long before it's fully legal. 

Cast of New Line Theatre's HAIR, 2008
I did oceans of research into the hippies of the 1960s when New Line produced Hair and I then wrote a book about the show. Real hippies believed there were good and bad drugs. As I wrote in my book, Let the Sun Shine In, the “good” drugs were mind-expanding, psychedelic drugs like marijuana, peyote, mushrooms, and LSD, that helped them find peace and spirituality (“the mind’s true liberation”). The “bad” drugs were those used only for escape, like alcohol, nicotine, tranquilizers (like valium), cocaine, and heroin. Bad drugs shut you down; good drugs open you up. Bad drugs distort your perception; good drugs expand your perception. I really believe that.

When I smoke pot, God's Goofy Green Goodness unlocks the cage of my rational mind, and lets my creativity and imagination run wild. And when that happens, I create far more interesting work, more surprising, more insightful, more resonant, more impactful. If it's good enough for John Lennon, Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, Allen Ginsberg, Bill Maher, Willie Nelson, and so many others, it's good enough for me.

I often half-joke that our country wouldn't be in such shitty shape if more of us -- especially our leaders -- would smoke a bowl before bed every night. Here's one of my favorite lyrics, "A Great Big Cloud of Smoke," the finale from Johnny Appleweed, about how weed will save America.
I’ve traveled ‘cross America,
And everywhere I sense
All of those seeds I’ve planted bursting forth;
It’s waiting to commence.
It’s morning in America,
But something isn’t right;
The mighty redwoods calling out,
“Does someone have a light?”

There’s a cloud over America,
But not the kind that’s good,
A shroud of fear and ignorance,
Right here where Dylan stood.
We have to burn that cloud away
Before our people choke.
We’ll burn away injustice and
We’ll blow in cleansing smoke.

For a great big cloud of smoke is risin’,
Stand and breathe it in.
Just hold it in your lungs and know
The smoke can help us win.
Yes, that soft, sweet-smelling smoke is comin’,
Rollin’ ‘cross the land,
It’s tellin’ us to take a hit,
Rise up, and take a stand!

It’s our existential clock that’s buzzing,
Shaking us awake.
Reminding us to think about
The liberties we take,
The ways we’ve disconnected
From the lessons we have learned.
But light the torch and feel the flame,
And watch the bastards burn…

For a thick, sweet cloud of smoke is risin’,
Stand and breathe it deep.
Stop listenin’ to the pundits
Like you’re semi-conscious sheep.
Yes, a great green cloud of smoke is brewin’,
Can’t you hear it hummmmmm…?
It’s time to take our country back;
There’s great things yet to come.

Sure, that sweet and silky smoke is sailing,
Right across our skies,
And all we have to do is simply
Open up our eyes.
Yes, a great big cloud of smoke is comin’,
Showin’ us the way.
So get your ass up off the couch,
And raise your voice today!
Have your say!
It’s a bright, new smoky day!

Johnny lives in you,
All the things you’d love to do,
Twice the wisdom, twenty times the fun.
Live like Johnny lives,
Give the gift that always gives,
And don’t believe in everything you read.
And thank the Lord for
Johnny Appleweed.

Now I ask you, could anyone have written that lyric not stoned???

I expect it will be pretty soon that pot will be fully legalized for adults. That will be nice, but I won't hold my breath (see what I did there?).

And until I get my life back and we're able to make theatre again, my pot will be even more medicinal than usual. I need a real-life Johnny Appleweed. Then again, maybe that's me...

Long Live the Musical! And Pot!