Look Around, Look Around at How Lucky We Are to Be Alive Right Now

Most of my friends swoon over the thought of meeting Lin-Manuel Miranda or Stephanie J. Block, but my heroes are the directors and writers (although I guess that also includes Lin-Manuel Miranda). What I would give to talk to Hal Prince or Tommy Tune! Or to go back in time to talk with Fosse or George Abbott before they died!

Luckily for this MT* FanBoy, I do get to meet some amazing writers from time to time. [* MT is internet shorthand for Musical Theatre]

One of the great joys of running a company like New Line is that every show really is an adventure, with its own style, tone, devices, etc. Sometimes it's a wild, roller-coaster ride; sometimes we have to slowly hack our way through a jungle of complexity and nuance to get where we're going. And it's always an adventure for our audience too, who often know nothing about a show coming in, only that it will be an adventure.

One of the coolest parts of the adventure is that periodically over our 27-year history, the writers of the shows we've produced have come to see our productions of their work. Which is always very cool. These are the folks who've come to visit us...

bookwriter-composer-lyricist Mark Savage
The Ballad of Little Mikey (1997)
We were still a young company when we took our first two big risks, in our sixth season. We produced the weirdly wonderful cult favorite, the off Broadway concept musical Jacques Brel is Alive and Well and Living in Paris. And then we did The Ballad of Little Mikey. If I remember right, it had been produced only in Los Angeles by Mark Savage, who wrote it. I found his cast album on CD and fell in love with his quirky but gorgeous score telling the story of the birth of a gay activist in the 1980s. There was a big dance number in the show called "Tap," about anonymous sex in public restrooms (I'm not kidding). In the L.A. production the song was kind of naughty but cute, but ours was more explicit -- an R-rated Busby Berkeley number, with the guys' pants around their ankles the whole time, running in and out of bathroom stalls, and making a giant revolving wreath of rainbow-colored toilet seats. It was hilarious and freaky and very John Waters. But when Mark Savage flew in to see our show, our version of "Tap" really shocked him. He couldn't believe we had taken it so far. Which cracked me up. It was a song about anonymous sex in public restrooms. He really loved our production, though, because we understood the story's heart and the complexity of gay cultural history. Such a funny, beautiful show. And it was amazing to meet Mark.

bookwriter-lyricist Annie Kessler
Woman with Pocketbook (1998)
We had a one-act musical contest, and the winning show shared its world premiere with Bill Finn's March of the Falsettos. We got about three dozen really wonderful short musicals submitted from all across the country. We settled on one that was very simple on the surface but such an insightful piece of social commentary. It was called Woman with Pocketbook, by Annie Kessler, Libby Saines, and actor Jeff Blumenkrantz, and it was about this older woman, Doris, who dies, gets to Heaven, but can't get in because she refuses to give up her pocketbook. Annie came to see the production, and it was very cool meeting her.

lyricist Amanda Green
High Fidelity (2008)
This was such a thrill for me. I had found the High Fidelity cast album, after its aborted run on Broadway in 2006. Only because Tom Kitt had his own band with a website was I able to find him and get a look at the Hi-Fi script. Which is amazing. Soon enough, we had the rights to the American Regional Premiere, and we brought back to life -- and to rave reviews -- one of the most interesting, most inventive musicals of the last couple decades. To my great delight, lyricist Amanda Green flew into see us, and she got to sit in a sold-out house roaring with laughter at Barry and sniffling at "Laura, Laura." In part, I think Amanda came to see if her show could really work stripped down and minimalist -- I don't know if she'd agree, but I think it works ten times better. It' a very intimate story and should never have been on a Broadway stage (or directed by someone who didn't understand what it is). Amanda was awesome and seemed really happy with our production, with the balance we found between the funny stuff and the harrowing emotional content. She was so complimentary to all of us. She went to dinner with us after the show, and her best bud Ann Harada just happened to be in town at the Muny, so Ann joined us too. We all geeked out.

songwriter Adam Schlessinger, 
orchestrator Christopher Jahnke
Cry-Baby (2012)
Like High Fidelity, this was another show that was badly directed and completely misunderstood on Broadway. The original director, who shall remain nameless, hopelessly crippled the show. I found one of the writers, David Javerbaum, online and again, got a script. Which was also amazing. I had the great fun of meeting all four writers for brunch when I was up in NYC, and they all felt comfortable letting me take a swing at their baby (what an unfortunate mixed metaphor), so New Line presented the American Regional Premiere. The writers also agreed to pay for new arrangements for a six-piece rock band for us (and for future productions). Javerbaum's songwriting partner Adam Schlessinger (of Fountains of Wayne) flew out to see us, along with the show's orchestrator Chris Jahnke. Again, I think Adam wanted to know if the show could work with a six-piece band (which is what they had originally wanted), and a cast of 16. I think they were both very happy. And again, it was just such fun to meet them and talk with them afterward.

bookwriter-lyricist Spencer Green,
bookwriter-composer-lyricist Gary Stockdale
Bukowsical (2013)
Spencer and Gary flew in to see our production and they were both so nice! Ours was the first production outside of NYC and L.A., and the first production the writers weren't involved with. But I think they were very happy with what we had wrought. I was a little nervous because they had originally written a framing device for the show that I thought was unnecessary, even a cop-out of sorts. So I lobbied them to cut it and they let me. So here they were, seeing their show without the framing device for the first time -- and they told me they really liked how well it worked. I know they've continued to work on it, though I'm not sure if the frame has survived or not.

composer-lyricist Amanda Green
Hands on a Hardbody (2014)
Amanda came back to see us a second time when we produced the American Regional Premiere of Hands on a Hardbody. Once again, the show hadn't lasted long on Broadway, but it absolutely thrived in our intimate 200-seat house. Amanda was really happy with our production and our many rave reviews. I later found out that during intermission on opening night, a young woman in our audience turned to her friend and said, "This is so good! If I had another $25, I'd come see it again!" Whereupon Amanda Green, sitting directly in front of this young woman, turned around, handed her $25, and said, "Come back and see it again." How cool is that.

bookwriter Ivan Menchell,
orchestrator John McDaniel
Bonnie & Clyde (2014)
Most improbably, Bonnie & Clyde bookwriter Ivan Menchell and the show's orchestrator and arranger (and St. Louis hometown boy) John McDaniel both came to our production on the same night -- without knowing the other would be there. I think they were both happy with our show, and we went out for a late dinner. I had seen the Broadway production (which I loved), but I had forgotten how differently we had approached the show. I think some of those changes (like not having any actual kids) were a bit weird to Ivan, but I think he genuinely liked our production.

bookwriter-lyricist Danny Ginges,
composer-lyricist Philip Foxman
Atomic (2016)
This amazing rock drama was born in Australia, then badly abused off Broadway, then returned to Australia, and emerged better and sharper than ever. It was this last version that we had the privilege of producing (I think we were the second American regional production), and ours was the first production the writers hadn't been involved in. But they both flew in from Australia to see us and were very gracious and very complimentary. They asked me for a few subtle changes in our staging, and we were happy to work those in. The production before us had been on a large stage in a big regional theatre. I think it was cool for Danny and Philip to see their show as freakishly up close as ours was -- and to see how powerful it is that way.

bookwriter-lyricist Tom Jones
Celebration (2016)
I had always wanted to see this show. I never thought I'd ever be in a position to actually produce it. But somehow we made the crazy decision to open last season with it. Once we had decided to do it, I contacted bookwriter and lyricist Tom Jones (The Fantasticks, I Do! I Do!, 110 in the Shade, Philemon), told him we were doing the show, and I wanted to ask him some questions. It's a really odd show! He replied that he'd been working on a new draft of the script and he wanted to know if we'd premiere this new version. I immediately agreed. So he flew out to see us, with one of his sons (who had never seen Celebration), and like the other writers, he was so nice, so warm, and so complimentary. Plus, I got to do a podcast interview with him about the show!

Pretty cool, huh?

And it looks pretty likely that Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the writers of Yeast Nation (and Urinetown) will be coming to see our production in June. We produced Urinetown in 2007. I really hope they can make it.

There are a thousand reasons I'm grateful that I get to run New Line, but one of the biggest is the amazing artists I get to talk with and their amazing shows that I get to work on. With some of these shows, New Line gave them new life, after misguided Broadway productions that closed quickly, proving that the shows themselves are much stronger than their clueless original productions. With some of these shows, our production is the proof that the shows don't need spectacle, big sets, a big orchestra, a big chorus, that in fact the stories are stronger and more powerful without all that extra stuff.

But whatever small gifts we can give these writers, they give us a much bigger gift by coming to see us, by being so friendly and so generous with their praise. I know in some of these cases, they're a little apprehensive, wondering what we'll do to their precious shows, wondering if the shows will work without all the accouterments of Broadway. I think they always fly home relieved.

One of the nicest things Amanda Green did (among many nice things!) was when we announced we were doing Jerry Springer the Opera, she posted on composer Richard Thomas's Facebook wall that we did great work with her shows and she knows we'll take good care of his show. I thought that was wonderful.

The writers don't always get the praise and huzzahs that they deserve, so I thought it would be nice to take a minute and say Thank You, to Mark, Annie, Amanda, Adam, Chris, Spencer, Gary, Ivan, John, Danny, Philip, and Tom! You guys are my heroes!

Long Live the Musical!

Deep Down Inside

I write about musical theatre a lot. Aside from my history book and my book about Hair, all of my other books are collections of what I call "background and analysis essays." As far as I know, nobody really did this -- at least not for musical theatre -- before I started in the early 1990s. Stephen Banfield did a terrific book, examining famous musicals in term of musical construction, etc., but that's only one piece of what I do.

I deconstruct each show, take it apart and look at its pieces and how they function. I analyze the script and score in terms of music, rhyme, form, content, style, etc. I explore a show's history, historical context, source material, and so much more. Pretty much everything you'd need before starting work on a show. Some people tell me they love reading my essays before seeing a show they don't know; other people tell me they love reading my essays after seeing a show that's new to them. I endorse both practices. And tons of directors and actors tell me that my essays have helped them enormously in figuring out shows they're working on.

Since 1994, I've written background and analysis essays on sixty-four musicals, and I have several more essays under construction (on American Idiot, Atomic, Bonnie & Clyde, Heathers, and The Sweet Smell of Success.)

In my book From Assassins to West Side Story (1996), I analyze 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.

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

In Rebels with Applause (2001), I analyze 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.

And in Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals (2011), I analyze 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, High Fidelity, as well as brief looks at The Capeman, bare, Taboo, Jersey Boys, Next to Normal, Edges, Spring Awakening, Passing Strange, Love Kills, Glory Days, Rooms, American Idiot, and Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson.

The truth is that, over the last ten years or so, I write an essay on every show I direct, with only a couple exceptions. I sort of can't help myself. And really, having to put my thoughts and ideas into words helps me figure things out. Since I started my blog in 2007, I blog about my research and analysis as I work on the shows, and then afterward, I form those posts into a coherent (I hope) single essay. Many of these essays then go into my next book.

But not all those essays make it into one of my books, mostly because my books can't be 600 pages long. Still, I write these essays in order to share what I learn; so long ago, I put links on the New Line sitemap to all the other essays I've written. And now, for your convenience, here they are, all in one place. I hope they keep you happily occupied for hours.

Anything Goes
Assassins (expanded from what's in my book)
Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson
Cabaret  (expanded from what's in my book)
The Fantasticks
Hands on a Hardbody
Kiss of the Spider Woman
Love Kills
The Nervous Set
A New Brain
Next to Normal
Passing Strange
Reefer Madness
Return to the Forbidden Planet
The Robber Bridegroom
The Threepenny Opera
Two Gentlemen of Verona

And coming soon... an expanded essay on Anything Goes, which we start work on in January, plus an essay on Yeast Nation, our June show.  These days, I almost never write an essay on a show unless I'm working on it. Luckily, I routinely work on some of the most interesting musicals ever written. So my collection of essays features a wonderful variety of cool, fascinating musicals.

It is my life's goal to get people to take the musical theatre and its literature seriously, to get theatre artists to stop turning their brains off when they work on musicals, to get everyone to treat musical theatre with the same respect we give to the work of Shakespeare, Tennessee Williams, August Wilson, and Suzan-Lori Parks. There's nothing I love more than helping people, through my writing and my work onstage, to see new richness and complexity in great musicals, to understand the emotional and social power of the American musical theatre.

This is how I hope to achieve my goal -- through my essays, my blog posts, and my work. Join my crusade!

Long Live the Musical!

It is the Music of the People

Taking the pulse of our audiences and our community can be valuable. Doing an online survey through Survey Monkey certainly isn't "scientific" and you can't really control who's answering, but it still can offer us insights, some of them very valuable.

And since New Line is a nonprofit theatre, the public technically "owns" our company, so I thought we ought to share the results of our latest survey with you.

We did an online survey in 2015 about our company and our shows, and it was really illuminating, showing us where we were doing great and where we had some work to do. So now, two years later, we've checked back with our community. Here are the results.

1. What shows would you like to see New Line produce?
Dear Evan Hansen -- 50.00%
La Cage aux Folles -- 45.92%
Something Rotten -- 44.90%
Come From Away -- 41.84%
Nine -- 39.80%
Bright Star -- 26.53%
The Visit -- 26.53%
Be More Chill -- 21.43%
In Trousers -- 13.27%
Jasper in Deadland -- 10.20%
Naked Boys Singing -- 7.14%
Promenade -- 6.12%
No Way to Treat a Lady -- 4.08%

I guess we know our audiences and fans are tuned in to what's going on in our art form. Three of the top four vote-getters here are so new, they've not even available to us yet. But most of the shows on this list are also on our list to produce...

2. What shows would you like New Line to repeat?
Songs for a New World -- 50.00%
Bat Boy -- 38.37%
Urinetown -- 33.72%
A New Brain -- 37.21%
Hands on a Hardbody -- 29.07%
Night of the Living Dead -- 22.09%
Return to the Forbidden Planet -- 18.60%

We produced Songs for a New World in 1998, three years after its low-profile limited run off Broadway -- back when almost no one had heard of Jason Robert Brown! Now it's our top vote-getter for a return. I'd love to return to every show on this list.

3. Would you be interested in buying season tickets to New Line Theatre?
Yes -- 35.35%
No -- 21.21%
Not Sure -- 43.43%

We had a trial run late this summer with selling season tickets, and we did surprisingly well. So we'll do a full-out season ticket campaign in the spring and summer.

4. What's the main reason(s) you buy a theatre ticket?
The show being produced -- 89.90%
The producing theatre company -- 45.45%
The actors in the show -- 45.45%
Friends' opinions -- 24.24%
The director of the show -- 14.14%
Social Media posts, photos, videos, etc. -- 16.16%
Reviews -- 16.16%
The writers of the show -- 13.13%

This confirms what I thought -- it's all about the particular show. I'm convinced that a lot of people who see our shows wouldn't be able to tell you a week later the name of the producing company; they just know they liked (or didn't) the show. But I was surprised that the theatre company and the cast are important as people say they are.

5. If New Line offered Master Classes, would you be interested?
Yes -- 22.00%
No -- 34.00%
Depends on the classes -- 44.00%

We've been talking about this, so I was curious what people thought. I assume it would be all about the kind of classes we offered.

6. What kind of shows do you want to see New Line produce?
New approaches to famous shows -- 66.00%
Smart, socially conscious shows -- 60.00%
Edgy, subversive shows -- 56.00%
Brand new shows -- 44.00%
Older, lesser known shows -- 43.00%
Rock shows -- 30.00%

This was also a bit of a surprise to me, that "famous shows" got the most votes, though not far behind was New Line's bread and better, "smart, socially conscious shows" and "edgy, subversive shows." Less than half of our respondents care about "new shows," which surprised me. And less than a third want "rock shows," also a surprise.

7. So we can get an idea of how well we get our message out, tell us which of the following you think describes New Line Theatre?
Alternative -- 82.00%
Intelligent -- 45.00%
Established -- 39.00%
Political -- 37.00%
Predictable -- 10.00%
Offensive -- 10.00%
Mainstream -- 8.00%
Escapist -- 6.00%
Conventional -- 4.00%
Safe -- 4.00%

This was very nice to see. Our brand is "alternative," and 82% get that. I am amused by the 4% that say our company is "safe" -- our budget begs to differ.

8. How would you rate your overall experience with New Line, including parking, staff friendliness, concessions, seating, comfort, etc.
Outstanding -- 41.84%
Very good but could be better -- 36.73%
Average -- 17.35%
Not that great -- 3.06%
Terrible -- 1.02%

So more than 78% have a positive view of the New Line experience, and only 4% have a negative view. We certainly have room for improvement, but we're doing pretty great.

9. What do you think of our new space, The Marcelle Theater, in Grand Center?
Love it. -- 44.68%
It's nice but has its drawbacks. -- 42.55%
Don't like it. -- 12.77%

Again, more than 87% think the Marcelle is "nice" or better. Only one in eight have a bad view of our theatre.

10. How many New Line shows have you seen?
2-4 -- 31.31%
5-10 -- 29.29%
10-15 -- 15.15%
More than 15 -- 14.14%
Just One -- 10.10%

This is mostly to get an idea who's answering our survey -- die-hard fans or random people. It looks like the majority have seen a few New Line shows over the years, and a sizable minority have seen ten or more...

We got some comments as well. Two people think the seats at the Marcelle are uncomfortable; two others think they're extremely comfortable ("much more so than other companies," says one). On the question of what shows to produce, one person wrote, "Who has heard of most of these?" Lots of us. And though half of all respondents want us to do Dear Evan Hansen (and we will!), one person wrote, "Please do not do Dear Evan Hansen." Oh well, you can't please everybody. Other suggestions for shows to do include Sweet Charity (maybe), Grey Gardens (probably not), The Burnt Part Boys (love this show but probably not), Dogfight (maybe), The Light in the Piazza (maybe), Miss Saigon (probably not), Stop the World I Want to Get Off (unlikely, but you never know), and Natasha, Pierre and the Great Comet of 1812 (maybe). A couple people suggested shows we will never produce: Nunsense, Altar Boyz, Mamma Mia! And a couple suggested shows we've done, like Next to Normal, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and Falsettos.

Likewise, in terms of shows to repeat, a ton of people asked for Bat Boy, but one person said, "Not Bat Boy. Never again please." Altogether, people asked for TWENTY different shows to return, in addition to those I listed in the survey question. That's a really nice compliment from our fans, that so many different New Line shows are so special to different people. The most asked-for repeats in these comments are Hair, Rent, Heathers, and Bonnie & Clyde.

One person complained that parking is terrible -- even though we have a free, lighted parking lot right across the street, and free street parking. Not sure what they want. My favorite comment of all was, in all caps, "SO GRATEFUL FOR NEW LINE THEATRE."

It's always encouraging to be reminded that, even when certain shows don't sell well, even when our budget is precarious, even when running the company is way harder than I would prefer, people in our community still believe in what we're doing, still think our work is valuable to them, still think that our community needs what only New Line brings to it.

And they keep sending donations and they keep buying tickets. What we do matters to people. And that's everything.

Long Live the Musical! And New Line!

The Simple Joys of Maindenhood

One of the things that always bothers me is any production of Camelot in which Guenevere is played all sweet and virginal, or in other words, like Julie Andrews played her in the original production. The truth is that Guenevere can be a real bitch from time to time, and I think that's what's most interesting about her -- and what directors and actors miss most often. Without that, the story is far less interesting.

In many cases, original Broadway performances are reliable guides to what the writers wanted. But not always. And not in this case. Andrews had a great voice in her youth, and genuine stage presence, but she was never a very good or very nuanced actor.

Guenevere, as she is written by Alan Jay Lerner, is rebellious, immature (at least in Act I), horny, and blood-thirsty! Maybe she's just a product of her times, but she loves violence (see her song, "Then You May Take Me to the Fair"); and her immaturity and restlessness will lead to a lot of needless destruction.

Guenevere herself is Arthur's great tragic flaw.

Julie Andrews ruined the character with her bland, sexless original performance on Broadway, and more significantly, on the original cast recording. Vanessa Redgrave understood the character much more fully in her film performance, but she was such a mediocre singer, it's hard to get through her songs. Compare Andrews' and Redgrave's opposite approaches to "The Lusty Month of May." Redgrave (with the help of more languorous orchestrations) really enjoys the words lusty and depraved, and in her hands, it's a song about fucking. In Andrews' rendition, it's just polite double entendre.

In her first appearance in the show, Guenevere tells us in her "I Am" song that she is a trouble-maker. She wants men to fight over her. She wants them to kill each other over her. How can we be surprised when everything blows up in Act II?

Camelot's first two songs introduce two of our three leads, and both as complete neurotics, totally ill-equipped to be married. Of course their marriage will fail. We see in these two opening numbers that they are very immature. Then again, Arthur is only 25 and Guenevere only 17 when they meet.

A close look at the lyric of "Simple Joys of Maidenhood" tells us so much about Guenevere. Alan Jay Lerner has packed so much information into this song, all the while surprising us with punch line after punch line.

Guenevere starts the song by calling St. Genevieve, apparently her personal patron saint. But Guenevere has to remind the saint who she is; Guenevere doesn't pray a lot. Yet only a couple lines later, she's purporting to be so devout. Right off the bat, we see that she's a liar. She says she's always been a "lamb," but we'll soon see that's not true either. She lets her anger take over and she rages at St. Genevieve, complaining about the details of her current situation, and finally -- and hilariously -- threatening to find another saint to pray to.
St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve!
It's Guenevere!
Remember me?
St. Genevieve, St. Genevieve!
I'm over here
Beneath this tree...

You know how faithful and devout I am,
You must admit I've always been a lamb,
But Genevieve, St. Genevieve --
I won't obey you anymore.
You've gone a bit too far!
I won't be bid and bargained for
Like beads at a bazaar.
St. Genevieve, I've run away,
Eluded them and fled,
And from now on, I intend to pray
To someone else instead!

It is interesting to note Guenevere's 20th century objections to being medievally objectified. But then Guenevere decides maybe offense is a bad tack to take. If she wants rescue, she'd better be nicer to her patron saint...
Oh Genevieve, St. Genevieve,
Where were you when my youth was sold?
Dear Genevieve, sweet Genevieve,
Shan't I be young before I'm old?

So she goes on to catalog the "conventional, ordinary, garden variety joys of maidenhood" that she's been robbed of, that she wants restored to her. And what are those simple, ordinary perks of being a teenage girl? A knight committing suicide over her. Two knights battling over her and one of them being killed. A war being waged over her, and of course, the unstated but obvious death and bloodshed that accompanies war. And finally, the best perk she imagines is not only men killing each other over her, but men killing their relatives over her.
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?
Where are all those adoring, daring boys?
Where's the youth pining so for me
He leaps to death in woe for me?
Oh, where are a maiden's simple joys?

Shan't I have the normal life a maiden should?
Shall I never be rescued in the wood?
Shall two knights never tilt for me
And let their blood be spilt for me?
Oh, where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

Shall I not be on a pedestal,
Worshipped and competed for?
Not be carried off, or better still,
Cause a little war?

Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?
Are those dear gentle pleasures gone for good?
Shall a feud not begin for me?
Shall kith not kill their kin for me?
Oh, where are the trivial joys,
Harmless convivial joys,
Where are the simple joys of maidenhood?

That is fucked up.

She has a freakish lust for violence and for bloodshed, in complete opposition to everything Arthur believes in. The central joke of the song is that all this extreme violence seems to Guenevere just the "trivial," "simple" fun of being a girl. She is actually insulted shortly afterward because Arthur won't rape her. But that lust for violence will come back to haunt her. She has no idea what she's asking for...

She sees war as romantic. She’s delighted when Arthur tells her war would have broken out if they had not married. But at the end of the show, her shallow wishes come true, with deadly results. In “Guenevere,” the chorus sings:
Guenevere, Guenevere,
In that dim, mournful year,
Saw the men she held most dear
Go to war for Guenevere.

She got her war. And it's destroyed everything Arthur built.

In addition to her bloodlust, Guenevere is also far more over-sexed than your average musical theatre ingenue. Too often directors and actors overlook her very sexual behavior. They've spent years hearing Julie Andrews' delicate, lady-like singing on the original cast album and they ignore the actual evidence in the script and score. They want to be reverent with her character because she's a queen and because ultimately she becomes a tragic figure, and perhaps also because they see Camelot as a "classic."

But even a cursory look at "The Lusty Month of May" shows the real Guenevere. The title of the song says it all. It's an explicit celebration of sex, of unbridled, wicked, improper, un-wholesome, shocking sexual acts. Guenevere thinks every girl wants her boyfriend to be a cad, that self-control is a bore, that going morally astray is blissful.
Tra la, it's May, the lusty Month of May!
That lovely month when everyone goes blissfully astray.
Tra la, it's here,
That shocking time of year,
When tons of wicked little thoughts merrily appear.

It's May, it's May, that gorgeous holiday,
When every maiden prays that her lad
Will be a cad
It's mad, it's gay, a libelous display!
Those dreary vows that everyone takes,
Everyone breaks,
Everyone makes
Divine mistakes,
The lusty month of May!

The fragrance she smells wafting through the air is the smell of sex, make no mistake, that "dear forbidden fruit." But what does this tell us? That Guenevere and Arthur are hopelessly mismatched. In the novel, White says "She had felt respect for [Arthur], with gratitude, kindness, love, and a sense of protection. She had felt more than this and you might say that she had felt everything but the passion of romance."

Guenevere just wants fun. No responsibility, no morality, no expectations. She's still an over-sexed -- and long repressed -- teenager.
It's May, the lusty month of May,
That darling month when everyone throws self-control away.
It's time to do
A wretched thing or two
And try to make each precious day one you'll always rue.

Her idea of a good time is to do something awful you'll regret. Wow.
It's May, it's May, the month of "Yes, you may;"
The time for every frivolous whim,
Proper or im-.
It's wild, it's gay, depraved in every way.
The birds and bees with all of their vast
Amorous past,
Gaze at the human race aghast!
The lusty month of May!

Guenevere is all about appetite. After this song, can we be surprised when she eventually has an affair? Can Arthur be surprised? Or does he just close his eyes to this problem? Arthur needs Guenevere before he can be the king he needs to be. It isn't until he meets her that he feels kingly, that he at last wants to be a king. She is his muse. But she's also a selfish bitch (at least in Act I).

Look at her initial comments to Lancelot when she first meets him. She's sarcastic and insulting. Is that proper behavior for the Queen of England to someone the King brings to court? And even though she knows how much Arthur thinks of Lancelot, she keeps criticizing Lance over and over. She doesn't even attempt to be kind to him, to try to understand him, to help him feel welcome. In a sense, she's performing for the knights and ladies around her, entertaining them with her thinly veiled jibes at Lance. But also, we can see she's attracted to him -- and acting like a lust-struck thirteen-year-old.

Later on, she helps build sentiment against Lance in the court by gossiping with the knights and ladies. She gives three knights her kerchief to carry against Lancelot in the jousts. And it's with this act that she tries to make her vicious childhood fantasies come true. At last she sees an opportunity for her dreams of knights fighting over her to come true. There will not only be battles; there may well be bloodshed. She knows Arthur will never deliver those fantasies. He thinks fighting is immoral unless it's to promote righteousness.

Not only is Arthur not the lover she had hoped for, he's also not the warrior she dreamed of. They are mismatched in every conceivable way.

Yet, when the jousts happen, when her fantasies are at last made reality, the result is tragedy. Lionel is killed by Lancelot. Finally, the death of which she dreamed has come to pass, and she suddenly realizes what she's done. She has indirectly killed a man, and not just any man, but a friend of hers, one of her favorite knights. And then the "obligatory moment," that moment in any story toward which everything before it leads and from which everything after it follows, the moment that the story cannot exist without. Lancelot steps forward, bends down, prays, and he brings Lionel back to life. We see for the first time that his claims of purity, his claims that he can perform miracles are actually true. When he rises, his eyes lock into Guenevere's, and we realize in an instant that they have fallen in love.

Perhaps Guenevere already found him physically attractive (in the novel, Lance is ugly, but in the musical, he's hot). But he's accomplished two things. First, he has saved her from her folly; he has brought back to life the knight her immature schemes had killed. Second, he has fought for her and he has won. He is the greatest knight in the court, probably in all Europe, and she sees now that he loves her, no doubt with the same passion with which he loves Arthur and the Table.

How can she resist? As Queen, she should resist, but she won't. And later we will see the difference between Lance and Arthur. Whereas Arthur's love for this Table outshines his love for Guenevere, Lance clearly loves Guenevere more (or at least as much).

Following her beautifully crafted arc, it's also interesting to hear how Guenevere's music gets more complex, both melodically and harmonically, over the course of the show, as she matures, as she becomes a more complex individual, and finds herself in progressively more complex situations. "Simple Joys of Maidenhood" is the song of a girl. "I Loved You Once in Silence" in Act II is the song of a woman.
I loved you once in silence,
And mis'ry was all I knew;
Trying so to keep my love from showing,
All the while not knowing
You loved me too.

Yes, loved me in lonesome silence,
Your heart filled with dark despair;
Thinking love would flame in you forever,
And I'd never, never
Know the flame was there.

Then one day we cast away our secret longing;
The raging tide
We held inside
Would hold no more.

The silence at last was broken;
We flung wide our prison door.
Ev'ry joyous word of love was spoken,
And now there's twice as much grief,
Twice the strain for us,
Twice the despair,
Twice the pain for us
As we had known before.

And after all had been said,
Here we are, my love,
Silent once more,
And not far, my love,
From where we were before.

In other words, be careful what you wish for. Especially if it entails harm to others. Guenevere has grown up now, but it's too late, and events are overtaking her.

Having directed the show myself for New Line in 1999, I'll admit that Camelot is a flawed show, to be sure, but still a very good one. There is so much more richness and nuance than most productions find. And as with most musicals, audiences find it very hard to distinguish between a bad show and a bad production of a good show.

As long as some directors (and way too many in NYC) think they can turn their brains off to direct a musical, we'll get bland and shallow productions of shows that deserve better (I'm lookin' at you Casey Nicholaw!). If directors and actors would just pay musicals the same respect they pay to Death of a Salesman and A Midsummer Night's Dream, maybe audiences would get more productions that do justice to the material, and they'd discover that even a show with flaws, like Camelot, can still be serious and powerful and truthful.

And that's all audiences want. Just tell them a story that tells the truth.

Long Live the Musical!

12 Movies That Should Be Stage Musicals

We are still in the midst of an incredibly fertile time for our art form, a period that started in the mid-1990s and is still going strong. I call it the New Golden Age.

Part of what's wonderful about our art form right now is the tons of new work being created all the time, both by established writers and teams, and by newcomers, both in New York and out across our country in regional theatres and small alternative companies.

New Line has produced several world premieres during our history, and we'd always love to find some more. And though entirely original musicals are awesome, many of our favorites are based on other sources -- Heathers, Rent, The Wild Party, American Idiot, Hands on a Hardbody, Night of the Living Dead, etc.

So here's a list of ten movies that I wish some really great writers would adapt for the musical stage. Most of these would make pretty fucked-up musicals, but there's nothing wrong with that...

And we'd produce all of them!

First on my list, The Adventures of Buckaroo Banzai Across the 8th Dimension is one of my favorite movies of all time, a quirky, wild, bizarre, but totally straight-faced sci-fi-rock-comedy, centered on the rock singer / brain surgeon / crime fighter Buckaroo Banzai and his band the Hong Kong Cavaliers, with John Lithgow in an amazingly over-the-top performance as Dr. Emilio Lizardo, who's actually an alien. The awesome backstory here is that Orson Welles' War of the Worlds broadcast wasn't actually fiction; it really happened. But in order to keep the alien invasion secret, they covered it up by pretending it was just a radio play. And now aliens from the Eighth Dimension are living among us! The guys who wrote Bat Boy really need to work on this...!

There are quite a few more on my list, but rather than try to explain why each of these quirky, wonderfully unique movies are cool and why they would make good musicals, I'm going to let them speak for themselves, through their trailers. Just imagine the possibilities...

And remember, the thing that makes a story ripe for musicalization is its emotional content. The more a story is centered on emotion, the better musical it will make, because music is the most powerful emotional language. But also remember, love isn't the only emotion...

Buckaroo Banzai

Phantom of the Paradise

Myra Breckinridge


Hamlet II

Valley of the Dolls

Beyond the Valley of the Dolls

The Night That Panicked America

Wonder Boys

Cold Turkey

The Russians Are Coming! The Russians Are Coming!

A Guide for the Married Man

Whaddya think? I would love to see the writing teams behind Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bukowsical, Atomic, Night of the Living Dead, Cry-Baby, and Lizzie tackle some of these. Wouldn't you?

Long Live the Musical!

A World of Pure Imagination

For the last 27 years, I've been watching and promoting the St. Louis theatre community, and it's grown and matured and diversified in so many wonderful ways in that time. It's been so cool to watch us evolve into what we are now, and to see where we're headed from here.

It's an exciting theatre scene, with an incredible range of experiences to offer, quite often created by brilliant, fearless theatre artists.

But four or five times during that period, someone has come to town and told us all -- sometimes more explicitly, sometimes more subtly -- that the rest of us making theatre don't really know what we're doing (we do), that St. Louis is behind the times (we're not), that St. Louis theatre artists don't know as much about theatre as people in New York or Chicago (not true), that the work this new person or group is doing is profoundly new and unprecedented (it rarely is), that only these outsiders have the full truth (they don't) and they will save our city and our theatre community (they won't) with the wisdom the rest of us sorely lack (we don't).

Usually this emerges from a scary mix of hubris and ignorance. It's rare that these folks actually take time first to get know what our community offers and the dozens of active theatre companies here; they just open fire. Usually they have worked with some teacher or group who's taught them some very cool things, but now they think only that teacher's ideas are worthy, that these ideas have never occurred to anyone else, and that all opposing opinions are stupid and misinformed. These folks think they've achieved full artistic enlightenment (they haven't).

Perhaps their biggest problem is they don't know the most important thing about making art: there are millions of answers, not just one.

I remember one guy who came to town and started a company called Broadway On Your Doorstep. He declared that he was going to show the rest of us how to properly market theatre and build an audience. We all giggled at his buffoonery. Within a year, the company had folded and he had disappeared with the last performance's box office receipts.

More recently, someone moved here, announced the creation of an "immersive theatre company," and then proceeded to tell us all repeatedly that past productions of immersive theatre in St. Louis weren't really immersive. Without having seen them. She insisted that her definition of what's "immersive" is the only legit one; that what other people may think is wrong, and that her company is the only company doing "truly" immersive work here.

It's not.

Many of us were both amused and annoyed. For the record, there have been quite a few pieces of immersive theatre in St. Louis, including one of the coolest shows I've ever seen, Trash Macbeth. But that doesn't count because then she couldn't be the first and only.

This has happened periodically over the years. We listen to newcomers like this pontificate, as they tell us how woefully backward we are, we watch them alienate a big part of the community, and we laugh at them. Usually the work these people do is mediocre (which might explain the desperately overblown rhetoric), though once in a while, the work is actually really good, and you just have to separate it from its pontificator.

Now, in all fairness, I sometimes get criticized for having strong opinions myself, and that criticism is sometimes legit. But I never claim that only I understand musicals, that only I am bringing contemporary musical theatre to town, that only I am privy to the Great Secrets...

I often have strong opinions about theatre because I think about it a lot. Pretty much all the time. I've written six books about musical theatre, I've written nine musicals, and I've directed over a hundred musicals over the last thirty-six years.

I have an informed opinion and yet still, I usually don't offer that opinion unless I've really thought it through. If I haven't, I'll post articles and ask for opinions. Often opinions are offered that really illuminate the topic for me. I have learned so much about the issues surrounding race from the people on Facebook. And there's so much I have yet to learn, about theatre, about psychology, about audiences, about our changing culture, about race and gender and orientation. It's a complicated world.

So why do people feel compelled to act like there's nothing else they can learn?

Still, when I put my opinions on art out there in public, particularly if I state them strongly, and particularly if my opinion is outside the mainstream, there are lots of people on social media who can't wait to start a fight. And more often than not, they want to fight over something they inferred from what I wrote, rather than something I actually wrote. But like a dog with a bone, they cling fiercely to their outrage, even though they're arguing against phantoms...

Recently, I posted in the St. Louis theatre group that musical theatre actors ought to think about taking dance classes -- not to become dancers, but just to get more comfortable with and more in control of their bodies, that it can make a real difference. I've said this in the past to several actors, and I felt like more people should hear it. Dozens of people thought my post was great, and several local choreographers thanked me for saying so.

But a couple people were deeply wounded because they thought my post implied that they're not already great onstage, that they might have room for improvement, that continuing to learn is a good thing, that even top professionals keep studying their craft. What was I thinking? One person essentially told me that my post said he should never perform in a musical again. (It didn't.) One woman reacted with an Angry emoji. In fact, she was so Angry that she took the time that afternoon to put Angry emojis on everything I posted in the group for the previous couple days, including a post about how The Muny wants people's "Muny stories" for their big anniversary next year.

Yeah, that damn Muny would make me angry too! She and her emojis sure showed me! I'm thinking maybe she was scared by a choreographer when she was a child...?

Such is the internet.

Still, for those of us making art, few things are more important than thinking about it, talking about it, debating it, and Facebook is a great forum for that. And whatever drawbacks that may have, it still has great value. So I'll keep talking and writing and trying to figure it all out.

Until next time...

Long Live the Musical!

It Was Great When It All Began #2

What does a theatre company owe to our art form, and to the people who love our art form?

Thoughtfulness and artistry. Those of us making theatre, those of us given the great honor of being the storytellers, we all need to respect the material, and not impose our own agenda upon it. I've seen so many productions that "bring something new" to an already brilliant show by misunder­standing and short-circuiting what the show is really about, and imposing upon it a nonsensical period, setting, or other High Concepts

Por ejemplo...

As I've written beforeRocky Horror has to be set in the early 1970s because it's really specifically about how Americans reacted to the Sexual Revolution of the late 60s and 70s. Tommy has to be set in post-World War II London, because it's really specifically about Western Civilization finding itself spiritually lost after the war, while drowning in postwar conspicuous consumption. When you change the setting of these stories, either explicitly or through set and costume design (the biggest warning sign is the random use of Steampunk), you betray the work, its authors, your audience, and our art form.

We may see resonance in The Rocky Horror Show for our own times, but the more specifically it lives in the seventies, the easier it can serve as a metaphor for today, allowing us to stand back from our own times and see them objectively. Frank is presented as a glam rock star because that was the only period of rock and roll during which gender was both fluid and irrelevant (the same reason Hedwig, of The Angry Inch fame, finds her home in that subgenre). The dissolution of gender roles was one of the things straight America feared the most during the Sexual Revolution. Frank’s lack of clear gender is his real monstrosity, which is why it’s always a mistake for productions to re-imagine Frank as anything other than a glam rocker.

It's not just about drag; it's about gender in our culture.

To take the seventies and its issues out of Rocky Horror both emasculates it and short-circuits its social satire. No one working on the 2000 Broadway revival seemed to notice that the leather and S&M themes in the costumes went exactly opposite to O’Brien’s original intentions of innocent, campy, goofy sexuality. Rocky Horror is not soft porn; it’s a satiric cartoon of sexuality at a particularly clumsy time and place in American history. But director Christopher Ashley and his designers didn’t understand that.

Only the Wall Street Journal could still see Rocky’s smarts behind all the distractions, and its reviewer Amy Gamerman wrote, “The carnival atmosphere of The Rocky Horror Show is so enveloping that it takes awhile before you notice how clever the show itself is – a smartly calibrated blend of salty, sweet and sarcastic, with its pierced tongue lodged firmly in its cheek.”

Rocky is a brilliant, insightful social document, and the directors and actors who don't get that are missing everything that's really wonderful about the show.

After all, modern-day Puritans weren’t the only ones who thought the Sexual Revolution was a bad thing. Others disliked it because they felt this new movement took all the mystery and magic – and most important, the romance – out of sex. In Rocky Horror, Eddie’s song “Whatever Happened to Saturday Night?”(aka “Hot Patootie”) addresses this issue of how the hippie movement and the Sexual Revolution "ruined" everything. There’s even a reference to the change (for the worse, in Eddie’s opinion) in American pop culture and music, away from the romance of 1950s rock and roll, and toward the politics and disenfranchisement and nihilism of 1960s acid rock, embodied in the image of rock icon Buddy Holly’s premature death. This song is far from the pointless interruption of the show that some people claim.

You'll always look foolish if you condemn Grease, Hair, ot Rocky Horror as empty-headed silliness. Just because you may not see the substance doesn't mean it's not there...

Eddie’s song is a pointed commentary on the way the Sexual Revolution (in the person of Frank) was changing sex and romance in America (in the person of Columbia), a last, metaphorical stab at stopping the tide of the Sexual Revolution, and a final warning as the show’s first half comes to a close that Brad and Janet’s world is gone. Frank and the Sexual Revolution are too strong, and they silence forever the simplicity and purity of 50s rock and romance through Frank’s act of murdering Eddie, in effect also shutting the door forever on Brad and Janet’s old-fashioned world of sexual innocence.

This is also a theme addressed, though more subtly, in the show’s opening, “Science Fiction Double Feature.” A close reading of this lyric shows a real longing for the innocence of the 1950s, when sex was all subtext and metaphor. The song starts by taking us back to that idealized time when movies told Americans what was good and bad, right and wrong, acceptable and “deviant.” And they told us all this very carefully and indirectly. But subtextual sexuality couldn’t stay hidden forever. Rock and roll would emerge, alongside drive-in movies, and these forces would change sex forever.

Which is the central through-line of Grease, by the way.

This opening song in Rocky Horror sets up the central conflict of the show, though like the movies it celebrates, it does so subtly. It positions open, overt sexuality as not just a threat, but also a despoiler of the innocent, sweet, teen sexuality of the 1950s, a kind of innocence that existed more on the screen than in the back row of the local movie house.

In this song, O’Brien is talking about the very center of the culture of the fifties: the nexus of sex, drive-ins, and rock and roll, the forces that were changing America in profound ways. And a big part of the drive-in experience was low-budget science fiction, often in double features. “Science Fiction Double Feature” is O’Brien’s statement of purpose. This will be a story about the (false) moral perfection of the 1950s as it slams up against the wild explorations of the Sexual Revolution, here rendered "in the back row."

Rocky Horror explored American sexual hang-ups, the excesses of the Sexual Revolution, and the sometimes cruel myth of the American Dream. It used as its vocabulary pop culture icons like Charles Atlas and muscle magazines, Frederick’s of Hollywood, old sci-fi movies with scantily clad women, horror movies with barely sublimated sexual fantasies, glam rock with its blurring of gender lines – all icons that represented the history of Americans hiding sex behind other things.

And perhaps it’s Rocky’s underlying condemnation of America’s sexual puritanicalism and hypocrisy that keeps the show relevant today. Rocky satirizes sex in America by personifying in Brad and Janet the two responses American society had toward the sexual revolution of the 1960s and 70s, and the revolution itself personified by the gender-vague, pansexual Frank N. Furter. In the real world, half of America (Brad) responded to the Sexual Revolution by fighting even harder than before to stop the progression of sexual freedom, to demonize homosexuality, to condemn sexual independence in women, to blame all of America’s ills on sex, to brand (or rebrand) otherwise healthy expressions of sexuality as dirty and inappropriate. The other half of America (Janet) responded with an almost manic sexual celebration and a kind of aggressive experimentation that today may seem outrageous. Both reactions in the real world probably made the early stages of the AIDS pandemic worse than it should have been. And Rocky Horror rightly satirizes both reactions. Both sides went too far.

You can't transplant this story to another cultural context.

The Rocky Horror Show is about a time in America when our nation stood at a crossroads. Sexual oppression was ending (or at least, beginning to fade) and America had to decide how it would move forward. But neither the people who celebrated this new era or the people terrified by it acted responsibly; neither side caused AIDS, but both sides helped it spread. Of course, Rocky Horror is not about AIDS, but it is about consequences. It was written in 1973, but it is about sexual politics in America then and now.

Watching it today, we can see a moment in time when it wasn’t yet too late, when the devastation of a generation of innocent men and women should not have been inevitable. We can love the music, laugh at the jokes, and sing along with “The Time Warp,” but we should never forget that Rocky Horror is about something.

Something very specific.

You wouldn't set Grease in the 80s (although the 1994 revival tried), so don't don't do it to Rocky. It's not just a sex farce or a drag show. Why some directors feel the need to impose a "vision" or a metaphor on shows is beyond me. Just tell the fucking story. And this story is about America in the early 1970s, a moment so sui generis there is no adequate substitute.

So let's do "The Time Warp" again and again, but let's leave the leather harness at home.

Long Live the Musical!

Funny Girl, Whistle, and Fiddler, Oh My!

I"m very cuspy.

I was born in 1964, right on the cusp between the Baby Boomers (1946-64) and Generation X (1965-1984), though I think I'm really about 30% Boomer and 70% Gen Xer. I was also born on the cusp between Aquarius and Pisces. In fact, not long ago, some "experts" re-figured the zodiac to account for calendar errors centuries ago, and though I've always been a Pisces, in the "new" zodiac, I'm an Aquarius.

And since I'm crazy about Hair, I LOVE THAT.

I was also born on the cusp between the Rodgers & Hammerstein era (1943-1964) and the Sondheim era (arguably 1962-1994). The year I was born, Broadway welcomed a really old-fashioned book musical Funny Girl; a whacked-out Sondheim experiment (maybe the first neo musical comedy), Anyone Can Whistle; one of the last of the massive old-school musical comedy hits, Hello, Dolly!; the last of the great R&H-style shows, Fiddler on the Roof, which was also sort of a new-ish concept musical; and the pre-Broadway production of a genuine, full-throttle concept musical Man of La Mancha, which would come to New York the following year. And on top of everything else, that was the year the seriously fucked-up (sort of) musical Marat/Sade opened in London.

That was a hell of a year in musical theatre, from the most conventional to Really Fucking Weird. Very cuspy.

I founded New Line Theatre on a cusp, in 1991, after the relative wasteland of musical theatre in the 1980s and right at the front of a new move toward more personal, more artistic, less commercial -- and less Broadway-centric -- musical theatre. New Line was founded the year after Assassins debuted, before Floyd Collins, Songs for a New World, Violet, Noise/Funk, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Hedwig, A New Brain, etc.

I didn't know it then, but New Line was born right on the cusp between a Dark Ages for our art form, and the new Golden Age we still find ourselves enjoying and expanding.

And in perhaps understandable parallel to that, I find myself personally on the cusp between pre-1990 musical theatre and post-1990 theatre. I love the old shows, though as I have confessed publicly, I am just through with the Rodgers & Hammerstein shows. I appreciate them for what they were and what they did, but they seem so old-fashioned, so pre-ironic, so tone-deaf to today's complex world. I can't relate to a character who sings, "Younger than springtime are you." Who is this guy? Yoda?

After all, the dream ballet in Oklahoma! was originally conceived as a circus. Laurie's torn between two men, one obviously dangerous, so she smells some smelling salts, falls asleep, and dreams of a circus? It's sorta cute that neither Dick nor Oscar thought Laurie might dream about... oh, I don't know... SEX.

But I still love most of the Jerry Herman shows, the later Lerner & Loewe shows, almost all the Kander & Ebb and Harnick & Bock shows. And you know the biggest reason why? They have irony. That's a been a part of our national culture since the 1960s, and it's a part of our national fabric now. R&H shows are conspicuously missing that, and so they seem hopelessly naive and clueless to me. But these other writers I list here all understood and artfully deployed irony throughout their work.

Still, if I had my choice between Dolly and Bat Boy, I take Bat Boy.

And yet...  It seems musical theatre artists younger than me don't know the older shows much, other than the Big Names, which means they don't know our history. And I do think that's unfortunate. As with any art form, knowing how we got here is valuable information. How can you understand Urinetown if you don't know The Threepenny Opera? How can you understand Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson if you don't know Jerry Herman and George M. Cohan? How can you understand the neo musical comedy if you don't understand classic musical comedy?

In this new Golden Age, our art form is returning to its roots and using all those classic devices but in all new ways, with the high energy and over-sized style of musical comedy, but more cynical, more ironic, more political. You can do Bat Boy without knowing My Fair Lady and Hello, Dolly!, and the audience will still enjoy it. But it will be richer, more interesting, and funnier if you do know its roots, and understand fully what the writers were up to.

Just my opinion, of course. Your mileage may vary. As a director and writer, I call upon my knowledge of musical theatre history, just as I call upon my knowledge of music theory when I write music.

I'm also on the cusp (I may be stretching the definition a bit now) between the people who take their theatre Very Seriously and those who believe they're just providing good old-fashioned escapist entertainment. First of all, I think the idea of escapism is a complete misreading of why humans love and need storytelling. Second, I think both serious intentions and fun are important. If either one is missing, you've made lesser art. I believe in a phrase I once heard in a Bob Fosse documentary: Poetry, Popcorn, and Politics. The idea is that good art, good storytelling, must contain these three elements: artistry, pure fun, and substance, in order to be fully satisfying.

Directors and actors don't always realize that shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Spelling Bee, Cry-Baby, and so many others do indeed have all three of these elements. It's not always apparent when the shows aren't treated with respect, and the poetry and the politics get lost along the way. Our mantra at New Line is that we take the work seriously, but not ourselves. We may not always strike that balance perfectly, but it's what we aim for. We take our process seriously, but never lose the sense of joy and fun.

I suppose the New Line philosophy is cuspy itself. Our work isn't real far from the mainstream -- after all, we produce a lot of shows that at least opened on or off Broadway, even if they didn't run very long -- but our work is only occasionally and accidentally commercial. We believe in aiming for the highest of artistic excellence, but we also want to be as accessible as possible. We analyze and deconstruct the material, we have long discussions about subtext, but we never let go of a sense of joy and play.

Many of our shows are very funny and also very intense. Many of our shows tell very serious, if not tragic stories, though there are also a lot of laughs. And many of our wackiest comedies have a very serious underbelly. Almost every performance of every show, someone will walk out of the theatre after the show and say to me, "That wasn't at all what I was expecting!" And I often respond, "Well, that's what we do."

'Cause that's life, right? Life is pandemonium.

Which is why we need storytelling to make sense of it all. Which is why we need storytellers. No matter what cusp we're on.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. If you're interested, here are other posts about my artistic life and journey...
Sex, Drugs, Rock & Roll, and Musicals
Portrait of a Boy
Suddenly There is Meaning
And as for Fortune and as for Pain
Only by Attempting the Absurd Can You Achieve the Ridiculous


Lizzie is only the second New Line show ever that I didn't direct. While Mike Dowdy-Windsor is usually my directing wingman, this time I'm his wingman, and it's funny to both of us how completely and easily we swapped our usual roles.

One result of that is that Dowdy really wants to watch every performance, to see how his show subtly evolves and grows -- that's usually me. And this time, I want to see the show a couple times, but I don't need to see it every night -- that's usually Dowdy.

So I've been out in the lobby during most performances. One of the fun parts about having lobby duty is that I get to say goodbye to everybody as they leave, after the show. And almost everybody leaves this show with a smile, despite the gruesome subject matter. Some thank me for bringing this show to St. Louis. Many people tell me how great it is. A couple nights ago, one much older guy was just gushing about it on his way out.

I think the intensely positive response to our show is because these four women on stage absolutely nail the rock & roll part of the equation, but they also give us really thoughtful, complicated, interesting acting. We found out recently that ours is the 25th production of Lizzie, and St. Louis is the 22nd city to host the show. You can see video of many of those productions on YouTube. I think what some other productions miss -- which Dowdy and the actors really get -- is the profound, complicated emotional heft of this story.

But that's what special about this show. It's a killer rock concert, but it's not just a rock concert; it's also great theatre. Some productions ignore the dramatic demands of this story, opting instead for wild outrageousness for the sake of wild outrageousness. The aggressive alt-goth-punk approach to this story is vitally important, but it's not all there is here. There is also some incredibly well-written, artfully constructed storytelling, which I would argue is even more important.

People come to the theatre for story.

Luckily for me and New Line, everybody working on Lizzie -- Dowdy, our intrepid music director Sarah Nelson, our scenic and lighting designer Rob Lippert, our costume designer Sarah Porter, and our extraordinary cast (Anna Skidis Vargas, Marcy Wiegert, Larissa White, and Kimi Short) -- they all understand that.

There's so much that's brilliant about the show, and I realize now it's an amazing companion piece to the male-centric American Idiot, which we produced in 2016.

On one level, Lizzie is a straight-up horror story. And weirdly, unexpectedly, on another level it's a story about female empowerment, and every woman who sees it gets that. It morphs from a story about revenge into a story about justice.

And that point is driven home forcefully but subtly with the use of the familiar children's song, "Forty Whacks." The song bookends the show (I love bookends!), but at the beginning, it's ethereal, creepy, scary, because at the beginning of the story these women are powerless victims. Then the song returns in the curtain call as an aggressive punk anthem, because now the women have taken over their story, they have found their power, they have steered their own lives -- significantly, men will never control Lizzie again because now she and Emma are rich. These contrasting uses of this well-known song that frame our horror tale, define the progress of our heroes.

Nobody in the audience is going to get all that consciously, but they'll all get it subconsciously. That's some really smart, subtle, exciting writing. The whole show is like that, seemingly so simple and raw on the surface, but with such rich complexity underneath.

I haven't submerged myself in this show, like I do when I'm directing, but it has been such a treat to watch it evolve and take shape. I'm so proud of our production. It's everything a New Line show should be, even though I had almost no artistic input at all. This is all Dowdy's baby, and it's a hell of an awesome baby.

Just look at our reviews...

"A hard-rocking, riot-grrrl explosion of rage, nerve and the best goth/steampunk/rollerchic costumes ever flaunted on a St. Louis stage." -- Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"New Line's ferocious Lizzie . . . fuses a punk rock attitude with slashing, guitar-driven rock." -- Paul Friswold, Riverfront Times

"A pounding, exciting, and beautifully assembled musical production." - Richard Green, TalkingBroadway

"The Rock Musical At Its Absolute Best" -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"A creative and imaginative juggernaut" -- Chris Gibson, BroadwayWorld

"A clearly modern and bold, unrepentantly murderous, perspective." -- Tina Farmer, KDHX

"Don’t walk, run to see it." - Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

"Four wonderful performances by four stunning ladies. . an event of epic proportions." - Steve Allen, Stage Door St. Louis

Congrats to everybody working on Lizzie. We've hit another home run. If you haven't seen the show yet, don't miss it. We run through Oct. 21. It's truly extraordinary. You can get tickets here.

Long Live the Musical!