I've always loved horror, and Dracula in particular. In 1995, I wrote my own gay vampire musical, In the Blood, and as I wrote, I read every vampire short story and novel I could find. Yeats later, during the Great Pandemic, I decided to write a collection of "weird fiction" short stories, all connected to musicals, eventually called Night of the Living Show Tunes. Again, I spent a long time reading all the great horror stories and several novels, as well as Stephen King's nonfiction books about horror. 

Now as we go into rehearsal for Frank Wildhorn's stage musical Dracula and I start thinking about this iconic story again, I see things in it I haven't seen before. (Several plot spoilers below.)

For instance, everything in the story is upside-down and backwards. Dracula seems like the antagonist, but he's not. The four men seem like heroes, but they're not. No, it's a Hero Myth story and Mina is the hero. The story fools us several times by making us think a different character is hero. The first section of the book (and the show) is all about Jonathan Harker and Dracula; and it sure seems like they are the story's Hero and Evil Wizard (like Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader, or Dorothy and the Wicked Witch). But then the focus of the story shifts to Lucy, and it seems she's actually the Hero. And then author Bram Stoker kills her.

We might be tempted to think that Professor Van Helsing is the story's Wise Wizard figure (like Ben Kenobi or Glinda the Good Witch), but he's not. We have to put aside all of our preconceptions, banish from our minds Bela Lugosi (and his accent!) and Christopher Lee and Gary Oldman.

Bram Stoker understood two things his readers know before the story even begins. First, Dracula is a vampire; and second, vampires are evil. Remember, when Dracula was published, there had already been quite a few widely popular vampire novels, short stories, and newspaper serials, like Varney the Vampire. Also, everybody in Europe knew vampire lore, and many of them believed it. And significantly, Stoker's initial readership at that time in England was very wary of foreigners, very anti-immigrant. (Sound familiar?)

Put aside those preconceptions and what do we have? Dracula is undoubtedly still a vampire, but is he evil? We see him behave with brutality a couple times, throwing one of the weird sisters across the room, breaking the neck of his own John the Baptist, Renfield. But the other men in the story are equally (more?) violent. And otherwise, Dracula's violence is in self-defense. Without those preconceptions, his relationships with Lucy and Mina are far more ambiguous.

From the start, Lucy seems very uncomfortable within the confines of polite Victorian social rules, and she seems much happier once she's a vampire. Does her transformation make her a sex maniac? No, it simply reveals what's already there. We can see that sexuality in Lucy ready to burst out of her, long before she meets Dracula. Dracula frees her. To be sexual. To be bisexual. To be authentically herself. But it also makes her The Other.

What about Lucy the Vampire and the kids? If we don't assume vampires are evil, what do we make of the biting and sucking? Well, unless clumsy, ignorant humans get involved, feeding on someone does not kill them in this story, just weakens them. What arguably kills Lucy is Van Helsing giving her a succession of transfusions from four different people -- and with no knowledge of blood type! Or germs!

So... what am I saying...?

Lucy and Mina are on twin paths following the Hero Myth story. Lucy doesn't get to finish her story; Mina does. One might even argue that Mina survives because she has taken charge of the group, while Lucy is left helpless to the men's murderous shenanigans. Or is Lucy eliminated because she became overtly sexual, while Mina manages to suppress those impulses?

And so...?

So Mina is the protagonist, the Hero of our story. This is her quest. Her call to action is Jonathan's need to be rescued and brought home (which reverses their traditional gender roles early in the story!). And contrary to what we might think, Mina's Wise Wizard is Count Dracula, and her Evil Wizard -- the story's antagonist -- is Professor Van Helsing. He leads the forces of oppression and death, and they literally kill Lucy! And notice that the opposing Wizard figures are both foreigners.

Or maybe Lucy is really Mina's Wise Wizard. She brings Mina into the world of Dracula, but like most Wise Wizard figures, Lucy can't go on the Hero's Adventure with Mina. Like Ben Kenobi, Moses, Glinda, Merlin, Peter Parker's Uncle Ben, and many other Wise Wizard figures, Lucy sets Mina on her path, but then she dies and leaves Mina to her adventure.

For a brief moment, even Renfield becomes Mina's temporary Wise Wizard.

Notice that the three suitors blindly accept all the crazy shit Van Helsing tells them, and they follow his orders without (much) question. But not Lucy. Van Helsing is an authority figure, after all. He's a professor! And he's foreign! These men are conditioned to believe authority figures. But not Lucy. Let's be honest, Lucy is a wild child, born a century too early. And she must be punished for it.

Mina survives because she's better equipped to face this adventure than Lucy is. Before any of this starts, Mina has a job as a teacher's assistant, she has her own typewriter, etc. But Stoker fools us into thinking that Mina is the classic Damsel in Distress because she's more properly "feminine" in her behavior and demeanor, only later revealing her power when it's needed most. Like Luke Skywalker, Mina doesn't know she has this power until she needs to call it forth.

Lucy is a New Woman in terms of sexuality and gender roles. Mina is a New Woman in terms of intelligence, confidence, career, and the authority she claims -- and gender roles!

Here in 2024, when we have hero vampires like Blade, and those sappy, snot-nosed Twilight tweens, we have to wonder what a vampiric Mina Harker would be like. She'd be amazing. She'd be a strong, interesting, challenging longtime (!) companion for Vlad Dracula. Or for Lestat. Or Countess Zaleska.

In fact, our musical hints at all that, more than the novel does. And our version of the story has a slightly different ending, in support of that different focus.

Gothic horror stories had already been around a century or so before Dracula debuted. Stoker's brilliance was in taking this very old literary tradition and yanking it violently into the present, focusing on the use of all the most current technology in the pursuit of the vampire -- telegraph, typewriter, Dictaphone, Kodak camera, etc. -- and presenting it as a true story backed up by a ton of documentary evidence. Stoker had been a journalist for a while, so he was uniquely adept at creating his fake journalistic documents.

We might even say that Dracula was the first mockumentary.

I've asked our actors to let go entirely of all their preconceptions about this story and these characters, of Bela Lugosi (and his Hungarian accent), Vampira, Elvira, Grandpa Munster, Count Chocula, all of them. 

What do Dracula, Lucy, and Mina all have in common? They are all three serial boundary crossers in a very repressed age. And speaking of boundary crossing, aren't Lucy and Mina essentially his vampire daughters? When Dracula returns to Transylvania, he sails on the Czarina Catherine, named for the libidinous Russian ruler (about whom Cole Porter wrote the racy number "Kate the Great" for Anything Goes, but Ethel Merman refused to sing it because it was too dirty).

But in understanding this story and our show, we can't think of Count Dracula as a monster -- we have to think of him as a charming, mysterious, foreign aristocrat, who brings chaos (freedom?) to a previously well-ordered world. Same plot as The Man Who Came to Dinner. Well, almost. We know that Stoker's Count Dracula is based on the famous English actor-manager Henry Irving, the Welsh-American explorer, journalist, soldier, author and politician Henry Morton Stanley, and the British explorer, writer, orientalist scholar, and soldier Richard Burton. That should tell us much of what we need to know.

Likewise, Van Helsing isn't the usual 1950s Wise Scientist -- he's another very strange foreigner, arrogant, baffling, overzealous, obsessive, a bully, with no discernible empathy or social skills, who talks weird and has incredibly strange beliefs by any measure. (Although, now that I type that, I bet all those Wise Scientist characters in the 1950s and 60s are based on Van Helsing. What a wild line of descent, from Van Helsing to 1950s sci-fi to Dr. Scott in Rocky Horror!) Notice that in the novel, none of the foreigners (Dracula, Van Helsing, and Quincey Morris) ever narrate the story, only the English characters.

One of the fun parts of working on the Dracula story is that, to quote my own Zombies of Penzance, Count Dracula is "a surprisingly plastic metaphor." In one of the many Dracula study guides I've been perusing, Lilith Steinmetz tells us at the beginning, "Dracula has been seen as a grail romance, a twisted Oedipal fantasy, a religious fairytale, and a psychosexual drama." This musical stage version we're working on is a tragic romantic thriller. Steinmetz also says about the story, "It juxtaposes the ancient gothic castle with the thoroughly modern." That's what our show is -- a story from more than a century ago, told in the form of a contemporary rock musical. With all that in mind, I talked with our costumer Zach Thompson yesterday and we agreed on an aesthetic that's both 1897 and 2024 at the same time.

And for the first time in my life, a show I'm helming will dabble in elements of Steampunk! Why, what presumptuous podsnappery, I hear the foozlers and mutton-mongers cry! Okay, I will admit, as much as I have always loved steampunk, it's almost never organic to any story we're telling. But it fits Dracula perfectly. Cutting-edge technology is such a big part of Stoker's story. Zach and I are equally psyched about this.

We started music rehearsals this past week. I realize that my favorite thing about this show is that it never mocks Dracula or gothic horror or musicals. There's nothing Ironically Meta here, no parody, no winking at the audience, no self-reference, no references to other musicals. No, this is a serious drama, with the highest possible stakes -- death and eternal damnation. (And transfusions when you don't understand blood type. And Free Love.)

This is gonna be such a cool adventure! Stay tuned!

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To buy Dracula tickets, click here.

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

It’s Dilemma! It’s de Limit! It’s Deluxe! It’s De-Lovely!

This is the introduction for my newest book, Anything, Anything, Anything Goes: A Deep Dive:

My freshman year in high school, Anything Goes (the 1962 version) was the first “real” musical I was ever in. I played Bishop Dobson (who gets arrested in the first scene) and I was also in the tap dancing chorus. I fell in love with the show and all the songs. I knew it was an “old” show, but it didn’t seem old-fashioned to me. It was sexual and cynical, and kind of wild and anarchic, and blazingly self-aware. I now know it was very much in the vein of George M. Cohan’s first musical comedies in the early 1900s, but even more cynical, and a little edgier.

Fast-forward to 2006, and I was writing a musical theatre history book, Strike Up the Band. As I wrote about Anything Goes, I started to realize things I had never thought of before. Maybe it was because when I first got to know the show, I hadn’t yet developed any analytical skills, so I hadn’t looked beyond the surface. But now writing about the show, I realized there are two central themes running through the story, two delicious pieces of social satire that are just as relevant today as they were in 1934. Americans still turn religion into show business, and we still turn criminals into celebrities. Anything Goes is a smart, insightful, razor-sharp cultural satire about Us. Now.

I also learned from an actor who was playing Moonface and had done lots of research on the show, that Victor Moore originally played Mooney very mousy, unassuming, jittery, with a high, nasal voice, and none of the Brooklyn accent we’re used to from more recent productions. Over the years Moonface has become a parody of gangster movies clichés, but Victor Moore played the role as the opposite of every cliché about gangsters – and that was the very funny joke that we seem to miss today. Mooney is fundamentally, constitutionally ill-suited to being a gangster. That’s why he’s only Number 13. That’s automatically funnier than the usual characterization.

And also notice his name, Moonface Martin. His nickname apparently mean he’s ugly or disfigured in some way. That connects to a belief system, “eugenics,” popular at the time, which posited that physical deformity indicates mental deformity. That belief was on full display in Chester Gould’s comic strip Dick Tracy, which had debuted in 1931. In line with the eugenics movement, every one of the criminals in Dick Tracy’s world was grotesquely deformed, and their names described their inside-and-out aberration – Big Boy (a stand-in for Capone), Pruneface (possibly the model for Moonface?), Flattop, Little Face, Mumbles, The Brow, etc.

Also, over time I have come to understand that Sir Evelyn is definitely not gay, which is the usual default for unimaginative actors and directors. Suggesting he’s gay short-circuits a big part of the intricate plot. It’s much funnier if he’s clearly straight, and terribly charming. After all, we have to believe that hard-boiled Reno genuinely falls for him. Reno and Sir Evelyn are roughly parallel to Harold Hill and Marion Paroo, but with the genders reversed.

Maybe my most important lesson was that the show was never meant to be “a tap show.” Dance on Broadway at the time was a wild variety of popular social dancing. And stylistically, the pacing of the show is everything. The performance style of Thirties musical comedy wasn’t far removed from vaudeville, very full front (there were no mics!), with only the slightest wisp (if any) of a Fourth Wall. Anything Goes is a big, crazy, nonstop, high-energy, perpetual motion machine, something much closer to a Marx Brothers movie than to later, mid-century musical comedy. It leaves the audience and actors breathless. And delighted.

It’s worth noting that any American musical from the 1930s brings some baggage with it. Anything Goes of course has the problematic “Chinese converts.” But its parallel baggage is that 1930s musical comedies were all essentially “white” musicals, in which the characters were written to be white, and the plots erase the presence of people of color in American life – except for those “Magical Negro” characters (Paul in Kiss Me, Kate; Jewel in Best Little Whorehouse; Caroline in Caroline, or Change; Leading Player in Pippin; Joice Heth in Barnum; Lola in Kinky Boots; et al.), the exceptions that prove the rule.

That problem is less pervasive today, but it’s not gone. In the book Race in American Musical Theatre, Josephine Lee writes, “Well into the twenty-first century, theatrical success continues to be defined in ways that maintain white perspectives and artistic dominance.” The first definer of the image of the American chorus girl, Florenz Ziegfeld, made her white and interchangeable. In 1922 Ziegfeld debuted his famous tag line for his Follies, “A National Institution – Glorifying the American Girl.” In other words, the American girl is white and interchangeable. Pretty is white. As a case in point, the 1934 production of Anything Goes included Reno’s sixteen angels, all platinum blondes.

Even when one of these shows had a chorus line of black women, for a taste of “exoticism,” they would be the lightest skinned black women the producers could find. The white girl was still the ideal. Some people still argue today that black people never would have been on a transatlantic ocean liner like that in 1934 – both for reasons of race and social status – so it’s not wrong to cast Anything Goes entirely with white performers, as it was originally.

But that’s a simplistic argument.

Anything Goes is storytelling as much as historical document; and no audience expects a history lesson. Doing the show today, there’s no reason why Reno has to be white; or why Hope and Mrs. Harcourt have to be the same race.

Still, we still have to admit that Anything Goes is not really about the lives of people of color – which is why we all should produce new shows as often as “classics.” But I digress.

Even with those caveats, Anything Goes is wonderful in so many ways, a wild musical comedy about anarchy and chaos, where the dizzying action aboard this ocean liner reveals the insanity of the 1930s. Our country felt out of control (as it often does), and so did the S.S. American. And though we don’t like to admit it, Anything Goes is always about America right now – no matter when it’s produced. America is always a mess, our popular culture always swims in the ridiculous, and we are forever weirdly in love with gangster mythology. Anything Goes is a timeless funhouse mirror we can always hold up to ourselves when we need a good hearty laugh.

And those songs!

Alec Wilde wrote in the excellent book American Popular Song about Cole Porter in the mid-1930s, when Anything Goes opened, “By this point in his career Porter was in full control of his musical craft. He was experimenting, doing daring things, and writing in many styles, though this last seems less obvious because of the immediately recognizable style of his lyrics. His musical training constantly reveals itself in both his melodic as well as his harmonic invention.”

I love this show. Here’s why.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To buy Sweet Potato Queens tickets, click here

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

I Should Just Blow This Whole Town!

We are having such fun working on Sweet Potato Queens. It's really everything I want in a piece of theatre, big laughs, big heart, and big ideas. It's a show like Hands on a Hardbody or Bonnie & Clyde, that surprises you with its depth and insight.

Dramatically, it's incredibly well crafted. We start the show by meeting the Sweet Potato Queens, and learn about their philosophy of life. Then we flashback, and most of the show is an origin story. Along with Jill, the Boss Queen, we meet three other Queens, and we come to understand why each of them needs the SPQs as much as Jill does.

Too Much Tammy has issues with food and body image. She's drowning in the clichés and expectations of our culture, and feels absolutely powerless. Floozie Tammy just might be a sex addict, finding her self-worth by sleeping with a lot of men, trying to fill a hole in herself that the SPQs will eventually fill. Flower Tammy is a complete innocent, trapped in a very abusive relationship, feeling fully out of control of her life.

Along with Jill and her feelings of hopelessness and restlessness, these four women find their relief -- their cure -- in the world of the Sweet Potato Queens, where they are in control of their lives, of their men, of their appearance, of their sexuality. The SPQs are a flamboyant and entertaining way of reclaiming their lives, despite the rules of Polite Society.

It's interesting that in the show, we learn about the SPQ Worldview first, and only then do we meet the women individually and understand why and how desperately they needed the SPQs. It's not a story of whether or not they will find healing -- we know they will -- the story is about how they get there. In many ways, Jill's story follows the classic Hero Myth.

Ultimately, Jill DOES what the show itself prescribes -- she learns to do what makes her heart sing. The existance of the show itself is the point of the show!

But I've also realized that though this show is about these four women becoming Sweet Potato Queens, to some extent, those are some of the reasons people find comfort in the theatre. Like the Queens, actors take on a new persona, which often contains bits and pieces of their real selves, and live in an alternate reality for a while. Performance is healing. Sharing is healing. Laughing is healing.

Part of the great fun of working on this show is that I'm in contact with the whole writing team as well as Jill Conner Browne. They're all so psyched we're doing the show, and some of them are coming to see us. They've all been incredibly friendly and supportive. Here's a video Jill sent us:

This is going to be such a fun -- and healing -- ride! For more info, click here.

Long Live the Musical!
Official Spud Stud

P.S. To buy Sweet Potato Queens tickets, click here

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

Sweet Potato Queens

The second show in our 32nd season, Sweet Potato Queens, is a musical I had never heard of -- and there aren't a ton of those out there! 

One of our loyal New Line Subscribers, Debra Lueckerath, had seen the show in Metairie, Louisiana, and she brought me the program, adamantly urging me to check it out. I looked at the program cover, saw the show's title; and I confess I thought to myself, "Ugh. Chick show."

For a while, the program just sat on my desk, like most things do. But at some point, I picked it up, looked through it, then on a whim I Googled "Sweet Potato Queens" and holy shit!

I found the official SPQ website and discovered the amazingly funny and insightful Jill Conner Browne. The more I read about her and the Queens, the more I listened to and watched clips, I more I realized that this quirky musical was really crazy, really heartfelt, and really New Liney. Just like Jill, the Boss Queen.

Once again, the Others will take centerstage at New Line. I love that.

So I got the script to read and the piano score to play through, and it charmed the shit out of me and made me laugh out loud repeatedly, and yet it also has some very serious, human stuff running underneath the wacky carnival. That's my kind of theatre!

The show's creative team's cred is solid. Broadway veteran Rupert Holmes (The Mystery of Edwin Drood) wrote the script, and hit country songwriter Sharon Vaughn wrote the lyrics. The terrific music is by pop icon Melissa Manchester, and the songs are really fun to play. It's Southern Rock, dirty blues, gospel, country, funk, soul, swing, and something hilariously called "Sears Rock." You can imagine what a blast it all is! We started rehearsals this past week, and we've got such a strong, interesting cast! Our music director Tim Amukele is teaching the actors their songs, while I soak it all in and prepare to stage it all.

One of the great jokes of the show for me is its title. It sounds so small-town, so innocuous, so inconsequential, all in stark, hilarious contrast to the actual Queens themselves and their high-octane philosophy of life.

Now that our work on the show has begun, and I'm almost finished with Jill's first book, The Sweet Potato Queens' Book of Love: A Fallen Southern Belle's Look at Love, Life, Men, Marriage, and Being Prepared, I begin to understand the SPQs on a deeper level.

These women have taken every traditional, cliched, superficial, social expectation and exploded it. Men can't help but obsess over tits and ass? Fine, the Queens will give them tits and ass so gigantic they're frightening. Men think long hair equals femininity? Fine, the Queens will give them a royal fuck-ton of hair. Men forever sexualize women? Fine, the Queens will give them a sexuality so aggressive, it will make them run away crying.

It's empowering because the women are choosing to be the "object" of our gaze; it's an active role, not a passive one. And because it's so aggressive, it both gives the men what they want and it terrorizes (and mocks) them with the same.

On the surface, it's just good ol', (not exactly) clean fun. And Lordy, it is FUNNY. But it's so much more than that. These women have claimed all the oppressive feminine stereotypes in our culture as their own. All of them. They expose these stereotypes as silly, ridiculous, even grotesque. And at the same time, this satiric exaggeration of the female body also subtly (!) forces men (and women) to accept female bodies as curvy, and women themselves as sexual.

What's most clear to me now about the Wonderful World of SPQs is that no 24-year-old could have created this world. This had to come from women who'd Been Through it All, who tried to meet all those expectations before discovering it's a game they can't win.

(Like the Scarecrow sings in The Wiz, "You can't win, you can't break even, but you can't get out of the game." Which also happens to be The Zeroth Law of Thermodynamics, I shit you not.)

So what can you do when the game is rigged? The Sweet Potato Queens simply changed all the rules. Fuck "ladylike"!

The outrageousness, the aggressiveness, the explicitness, the metaphors of royalty and rank, the brilliant audaciousness of it all (dare I call it a mythology?), disguises the serious point of the SPQs -- a vigorous demand for respect and self-determination. All the craziness is the Spoonful of Sugar that Helps the Medicine Go Down.

But the costumes and the Queens' wacky escapades aren't an escape from the real world; they are armor against it. As Jill admits in her first book, what the Sweet Potato Queens do is not all that distant from what drag queens do, for different but arguably parallel reasons.

Though the SPQs were founded decades ago, their philosophy seems more topical than ever right now, as the Culture Wars rage ever onward, as women's autonomy is repeatedly put up for a vote.

The Queens are a wonderfully sly and subversive mashup of feminine clichés and the Alpha male, and we know how much America loves thinking about gender these days. The Queens may not know it, but they are Exhibit A in the argument that gender is entirely a social construct -- and an oppressive one. By adopting all the artificial social markers of femininity and making them even more artificial, the SPQs are putting that construct under a metaphorical microscope and gleefully tearing its little wings off.

Again, that's my kind of musical theatre!

Even with the show's considerable (and delicious) snark, and even though there are very serious moments, Sweet Potato Queens is chock full of pure joy and amazing songs. It's an open invitation to all of us to stop taking the bullshit, learn to Live Out Loud, and to each find our own particular path. Jill always reminds us to Be Particular! We need that lesson right now as much as ever.

This is going to be such a fun -- and healing -- ride! For more info, click here.

Long Live the Musical!

P.S. To buy Sweet Potato Queens tickets, click here

P.P.S. To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

P.P.P.S. To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

'Twas a Year Full of New Line, 2023

'Twas a year full of New Line, and yep, we're still here!
Tell me, who would've guessed we'd survive one more year!
But we're quickly returning to more solid ground,
Thanks to New Line's supporters, whose help's been profound!
These dark times remind us how much we need Stories,
To help us make sense of our stumbles and glories;
So New Line's still here, busting all categories!

In March, from the bucket list came the divine
And surreal, Felliniesque, musical Nine!
It's rarely produced, but it's ballsy and bold,
With evocative music and rhymes like spun gold;
It's a streaming-of-consciousness, mad, masterwork,
About Guido, the sexist and genius and jerk,
And those shadows where all of our deepest fears lurk.

Then June brought us Sondheim's ridiculous Forum,
As free as can be of all decent decorum,
With big belly laughs, social satire, farce,
Lotsa pratfalls, cross-dressing, and kicks in the arse.
But some folks perceived it as sexist and dated,
And no one who thought that could be else persuaded
That things and their satire can't be equated.

The fall brought St. Louis a new world premiere,
Of adult, stoner, musical-comedy cheer;
With a title as long as the high notes in Wicked,
Subversive as shit, for the price of your ticket;
And family and memories and cute Christmas carols,
And mockery of all our pitfalls and perils;
Plus, racism aimed at with both fucking barrels.

So on to a new year, rehearsals, and shows,
But to what new adventures no one really knows;
Each show is alive and it goes where it goes,
And evolves and then blossoms like some magic rose.
So the trick is to let it be what it will be,
Let loose preconceptions and let it run free;
So that art can give all of us much more to see.

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

P.S. I started these year-poems on a whim way back in 2013. If you're a glutton for punishment, here are my year-end poems from 2013201420152016201720182019, 2020, and 2022. Yes, I skipped 2021.

To buy the published script of Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas, click here. The vocal selections will be available soon!

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here

Have a Holy Rollin' Christmas!

What a wild, interesting, and exhausting ride its been! Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas has closed. Jesus and Johnny have left the building.

Though it was a long road pockmarked by several crises, we pulled it off! Believe me, the "magic of theatre" is real. We didn't have huge houses, but the reviews were great and audiences really seemed to enjoy it.

Well, those who didn't walk out. I mean, if folks don't walk out once in a while, can we really call our company "the Bad Boy of Musical Theatre"?

I'll admit that this truly odd musical I wrote is more confrontational and challenging for the audience than I totally realized. (The same was true of Johnny Appleweed.) I think working on the show for almost three years made some of the more freaky stuff seem less freaky to me. I was defreaksatized. After all, once the show's story gets going, the first character we meet is a heterosexual cross-dresser who's in a relationship with a blowup doll, and they regularly smoke pot together. And even though there are no "four-letter words" in Act I, the dialogue is still pretty explicit about body parts and sexuality -- though in a very goofy context.

I honestly didn't set out to shock or offend -- I mostly just wanted to make people laugh -- but I think my show works a lot like Sondheim's Anyone Can Whistle, satirizing the audience's actual beliefs (and their misconceptions) perhaps a bit too fiercely, a bit too personally, including some beliefs not everyone is comfortable laughing at. Watching the show now, I realize that almost every plot point is about a topic that still makes a lot of people uncomfortable, the things adults used to whisper about in polite company when I was a kid.

Still, as New Line shows go, this one is fairly tame. And this show is what it is. I wouldn't change a thing about it. (High Fidelity reference!) It might not be some folks' particular cup o' tea, but a lot of people loved it. Just look at some of the review quotes...
“What if Seth Rogen, Charles Dickens, Andrew Lloyd Webber, Cheech and Chong, Christopher Hitchens, Hunter S. Thompson, and John Waters decided to have a baby?” – KDHX

"A pot-laced, Dickensian, Cheech & Chong-esque holiday spoof that is reminiscent of when Saturday Night Live was in its heyday." – BroadwayWorld

“Surreal nostalgic fun… a hilarious and upbeat musical for mature audiences.” – The Riverfront Times

“A wacky, if pungent, new look... a snarky (and oddly charming) holiday event.” – TalkinBroadway

"A fun-filled lampoon of Christianity, middle America and the straight-laced culture of the 1950s." – Ladue News

“If you like crass humor, and especially stoner jokes, this show should be a fun ‘alternative’ holiday production.” – Snoop’s Theatre Thoughts

"Resembles the audacious dark comedy material that John Waters and Charles Busch specialize in." – PopLifeSTL

Now, on the other hand, one woman really hated my show. She emailed MetroTix, writing, "I would like a refund for my order. The show was highly offensive and outright disgusting to sit and watch. Had to leave at intermission due to fear of the content getting even more explicit and offensive." (I have to give props where they are due -- she was right that Act II is indeed even more explicit and offensive. And a lot more sacrilegious.) What did she think she was going to see? Also, you don't get a refund because you didn't like the show -- live theatre isn't Amazon.

Maybe she missed the angel baby with the bong in the logo. Though maybe she wouldn't know a bong if you threw it at her head. Still, with "Johnny Appleweed" in the title? Maybe she was fooled by the words "Jesus" and "Family." If so, that's Robert's fault. He suggested adding "Family" to the title (which really did make it funnier).

Despite Mrs. Buzzkill, every night after the show, people told me it was hilarious, that they loved it, and a few (who were likely stoned AF) told me I'm a genius. One subscriber told me I'm a sick puppy -- but she was smiling. I noticed that people of color in the audience seemed the most enthusiastic and complimentary after performances, maybe because the show says a lot of things about race that usually go unsaid...

For me, the best barometer of the audience's mindset is to see if the laughs come at character and plot jokes, which tells us the audience is engaged and following the story. Even with less boisterous audiences, we could tell that they were engaged with this show. 

My true heroes are these actors who brought my show to life. They worked so hard. Our four poor carolers had to sing a shitload of really close, crunchy, four-part jazz harmonies. And the actors had to contend with the very heightened style and bizarre story, and yet deliver honest, real performances. What makes a show like this funny is the seriousness with which the actors play it. The more serious the characters are, the funnier the show gets. It works like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, Head Over Heels, Yeast Nation, Little Shop, Rocky Horror, and so many other shows. It's my favorite style of musical. Had you already guessed that?

Also, as a dedicated and open pot smoker, I love that I've created a few new stoner Christmas carols. It's about time! Soon, "The Elves Get Stoned," "Have Another Toke and Have a Merry Christmas," and "Holy Rollin' Christmas" will all be classics, no doubt.

To my great surprise and delight, quite a few women came up to me after the show to tell me they wanted "Hoo-Hoo of Steel" t-shirts, after the song of the same name in the show. So we asked our graphic designer Matt Reedy to create a "Hoo-Hoo" logo (he created two!), we set them up, and we put them on sale. Who knew my freaky, adult, stoner Christmas musical would spawn merch!

I'm so grateful to everyone who went on this wild ride with me, our intrepid orchestrator John Gerdes and the rest of the New Line Band, our techies and designers and staff. We brought some really talented new people into the New Line family with this show, and that's always cause for a Huzzah! or three. Musical theatre is my favorite art form but I can't make a musical alone; it only works when a bunch of people agree to go on the journey with me, trusting that I know where we're going. (I mostly do.)

After three years, I say goodbye to the Goodsons, their ghosts, and their carolers. I hope they'll be okay. It's been alternately terrifying and awesome. But I will miss these folks, particularly Uncle Hugh.

Now I'll sleep for a few weeks.

Long Live the Musical! And Happy Holidays!

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

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Truly Grateful

I'll tell you what I'm thankful for this year. I'm thankful that musical theatre has become a vigorous, popular part of our culture again. I'm thankful that there are so many artists out there writing new, amazing musicals. I'm thankful that St. Louis has a musical theatre scene of such breadth and depth.

But there's one thing I'm particularly grateful for -- your trust.

We're opening our THIRTY-SECOND season next week. For thirty-two years, St. Louis audiences have trusted me to find the most interesting, most exciting, most iconoclastic works of musical theatre. Some of New Line's best selling shows have been musicals that most of our audience had never heard of before. They trust me to know what I'm doing when I throw out the usual rules.

I could throw in a punch line here about how I've got them all fooled. But the truth is, I do know what I'm doing. My entire adult life, I've been directing unusual musicals and/or directing musicals unusually. But I realized long ago, my lifelong dream is not to do musicals; it's to share musicals. And I find myself in a strikingly unique position to be able to do that.

And Jesus Christ, is it fun!

I've also learned over the years that almost all human communication is in the form of stories. I was born to be a storyteller; I knew that from an incredibly early age. And I knew that I wanted to tell stories with musicals. It seemed to me as a small kid and it seems to me still today, that musicals are so obviously the most powerful, most impactful form of storytelling humans ever created. We storytellers are the tribe shamans. We bridge the gap between the spiritual world and the physical world through our stories.

The last few years have been so hard to get through. When the pandemic shut everything down, it felt like a theatre Armageddon. But our audience has returned to us. They need what we can give. In fact,  even as theatres across America are shutting down, our season tickets sales actually went up this season.

If that's not a reason to be thankful, what is?

The world is still broken. Many of us are still broken. Many of us are still grappling with lingering PTSD. So much about the world -- and our fellow humans! -- is intensely ugly right now. But we have a light we can shine, we artsies, we storytellers, we shamans. It's not easy to pierce this thick, dense darkness, but we have a light.

That's what I'm thankful for.

But John Bucchino can say it better than me. It's rare that a lyric exactly captures my inner life, but this one does -- his amazing prayer of a song, "Grateful."
In a world that can bring pain,
I will still take each chance;
For I believe that whatever the terrain,
Our feet can learn to dance!
Whatever stone life may sling,
We can moan or we can sing!

Long Live the Musical! Long Live the Light!

To buy tickets to JJHRFX, click here.
To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.
To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

Ol' Harry Can Prevaricate a Scary Tale

Today's history lesson is brought to you by the letters, P, O, and T, and the number 420.

Just as many of the demonized drugs of the 1960s have long, legitimate histories, people have also been smoking marijuana around the world for thousands of years. Marijuana came to the United States at the turn of the last century through Mexican immigrants coming across the border to look for work in the American southwest.

But white Americans weren’t feeling very welcoming and were looking for excuses for their racist hatred of Mexicans, so rumors began that pot gave these Mexicans superhuman strength and turned them into crazed murderers. Despite the fact that neither was true, these stereotypes would last for decades. Starting in 1914, local laws began popping up criminalizing marijuana – not so much as a way of controlling drug use as it was a way to drive out Mexicans and African Americans.

Soon, marijuana was lumped together in the minds of the public with serious drugs like heroin and opium and it was placed under the jurisdiction of the U.S. Treasury Department, which in turn created the Federal Bureau of Narcotics, headed up by prohibitionist Harry J. Anslinger. The War on Marijuana had begun.

Even though marijuana is not a narcotic.

And despite Anslinger, marijuana use spread throughout the country. Sailors from the West Indies brought it into Los Angeles. Black jazz musicians from New Orleans brought it up the Mississippi into the Midwest. In 1936, Hollywood produced the now comic but seriously intended “scare film,” Reefer Madness, which perpetuated the myth that pot drove users insane and turned them into crazed killers.

In 1937 President Franklin Roosevelt created a marijuana tax which required a government stamp in order to sell or distribute pot. The catch was the government refused to issue any stamps, effectively outlawing pot without actually passing a law. The government undertook a campaign of massive arrests throughout the country.

That same year, New York City Mayor Fiorello LaGuardia commissioned one of the first scientific studies of marijuana. After six years of studying the drug, the results proved that pot did not cause increased sexual drive, violence, or insanity. Anslinger was furious and destroyed every copy of the report he could get his hands on, while LaGuardia publicly came out for legalizing marijuana. Anslinger further made sure no more pot could be (legally) acquired for any other studies.

Anslinger also shifted his focus from ordinary Americans to movie stars to goose the publicity for his anti-pot campaign. Actor Robert Mitchum, drummer Gene Krupa, and many other celebrities were arrested and their arrests highly publicized. In response, the major Hollywood studios handed control of their films over to Anslinger, who banned any positive messages about pot in any films.

From 1937, when Anslinger’s official War on Marijuana began, through 1947, the government spent a whopping $270 million fighting marijuana, a drug proven to be virtually harmless. Since Anslinger had stopped the availability of pot for scientific studies, it remains a mystery where he got his information when he announced in the early 1950s that marijuana was a direct and inescapable step to heroin addiction. He also declared that Communists were behind the distribution of marijuana in the U.S. in order to make Americans “weak” and easy to conquer.

In the Cold War hysteria of the 50s, this campaign was Anslinger's most successful yet. He convinced Persident Truman to sign the Briggs Act which substantially increased penalties for marijuana possession. In 1961, Anslinger addressed the United Nations and convinced one hundred countries to sign an international agreement to outlaw marijuana. By 1963, Anslinger’s War on Marijuana had cost an additional $1.5 billion.

Finally, in 1967, as Hair was opening off Broadway, and as marijuana use in America was increasing and becoming more mainstream, the federal government finally allowed a few studies of the drug to go forward, for the first time since LaGuardia’s study in the thirties. One study estimated that fully one half of the American soldiers in Vietnam were using pot on a regular basis.

Richard Nixon was running for president on a Law and Order platform, but since most law enforcement was handled by individual states, Nixon decided to focus on a federal “clean up” of the American “drug problem.” Once elected, he sent two thousand customs agent to the Mexican border to stop the flow of marijuana into America. His plan was abandoned after three weeks when virtually no pot was found by agents. So instead Nixon sent more federal money to local law enforcement agencies to stop marijuana on the local level.

As more money was spent and laws were changed, some individuals were being sentenced to fifty years in jail for selling less than an ounce of marijuana, even while a study in 1969 reported that eight to twelve million Americans had used pot at least once. In 1970 the U.S. Congress reduced penalties for marijuana possession. From 1964 to 1969, Anslinger and Nixon spent $9 billion dollars on the War on Marijuana, for a running grand total of nearly $11 billion.

As Hair still ran on Broadway, Nixon’s own Nation Commission on Marijuana and Drug Abuse recommended legalization of marijuana, but when Nixon heard about their conclusions, he refused to read their report. Instead of following his own commission’s recommendation, he created the Drug Enforcement Agency (DEA) to step up the War. But the tide was turning.

By 1972, local and state anti-pot laws were being reversed, and despite opponents’ dire predictions, usage did not increase. In 1975 presidential hopeful Jimmy Carter came out publicly for decriminalization of marijuana. But he reversed his position later and the federal government continued to pour money into its War on Marijuana.

Today, the runnnig total cost of the War on Drugs to Americans is north of a trillion dollars. That currently includes close to $100 million a year.

There's a song in Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas called "The Ballad of Harry Anslinger," that covers (comically) the broad strokes of the events described above. Part of the point of the song is that "fake news" and intentional misinformation is not a new phenomenon in America.
Ol’ Harry can prevaricate a scary tale,
A lurid story, rare as any fairy tale,
Of murder, girls of ill repute,
Insanity to boot,
At marijuana’s root,
Screams Harry.
And so scream the papers, in dark distress;
And so it spreads, his great big lie.
That’s freedom of the press!

The War on Drugs has never been rational, the exploitation of fear has always been really cynical. The hysterical focus on marijuana has always been particularly silly. We're finally learning now that in addition to making us feel great, marijuana is something of a miracle drug. We're just now discovering everything the plant can do for us.

This musical is completely pro-marijuana, which is no surprise for everybody who knows what a total stoner I am. I can't wait to share it with you. The show, I mean. Actually, I'll share my weed with you too.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy New Line season tickets, click here.

To buy single tickets to JJHRFX, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

Jesus & Johnny Appleweed's Holy Rollin' Family Christmas

When we produced Hair the second time, in 2008, it struck me quite powerfully that our current politics are all essentially a battle between the 1950s and the 1960s, between the oppressive universal conformity of the 1950s versus the cultural, political, and sexual freedom of the 1960s. Looking back, I realize that ever since Nixon, our two national parties have been aligned along this fault line as well, the Republicans wanting to return to the 1950s, and the Democrats wanting to finish the work of the 1960s.

And that may be because the American people are split on this issue as well.

Soon I realized that because our culture has been grappling with this for so long, so has our art. I realized a bunch of my other favorite musicals are also about this 50s/60s fight, shows including Grease, Rocky Horror, The Fantasticks, Hairspray, Cry-Baby, Bye Bye Birdie, Anyone Can Whistle, Cabaret, Avenue X, Caroline or Change, Love Kills, I Love My Wife, 1776, and lots of other shows. People keep writing about this cultural and political fissure, because we've never figured out how to fix it.

So I think a lot about this eternal battle between these visions of America. It seeps into every issue our country faces -- race, gender identity, sexuality, family, school, drugs, guns, war. Part of me wonders if this particular problem will fade away once Americans who remember the fifties (anyone older than me) die off. Young people are generally more liberal and more compassionate than older people.

And I've been wanting to write a show about all this, but I wasn't quite sure how to come at it. I learned a lesson (the hard way) with one of my early shows, The Line, that a successful musical can't be about an issue or an idea; it has to be about people. Musicals communicate through emotion more than most kinds of storytelling, and emotions are human. I also learned (also the hard way) with my show In the Blood that an audience is always more willing to go on the ride if they're laughing. 

So it was, that two years ago, sitting on my couch with my cats watching Law & Order and stoned out of my ever-lovin' brain, a title occurred to me -- A Reefer Madness Christmas. I had no idea what it would be about, but it delighted me. So I let it percolate in the back of my stoner brain for a while, when a second idea occurred to me -- A Reefer Madness Christmas Carol. It didn't take very long for those two ideas to merge, into a Christmas musical where Act I is a comic pro-pot response to the original 1936 Reefer Madness film, and Act II becomes a stoner Christmas Carol, in which the ultimate lesson turns out to be Smoke More Marijuana.

It became clear to me that my creative inspiration for this show would be the wild, brilliant, fearless films of the legendary John Waters (who sent New Line a really nice video for our 25th anniversary, BTW). That meant my show would be a mashup of A Christmas Carol, Reefer Madness, John Waters movies, 1950s pop music, and 1950s musical comedy. That's a fierce mashup!

Finally it struck me (I was likely stoned again, but I don't remember, which means I was likely stoned) that my evolving show was the perfect vehicle to illustrate that 50s/60s thing. I created a too-perfect American nuclear family and set the action on Christmas Eve, 1959. And then the show kind of wrote itself. It was great fun working with period musical forms. like doo-wop, blues-rock, rockabilly, even a Brubeckian jazz piece in 5/4.

The one thing I had to think about a long time was the four Christmas Carol ghosts -- who would they be in my story and what would they teach Harry? I made the mistake of first picking my ghosts largely by their comic potential, and that made the lessons even harder to work out. I also realized that Harry was only a slight exaggeration of my own father -- and I had unconsciously named him after his father!

Calling Dr. Freud! 

This will be the first show I've written in a while for which we didn't do a public reading first. We tried back in January, but it was not to be (long story). But we did rehearse many of the songs, and hearing other people sing them showed me much of what need fine-tuning. Then again, I'm not sure this is a show that would benefit from a reading as much as other shows. Plus I can make changes during rehearsals, just not so many changes that I drive the actors crazy.

Along the way, we found out we can't call the show A Reefer Madness Christmas. Long, dumb story. So we rechristened our wacky musical with a wackier name. And then the folks at the Kranzberg Arts Foundation suggested we bring our musical to the Grandel Theatre, instead of our usual home, the Marcelle. It's a much bigger house, so we'll be doing nine performances, instead of our usual twelve.

So here we are. (Sondheim reference!) We've assembled a terrific cast and rehearsals are underway. I can't wait to share this with you!

Long Live the Musical!

To buy New Line season tickets, click here.

To buy single tickets to JJHRFX, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here.

A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Missouri Arts Council

New Line Theatre was recently awarded a bigger-than-usual grant from the Missouri Arts Council (MAC) for its coming 2023-2024 season -- a generous $25,000.

Soon to open our 32nd season of alternative musical theatre, the increased MAC grant was very welcome, particularly in this time when every nonprofit theatre in America is still struggling so badly, and so many are closing down permanently. Just this past week, the famed Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago announced they are laying off one-eighth of their staff.

But then... A plot twist!

Even as theatres across America fail, MAC Executive Director Michael Donovan decided this is the time to change the rules, to make it harder to access grant money, to make it tougher on struggling nonprofits like New Line Theatre -- even though Donovan's new rules violate the contract he and I as New Line Artistic Director both signed just weeks ago. The result is that New Line can't currently access the majority of its grant, which the company desperately needs, particularly in these very challenging times.

The timing could not be worse for us.

According to London's Guardian newspaper, "America’s love affair with the stage is on the rocks. From coast to coast, the regional theatre movement is facing the biggest crisis in its 75-year history. An estimated 25% to 30% of audiences have not returned since the shutdown enforced by the coronavirus pandemic." And instead of stepping up to help, MAC is now making it harder on the New Liners.

Here's the bizarre and ridiculous story behind the problem...

In accepting the MAC grant, New Line agreed as it does every year to match the grant amount with spending, dollar for dollar. Donovan's dispute with New Line centers on the definition of "incurred expenses" in the contract and what funds can be used to match the MAC grant.

The contract says "The Council agrees to pay the Grantee funds up to the amount stated in Section 3 of this Grant Agreement upon receipt of a duly executed invoice(s) evidencing Project costs incurred in accordance with the Project Proposal" (section 12). [Emphasis added.]

An "incurred expense" is an expense committed to, but not necessarily paid yet. And Donovan knows that. But now he insists instead that the money must already be spent to be used for the match, despite the contract he signed. Donovan claims a sentence immediately following section 12 in the contract says exactly the opposite of it.

That sentence says, "Spent the money for the approved Council-funded project between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024." Donovan's issue this time is whether the dates in the sentence describe the project or the spending. To be clear, the contract does not say, "Spent the money between July 1, 2023 and June 30, 2024, for the approved Council-funded project." In context, the meaning should be clear.

And seriously, even if there are two ways to read that sentence, which choice makes more sense -- to read it as consistent with the section before it; or to read it as completely contradictory to the section before it? The answer should be obvious, especially in a contract.

Or is MAC claiming they knowingly ask hundreds of Missouri nonprofits to sign a self-contradictory contract every year?

For the last thirty seasons, MAC accepted New Line's match of incurred expenses, exactly as the contract describes and as past MAC staff had explained it to the New Liners; but not this year.

Despite the contract's clear language, Donovan now maintains that incurred expenses can no longer be used to make the match, pretending that section 12 of the contract doesn't exist -- which means New Line can't get most of their grant money now. Though New Line continues to struggle, though theatres are closing across the country every day, Donovan has chosen to keep New Line from accessing most of their awarded grant until much later in the season -- and to force our small company to continue its current struggles.

In addition to all that, as a "punishment" for New Line challenging Donovan's new rules, Donovan has demanded that our company now submit receipts to him personally for every single expense -- something other grantees are not required to do. 

Yes, that's right, he both takes back our grant money and then also gives us more work to do. I honestly don't understand why he's doing any of this, particularly right now! MAC has never treated us like this before.

We need help, not hassle.

The MAC website says, "The Missouri Arts Council is the state agency dedicated—as public leader, partner, and catalyst—to broadening the growth, availability, and appreciation of the arts in Missouri and fostering the diversity, vitality, and excellence of Missouri’s communities, economy, and cultural heritage. The grants we award make possible quality arts programming to communities both large and small throughout the state."

Nothing about punishment, nothing about bookkeeping intricacies. It shouldn't have to be said, but the Missouri Arts Council was not created to bully and punish defenseless artists and small, struggling arts organizations.

Clearly, the struggle is still not over. And the people who should be helping us the most, aren't.

Long Live the Musical!

To buy your New Line season tickets for next season, click here.

To donate to New Line Theatre, click here.

To check out my newest musical theatre books, click here

UPDATE, JAN. 31, 2024

In early December we sent another invoice, but we never got the money. I called Michael two weeks ago, in mid-January, and he said we'd have it by the end of this month.

Today, January 31, I called again and Michael told me he doesn't think our accompanying "proof" is good enough, so he hasn't even processed our invoice yet, which means we have no idea when we'll get that piece of our grant -- which means some of our people are going UNPAID! (And I'm unable to pay my own rent!) We have no idea what to do about this -- it's hurting local artists who aren't being paid for their work! For the last thirty years MAC has been very good to us, and we've never suffered this kind of abuse before.

I tried to understand what he was saying and why he was holding up our funds, but at one point in the conversation he said, "You're not helping yourself," and hung up on me. When I called back, he wouldn't answer his phone -- for more than 90 minutes.

The Missouri Arts Council is supposed to SUPPORT arts organizations, not HARRASS them!

UPDATE FEB. 6, 2024

We still haven't received the grant money we invoiced MAC for on Dec. 13. He let our invoice sit on his desk for more than eight weeks, and only processed it because I asked our state representative to call MAC about the problem. We'll see if we get any funds. I'm skeptical at this point.

UPDATE FEB.16, 2024

The transfer of our grant funds into our bank account finally happened at 2:00 a.m. today. All in all, it took eleven weeks from our invoice being sent to getting payment, Dec. 13 to Feb. 16. Our crisis may be over, but the problem clearly is not.