More Complex Emotions to Reveal

Why bring back a show we've already produced? That's a good question.

We haven't repeated a show since 2012, when we produced High Fidelity for the second time. And we've only repeated a very few shows over our 28-year history: Hair (2000, 2001, 2008), Assassins (1994, 1998, 2008), Bat Boy (2003, 2006), and High Fidelity (2008, 2012). This season we'll add two more: Cry-Baby (2012, 2019) and Urinetown (2007, 2020).

And there are a handful of others I'd still like to return to: Hands on a Hardbody, A New Brain, Return to the Forbidden Planet, Next to Normal...

The first couple times we brought back a show we'd already done, people asked why. That puzzled me. I mean, these are all amazing shows, so why not? Surely we couldn't be so arrogant to think we'd found everything worth finding the first time out, or that our first production was utterly perfect. All these shows are very complex, in terms of content and in terms of style. We came back to them because there was more to explore, and to share them with even more people.

And really, Cry-Baby and its themes of class and injustice, is even more relevant now than it was when John Waters' original film was released in 1990 or when the musical debuted in 2007. Today in 2019, issues of class and injustice are more in the news and on our minds than they have been in a long time. Sometimes it even feels like we're moving backwards on those issues...

Which is a national tragedy. A tragedy worth exploring.

One of the best reasons to repeat a show is that there's more to discover, for me, for our actors, for our audiences. That's why we've produced Hair and Assassins each three times -- there's just so much there! And likewise, despite the smartass, wacky surface of Cry-Baby, underneath there is incredible craft, deceptively subtle social comedy, and endless little surprises.

A few examples...

In "Squeaky Clean," Allison sings, "I know one kiss from him would be enough!" On the surface, it means one kiss would be enough to know she's in love. What it really means (and is only hinting at) is that after one kiss, she wouldn't want any more. One kiss would be enough. In that same song, Baldwin sings, "If she'd only say she'd have me... what a catch!" On the surface, he's saying she's perfect for him, that she's "a real catch." But the ironic meaning underneath tells us that she won't say she'll have him, and since he needs her assent, that's a big complication, or "catch." (In the original production, Allison also tossed a baton in the air, so the "catch" also referred to her actual catching of the baton. I think that kills the joke with too much effort, and it gets in the way of the more interesting double-joke.)

The title phrase of "It's All in My Head" has that same kind of double meaning. To the characters, it means they can imagine all of it. It's all in their heads. To the audience, it means all of this romance actually exists only in their minds. It's all in their heads.

This kind of craft is all over the script and score.

But even beyond that, Cry-Baby is also worth bringing back because this show seems more relevant than ever artistically, as we sit here, now well into this new Golden Age of musical theatre, and as our society stumbles awkwardly into the Information Age.

First of all, Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy, a show that uses the devices and conventions of old-school, mid-century musical comedy, but for more ironic, more political, more complex aims. One of the fatal flaws of the original Broadway production was that the director didn't know that Cry-Baby is a neo musical comedy. He thought it was a standard old-style musical comedy, and that's how he directed it. He didn't understand the material at all. And he killed it. It closed after 68 performances.

And then New Line rescued it. Literally. The writers thought the show was dead and we brought it back from the dead. We understood it and we brought the show back to vivid, subversive, hilarious life, to rave reviews and a sold-out run. And now other companies are licensing the show too. (We did the same thing with High Fidelity.)

What we understand is both how John Waters movies operate (the "good" characters are the bad guys and the "bad" characters are the good guys), and how this sui generis musical itself works. Under the surface of the narrative, this show charts a battle between Show Tunes vs. Rock and Roll. The Drapes sing rock and roll, and the Squares sing show tunes. And by the end, after an evening-long and surprisingly subtle sing-off, rock and roll wins.

Even the Squares think so.

This is interesting artistically because the musical theatre as an art form is having that same battle. This battle has been going on since the mid-1990s. And rock and roll is winning. Rock is becoming the default language of the American musical theatre. And now (at least, most of the time), the use of old-school show tunes is ironic, a device that tells us something about the character or their mindset.

I've realized that every second of Cry-Baby is ironic. Even the music is ironic. The choreography is ironic. Literally everything about the show is ironic. There are no straight-forward emotions or songs; everything, even the love songs, are dripping with irony. That's pretty unusual for a musical because musicals are best at conveying emotion, but in Cry-Baby, there's not a non-ironic emotion to be found anywhere.

Think about it. The show opens with what seems on the surface to be a traditional "Happy Villagers" song, where the community introduces itself and sets up the environment for the story. (That kind of song is going extinct, though, since so few musicals today have a big chorus representing the community.) But here in the world of Cry-Baby, the Happy Villagers are suburban elitist snobs celebrating conformity.

In older musicals, the story often balanced on a question of whether the hero can be assimilated into the mainstream community or be banished from it. Think about The Music Man and Brigadoon on the one hand, versus Carousel and Camelot on the other hand. Oklahoma! uses both outcomes, assimilating Curly and "banishing" Jud (by death). But in the case of Cry-Baby this community isn't one you want to join. We're rooting for Allison to abandon the mainstream community to assimilate into the non-mainstream community.

And then before the first song can end, it's interrupted by a rock and roll reply, a parallel statement from the non-mainstream community. And without the audience consciously realizing it yet, the show has changed the normal rules. Instead of a story about whether or not the hero assimilates or is banished, this is going to be a story about which community our hero assimilates into. And going even further, it also tells us that despite the title, Cry-Baby is not the hero; the good girl Allison is. Cry-Baby doesn't make a choice in this first scene; Allison does. And she chooses the non-mainstream community. And that conflict is the heart of the show.

Just a few pages later, the show's first love duet, equates love to invading sickness (a common theme in 50s rock and roll). Again, it sort of feels like a regular love song, but only if you don't listen too closely...

In Fred Astaire movies you always knew when the lovers were finally in love, because they not only moved well together, they touched when they danced. In Cry-Baby, we know our two lovers are meant for each other when Allison learns to sing rock and roll with Cry-Baby. But even at this pivotal, emotional moment in our story, the song is deeply ironic, mocking early rock and roll, mocking musical theatre love duets, mocking us for wanting those musical theatre love duets...

In Act II we get the traditional Second Couple Love Duet, sort of modeled on "All 'er Nothin'" in Oklahoma!But here in Cry-Baby, that slot is filled with a duet between Baldwin and Lenora, who hate each other. Weirdly, they do function as the Second Comic Couple, and this is the oddest and one of the funniest examples of this kind of song you're ever likely to see. None of the usual rules or conventions apply here.

In the original script, Baldwin and Lenora start the song, but Allison and Cry-Baby are two wedding mannequins in a store window, and they come down and join the song as fantasy lovers. In our production, it's just Lenora and Baldwin, and I think it's much funnier and much cringier this way, largely because of audience expectations for a song like this... and it almost feels right...

In the Act II opener, "Misery," the end of every verse returns to a list of synonyms for "misery." And when we get to the Big Finish, the lyric refers to this:
But for now, nothing’s left
But to join in this chorus,
Ripped from the world's
Most depressing thesaurus...

This is a surprisingly literal -- and surprisingly funny -- meta-moment, referring to the act of singing ("this chorus"), and to the craft of lyric-writing. There's also the fleeting but very funny image of a "depressing thesaurus," whatever that might be...

There are also rhyme jokes throughout the show that create odd, funny, meta moments, taking the audience out of the story and forcing them to think about the writing. It's very Brechtian.

In "Squeaky Clean," the Whiffles sing:
When vulgar people curse,
When heathens grunt and stammer,
We don't know which is worse –
Their language or their grammar.
They neither show refinement
Nor an ounce of self-restraint.
They may think it's proper English,
But ... It's not!

They ruin the rhyme by using correct grammar. That's so subversive. And so square! In the prison break number, "A Little Upset," Cry-Baby sings:
You say I’ll get out early if
I show you some repentance,
But I ain't never been too good
At finishing a –
(long, suspenseful pause)

Not only does the lyric subvert our rhyme expectations -- we're expecting the word sentence -- but we don't get there because Cry-Baby isn't good at finishing a sentence, and the one he doesn't finish, ends with that word. I think I'd call that double-meta. But there's also the double-joke of Cry-Baby not being good at finishing his jail sentence, because he's thinking about breaking out.

Baldwin and the Whiffles will go so far to avoid the word ain't that they ruin their own rhyme; but to Cry-Baby, that's just a common, ordinary word.

The whole show is full of that kind of rich, deceptively meaningful comedy. On one level, this story is about seeing beyond the surface of people and things, but unfortunately, Broadway wasn't able to see past the surface of this script and score.

We are.

It's been such fun returning to this incredibly funny, incredibly rich material. I can't wait to share it with our audiences again.

Ticket sales are great, so get your tickets now!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are my Cry-Baby blog posts from 2012:

My overview of the show -- click here
The politics of Cry-Baby -- click here
The social context of Cry-Baby -- click here
New Line's rehearsal process with Cry-Baby -- click here
Cry-Baby and the neo musical comedy -- click here
My phone call with John Waters about Cry-Baby -- click here
Digging into the characters of Cry-Baby -- click here
Taking the comedy of Cry-Baby seriously -- click here
Cry-Baby's Allison and Grease's Sandy -- click here
The critical reception to New Line's Cry-Baby -- click here


We are about to start work on New Line Theatre's 29th season (holy shit!) of cool, wild, alternative musical theatre, and I couldn't be prouder of what we've lined up for you. Not just three fascinating musicals, but also a reading of a (deliciously fucked-up) new musical, and a cool new film series to accompany our shows, plus our annual trivia night fundraiser and our annual holiday dinner.

We've cast all three mainstage shows and we are so happy with the amazing people we get to work with this season! We're also very happy that all three casts are very diverse and entirely local, and a lot of our actors this season will be working with us for the first time. We love that. And a few of our actors who have only done ensemble or secondary roles with us are stepping up to leads! All our designers are returning for this season, Nic Valdez is returning as music director, and Michelle Sauer and Sara Rae Womack are returning as choreographers, after their exceptional work on Anything Goes, La Cage aux Folles, and Be More Chill.

We are going to kick some serious musical theatre ass.

And by the way, you can still buy season tickets that include all three mainstage musicals, Cry-Baby, Head Over Heels, and Urinetown, for as low as $60! Just click here. The deadline is Sept. 2.

And if all of that isn't enough, we'll also be starting up the Off Line Cabaret Series at the Monocle again, after a short hiatus. We're not quite ready to announce the New Liners who will take the Monocle stage this season, but we'll let you know soon. You won't want to miss any of them!

Our season ticket sales have been great so far, including a lot of new subscribers! (I really do use italics too much.) But for anybody on the fence about subscribing, I thought it would be fun to take a (virtual) stroll through our upcoming season, and give you the inside scoop on everything we've got planned...

Friday the 13th: The Trivia Night, Sept. 13, Richmond Heights Community Center
Don't worry, you won't have to know the famous slasher movie to have a good time, and we promise all the questions won't be about horror. But when we saw we could do this on Friday the 13th, we couldn't resist. You can expect lots of prizes, raffles, Mulligans, a costume contest, the whole nine yards. The evening will be hosted by Trivia Master (and occasional New Line orchestrator) John Gerdes and his wife Lea, both of whom have played in the New Line band! A bunch of your favorite New Liners will be there, too, so come join the freaky fun and help us raise some seed money for the season!
For more info, click here.

Cry-Baby the Musical, Sept. 26-Oct. 19, Marcelle Theater
Back in 2008, this smart, hilarious show died an ignominious New York death at the hands of a clueless Broadway director. But in 2011, I sought out the writers and asked them if I could see the script and score. Both are wickedly funny incredibly smart, and extremely well-crafted. So we literally brought the show back to life in 2012. The writing team paid to have new orchestrations created for us, to at last give the show the sound of a six-piece rock band, which is what they had wanted (but couldn't get) on Broadway. We got rave reviews, we sold out most of the run, a couple of the writers flew in to see us, and now, other companies are producing it around the country. New Line to the rescue once again!  If you saw New Line's Cry-Baby in 2012, you know you want to see it again. If you didn't, you really have to, if only for "Girl, Can I Kiss You With Tongue?"...
For more info, click here.

Cry-Baby (the film), Weds. Oct. 9, Marcelle Theater
The New Line Theatre Film Series kicks off with John Waters' original Cry-Baby movie with Johnny Depp. If you haven't seen the movie, it's really wonderful, so crazy but so big-hearted. And it will be really interesting to see both the stage musical and the film, which are fairly different from each other. Tickets for our film series will be available only at the door, and just $10. How can you beat that?
For more info, click here.

The Annual New Line Holiday Dinner, Dec. 4, Favazza's Restaurant
This is nothing formal, just an excuse for all the New Liners to get together once a year, reconnect, and have some fun, some drinks, and some dinner. But our audience, our donors, our subscribers, etc., are all very welcome to join us!
For more info, click here.

Bloody King Oedipus, a free public reading, Jan. 6, Marcelle Theater
After the huge success of The Zombies of Penzance, I thought, why not impose even more indignities on poor Gilbert & Sullivan! So I "discovered" yet another "lost" G&S opera, this time based on the ancient Greek tragedy Oedipus the King -- you know the one where he marries his mother and murders his father, and everybody ends up dead or disfigured. As I did with Zombies, I thought, what would be the most inappropriate, most ill-fitting story to turn into a comic light opera? The obvious answer was Oedipus. Even after working on it for a year, I still find myself giggling just looking at the song titles -- “I Can See Now I Was Blind,” “Now This is Quite Awkward,” “So Our King Just Might Have Murdered Our Last King,” “He Hasn’t Taken It Too Well”... you get the idea. Two years ago, we had 150 people show up for the Zombies reading, and it was incredibly helpful to me. So come join us in January. I promise you'll have fun. BTW, it's pretty R-rated.
For more info, click here.

Head Over Heels, March 5-28, Marcelle Theater
This is another of those shows (like Cry-Baby) that got decidedly mixed reviews in New York and didn't last long. But as soon as I heard the premise -- a subversive comic novel from 1580 set to the songs of the Go-Go's -- I thought, this sounds New Liney! So I got the script and score, and sure enough, it's really smart, wild, insightful, hilarious, and endlessly surprising, and maybe the biggest surprise of all, the 1580s and the 1980s both have a lot to say about Right Now. It's mind-blowing how NOW this show feels! Plus, if that's not enticing enough, this will be the most choreography we've ever had in a show -- in fact, we've doubled our usual number of choreography rehearsals. Our actors may keel over, but you will love this.
For more info, click here.

Absolute Beginners, Weds. March 18, Marcelle Theater
Our film series continues in March with one of my favorite movie musicals of all time, a very dark but incredibly entertaining rock and roll fable set in late 1950s London, with an amazing, eclectic score by David Bowie, Sade, Ray Davies, and other songwriters. I think it's fair to say that without Absolute Beginners, there might not be a Moulin Rouge or Greatest Showman. It really did create a whole new rule book for movie musicals, back in 1986. It's truly like nothing else you've ever seen. And its themes of teenage sexuality, race, pop culture, and music are a perfect match for Head Over Heels.
For more info, click here.

Urinetown, June 4-27, Marcelle Theater
I first saw this show in 2001, right after it moved to Broadway, and I fell in love with it -- so subversive, so funny, so outrageous -- and yet also really harrowing and intense! It's about politics, big business, populist movements, the environment, economic justice, and lots more, but all in this ridiculous hyper-serious style. We first produced this show back in 2007 at the ArtLoft, using the entire theatre space as our playground, and we've been waiting to get back into a blackbox theatre again, so we could bring that inspired lunacy back again. And here we are...
For more info, click here.

Mack the Knife, Weds. June 17, Marcelle Theater
Our film series closes in June with a very rare film. There are three movie versions of The Threepenny Opera, and the first two suck. But this one, Mack the Knife, is imperfect but awfully good. Though it does cut a couple songs, it's about as close to Brecht's original style and ideas as any movie's gonna get. And the cast rocks -- Raul Julia as Mack, Richard Harris, Julie Waters. Roger Daltry, Clive Revill, Julia Migenes... The film has never been released on DVD, so this might be your only chance to ever see it...
For more info, click here.

And can you believe it, we're already talking about shows for our 30th season!

The New Liners invite you to join us this season and share all of this mad, wonderful art. We're going to have so much fun. We've been selling out a lot recently, so it's time to order your season tickets! You know you want to... Just click here!

It's going to be a crazy busy year for me, but I can't wait to share it all with you!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. Since we're starting a new season...

Remember to go to when you shop at Amazon, and pick New Line as your charity; then New Line will get a small donation every time you buy something!

Meanwhile, check out this terrific RFT feature story about New Line.

Also, check out this American Theatre article about New Line.

And check out this video of the New Liners talking about our company.

To order New Line season tickets, just click here.

To make a tax-deductible contribution to New Line, click here.

For more about New Line, go to

It's True, So Nu?

I can't believe I've been doing musicals -- if we go all the way back to middle school -- for forty-two years. Holy shit. And directing and writing them for thirty-eight years. Hang on while I sit down a second.

The good part of that is everything I've learned -- from other people, from the shows, from many mistakes, and just from doing it. Here are a few truths that I think are important, that make me happier and make our creative process less stressful and more creative.

I hope some of them will be useful / comforting / calming to you...

Casting is rarely about who's best; it's almost always about who's right. Casting isn't about ranking, it's about putting a puzzle together, one particular puzzle. Actors have to try, hard as it is, not to take it personally. When we auditioned Rent a few years ago, we could have cast the show three times; that's how many outstanding performers we saw. But we were only hiring one cast, so a lot of great actors got turned away, all of whom we would have happily hired. I hate that, but it's the nature of the beast. I always want to send them all a note that says, "It's not you, it's me!"

Saying Thank You a lot makes everybody feel appreciated and makes me more grateful. Somebody taught me that years ago, and it almost seems magic how powerful it is. Seriously. And it feels great to be constantly expressing gratitude.

This is live theatre and shit happens. Mistakes happen. Even on Broadway. Props get forgotten or broken. Lines get missed or reversed. Costumes tear. Shit happens. Often when it happens in our shows, the actors come up to me afterward, all freaked out, apologizing. I always shrug, smile, and say, "It's live theatre." Then I ask if we know what went wrong. If we do, I drop it. If not, we figure it out.

The actors, musicians, and designers are not my employees; they are my collaborators, along with the writers! The more ownership everybody feels, and the more they contribute, the better the show. My favorite metaphor for our process is comic book art -- I pencil it in, the actors and I ink it together, then the actors and designers fill it with color. By the time we open, it's as much their creation (maybe a bit more) than it is mine. And all the while, we are literally collaborating with the composer, lyricist, and bookwriter, even if they're not actually involved in our production.

It's never good to fuck with the text. If something in the script doesn't make sense or doesn't feel right to me, it's probably because I don't understand what the writer is doing, and it's probably not because the material is flawed.

And by the way, for the sake of Mighty Thor, don't insert movie songs into the stage version!

Audiences do not only like what they know; they like what's good. If that weren't true, New Line would have gone out of business years ago. As proof, the shows people most often ask us to repeat include Return to the Forbidden Planet, Floyd Collins, Lizzie, Songs for a New World, Hands on a Hardbody, Bat BoyThe Wild Party...

Audiences do not want escape; they want connection. That's why humans need storytelling. I wrote a post about this in 2013 --
People want to connect. Escape is disconnection. People want to be reassured, even if only on a subconscious level, that they are not alone. That all their fears and insecurities and secrets are pretty much like everybody else's. That they're only freaks in the sense that everybody is a freak. . . More than anything, audiences want the truth -- human truth -- either truth they don't already know or truth they need to be reminded of.

Audiences can be passive or engaged. Engaged is better. Audiences want to go on a great ride. But a great ride doesn't let you sit back and relax! The more engaged they are, the more impact the show will have on them, and the richer their experience will be.

Audiences can read you. (If they're close enough.) Actors don't have to demonstrate a character's feelings. They just have to feel them. Humans are really great at reading human faces. That's why it's so hard to create convincing CGI humans.

Acting is (often) about just acting naturally in a fictional world. And to do that well, actors need as much information as possible about that world. A deep, full understanding of context and subtext won't be communicated directly to the audience, but it will make the actors' performances realer and richer and more detailed. I always share all my research with my cast.

Nothing is less funny than the effort to by funny. I've ranted about this a lot in my posts too --
[Some directors and actors] operate under two misconceptions. The first is that there is essentially just one kind of Funny, that Nunsense and Urinetown are fundamentally the same animal. Wrong. The second misconception is that the best way to approach comedy is to make it funny, to force it into comedy submission. Wrong again. . . Our art form has evolved so much in the last twenty years, more than during any other period in its history. But it often seems that many actors and directors haven't evolved with the art form. They approach neo musical comedies like they're all Damn Yankees. But musical comedy changed, grew up, in the mid-1990s, with Bat Boy and Urinetown, among other shows. Once upon a time, rock musicals used to be about the rock; today, neo rock musicals just use rock as their default language. Likewise, musical comedy used to be about the laughs; today, the neo musical comedy uses comedy to raise political or sociological issues.

The Fourth Wall is stupid. It's fundamentally dishonest. Plus, it never really works in a musical, because even the most "naturalistic" musicals are inherently presentational. I could rant about this for hours, but luckily, I put it all down in a blog post.

It's okay to get stumped. Sometimes I just can't figure out how to stage a moment, and I work on it and work on it, and nothing of value emerges. And then I remind myself that Sondheim wrote four final songs for Company, that Sondheim and Hal Prince and Michael Bennett were constantly restaging and reworking Follies down to the last minute. One look at all the songs cut from Broadway musicals (there's a whole series of CDs of these songs called Lost in Boston) reassures us that even the geniuses struggle, even the legends get stumped. Usually, if I let it percolate in the back of my head for a while, the answer -- or at least an answer -- comes to me. Sometimes, my solution is brilliant, sometimes it's adequate. You do what you can do. Sometimes it's imperfect. Life goes on.

Storytelling is a sacred and noble calling. Acting guru Stella Adler once said, "Unless you give the audience something that makes them bigger -- better -- do not act." Actor Ben Kingsley says, "The tribe has elected you to tell its story. You are the shaman/healer, that's what the storyteller is, and I think it's important for actors to appreciate that. Too often actors think it's all about them, when in reality it's all about the audience being able to recognize themselves in you."

Musicians are performers too. Using a live three-piece band -- or even just a piano -- is always better than using fully orchestrated tracks. A live musical should have live music, because the musicians and actors feed off each other, and feel each other. What musicians do in a musical cannot be fully captured on a computer any more than a stage show can be fully captured on video. It's more than just playing notes. And parallel to that, forcing an actor to perform to recorded music is like putting a dancer in handcuffs and manacles. Just my opinion, of course.

Never doubt Larry Luckinbill. Best lesson I ever learned, no kidding. Broadway and film actor Laurence Luckinbill (husband to recent Pippin alum Lucie Arnaz) once wrote this in a letter to me: "Go broke if you must, but always over-estimate the public’s intelligence. They will thank you for it." So that's what we do.

Our audiences prove with every show that Larry was right.

Hope these random thoughts help you along your artsy path, even if only subconsciously. My lifelong quest is to take the hassle and the stress out of making musical theatre. And yes, that's sort of an impossible dream. But these ideas really help me...

Long Live the Musical!

RIP Hal Prince

I woke up today to the news that Hal Prince has died, at age 91.

I never met Hal, but his impact on my life is profound. Everything I believe about the theatre, everything I do in the theatre, everything I make in the theatre, it all has roots in the work of the great Hal Prince. He changed everything.

No other artist -- not Fosse, Tommy Tune, Sondheim, nobody -- has been more of an influence on the work I do with New Line. It was Hal Prince who taught me the poetry of staging a show, that audiences will accept abstract space, abstract staging, etc., as long as you tell them a great story. Hal taught me that blocking doesn't have to be "natural;" it can be expressionistic. In fact, it's often more powerful and more meaningful when it leaves the concrete world for more expressionistic movement.

Just look at Hal's original staging of Follies and Evita as examples...

He also taught me never to fear the audience. He taught me the only real concern for a director is Am I being clear, am I telling this story as clearly as possible? He taught me that audiences love to think, to discover; and if you do all the work for them, they'll be bored and restless. He once said, "Don't sell audiences short. They are open to the adventurous, the challenging, even the dangerous.” With every show, New Line audiences prove he's right.

Hal taught me that theatre is an incredibly powerful force for persuasion and for social change, and because of its emotional heft, the musical theatre is even more powerful. He taught me that a show about nothing important is a boring show. He taught me it's okay to ask questions and leave the answers to the audience. He taught me that audiences don't want escape; they want connection.

He taught me that my art form is literally capable of anything, that musical theatre can tell any story, it can explore any issue, and it can aggressively challenge and confront its audience.

Hal came of age during the first Golden Age of Musical Theatre, and he's left us in the middle of a new Golden Age. But we must never forget that all the amazing artists making amazing work in the musical theatre right now, were all influenced massively by Hal Prince and his work. He died but he will be with us forever.


Every innovation, every transformation, every ground-breaking experiment, all of it is part of the art form's DNA now. Hamilton isn't half as brilliant without the obvious influence of Hal Prince on the staging and direction. And the same is true for Falsettos, Sunday in the Park, Come From Away, Sweet Smell of Success, Floyd Collins, American Idiot, Rent, Passing Strange, The Great Comet, and so many other shows. (In fact, Hal's Candide in 1974 used all the devices that everybody thought were new and innovative in Great Comet.) Hal taught us all how to leave behind the creaky Rodgers & Hammerstein model for new forms and new conventions and new ways to tell great human stories.

Look at this list of shows he directed on Broadway -- She Loves Me, Baker Street, Superman, Cabaret, Zorba, Company, Follies, A Little Night Music, Candide, Pacific Overtures, On the 20th Century, Sweeney Todd, Evita, Merrily We Roll Along, A Doll's Life, Grind, Roza, Phantom of the Opera, Kiss of the Spider Woman, Show Boat, Parade, Lovemusik, and Prince of Broadway. (New Line has produced six of these.) And that doesn't even count the shows he only produced, like West Side Story and Fiddler on the Roof...

I wouldn't be who I am if not for Hal Prince. I don't mourn his death -- I celebrate the dozens of musicals he helped bring to life, and all the mind-blowing, life-changing lessons he and his work have taught me over the years.

Thank you, Hal. I will pay it forward.

Long Live the Musical!

Happiness, Pleasure, Contentment, Serenity, Joy, Bliss, and Glee!

It's always a long and winding road, from our first talks about Next Season, to the moment when we publicly announce it. (Full Disclosure: we're already talking about Next Next Season, 2020-2021, which will be our 30th!)

Some years, the first plan ends up being the final plan. But not often. We always announce what we're thinking about for Next Season at our annual Holiday Dinner (come join us this year!), but the 2019-2020 lineup has changed again and again and again...

We were hoping to do this particularly cool new show, but the writers really aren't happy with their show, and they're planning some fairly big rewrites. It's gonna be a while. Dowdy and I had also discussed doing a season of three repeats, maybe including Return to the Forbidden Planet, Rent, and for a brief moment, Hands on a Hardbody was in the mix too.

But none of those will be in our upcoming season.

A tour of Rent is coming to the Fox in February, so we can't get those rights. And it just wouldn't feel right to do Hardbody without Anna Skidis, who's in grad school in Texas right now. And coincidentally, longtime New Liner Chris Strawhun will be directing his own production of Forbidden Planet for KTK Productions in March, so you can still see it...

Not too long ago, I found out we could get the rights to Head Over Heels! If I remember right, after that, every possible season lineup we discussed included HOH. It's one of those shows I had a really strong gut feeling about.

At one point, Dowdy and I decided to look at the top-selling shows in our history, and see if any of those needed another look.

Urinetown immediately grabbed me. I saw that show in 2001 on Broadway, and we produced it in 2007 in the ArtLoft blackbox theatre. Eever since we lost that space, I've been telling everybody that if we ever got back into a blackbox again, there were two shows I wanted to return to -- Bat Boy and Urinetown. In both New Line productions, we used the entire theatre, all around, through, and among the audience, as well as on the stage -- a lot like the recent New York production of Natasha, Pierre, and the Great Comet of 1812. That kind of staging brings a ridiculous amount of energy to the performances. Both those productions were overwhelming in the best ways.

And now here we, back in a blackbox. We'll save Bat Boy for another season, but Urinetown really felt right, not just for us, not just for our theatre, but also for our times. Also, we just recently produced the even weirder Yeast Nation, also written by the Urinetown team, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann. And Greg told me that New Line is the only professional company to produce both their shows!

During discussions, we talked about the shows our patrons most often ask us to bring back. The list is always essentially the same, with very little variation -- Cry-Baby, Rent, Forbidden Planet, and Hardbody.

That left us with Cry-Baby, Head Over Heels, and Urinetown. All three shows about misfits trying to find their place and their way in the world, all three shows really tuned in to the current political and cultural zeitgeist. So we lived with that lineup for a while. And eventually, we knew that was our season.

But weirdly enough, back in 2010 and 2011, I almost didn't discover Cry-Baby. I love John Waters' movies, but this just wasn't on my radar.

The 2008 Broadway production was really bad. The director fundamentally misunderstood the world of John Waters, and he turned our heroes, the leather-jacketed Drapes, into really nasty assholes. But that's who the audience is supposed to connect with in a John Waters story -- the misfits! So the reviews were mixed to bad, and it ran three months. Nobody wanted to make a cast album.

But then one day, I was thinking to myself what a shame it was that the Cry-Baby musical was such a piece of shit! That story could be so great as a musical! And then I stopped myself. Broadway dismissed the brilliant High Fidelity, and then we proved how awesome it is! Maybe Cry-Baby is actually really good!

So I tracked down one of the writers, David Javerbaum, told him we were interested, and asked to see the script and score. I loved both. Soon after, I found myself sitting in a restaurant in New York, having Sunday brunch with the show's four writers, Javerbaum, Adam Schlessinger (of Fountains of Wayne), Mark O'Donnell, and the legendary bookwriter Tom Meehan! I never had a more entertaining meal in my life.

And not only did they agree to let us do the show, they decided they'd pay for new orchestrations for a six-piece rock band, which is what they had wanted from the beginning. And they gave me a free hand in "shrinking" the show down to a cast of 16. Ultimately, we really didn't change that much.

And so in 2012, we produced Cry-Baby to rave reviews and full houses -- it's still one of our top ten selling shows of all time. And Adm Schlessinger came to see us and was really pleased at how well it worked in a smaller house in a smaller production. We knew it would work -- we had done the exact same thing with High Fidelity in 2008, with exactly the same result.

Every time we do a show, one (or more) of our patrons asks me if we'll bring Cry-Baby back. So now we will. Cry-Baby is a prime example of the neo rock musical, but apparently, nobody on Broadway understood that's what it is. They also didn't understand that in the John Waters universe, the "bad kids" are the good guys, and the "good kids" are the bad guys!

(One cool side note about Cry-Baby...  After we produced it, other companies wanted to produce it as well, and for quite a while, we were the only contact that people could find, so New Line was a sort of unofficial broker for Cry-Baby rights. The same thing happened with High Fidelity and The Nervous Set. Hey, anything for a great musical! And now, Music Theatre International has picked up Cry-Baby, and now anybody can license the show. Which makes me very, very happy.)

I had heard a few good things about Head Over Heels, but it closed in New York after about five months. And I confess, once again, to assuming it wasn't a good show. You'd think I would've learned by now. I found out rights for HOH were being released, and decided I better take a look at it. I read about the show, and I found a bootleg video (shhhhh!), so I could actually see the Broadway production.

And to my great shock -- it's incredible!

Really smart, really insightful, really sexy, really funny, really surprising, and insanely high energy -- almost every song is a dance number! The biggest surprise to me was the show's sly mix of subtle-raunchy (if I may coin a hybrid) and genuine innocence. And on top of the astonishing trick of telling this wacky, upside-down story really clearly, I almost couldn't believe how perfectly the songs of the Go-Go's fit these characters and their story, set in 1580!

BTW, not just set in 1580, but based on a novel written in 1580!

The creators of this show made a world where all of these different elements feel exactly right, where the story and the period and the humor and the music all come from the same place. That will be our great challenge, but it's laid out so beautifully for us, all we have to do is follow the material. We've already scheduled twice the usual number of choreography rehearsals for this show.

I can't wait to share it with you!

Our third show of the season is one of the early masterpieces of this new Golden Age of Musical Theatre that we're lucky enough to be living in right now! This is no wacky parody. This isn't a show that can bear mugging to the audience or cheap schtick. A few years ago, I wrote a blog post about meta-musicals and self-reference, and I wrote this about Urinetown:
I love Urinetown and I like very much The Producers, but those shows were both far more than just self-reference. Urinetown satirizes the simplistic, Rodgers-and-Hammerstein, black-and-white morality of old-fashioned musicals to demonstrate how inadequate it is in a complex real world. It mocks the way too many old-fashioned musicals ignore the complexities of the real world (because it's a lot easier to write that way), and it also mocks political theatre like The Threepenny Opera, with a strong political point of view that, in this case, gets totally subverted in the last few minutes of the show. The Producers is a story about subverting the creative process for selfish gains, and it's told by subverting the devices of the genre which is both the form and content of the story. Bialystock and Bloom violated the theatre and so did their story. In both cases, the self-reference grew out of the story rather than out of an inability to write good comedy.

I'll never forget seeing Urinetown for the first time on Broadway, and as soon as the opening number was over, I had this overwhelming feeling that someone had written a musical just for me! It was really cynical but really big-hearted. It was really dark but really hilarious. It struck me later that night that Urinetown was what Brecht would have created if he were still alive at the turn of this new century. And this tale of corrupt businessmen and corrupt politicians couldn't be more timely today. Again. Unfortunately. It's going to pack a powerful wallop.

One thing I remember very clearly though. People talk about what a crazy comedy Urinetown is, but it's not always funny. Parts of it are horrifying. Parts of it are disturbing. Just like Threepenny. I think that often, directors and actors don't let it be as ugly and fierce as it is, but that's exactly why it's so funny. It's an entirely ridiculous story (or is it?) populated by a bunch of ridiculous people frequently saying ridiculous things, and yet the storytelling style is so serious, so didactic, so self-important, so condescending.

And that's what's so funny. And the more seriously we take it, the higher we make the stakes, the funnier it all gets. It might sound counter-intuitive, but that's the nature of the beast, the neo musical comedy. I cannot wait to jump back into this brilliant madness!

It's a whole season of neo musical comedies, wacky, ridiculous, silly stories, about very important, front-page issues. Cry-Baby is full of big laughs, but at its core, it's about class and justice. Head Over Heels is incredibly silly on the surface, but underneath it's about gender and sexuality and orientation. Urinetown is utterly ridiculous in so many ways, but it also tells the truth about corruption, populism, and American politics.

And musical comedy.

We're very happy to report that the response to this coming season has been nothing short of stupendous. People are crazy excited! Last season, in only our second season of selling season tickets, we sold 100 subscriptions, which was great for a company our size, working in a small theatre. But already, just halfway through the summer, our season ticket sales this year are already up to 95 subscriptions! And 22 of them are new subscribers!

Thank you, St. Louis! If you haven't yet, you can order your season tickets here!

And I can't forget to mention the other really cool things going on this season -- our annual Trivia Night, hosted by Zombies of Penzance orchestrator John Gerdes, to raise money for New Line, on Sept. 13; and our annual New Line Holiday Dinner, on Dec. 4; and also a one-night-only, free, public reading of Gilbert & Sullivan's Bloody King Oedipus, their "long-lost" R-rated, horror-comedy, just recently "rediscovered" (you're welcome), on Monday night, Jan. 6.

If you thought The Zombies of Penzance was crazy, just wait...

PLUS, to my complete and total delight, this season we launch the New Line Theatre Film Series! During the runs of our mainstage shows, we'll take one night to show a companion film, related to the show that's running. We'll be showing John Waters' original film Cry-Baby during the run of the musical Cry-Baby, on Weds. Oct. 9; then Absolute Beginners during the run of Head Over Heels, on Weds. March 18; and finally Mack the Knife (an adaptation of Threepenny Opera), during the run of Urinetown, on Weds., June 17.

I think our film series is going to be really cool. We hope to do it every season from now on.

In fact, I'm so psyched about all of it, the shows, the films, the reading, the other events -- including the return of the New Line Cabaret Series at The Monocle! We've never had such an active season, but it's going to be a total blast. So much fun will be had.

In theatre, when a director asks an actor to face more toward the audience, especially when it's not a natural thing to do in the scene, theatre folk call that "cheating" or "cheating out." I don't. I call it "sharing." It's not just semantics. "Cheating" implies you're not doing it "right," or that you're duping the audience. "Sharing" implies you want the audience to come along on this ride.

For me, it's all about the audience coming along on these awesome rides with us. I find that I don't usually talk about being excited to "open a show" -- I usually talk about being excited to "share this show with our audience." It's a different mindset and it makes a difference in our work.

The great, unparalleld joy for me over the next year is I get to share a whole shitload of amazing stuff with you. All these things that make me so happy, I get to share. What's better than that?

Our 29th season and a whole new adventure starts soon. I hope you'll be coming along! Buy Your Season Tickets Now!

Long Live the Theatre!

The Loudest One is Ours

We close our St. Louis production of Be More Chill just as the Broadway production has posted its closing notice for a little over a month from now. It's another reminder, as if we needed one, that this miraculous thing we create, this piece of deeply felt art that we all pour ourselves into, exists only for a while and then it's gone.

I often hear people say that's why theatre is so special. Call me a cynic, but I look forward to the day when we have real-life holodecks and we can literally relive opening night of Company and Show Boat and Hamilton.

Over and over and over again.

Also, I'm going to keep watching bootlegs...

We are all so grateful to The Joes (Iconis and Tracz) for writing Be More Chill, to superstar producer Jennifer Ashley Tepper (the hardest working woman in show biz; did I mention she also writes book?), who shepherded the show along, to Charlie Rosen the show's incredible orchestrator; this incredible team who gave us the greatest gift possible, an exquisite, exciting, surprising piece of musical theatre heaven to work on and share with our audiences.

We will miss the universe of Be More Chill terribly, but it brings me great comfort to know that this beautiful, unusual, thrilling piece of theatre will have a long, healthy life in regional productions, in community theatre and school productions, and through its massive volume of fan art, fan covers, and fan forums (fora?). I can think of only a couple shows that have created that intensity of passion in their fans -- Rent and Hamilton.

A huge part of the fun for me during this process (as always) has been exploring, thinking about, and writing about this show, its structure and form, the show's textual themes, its many surprises and secrets, the opening number, and the relationship between the musical and its source novel. So much there to think about.

I also got to interview four members of the BMC team for my Stage Grok podcast -- composer-lyricist Joe Iconis (nicest guy ever), Jennifer Ashley Tepper (my theatre hero), orchestrator Charlie Rosen (a true genius), and actor Katlyn Carlson (super cool and super talented). I've never been able to get so many perspectives on a single show. It was really fun talking to all of them.

We knew the response to this show would be intense, but we had no idea what was coming... Only a few shows in our 28-year history have been met with enthusiasm like this -- honestly, maybe no other show of ours has reached quite this level...

The critics embraced us completely...
“Productions like this are exactly what contemporary theatre needs.”
– Tanya Seale, BroadwayWorld

“One of New Line’s best productions in recent history.”
– Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

“A startlingly fresh musical that avoids cliché to tell an exciting and at times very funny story about modern teenagers with a sci-fi twist.”
– Paul Friswold, The Riverfront Times

“Teen angst has rarely been so entertainingly outrageous.”
– Calvin Wilson, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“The powerful connection between actors and theatergoers is electric and palpable.”
– Lynn Venhaus, St. Louis Limelight

"This is a perfect New Line show, and how Scott Miller managed to present it so soon after its Broadway opening is a wonder."
– Judith Newmark, All the World’s a Stage

"the regional premiere run at New Line is truly special."
– Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

“A spectacular production. . . A total blast.”
– Tina Farmer, KDHX

We created a "Who's Your Squip?" wall in our lobby, much like they did in New York. The idea is to decide, if you had a squip, what person/character would the squip take on. At first, I chose Bob Fosse, but then I thought having him in my head all the time might be really oppressive, so I chose John Waters instead. I wasn't sure if people would participate, but our squip wall grew every night of the run. Here's a video documenting our great squip wall on closing night...

And the responses from our audiences on Facebook were overwhelming. Here's a few of them...
"Saw the production of Be More Chill last night. We knew all the songs ahead of time and were so excited to see it performed live. It was over our expectations! Amazing singers, actors, performances. Definitely worth visiting this theatre and group -- we’ve just learned about it and will be back. And for now? We get to spend the next week with all BMC songs stuck in our heads (no complaints)"

"Tonight's performance was fantastic. I taught high school for 31 years and I have a 21 year old son whose life revolves around music and performing -- and finding his way to know himself. Needless to say, I feel like the actors captured the angst/humor/passion/confusion of high school -- with a sci-fi twist. I loved every minute of the show. Kudos."

"After seeing this production at New Line the other week, I'm pretty sure I've listened to the original cast recording about a dozen times. I think I've changed my mind on what song I like best about four or five times. Too many good ones to choose from! Also, I'd love to hear a recording made from your cast, they did such a great job."

"New Line Theatre’s production of Be More Chill was so much fun tonight! We are truly so fortunate to have so much great art in this city."

"Can’t stress this enough. Be More Chill with New Line Theatre is tremendous! The voices. The actors. The music. The musicians. What an absolute joy of a show!"

"It was wonderful. Thank you for bringing it to St. Louis!"

"My son saw it twice! Great show."

I was very surprised that a dozen or more people talked to me during our run who had seen the show off or on Broadway, and preferred our production. I think a lot of that has to do with the fact that our actors are literally a few feet from the front row, and our little blackbox theatre has only eight rows when we set it up this way. Just the fact of that intimacy makes any great show funnier, more intense, more powerful, more emotional, more honest.

I did see the off Broadway production, but have not seen it on Broadway. I know it's a terrific production with a really strong cast, but I think maybe this is a story that works better away from the pressures of the commercial theatre. I think the physical circumstances of our production lent us a little extra up-close magic.

It's really wonderful to find a great piece of theatre, put together a great production with a bunch of brilliant theatre artists, and then share it with audiences who fall in love with it. After all, despite all the cool things I found in the text and music, this really is just a story about surviving being Different.

And it's a thriller!

Everyone who helped create our production did extraordinary work -- our designers, tech staff, musicians, actors...  Musical theatre is the most collaborative of all art forms, and that's a big part of why I love it so much. (I'll never understand the companies who hire a computer instead of a band. Sorry, but that's not live musical theatre. The band is performing as much as the actors are!)

I am so grateful to all the New Liners who worked on Be More Chill, but I have to offer a few special thanks -- to Dowdy, who I trust more than anyone else I've ever worked with, and who directed this show with incredible creativity and artistry and confidence; to Jayde Mitchell (Jeremy) who worked his ass off, and who embraced every direction we gave him; and to Kevin Corpuz (Michael) and Grace Langford (Christine), two of our up-and-coming New Line stars, both of whom are wildly talented, super easy to work with, and extraordinary onstage.

Grace will be playing the female lead in both Cry-Baby and Head Over Heels next season, and Kevin will be Bobby Strong in Urinetown! Keep an eye on these two!

This whole cast rocked, the band (ably led by new New Liner Marc Vincent) rocked, and I really could not be prouder or happier. And New Line's bank account is reeeeally happy...

I love my job!

Long Live the Musical!

C-C-C-Come On, C-C-C-Come On, Go Go!

Be More Chill has one of those perfect, textbook opening numbers that accomplishes way more than you notice at first. Like Company, High Fidelity, Urinetown, Bat Boy, Next to Normal, Robber Bridegroom, Hands on a Hardbody, and so many other shows, Be More Chill's opening, "More Than Survive" is so much more than just a first song. It establishes style, tone, pacing, the show's central musical and textual themes, and all the major characters.

The show begins with a short musical prelude, some key-bending horror music, capped off with a short musical phrase that will later accompany the words, "Helps you to be cool, it helps you rule..." It's a musical foreshadowing of the show's central conflict -- except the phrase stops before the final note, and jumps into the first scene.

But that music is in our heads now...

The music turns to a four-note musical phrase that will return throughout the show. As I wrote in another post, this figure is almost familiar; it's almost Disney's Little Mermaid vamp, but it's been complicated by turning one note in the phrase dissonant, creating a tritone, a musical interval often associated with darkness, evil, even the Devil himself. The music is telling us that Jeremy's life is just a normal fucked up teenager's life, not right, not comfortable, not happy -- and that something really fucked-up is heading our way...

Just by changing that one note in the phrase, the music tells us subconsciously, even before we hear any words. that Jeremy's world is out of balance, and the action of this story will be about putting his world into balance.

And the first words of the show are the "C-C-C-Come on!" that will return throughout the show. Here, it's Jeremy impatience for porn to load on his computer. By the end of this opening number, that same chant will be the students impatience for the final bell to ring at the end of the school day. By the end of the show, that phrase will come to be the characters' invitation to the audience to follow Jeremy's example and find their own path.

Similarly, at the end of the school day, the chant will be finished off with a string of "Go, Go, Go, Go..." urging the clock's hands toward the bell. At the end of the show, the exact same chant will be telling the audience to now go out and put their own lives on the right path.

Only after this subliminal foundation has been set does the song gives us concrete info. Jeremy introduces himself and his problem (social failure) in the first verse, to music that will become Jeremy's "Dork Theme" (my label).

And then we segue into underscoring and the show's first bit of dialogue, which introduces Jeremy's father and the very odd relationship they share -- as well as his father's lack of pants. Here it's just a joke; we'll soon learn it's much more than that.

In the second verse, we find out that Jeremy is almost paralyzed by two things -- dread of continued social failure, and an inability to make decisions. We don't know this yet, but the Squip is going to solve both problems.

Now on the school bus, Jeremy lays out another repeating musical theme to this lyric:
I don't want to be a hero;
Just wanna stay in the line.
I'll never be a Rob De Niro;
For me, Joe Pesci ls fine.

He wants to be a nobody. Or at least, he doesn't aspire to anything more. Also, songwriter Joe Iconis is telling us that pop culture references are part of the fabric of this story. The section ends with:
I don't want to be special, no, no...
I just want to survive.

And that's his problem. He doesn't expect or even hope that his life will get any better. He's stagnating, not growing.

The opening continues into some more underscoring and dialogue, and we meet most of the other characters and we see an illustration of Jeremy's shitty social status. The underscoring is the main theme from "Smartphone Hour" -- it's a kind of "Gossip Theme," but we don't know that yet... And the dialogue also sets up the sexually charged social world at this school.

We return to the opening's main melody and Jeremy tells us his only real goal here is to "remain unseen." So much is set up in this opening that will soon change.

And then we meet Christine and the romantic "Christine Theme." But then Christine speaks and Jeremy falls apart and he goes back to his "Dork Theme." He tells himself:
Accept that you're on of those guys
Who'll stay a virgin till he dies.

Yikes! (There are a lot of references to death and suicide in this show!) Finally we meet Michael and the music changes drastically. Jeremy's music has been a kind of driving, relentless pop-rock, but when Michael arrives, the music swings for the first time. Michael is listening to Bob Marley, so the music slips into a Jamaican reggae groove to mirror the music we don't actually hear in his headphones.

This very short musical section tells us a lot. It tells us the Michael doesn't share the same "music" (literally and metaphorically) as all the other kids. He has his own music, his own voice, because he already knows what Michael must learn -- to follow his own path. As soon as Jeremy speaks again, the music turns back to that regular beat and the dissonance of the beginning of the number.

Jeremy and Michael share some dialogue and we get some information about their relationship. We learn more about Jeremy's feelings and the romantic "Christine Theme" returns, this time with all the students singing along -- in Jeremy's head. This moment tells us that in this story, the other characters will sometimes play voices in Jeremy's head. That's important for us to know.

The music stops for just a second, just long enough for Rich to humiliate Jeremy in front of everybody else. And Jeremy returns to his "Dork Theme." He sings:
I'm never gonna be the cool guy;
I'm more the one who's left out.
Of all the characters at school, I
Am not the one who the story's about...

That last line is fascinating because it tells us so much about Jeremy -- he can't imagine being the Hero, being the Protagonist. But to the audience, it's a funny meta-moment since we already know we're here to see a story in which Jeremy is the protagonist.

The last section of this opening number turns to driving rock eighth notes, as Jeremy pleads with the universe to help him "more than survive." Maybe he's not content with his life after all. Maybe he does aspire to something more. And as the rest of the cast joins in, maybe we get the hint that all of them, even the Cool Kids that Jeremy envies, all really feel the same way underneath.

In one of my favorite asides in the show, Jeremy sings:
If this was an apocalypse,
I would not need any tips
On how to stay alive.
But since the zombie army's yet to descend,
And the period is going to end,
I'm just trying my best
To pass the test
And survive.

In other words, Jeremy can handle himself against zombies in a video game, just not against humans in the real world. All he wants is to "pass the test" of social acceptance. Weirdly, his skills in the video game universe will essentially help him Save the World at the end of the show. Also, he doesn't know if yet, but he doesn't have to "pass the test" -- because measuring up to other people's measure is the Great Mistake that Jeremy makes. He only has to measure up to his own measure, to be a happy and complete person.

The "C-C-C-Come on!" theme returns, as a structural bookend to the number (and eventually, the show as a whole!), and it invokes that feeling of impatience that fuels our teenage years; and despite Jeremy's protestations, we see that Everybody's Wants the Same Thing.

By the time his opening number is over, we know quite a bit about Jeremy and his major relationships -- with his father, with Michael, with Christine, and with the brutal high school social scene. We've also heard all the important musical themes that will be used throughout the score, we've gotten a taste of the the pop culture references that will permeate the story, and the wry, irreverent humor that is the language of this world.

If the audience doesn't already know the story, they think at this point that this is a romantic musical comedy, that ultimately Jeremy will find himself through the love of the Right Girl. But that's not where we're headed, or to be more accurate, that's not how we're headed. Jeremy has to go on a painful (literally and metaphorically) Hero's Journey -- by himself. It's self-knowledge that Jeremy lacks and must find -- by himself.

Soon after Michael arrives to Save the World at the end (oops! spoiler alert!), Jeremy comes to the self-awareness he lacks in the opening. And significantly, the finale ends the same way the opening ends. In the opening, all they want is the end of the school day; in the finale, they're urging all of us to learn what they've learned -- we each have our own path, and we each have to find that path on our own.

The opening ends with a driving chant, "Go, go, go, go..." The Act II finale ends instead with one "Go" on a big, choral chord that rises and grows, and while there is dissonance within the chord, it grows into a final, perfect, major chord, no dissonance, no complication.

Jeremy's okay. He's grown up, or at least taken his first steps in that direction. He has learned to focus on others instead of himself. He's learned about sacrifice. And he's learned the most important lesson of all:
And there are voices all around,
And you can never mute the sound.
They scream and shout;
I tune them out,
Then make up my own mind.
. . .
And there are voices in my head...
So many voices in my head...
And they can yell,
And hurt like hell,
But I know I'll be fine.
Might still have voices in my head…
There are voices in my head…
But of the voices in my head,
The loudest one is mine!

Those "voices" -- peer pressure, the culture, and other social forces, won't go away -- the trick is to make sure you own voice, your own path, is the one you follow. The final invocation of the "C-C-C-Come on, Go!" chant finishes the show, and it takes on powerful meaning.

We realize by the end that this chant has changed over the course of the show; it's "grown up" with Jeremy. It first accompanies Jeremy's impatience for computer porn, then the students' impatience for the end of the school day, then Jeremy's impatience with his nonexistent social confidence, then porn again, then at the end of Act I, it becomes the Squip's seduction, to which Jeremy succumbs.

But here at the end of the show, it's a demand, a command, the equivalent of the iconic "Just Do It."

The show, the characters, the actors are all imploring us to live our lives actively rather than passively, to let our own voices be the loudest ones. It's not all that different from "Let the Sun Shine In" at the end of Hair, begging the audience to bring light back into the darkness. In Hair, it's advocating for communal action; Be More Chill advocates for personal, largely inner action.

That's not a lesson for teenagers. It's a lesson for all of us. Which is why Be More Chill is so universally loved. When I talk to audience members after performances, so many of them talk about how "honest" and "real" the story and the characters feel to them -- despite the sci-fi elements.

We're all Jeremy, one way or another. We all have voices in our head that steer us wrong, that tell us we're not good enough. The Squip is a metaphor, and by the end, we all get it. Following someone else's path always leads to problems. We each have to find our own way, and to do that, our own voice must be the loudest. Christine acknowledges at the end that what the Squip offers is very seductive, but it's not a real life.

We close the show next weekend, and we will all miss it terribly. But it will stay with us, not just the joy and the amazing response from audiences and the press, but also the deeply honest, thoughtful, subtle story, that has something to teach us all.

Long Live the Musical!

It's Just So Universal

I finally started reading the Be More Chill novel, and I LOVE IT.

Though lots of small things are different from the musical, all the big arcs are pretty much the same -- although the ending is totally different (by necessity). It's been fun spending even more time with Jeremy, Michael, and the gang. Plus the novel is full of "Bonus Features"...

For instance, I was reading the novel and got to a reprint of a Yahoo News item that Jeremy sees online about the Squip... What?

Let's pause here for a second...

Sometimes reading the source novel is incredibly helpful; sometimes it's not. When New Line produced Sondheim's Passion in 1996 (am I really that old?), I watched the source movie, Passione d'amore (The Passion of Love), which is really wonderful and really fucked up. Sondheim and Lapine had stuck pretty close to the movie, so it was interesting to see but didn't tell me much new. Then I read the autobiographical (!) source novel by Iginio Tarchetti. It's a wild, incredibly entertaining, often disturbing ride, but it was a blast to read. Plus, I found virtually nothing that was at odds with the musical, and so much that enhanced and added to the information the musical gave us. It really helped us in concrete ways.

Reading Ragtime was like that as well.

Then again... I read the Sweet Smell of Success novella while we worked on that show, and while it's an amazing book, it's really only a jumping off place for the show. Lots of things are different, and most notably, the novella's plot starts near the end of the musical's first act. So reading the book was fun, and a little helpful with time and place, atmosphere, tone, etc., but I had to understand that the show was a different animal. That was also true of reading The Once and Future King while working on Camelot. In the novel, Lance is ugly, after all...

Weirdly, the book Pal Joey is actually backstory for the musical Pal Joey. And the musical Man of La Mancha explores only a few small sections from the sprawling novel Don Quixote (one of my favorites!), much like South Pacific does.

The Be More Chill novel falls on both sides of this question (not a surprise for this show), which is why I waited to read it till after we opened. I do feel like I'm getting to know these characters better, particularly Jeremy and Michael, but I also know that the story we're telling is the stage musical, not the novel.

Meanwhile, I'm also learning so much about BMC from audiences members and other fans. I happened upon a Be More Chill Wiki site, and there are lots of cool tidbits there...

Two things that really struck me...

First, the Squip says something repeatedly in the show that (as a non-gamer) baffled me: "Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, A." Finally someone explained it to me. Here's how the mildly addictive Be More Chill Wiki puts it:
For those who don't know, the Konami code is a cheat code or a command that has different effects depending on the game in question, most commonly used in Konami branded games and few Nintendo games. It was also called the "Contra Code" or the "99 lives code." The exact code is: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, Left, Right, B, A. Though the Squip's little code is: Up, Up, Down, Down, Left, Right, A.

Okay, mind blown.

Also, I found this: "Joe Tracz claims that it is unknown if the Squip's motives were to take over the world, but the Squip does wish for everyone in the world to own a Squip (Tracz compares this to how Apple wants everybody to have their products)." Again, that's interesting...

Here's the big mind-blower so far. I'm reading the novel and I get to a Yahoo News item that Jeremy reads online:
Sony Hints at Next Generation of Wearable Computers

Just as the Segway Human Transport system was introduced to the world as clandestine, heavily-funded “IT” technology, digital designers and futurists are now buzzing about “SQUIP” as the next great leap forward in human lifestyle enhancement. SQUIP is being developed by Sony (SNE).

“It’s a simple device that will redefine how computers operate within our society,” says Harvey Dinglesnort about SQUIP, which Sony refuses to comment on directly. Mr. Dinglesnort reviews high-end devices for a variety of publications including The Sharper Image(SHRP). “They’re keeping close tabs on it because it really will be a sensation when it is released.”

What is known about SQUIP is that it involves microcomputers that can be implanted—or ingested—into the human body. Devices like the VeriChip, fromApplied Digital Systems (ADSXE), already provide this functionality, but VeriChip implantation is a surgical procedure (albeit an outpatient one) involving a needle large enough to dose an elephant. SQUIP is said to be much smaller and easier to “install” due to the fact that it does not employ conventional microchip structure.

“Sony is going consumer with quantum computing,” Mr. Dinglesnort explains. “Scientists have been researching for years the prospect of building a computer based not on the binary system, where a piece of information is either a one or a zero, but on a ‘qubit’ system, where a piece of information can be a one, a zero, or a sort of in-between state that collapses into a one or zero when it is observed closely.”

The quantum computer is of interest to researchers because of its staggering data-processing capabilities, exponentially surpassing those of current CPUs. It has been discussed for projects ranging from large-scale materials fabrication to time travel. But Sony seems to have simpler plans.

“What they have said is, ‘Let’s not worry about all the great things quantum computers can do. Let’s just make a simple one and take advantage of the fact that it can be tiny, and try to manufacture a sort of ingestible Palm Pilot,’” Mr. Dinglesnort says. Consumer models are a long way off. But the prospect of SQUIP has futurists drooling and investors lining up…

Yikes. We know this isn't exactly the Squip's backstory onstage, because in the musical Michael searches the internet but can't find anything at all about the Squip -- which makes him suspicious. (Also in the novel, Michael's is a serious horndog with a thing for Asian women, and his brother actually took a Squip!)

I said we know that this isn't the Squip's backstory in the musical, but we don't know that. The only thing we know is different is that, in the musical, there's nothing about it on the internet; but it is from Japan, it's incredibly high-tech (nobody made this in their garage), and there are a lot of them.

This backstory does make sense in the context of the musical...

How does that help us? It's just another piece of "reality" that helps this fictional world feel real and complete to the actors, which makes it feel real and complete to the audience. After all, acting is really just about acting naturally, logically, in fictional circumstances. So the more the actor knows about the world she's inhabiting, the more convincingly she'll do that.

One thing that really struck me as I read the novel is how much had to get left out -- and yet it really doesn't feel like the musical is missing much at all. The Joes (Mssrs. Iconis and Tracz) did a masterful job of combining multiple similar incidents into one, combining similar characters into composites, etc.

People talk about how much gets left out by necessity when a 300-page novel is adapted into a 90-minute film, but the transformation is even more extreme when a novel is transformed into a stage musical. The script of a musical is -- by necessity -- the most compact kind of storytelling, and therefore, the most difficult. The book of a musical gets so little stage time, because singing takes much longer than talking. Music slows down time in a musical. Though not as grotesquely as a lot of opera does. What might take 30 seconds to say in dialogue may well take a minute and a half, or two minutes, or even more, to express in song.

Considering all that, it's genuinely astonishing to me that only small things are different between the novel and the musical, that the Joes told this story in all its fullness and complexity, despite the form's inherent restrictions and its limits on time and space. That's some damn fine writing.

And when big things are different in the story, it's so clearly a choice made to enhance the emotional content of the story; after all, musical theatre is one of the most emotional forms of storytelling, since it uses the abstract language of music, alongside the concrete language of words.

For instance, in the novel, Jeremy has somewhat emotionally absent, shitty parents. In the musical, Jeremy's mother has left and his father is trapped in his deep grief. That's a much more intense set of circumstances, which needs the emotional intensity of music to tell its story. When people ask me, I always tell them that the thing that makes a great story into a great musical is the intensity of emotion; musical theatre's great super power is its ability to portray deep, complicated, and intense emotion far better than spoken words alone ever could.

The Joes (Iconis and Tracz) took an inherently emotional story, and with only minor adjustments, turned it into an incredibly emotional story, with very high emotional stakes. That's what great musical theatre does.

One other thing I've learned as we worked on and now run Be More Chill -- people's reactions to it are almost never rational; they're way more emotional (and so, dare I say it, irrational) than I expected. Though almost all our reviews were pretty much raves, some of them made a point of dismissing the material.

I don't know how to break it to them, but we can't make a great show out of not-great material. It doesn't work that way.

Several of the reviewers talked about how the characters were all stereotypes, but then went on to explain in detail how they aren't stereotypes; and likewise, these same people declared our story derivative and predictable, and then they go on to talk about all the unexpected twists and turns the story takes. My favorite review quote along those lines was, "There are definitely relatable aspects, but there’s not much here that hasn’t been done before, and better."

Really? Because I'm trying to think of another musical about young people that appears to be a romantic musical comedy at first, but soon morphs into a dark sci-fi thriller, that deals with peer pressure, bullying, teen depression, suicide, the over-medication of kids, absent parents. Actually I'm trying to think of another musical that applies the Faust legend to kids. (No, not Little Shop, since Audrey and Seymour are at least ten years older than these kids, despite the usual miscasting, and they exist in a completely different time, place, and storytelling style.)

Also, part of the genius of Be More Chill, and the reason that literally millions -- let me repeat that, MILLIONS -- of people connect to this show so powerfully, is that the characters at first seem to be stock character types, but every one of them proves to be much more complicated than that -- exactly as it is in real life. Early in the show, when BMOC Jake talks to Christine about how her play affected him, the show blows up the jock stereotype...
JAKE: Hey. You were in that play last year.
CHRISTINE: You mean Romeo & Juliet?
JAKE: Yeah. you were that girl who died!
CHRISTINE: You mean Juliet?
JAKE: Yeah! That was depressing.
CHRISTINE: Thanks ...
JAKE: But. .. you were good. I'm Jake.
CHRISTINE: I...know.
JAKE: Cool... Can l say something stupid? When 1 saw you die in the play last year. .. That was like the saddest I'd felt in a long time. It was like everything in my life, all the pressure I feel to be the best, at everything, all the time ... Suddenly felt so small. And then, when you got up at the end for your victory dance ...
CHRISTINE: Bow, it's called a bow.
JAKE: Right! I remember thinking, "l 'm glad that girl's not dead ... before I ever got the chance to know her." Stupid, right?
CHRISTINE: That's ... not stupid at all.

This is one of my favorite moments in the show, because the stereotypical jock is revealed to be a real person, with real emotions he doesn't fully understand, and the audience realizes they can't assume anything about any of these people. This jock has just discovered the magic of theatre and he is fully embracing it. Maybe high school and college kids recognize this basic truth even more readily because they're in the midst of living through all that...

But then again, aren't we all...?

Every show we produce teaches me a lot -- about the show, about humans, about life, about storytelling, but this show is also teaching me about preconceptions. When I ask people after the show why they think the show is having such massive success, both adults and kids tell me pretty much the same thing -- it's because the show is fiercely, deeply honest and authentic. This is not a silly story about silly emotions; this is not a story of stereotypes and cliches; no, this is a story about the incredible complexity of human relationships, and the social context that we all create that can lift up or beat down anybody, popular or not, smart or not, loved or not.

And almost everybody I ask, from current high school kids to seniors, says this story mirrors their own high school experience in a thousand ways, some obvious, some very subtle. The word lots of people use about the show is "honest." I couldn't agree more. You never hear Iconis and Tracz in this dialogue or these lyrics; you hear the authentic voices of high school kids.

I went through all those emotions in high school (forty years ago!), and today's high school kids are telling me they're going through all these exact same emotions today, which leads me to believe not a lot has changed when it comes to the way people treat people. Myself, I had an awesome time in high school, but I know many (most?) people are still carrying various traumas from high school around with them. And that baggage will color how they experience this story.

Yes, there are other musicals about teens -- great musicals, some of them -- but there's nothing else like Be More Chill. And if you think there is, you're not paying attention. I agree with RFT reviewer Paul Friswold, who wrote:
New Line's Be More Chill is a startlingly fresh musical that avoids cliche to tell an exciting and at times very funny story about modern teenagers with a sci-fi twist. . .

As good as Joe Iconis' songs are (and the New Line band, led by Marc Vincent, plays them very well indeed), Joe Tracz' book is equally compelling. An off-hand factoid about stagnating human evolution dovetails quite tidily with the Squip's motivations for disseminating more of itself through the school. This is the real menace of life lived by remote control, and everything in Be More Chill hinges on someone "just saying no" to technology-laced drugs. For all its charms and honesty about the bad decision-making of high schoolers, Be More Chill's gripping conclusion proves that not everyone takes the easy way out. It takes only one brave teen armed with a fondness for retro '90s culture to stop the madness. Uncoolness never looked so good.

I agree -- startlingly fresh. The funniest part of this is though several reviewers thought there was nothing new here, no one even mentioned Faust. They (incorrectly) think Be More Chill isn't that different from Heathers or Mean Girls, but apparently they don't recognize the story's actual source.

BroadwayWorld reviewer Tanya Seale called our show, "one of the coolest, freshest comedic musicals in years. . . It features modern-day teen characters who speak modern-day lingo, who dress in modern-day fashion, and who cleverly and intriguingly use modern-day technology onstage." I'll leave you with the end of Tanya's review...
I can't even begin to convey just how refreshing it was to see an audience respond so enthusiastically to musical theatre. It was almost as if the teenagers in the house were calling out, "Thank you! You see us!" Productions like this are exactly what contemporary theatre needs to cultivate new audiences and Be More Chill certainly delivers on that tall order.

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!