Stasis Is the Membrane That Keeps the Yeasts Together

If it's not funny enough already that the protagonists of Yeast Nation are literally single-celled yeasts, or that our musical is set three billion years ago on the floor of the ocean, or that these yeasts have emotion, community, history, and power struggles, or that the two central plot lines of our show parallel Antigone and Macbeth...

If all that isn't enough... There's yet another very funny element that will probably pass right by most of our audience. What may be the craziest aspect of this epic, twisted fable is that all the weirdest details of our story are biologically accurate.

Several times during the story, we witness a yeast die by "popping open" (or being popped open) and having their "jellies" spill out. We found out the process of cell death is called apoptosis. We've also learned that single-celled organisms don't die naturally; they just keep splitting and making new cells. But they can die by being "eaten" by other cells. Which happens in our show.

On the website LiveScience, I found this: "Researchers at Rockefeller University have discovered that some cells rip themselves apart bit-by-bit in order to attract certain specialized proteins in phagocytes that will gobble them up and carry them away."

Late in Act I of Yeast Nation, in an attempt to drive a wedge between the King and his son Jan-the-Second-Oldest, the King's counselor Jan-the-Wise, and the King's daughter Jan-the-Sly make a (disingenuous) plea for conservatism:
Stasis is the membrane
That keeps the yeasts together,
Through all kinds of weather,
In storm as well as calm.
With harmony our bedrock,
And brotherhood our basis,
Stasis is our membrane!
Stasis is our balm!

Weird lyric, no? 

Well, keep in mind these are yeasts singing this. For these single-celled creatures, stasis is the inhibition of cell growth and reproduction. And for these particular yeasts in our story, more yeasts mean less food, so no increase in population is important. (Like Urinetown, this is another story about resources!) It's not just important; it's a matter of life and death. A static population is their protection; or if you were a yeast speaking metaphorically, you might say it's their membrane, since the membrane is a cell's outer layer of protection, which keeps all their "jellies" from spilling out (that's their form of death).

As one guy on Quora put it, "As to how death looks like for unicellular organisms, really, we don’t know. The best measure we have is whether they are able to maintain their membrane integrity. It takes an active effort to keep water from leaking into the cell, so when they can’t do that anymore, they 'blow up' and die."

So yes, literally, the membrane "keeps the yeasts together," and here it's also a yeasty metaphor for the security of zero population growth, which helps the food not run out, so the community can stay together. "Harmony" is indeed their (meta-)bedrock, since when the yeasts all sing that line, they sing it in harmony; in fact, they sing in harmony throughout the show. And actual brotherhood is literally their "basis" since they are all children of Jan-the-Elder.

Earlier in the show, Jan-the-Elder complains, "Once my rules were adhered to without question. Now we must butcher our own kind to maintain my beloved stasis. I only want things to stay more or less the same for all eternity! Is that too much to ask?!" He sounds like American conservatives longing for a return to the 1950s.

What I love about Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann's writing is that the crazy dialogue and lyrics really do come from the point of view of yeasts. The metaphors are metaphors yeasts would use. You can just picture "Stasis Is the Membrane That Keeps the Yeasts Together" embroidered on a yeast sampler hanging over a yeast mantelpiece.

And sure, that's what writers are supposed to do, write in the character's voice, right? But did I mention these characters are all single-celled yeasts? It's a good thing Kotis and Hollmann are as crazy as they are, or this would be a much less interesting, less engaging piece of theatre. Their fierce protection of their story's interior logic makes this ancient, microscopic world both real and somehow weirdly familiar to us.

After all, parents and children are still parents and children, even if they're microscopic yeasts. Okay, that's not really true at all. But it's true in our story.

Back in the song, Jan-the-Famished is already in some yeastly trouble herself, so of course she joins in Sly's creepy yeast patriotism, singing:
Stasis is a feeling,
A powerful sensation,
That all things in creation
Know deep down to the core.
When life gets too uncertain,
Without a firm oasis,
Stasis gives the sense that
We’ll live forever more!

Which is literally true, since single-celled organisms don't die naturally. Then Sly and Famished sing the chorus together, and it starts to remind me of a funhouse mirror of "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" in Cabaret. Then Jan-the-Wise joins in on the propaganda/philosophy/patriotism:
We’re a simple life form,
A fragile bag of jelly.
Without salt in our belly
We simply cease to be.
So let’s obey the strictures,
And listen to our betters.
Fretters are repugnant
To those who rule the sea!

In other words, do what you're told and shut up. It's what every oppressed minority throughout history has been told. We know better, the authorities tell them.

Later in the show, two of our yeast heroes bond together and create the first multi-celled organism. The LiveScience website says, "The first transition from simple, single-celled organisms to cooperating groups of cells is believed to have occurred a little over 2 billion years ago. This multicellular arrangement was a step toward more complex organisms, like us, who possess different types of cells for different functions, such as red blood cells capable of carrying oxygen around our bodies."

Who knew this crazy musical-tragedy-political-thriller-satire is also a stealth biology lesson? I can't really say I'm surprised. I'm sure there are plenty more delicious, fucked-up surprises awaiting us. We start blocking next week! So much fun ahead...

Long Live the Musical!

Time for the Beginning of Time

One of the quirkier joys of this new Golden Age of the American Musical Theatre is this new generation of writers who have combined immense skill, craft, and artistry with wacky, silly, ridiculous -- and yet often, weirdly insightful -- narrative content.

I guess Little Shop really was the first to do this. Alan Menken and Howard Ashman wrote an impeccably "professional" script and score, telling a story that was at once ridiculous and yet also powerfully human and deeply emotional. The same is true of brilliant shows like Bat Boy, Urinetown, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, and others.

This incredible craft and artistry is on display in Kotis and Hollmann's Yeast Nation script and score. As strong as their Urinetown score is, this score is much more ambitious, with several lengthy, hilarious musical scenes that go back and forth between sung and spoken dialogue, that use multiple musical themes, and all of which are incredibly well-crafted dramatically. While there are a few "interior monologue" songs in the show that pause the action for introspection, most of the score is very plot-driven, and many of the songs are musical dialogue.

As we make our way through this rich, complex score, I notice that composer Mark Hollmann has a very funny musical agenda. The more dramatic the situation gets -- and believe me, it gets intense -- the more serious (even ponderous) the music gets. But at the same time, the more serious the music gets, the slangier the lyrics get, always comically undercutting the weight and drama of the music.

As Hollmann and Kotis did in Urinetown, here again each element of the show -- book, lyrics, and music -- consciously, repeatedly subverts the other elements.

Which subverts and complicates our reaction to it.

When we hear soaring, rock power ballads, we're conditioned to read big powerful emotions into them. But here, that big powerful emotion gets its legs cut off over and over, by the Yeasts singing threateningly, "Spill his jellies!" and other such craziness. Or by deliciously fucked-up lyrics like:
Not in the least
Are you the yeast
You used to be!

(You have to say it out loud to get the full effect.) And yet the whole enterprise is presented with such seriousness, such weight, such conviction. None of that more obvious silliness that made Urinetown so much fun. Yeast Nation is just as ridiculous, but somehow, also more subtle.

Little Shop, Bat Boy, and Urinetown taught us the First Commandment of the neo musical comedy: the more seriously you take it, the higher the stakes, the funnier it gets. Too many directors and actors don't understand that. And with Yeast Nation, Kotis and Hollman have put that concept on steroids.

The central joke here -- portraying single-celled yeasts as a human community, with a government, history, culture, alliances, palace intrigue, etc. -- gets even funnier because the story is presented as straight-faced, classical Greek tragedy, with clear, intentional parallels to both Antigone and Macbeth.

The impetus for writing the show was Kotis' wonderings about how far back he could trace narrative; what's the oldest story he could tell? He eventually realized he couldn't go back any further than the first life forms on earth. But in telling this story, Kotis and Hollman don't only take us "back to the beginning of time;" they also take us back to the beginning of theatre.

And that's pretty potent.

Our audiences are going to be shocked as hell -- they're used to that by now -- by how smart, how rich, how well-crafted, how insightful this lunacy is, at its silly heart. I already know what people are going to say to me after the show (the same thing they say after many of our shows): "It wasn't anything like I expected!"

That's what we do.

Even after twenty-seven years of producing some of the most extraordinary works ever written for the musical stage, this is one of the most original, most exciting things we've worked on. I can't wait to start staging it. I have a feeling we'll spend much of our blocking rehearsals giggling.

Such a cool adventure in front of us yet again...!

Long Live the Musical!

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New Line has produced only musicals over the years -- 84 so far, in fact -- but at the same time, we've told stories in so many different genres of storytelling, comedy, drama, film noir, crime drama, thriller, melodrama, allegory, fairy tale, fable, folk tale, science fiction, horror, documentary, sex farce, social satire, political satire, political drama, absurdism, expressionism, impressionism, religious drama, autobiography, confessional...

But it occurred to me a while back we had never done a bio-historical musical. I don't know how we missed that, but we had!

Luckily for us, Greg Kotis and Mark Hollmann, the mad geniuses behind Urinetown, have been nurturing and developing another wild, dark, comic show, and can you believe it, it's a bio-historical musical! I mean, what are the odds?

"It is the year 3,000,458,000 BC. The Earth's surface is a molten mass of volcanic islands and undulating waves. The atmosphere is a choking fog lit by a dim red sun. And the mighty waters of the world are inhabited only by rocks, sand, salt, more rocks, a little silt, and the great society of salt-eating yeasts – yes, yeasts! – the world's very first life form! These single-cell salt-eaters are the only living creatures on earth, and they’re up against a food shortage, a strange new emotion called Love, and the oppression of a tyrannical Yeast King. But when the king’s son ventures out of the known yeastiverse, the yeasts’ story – and ours – is changed forever. "

Now if that doesn't sound like a New Line show, what does?

So we snatched up the rights and now we embark on yet another weird, uncharted adventure, though this time heading for the floor of the ocean three billion years ago. And all the actors will be playing yeasts. Single-celled yeasts, who can nevertheless sing and even dance a little. And Rob Lippert has to make our theatre look like the floor of the ocean. And Sarah Porter has to figure out what yeasts wear...

As we often say, if it's not scary, where's the fun?

Yeast Nation has been produced so far at the Perseverance Theatre in Juneau, Alaska, in 2007; at the American Theatre Company in Chicago in 2009; at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2011; with Home School Productions in Brooklyn in 2013; at the Ray of Light Theatre in San Francisco in 2014; at Lebanon High School in New Hampshire in 2017; and at the Good Company in Freiburg, Germany in March 2018. We'll be Production #8, and they've been doing some further rewrites, so the writers hope to come see us.

When we produced Kotis and Hollmann's brilliant Urinetown back in 2007, I had been in email contact with the writers, and recognizing the freakishly intellectual underpinnings to their intensely silly but sociologically dense, Brechtian comedy, I had asked them for suggestions on reading material. They directed me to Thomas Robert Malthus and his 1798 book, An Essay on the Principle of Population, which predicted that human population would increase geometrically, doubling every twenty-five years, but food production would only grow arithmetically, and that would result in famine and starvation -- unless births were controlled.

And yes, reading Malthus really did help me understand and focus the show.

This time around, a couple weeks ago, I asked again, and this time, Kotis suggested two books by Jared Diamond, Guns, Germs, and Steel: The Fates of Human Socieites; and Collapse: How Societies Choose to Fail or Succeed. I'm in the midst of the first, which is also a short documentary series, by the way.

And then Kotis also suggested Antigone and Macbeth. Yes, you read that right. Antigone and Macbeth.

I laughed when I read that in his email, until I remembered that I'd no doubt eventually realize he wan't joking. And sure enough, last week I watched Antigone (the brilliant production on video with Genevieve Bujold) and Macbeth (Patrick Stewart's version!), and then I re-read Yeast Nation. And guess what? Kotis wasn't kidding. I see big, clear, interesting parallels to both plays in this crazy musical. And seeing those parallels really will help me get at what Kotis and Hollmann are after.

I love working on material these guys have written!

One of the fundamental things most people don't get about Urinetown is also an important foundation of Yeast Nation, the idea of taking the characters and story so intensely, freakishly seriously that it's hilarious. Same style as Bat Boy, Spelling Bee, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, and the granddaddy of all neo musical comedies, Little Shop of Horrors.

Compare the following. First, bookwriter-lyricist Howard Ashman's 1981 forward to his published script for Little Shop of Horrors:
Little Shop of Horrors satirizes many things: science fiction, B movies, musical comedy itself, and even the Faust legend. There will, therefore, be a temptation to play it for camp and low-comedy. This is a great and potentially fatal mistake. The script keeps its tongue firmly in cheek, so the actors should not. Instead, they should play with simplicity, honesty, and sweetness – even when events are at their most outlandish. The show’s individual “style” will evolve naturally from the words themselves and an approach to acting and singing them that is almost child-like in its sincerity and intensity. By way of example, Audrey poses like Fay Wray from time to time. But she does this because she’s in genuine fear and happens to see the world as her private B movie – not because she’s “commenting” to the audience on the silliness of her situation. Having directed the original New York production of Little Shop myself, and subsequently having seen it in many versions and even many languages, I can vouch for the fact that when Little Shop is at its most honest, it is also at its funniest and most enjoyable.

I remember first reading that -- after already having seen and loved the show off Broadway -- and it really had an impact on me. I became aware that the funniest comedies are always the most honest and the most straight-faced.

Now, here's Greg Kotis' new author's notes to the Yeast Nation script:
Yeast Nation (the triumph of life) is a comedy, but what kind of comedy? There aren’t too many jokes, and it’s not all that witty. The script and score actually seem to take themselves rather seriously -- which is actually the key to how to attack the show. For the comedy (and therefore, the show) to succeed, the production must commit whole-heartedly to the grim, ominous, brutal, terrifying reality of the world of the play. This is a tragedy, apparently, a great epic saga, an origin story, and perhaps even a very important work of art (at least in the mind of the production). The comedy is character-based, meaning the performances must be heightened just enough to be funny, but not so much as to be overly-broad or ridiculous. Calibrating this energy is, as they say, the whole ballgame. No winking! No clowning! Play it straight, essentially, and you’ll find the tone. There’s also room for tenderness and sincerity here and there, which might offer a welcome break from the madness from time to time. The comedy is also context-based, meaning this is a harsh, punishing world where imminent destruction lurks everywhere. People are jumpy! They’re frightened! They’re desperate! They’re also ruthless and fierce and determined and, hopefully, completely present and alive! Seeing our heroes and villains (and everyone in between) struggle to survive and prevail in this unforgiving world is where the fun of the show lives.

I was lucky to see the original productions of both Urinetown and Bat Boy before we worked on them. Like other neo-musical comedies, each show has its own feel, its own style, its own visual and physical language, its own oddball, straight-faced humor, its own quirky set of rules. No other show operates quite like Little Shop or Bat Boy or Urinetown or Yeast Nation. They are all sui generis, and that's one of the coolest things about this new golden age for the art form that we're in.

I'm lucky to have both seen and directed Urinetown, and written about it, before working on Yeast Nation. The two shows are pretty different in most ways, but I feel like I understand Kotis and Hollmann's writing now and I get what they're up to; plus Kotis is really terrific about explaining anything that's confusing. He knows he writes crazy, fucked-up musicals, and he wants us to understand them as best we can. I love that.

Our rehearsal process starts Monday with learning the songs, so I don't have to block anything for a couple weeks. I'll use that time to sit in music rehearsals and soak it all up, let it percolate in the back of my head, let my ideas form, morph, solidify. I can already see in my head several moments in the show. This is going to be such fun to work on.

Another wild adventure begins!

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Meet Me at the Muny

The Muny celebrates its 100th season this year! So I thought it would be nice to share this excerpt about our beloved Muny from my 2006 history book, Strike Up the Band. The Muny's origin story sounds a lot like the origin stories of New Line and tons of other small companies all over the country -- very humble beginnings, struggling against greater odds than a more generous God would have allowed (to quote 1776)...

On June 16, 1919, one of America’s greatest temples to the musical theatre began its life in St. Louis, Missouri. Soon dubbed the St. Louis Municipal Opera Association, or more commonly, The Muny, it opened that June night with a performance of Reginald De Koven’s operetta Robin Hood for an audience of four thousand.

A previous production of Aida in the same location had spurred the idea.

Situated in historic Forest Park, site of the 1904 World’s Fair, the city fathers, led by Mayor Kiel, had decided St. Louis needed a municipal theatre. After some outdoor performances on a hill in Forest Park, a semi-permanent seating area and stage had been erected. The theatre sat nine thousand, and 1,620 of the seats were designated as free seats, a tradition that continues today. But just a week after the opening of Robin Hood, a torrential rainstorm overflowed the banks of River Des Peres, which, strangely enough, ran under and behind the Muny stage, and it literally washed away the Muny’s sets, orchestra instruments, pretty much everything. Kiel and his buddies chased it all down, dried everything off, brought it back, and re-opened the next night.

But it was a wet summer, and attendance was sparse. Someone jokingly suggested that Mayor Kiel go peddle tickets door to door. So he did. He approached nearly every businessman in St. Louis, asking them to buy blocks of tickets. Many of them did, and the first official season was salvaged.

Over the years, the Muny was outfitted with revolutionary “outdoor air conditioning;” a world class stage with a natural proscenium arch of giant trees and a ninety-foot wide revolve (the world’s largest) that could make a scene change in less than a minute; the most powerful stage lights ever created; a state of the art sound system; and permanent seating for 13,465, including about 1,500 free seats, making it the largest outdoor legitimate theatre in the world. From the very beginning and continuing today, the Muny began each show with “The Star-Spangled Banner” and ended each season with a sing-along of “Auld Lang Syne.”

In the early 1930s, J.J. Shubert (of the famous New York theatre family of producers) was named productions director of the Muny, and he said the Muny “offers hope for the development of a true national theater. Because it is fundamentally a project of the community, it is a direct expression of the people’s artistic desires and ambitions. Because it is of the people, it automatically makes high standards of performances available to all.”

The Muny became one of the nation’s showplaces for musical theatre, at first mostly opera and operetta, then later primarily Broadway musicals, at its peak running an eleven week season, with a new show each week, and performances seven nights a week.

During the 1960s and 1970s, many Broadway shows actually closed down for a week and brought the entire show, stars and all, to St. Louis to play a week at the Muny. So many shows brought their original casts to the Muny, including Ethel Merman and Call Me Madam, Zero Mostel and Fiddler on the Roof, Pearl Bailey, Cab Calloway, and Hello, Dolly!, Jerry Orbach and Promises, Promises, Joel Grey and Cabaret, Lauren Bacall and Applause, Yul Brynner and a revival of The King and I, and the entire original cast of Stephen Sondheim’s Follies. The Muny also sometimes serves as a pre-Broadway tryout for shows like Sugar Babies.

The Muny still stands today, now the St. Louis Municipal Theatre Association – still The Muny – as a place for the community to come together on a summer’s night, a place where families can bring their children without fear of content, and a place where future artists can not only learn about but actually see onstage the great musicals of the past, everything from The Desert Song and Show Boat to Cats and Miss Saigon.

Because of its enormity, it has never been about dramatic subtlety nor cutting edge work. It is about spectacle and special effects, about gigantic choruses and full sized Cotton Blossoms when Show Boat plays there. It is by its very nature mainstream and “safe,” but it is the greatest repository of Broadway’s musical past ever created and an invaluable training ground for tomorrow’s Broadway performers, directors, writers, and producers.

There is nothing else like it.

I wrote this essay more than ten years ago, before Mike Isaacson took the Muny reins and launched a great new era of top-quality theatre, with some of the top talents in the American musical theatre. As a former Muny usher (eight seasons!), I've always loved the Muny, but I think it's in better hands now than it has been in decades, and it will live long after this impressive 100th birthday.

Long Live the Musical!

A Video Glossary to Chicago

Like the movie Natural Born Killers, John Kander, Fred Ebb, and Bob Fosse's Chicago takes the form of the thing it criticizes, and it implicate us along the way. Chicago literally turns crime into entertainment, and then catches us being entertained by it. We prove Chicago's very cynical point by enjoying Chicago.

Unfortunately, the wildly successful, current revival short-circuits much of this, by pretty much eliminating the vaudeville metaphor.

Fosse knew vaudeville intimately. Though he wasn't born until 1927, when he came of age as a performer in his teens, the people he learned from were all vaudeville veterans, and many of the performers he shared the stage with in the sleazy burlesque theatres he worked were old washed-up vaudevillians. He danced old vaudeville numbers himself. He knew this world. And perhaps it's his teen years in those burlesque houses that created in him a profound distrust of show business, even though it was his chosen profession. He hated it even as he worshipped at its shrines.

Before the song “Razzle Dazzle” in Act II, Billy Flynn says to Roxie, “These trials -- the whole world -- all show business.” And he's right, after all. The trials, his and Roxie's whole world, is all a musical called Chicago, and even beyond that, they're all vaudeville acts. They are literally just show business. And yet, they're also far too real.

Every song and scene in Chicago is modeled on actual vaudeville acts and stars. When New Line produced the show in 2002, we wanted to make it as clear as we could that this story would be told in the form of a vaudeville bill. So I listed the songs this way in our program:


The Big Open
And All That Jazz . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Ensemble
The Torch Song
Funny Honey . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Roxie
The Tango
Cell Block Tango . . . . . . . . . Velma, Ladies of the Ensemble
The Star Turn
When You’re Good to Mama . . . . . . . . . . . . . Mama Morton
The Fan Dance
All I Care About is Love . . . . . Billy, Ladies of the Ensemble
The Operatic Number
A Little Bit of Good . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . . . . . . . Mary Sunshine
The Ventriloquist Act
We Both Reached for the Gun . . . . . . . Billy, Mary, Ensemble
The Soubrette
Roxie . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Gentlemen of the Ensemble
The Sister Act
I Can’t Do it Alone . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .. . . . Velma
The Anthem
My Own Best Friend . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Velma, Ensemble


The Lament
I Know a Girl . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .Velma
The Kid Act
Me and My Baby . . . . . .  Roxie, Gentlemen of the Ensemble
The Comedian
Mr. Cellophane . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Amos
A Dramatic Tableau
When Velma Takes the Stand . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Men
The Flash Act
Razzle Dazzle . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Billy, Ensemble
The Classical Number
Class . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Velma, Mama
The Headliners
Nowadays/Hot Honey Rag . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . Roxie, Velma

In “All That Jazz,” Velma is playing Texas Guinan (also the model for Reno Sweeney in Anything Goes), inviting the audience in to drink and have a good time. She is our host for the evening.

“Funny Honey” starts out being an imitation of torch song queen Helen Morgan's song “Bill” from Show Boat, a song about an ordinary man, who's nothing special, but she loves him anyway. She even sits atop a piano, like Helen Morgan often did.

But then Kander & Ebb turn the Helen Morgan torch song on its ear, as Amos finds out just who the murder victim is and rats Roxie out. As Roxie gets drunker and drunker, as Amos finally tells the cop how it really happened, the lyric changes its tone and it ends with her calling Amos “That scummy, crummy dummy hubby of mine.” A perfect Fosse moment.

The “Cell Block Tango” is a tribute to the ethnic dances that were sprinkled throughout a vaudeville bill, but with a dark twist. And Latin dances were the most popular.

When Matron Mama Morton enters, with a big ring and a fur stole, she's playing one of the biggest stars of vaudeville, Sophie Tucker, and she sings “When You're Good to Mama,” a conscious parody of Sophie Tucker's equally racy “You've Got to See Mama Every Night.”

In scene 6, as Roxie metaphorically tap dances around Amos, lying through her teeth, trying to get him to pay for her lawyer, four male dancers enter and do a literal tap dance throughout the scene, in tribute to the hundreds of tap dance specialty vaudeville numbers.

Billy's “All I Care About is Love” is in imitation of band leader Ted Lewis, who would begin his act by saying “Is everybody here? Is everybody ready?”

As Billy sings the song, he strips, while chorus girls dance around him with giant feathered fans, รก la the famous fan dancer Sally Rand. Rand would dance nude with two giant feathered fans, strategically choreographed to keep her covered, with just quick glimpses of flesh to tantalize the audience. She was, needless to say, a big hit.

Mary Sunshine and her song “A Little Bit of Good in Everyone” are a direct imitation of Julian Eltinge, an extremely famous turn-of-the-century drag queen and vaudeville star, and Bert Savoy, his less classy successor.

“We Both Reached for the Gun” recalls vaudeville's requisite ventriloquist specialty acts.

“I Can't Do It Alone” recalls sister acts and acrobatic specialty acts.

Velma continues her role as Texas Guinan as she opens the second act with Guinan's famous line, “Hello Suckers!” “Me and My Baby” is sung in the manic style of Eddie Cantor..

“Mr. Cellophane” is a conscious imitation of Bert Williams, the well-known Black vaudeville and Ziegfeld Follies star, and his famous song “Nobody,” right down to Williams' over-sized clothes and white gloves, and unusually minimalist staging.

“When Velma Takes the Stand” and the entire courtroom scene are an imitation of the many courtroom comedy sketches, a staple of vaudeville and burlesque.

“Nowadays” and Velma and Roxie's dance number “Hot Honey Rag” are tributes to Ted Lewis and his band. Lewis was a jazz clarinet player and band leader, known for his battered top hat and his cheerily forlorn songs.

The famous Broadway revival strips away almost all these period references, which is such a shame. The show in its original form is so much darker, funnier, more disturbing, and more satisfying. The revival is running on half a metaphor. The masterful score keeps the audience engaged, but most of them have no idea how much more they'd be engaged if it were done right.

The revival kept Fosse's dance vocabulary and style, but not his ideas.

When we did the show, even though we were in a blackbox, our set designer Justin Barisonek built a gold proscenium with a red velvet curtain. Most people who see Chicago now don't know what's missing, and they don't know how much funnier and more intense it can be.

I'd like to challenge anybody producing the show regionally to return to its brilliant, insightful, aggressive roots. It's worth it.

Long Live the Musical!

35 Signs That You May Be a Hardcore Musical Theatre Fan

Yes, it's true, you may be a Hardcore Musical Theatre Fan if...

You know how many minutes there are in a year.

When anyone mentions Aaron Burr, you're compelled to add the "sir."

You know "Ya Got Trouble" by heart.

You've read the novel 42nd Street.

You have unusually strong opinions about the Best Musical Tonys in 1984 and 1988.

You know who Ethan Mordden and Peter Filichia are.

You know what a capybara and a phylactery are.

You've seen at least one major flop musical on Broadway.

Whenever you hear a reference to Austria, you sing in your head, "Austria! Count Ludovic of Austria!"

Your blood pressure rises when anyone uses the word soundtrack when they mean cast album.

You've seen and prefer the 1936 Show Boat movie, despite the fact that you have to fast-forward through the minstrel show.

You know the names of the plays that were the sources for Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The Fantasticks.

You own more than 200 cast albums.

You've seen Follies onstage more than once.

You've read Berlin Stories and/or Scenes de la Vie de Boheme.

You refer to the Oscars as "the Tonys for movie people."

You wish you could mention Avenue X without somebody saying, "You mean Avenue Q...?"

You hold out hope of seeing a live production of archy & mehitabel before you die.

You own at least two signed Playbills.

Anytime someone says, "God help us!" you say, "He will, John, he will."

You hate the Rent movie.

You often correct people on the pronunciation of entr'acte and reprise.

When you're alone at home or in the car, you sometimes sing "And I'm Telling You I'm Not Going" and/or "I Can't Make This Movie" at the top of your voice.

You watched all of Smash.

You have back issues of Show Music magazine.

You know why it used lots of skills for Dana Andrews to pass runes.

When you think of God, you see the Hirschfeld cartoon of George Bernard Shaw on the My Fair Lady poster.

You know that Andrew Lloyd Webber and Stephen Sondheim share a birthday.

You know there was already a sequel to A Doll's House.

You've read all the Shakespeare plays, but only so you can catch all the references in Something Rotten and Return to the Forbidden Planet.

You've considered a pilgrimage to Cave City, Kentucky.

Sondheim's The Frogs is on your Bucket List.

You've got a thing for Elaine Stritch and/or Bernadette Peters.

You have a strong opinion about which Wild Party you prefer -- and you hate the other one.

You don't think Spielberg should remake West Side Story.

If you do suffer from these symptoms, there is help. If you live in the St. Louis region, you've got New Line. We're here to help with all the latest musical theatre treatments. Side effects may include insight, understanding, self-awareness, wisdom, and joy. Find out if musical theatre is right for you!

Long Live the Musical!

Anything Goes Redux

I still can't believe I got to return to Anything Goes, the first "real" musical I was ever in, my Freshman year in high school, a show I love so very deeply, a show I really never thought I could produce with New Line... until I wrote about it a few years ago and I realized it's actually a fierce, craftily built sociopolitical satire, not just a silly excuse for great songs and tap dancing.

And whether it was the context -- seeing the show at New Line, a company known for sociopolitical content -- or the choices we all made in creating the production (most likely it was both), our audiences saw Anything Goes through fresh eyes, and saw for the first time the wicked genius of its satire. Maybe it was also the difference between seeing the tour at the Fox and sitting six city blocks from the actors, versus seeing our production at the Marcelle, where there are only seven rows and you walk across the stage to get to your seats.

A lot of people -- I mean, a LOT -- told us this was the best and funniest Anything Goes they'd ever seen. And it was in a blackbox with a cast of sixteen and a six-piece band! And all we did to the show was take its text, its characters, its story, and its themes seriously. And the result was high, pointed hilarity. Our reviews were extraordinary, we sold out most of the run, and we couldn't have asked for a more enthusiastic response from our audiences.

So here's my quirky thank-you to our cast, musicians, and staff, and also to Cole Porter and all the various writers who contributed to the brilliant 1962 version of the show we had the great privilege of working on. It's really amazing material.

(with apologies to Mr. Porter...)

Times have changed,
But be honest, not all that much;
We've evolved, yeah, but just a touch;
We're still hypocrites, drunks, and such.
But today,
Ol' Cole Porter could freely cuss;
'Stead of writing 'bout planes and coke,
Cole might write his songs 'bout us!

When this old show, with New Line helming,
So freaky and overwhelming,
Gets standing O's,
Anything Goes!

When Aaron Allen un-retires
To play Mooney, who inspires
Great big Ho-Ho's,
Anything Goes!

What raving reviews for us,
Who enthuse for us!
How they raved for us!
So depraved for us!
And our audience
Ain't been so bawdy since
Jerry Springer had to close!

When we have two Nic(k)s, one Larissa,
Three Sara(h)s, an Erin, Aaron, Alyssa
Anything Goes!

[dance break]

When Even gets enthusiastic
And breaks all the wood and plastic,
And front two rows,
Anything Goes!

When Miss Colene can come design for us,
So Sarah P. can shine for us
In our shows,
Anything Goes!

We gave them great gags galore
Till their sides were sore;
Also intellect
They did not expect;
So surprised, in fact,
That all our actors act,
Like in more "serious" shows.

The New Liners are fierce -- don't cross 'em!
And Anything Goes was awesome,
'Cause New Line knows
Anything Goes!
Anything Goes!!!

Thanks for such an amazing run, St. Louis! And my deep, deep thanks to our actors, musicians, designers, staff, and my intrepid co-director Mike Dowdy-Windsor. What a freaking joy it has been. Now on to Yeast Nation!

Long Live the Musical!

Do You Hear That Playin'?

There are too many people doing comedy on stage who aren't funny. As they say in one of my favorite movies, Funny Bones, "Some people do funny, but some people have funny bones." Those who aren't funny only understand humor intellectually; it's not in their bones. They imitate funny.

As I've written about before, those un-funny sorts don't understand that all good humor does two things: it surprises us and it tells us the truth. Great humor does more than tell the truth; it reveals the truth. And the Second Law of Comedy is: nothing is less funny than the effort to be funny. If we can see you working hard at making us laugh, if you're begging us to laugh, that kills the laugh.

Over the first four performances of New Line's Anything Goes, people have come up to Dowdy and me both, saying almost exactly the same words: "I've always loved Anything Goes, but I don't remember it being so funny!"


First of all, you've always loved a musical comedy that wasn't very funny...?

Second, I know the songs are great, but Anything Goes would not be a very good show if it weren't funny. Third, what are these other productions doing to diminish -- ignore? -- the rowdy, wacky, subversive comedy the pervades 80% of the show? The only serious moments in the whole show are "I Get a Kick Out of You" and "All Through the Night."

One guy who saw our show commented on Facebook that ours was "first time I've seen Anything Goes where the book and lyrics were really concentrated on!"

I'll say it again. WTF?

This show isn't a revue or a paper-thin jukebox musical. It's a smart, razor-sharp satire. This plot is a masterpiece of romantic farce, as I've mentioned before, using the S.S. American as Shakespeare's Woods, where our characters escape from the rules of The City, where they can de-couple from the wrong partners and re-couple with the right ones. (There are also Shakespearean disguises and cross-dressing.) The characters are well-drawn and full of surprises, and the social satire is pointed and insightful. Americans still turn religion into show business, and we still turn criminals into celebrities. Nothing much has changed.

But why would anyone do a brilliant satirical comedy if they're going to ignore the brilliant satire? Why share the adult genius of Cole Porter's dense, hilarious lyrics -- or the rich, complex emotion of "I Get a Kick Out of You" -- if you're not going to take the time to understand them and communicate that understanding to the audience?

So many people expected us to impose something on Anything Goes, to change it, but that's not what we do. We take excellent, though often under-appreciated (and/or misunderstood) material and we treat it like it's Shakespeare, Albee, or August Wilson. We take the characters and story seriously, we research period, we research all the unfamiliar language, we get to know the artistic and pop cultural contexts of the story, we explore backstories, relationships, motivations, textual themes, all that stuff.

In other words, we take the work seriously.

If a comedy is really great, treating it this way will make it much funnier than trying to think of funny gags of your own to insert into the script, the way too many directors do. So many directors and actors think you don't have to take comedy seriously. But you do. Even the most outrageous musicals, like Little Shop, Bat Boy, Urinetown, Bloody Bloody Andrew Jackson, Yeast Nation, Jerry Springer the Opera, are funnier if you take them seriously.

But you also have to get out of the way -- you can't make a great comedy funny, as too many directors and actors seem to believe; you have to let it be funny.

I'm starting to believe that our production of Anything Goes may serve as an unintentional master class in doing classic musical comedy. You don't condescend to it, you don't wink at us over its "flaws," you don't impose a phony meta-style on it, you don't "excuse" it and yourself by letting us know you know it's dumb.

No, you respect it, you follow where it leads, and it you let it work its magic.

One of my primary agendas as director was to follow George S. Kaufman's rule of comedy, to never allow silence, unless you use it; and even then, only sparingly. We have wrung nearly every pause out of this dialogue, and I think that at this breakneck pace, the satire is more pointed, the corny jokes more about character, the lyrics more playful, and the chaos so relentless, so deliciously overwhelming.

But it shouldn't be a surprise to find out Anything Goes is funny. It shouldn't be radical to treat a classic musical comedy with respect. It shouldn't be shocking for a piece of musical theatre to focus on character and story.

Look at the critical reaction so far...

"Funnier, sharper and smarter than you may remember. . . a spectacular treat for lovers of modern musical theater. . . .not to be missed. . . non-stop entertainment." -- Judith Newmark, St. Louis Post-Dispatch

"Sharper, tarter and more satisfying than you'd think possible." -- Paul Friswold, Riverfront Times

"A triumph!" -- Steve Callahan, KDHX

"The entire cast of Anything Goes is simply marvelous. . . Everything about the show is extraordinary. . . New Line has yet another hit on their hands." -- Kevin Brackett, ReviewSTL

"Kicky and kooky. . . .a buoyant blast from the past that revitalizes one of the great, grand old musicals with charm, humor and style." - Lynn Venhaus, St. Louis Limelight

"It's bound to leave you with a smile on your face." -- Andrea Torrence, St. Louis Theatre Snob

"As usual, New Line gets it right. . . this is Anything Goes as it’s meant to be performed and witnessed." -- Jeff Ritter, Critical Blast

"Silly comedy, stylish music and effervescent performances in a winning combination." -- Mark Bretz, Ladue News

"Energetic, smart, and very very funny. . . a sharp, witty, tuneful, and well-cast production that’s a delight from start to finish." -- Michelle Kenyon, Snoop's Theatre Thoughts

"It surely is a great deal of fun, especially if you have the least bit of romantic in you." -- Ann Pollock, St. Louis Eats and Drinks

As I have been before from time to time, I am surprised and amused that treating a great piece of theatre like a great piece of theatre is cause for celebration. Shouldn't that be a bare minimum job requirement for all of us...?

Though I can't complain, can I? Apparently, all those mediocre productions of Anything Goes in the past are just making us look brilliant. And we're selling out!

Before we opened, I wouldn't have said this, but if you haven't seen our show yet, you probably haven't seen Anything Goes as it was meant to be. So get your tickets now. We run through March 24. According to our audiences and the critics, this is an Anything Goes like you've never seen before...

The adventure continues.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

Please, Saint Peter

I'm always surprised when people think that the morally ambiguous and darkly violent Oliver! is a "family" show. Or for that matter, even Annie -- what kids' show has a song like "We'd Like to Thank You, Herbert Hoover"?

I'm starting to feel the same way about Anything Goes. As yet another example of its "adult content" (as if "love affairs with young bears" wasn't enough), Anything Goes skewers organized religion pretty aggressively throughout the show, often through very pointed satire.

The most obvious commentary on religion jump-starts the plot in the opening scene, as Bishop Dobson gets arrested in Moonface's place. Why is that funny? Nobody can tell the difference between a bishop and a gangster. Welcome to 1934 America. It's the first of dozens of swipes taken at American institutions, but at religion even more often than the others. And like several others, it's a swipe that stays with us all evening, because Mooney is dressed like a preacher till the very end. Throughout the show, Mooney repeatedly does immoral, illegal, and/or unethical things, and all as a clergyman. And no one notices.

Two of our three heroes, Reno and Mooney, have phony religious alter-egos. Reno is a "former evangelist" (i.e., con artist), now a nightclub singer whose songs have weirdly religious imagery; and Mooney is hiding from the Feds in the clothes of a minister, and soon he's called "Dr. Moon" by everyone aboard. Mooney spends much of the first act running around the ship in full preacher drag, stealing things and brandishing his tommy gun.

Reno talks in fake Biblical language periodically, showing us that she was once a religious figure, but also that they she didn't take it very seriously. She says to Mr. Whitney in the first scene, "I've got four fallen angels holding up the bar. Come, let us lead them beside distilled waters." When Mooney suggests blackmailing Evelyn, we get this Biblical-ish exchange:
Reno: Get thee behind me, Moonface. I kind of like the guy. He's different.
Moon: But Reno, you promised Billy.
Reno: Thou almost persuadest me to shoot the works. You know, if you weren't a friend of Billy's, I'd unfrock you.

In (almost) quoting Luke 4:8, Reno jokingly equates Mooney with Satan -- but also herself with Jesus. But she's also (almost) quoting , "Then Agrippa said unto Paul, Almost thou persuadest me to be a Christian." (Acts 26:28) This is someone with only a casual knowledge of Scripture, but enough for her purposes. And in comic counterpoint to her fake piety, the exchange ends with her threatening sex!

And these two fake religious figures, Reno and Mooney, will lead the comic revival meeting in Act II. As the meeting climaxes, Reno once again mashes together religion with pop culture, in this case, the language of radio: "Sign off with Satan and tune in with Heaven." I wrote in another blog post about Reno's big religious number "Blow, Gabriel, Blow":
The language of the "Blow, Gabriel" lyric is Religious Symbolism as a Second Language. This is an amateur, or more to the point, a religious outsider, leading this revival meeting -- with the help of the fake-minister "Dr. Moon." It's obvious neither of them are really believers, and that doesn't seem to bother the crowd a bit. And by the way, why do we want Gabriel to blow his horn? The Bible says that "an archangel with the trumpet of God" will announce the Second Coming, and people have assumed that's Gabriel, particularly since Milton made that connection in Paradise Lost.

So are these drunk, hard-partying passengers really cheering on the Second Coming -- and the Apocalypse? They are, but they have no idea that's what they're doing, because Reno and Mooney are first-rate con artists.

Both Reno and Mooney connect to other (not really) "religious" characters. Reno has her "angels," her backup singers, from whom we hear short, comic bits all evening, sometimes about their promiscuity. Do we assume they were also with her back when she was an evangelist, or are they just called angels as an ironic callback to Reno's last gig?

And Mooney's accidental sidekick Bonnie has her religious moment too, when she sings "Heaven Hop," a really interesting number transposed into Anything Goes only for the '62 revival. In its comic coupling of the sacred and profane (i.e., religion and jazz), the song connects to one of the show's two main themes, the transformation of religion into show biz and pop culture. This song is Bonnie's own personal theology, more joyful, more now-centered, distinct from the authentic theology of the Bishop, the phony theology of Moonface, and the commercialized theology of Reno and her angels.

In Bonnie's theology (coming from the world of Depression-era organized crime), you can be a Good Person and also have fun, drink, smoke, dance -- even steal, apparently. For Bonnie, heaven is a party. After all, how could heaven be boring? That's in stark opposition to the new con artists... oops, I mean, evangelists, crisscrossing America in the 1930s with an apocalyptic message of fire and brimstone (mentioned in Reno's "Gabriel" lyric) and a coming "reawakening" of religious faith.

But all the traditional symbols and conventions of human religion don't serve Bonnie's needs or hold her attention, so like Americans have always done, she forms her own personal religion, with fewer restrictions and lots more fun.

Notice throughout the lyric how Bonnie blends together traditional religious symbol with her own secular ones. Just in the first few lines, Bonnie (and Cole Porter) tells us this is a different kind of heaven from what we're used to. No laying on clouds strumming lyres in Bonnie's heaven. This song is originally from another Porter musical, so the reference to portals in the first line is just a happy accident in this story set aboard a ship.
Up in Heaven's happy portals,
Where the parties never stop,
All the debonair immortals
Do a dance called the Heaven Hop.
In that big celestial center,
Its the only dance they do;
So before you try to enter,
You better start doin' it too!

Notice the great alteration of the title phrase obviously, but also Heaven's happyportals and parties; debonair and do a dance, and later, dance they do; and celestial center. Those last couple lines are subtle but potent jabs at "revealed scripture," the idea that only one religion has the true Secret Knowledge. Only by being In the Know can you enter Heaven. But here, that Secret Knowledge is a new dance.

Then, like lots of other pop songs in the 1920s and 30s, Bonnie introduces a new dance, by giving us the choreography. The first two lines are so rich -- first you move like an angel, then you move like a musical comedy star:
Spread your wings and start them flappin',
Lift your feet and set them tappin',
Start right now and do the Heaven Hop,
Hop, the Heaven Hop!
Wag your ankles to that meter,
Let your shoulders gently teeter,
If you want to, please Saint Peter,
Take up the Heaven Hop!

The reference to St. Peter is extra funny because he's regarded as the first pope. You couldn't pick a more traditional religious figure than the first pope, but that's who Bonnie wants to dance with. And why not? Or is Bonnie just assuming that St. Peter won't be able to stop himself?

Some versions of the song have the comma before "please Saint Peter," and some don't. With the comma, Bonnie's inviting St. Peter to join her; without the comma, it's about dancing in order to "please" (i.e., make happy) St. Peter. Similar, but different ideas...

There's a short bridge and we get a better glimpse into Bonnie's heaven, and the most explicit example of the sacred-profane mashup. It starts with humility and reverence:
When the angels play low
On their harps of gold,
Kneel and pray low,

But the sacred is immediately short-circuited in favor of the profane:
Then get up and shake your halo!

Again, act like an angel (play a harp, kneel and pray), then act like a jazz baby (shake your halo). First a humble act, then a show-off act. Maybe Bonnie's heaven is more like the Underworld of ancient myths, the place everybody goes when they die, whether "good" or "bad."
Let that rhythm filter through ya
Till you holler, "Hallelujah!"
Start right now and
Do the Heaven Hop.

"That rhythm" is show biz, jazz, but "filter through ya" sounds more like religion. Exactly. Just like "Blow, Gabriel, Blow." America has a long, weird tradition of greatly altering religious traditions to fit our own needs, and this is just a comic distillation of that habit.

But is "Heaven Hop" a song Bonnie just knows? Or is it one of Reno's songs, and Bonnie knows all of Reno's songs? It's pretty safe to assume that Bonnie and Snake Eyes would patronize Reno's speakeasies throughout Prohibition. Is Bonnie Roxie Hart to Reno's Velma Kelly? Reno and Velma were both based on Texas Guinan, after all...

Act II opens with the mock religious hymn, "Public Enemy Number One," full of religious fervor, raising murderer Snake Eyes Johnson to Christ-like stature. That's a pretty fierce poke at American culture -- then and now. It's also one of dozens of moments in the show that illustrate its title -- literally Anything Goes.

And there's the crazy revival meeting in the middle of Act II, with broken and mismatched religious imagery swirling around, all of which devolves into nonsense. Finally, after many calls for a confession, Billy makes one and is immediately arrested. And then the same thing happens to Mooney. In this religious space, it doesn't pay to confess. In this world, religion is broken.

Maybe all this satire is lost on the high schools kids who do this show all over the country every year (I was one of them in spring 1979), and if it's lost on the actors, it's probably lost on their audiences. But it's all right there in the text. And it's really funny.

The more I work on this show, the more I realize that most productions treat it as sketch comedy, a quaint, old-fashioned confection, with no effort at getting inside these rich characters and living honestly inside this wild, but internally logical, world. This is a much better, smarter show than most people think. This is fierce, wicked satire that really gets at the truth of some of America's most embarrassing habits.

And that's why it still works.

I've worked for quite a while now on understanding how and why this show works, and we'll know how successful we've been at putting it into practice when we get our audiences next week. The adventure continues...

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!

Flying Too High with Some Guy in the Sky

Some of the songs in Anything Goes seem at first to be throwaway numbers, one-idea novelties to shoehorn some more dance into the show. But even the seemingly emptiest of songs in this show reveal surprising relevance and irony to our story and to the times.

Even the innocuous "Let's Step Out" has the twin agendas of commenting on Bonnie's "class" divide from the other passengers, as the moll of the country's most dangerous criminal; but she also rails against the gloom and seriousness of the Depression, after the wild years of the 1920s. It's weirdly synchronisitic that the passengers sing the twisted, morally upside-down hymn "Public Enemy Number One" to Billy, believing him to be Bonnie's boyfriend -- just before Bonnie herself enters and chides them for their pointless solemnity. Unlike most of the passengers, she gets how fucked up all of this is. She also knows that with Snake Eyes in the care of the FBI, she's safe now -- so why not party and flirt?

But the richest song in the show is deceptive in the surface simplicity of both its music and lyrics. Reno's emotionally naked torch song, "I Get a Kick Out of You," is another of Anything Goes' songs that we've gotten too familiar with. We stop hearing these lyrics fresh.

The song originally opened the show, revealing Reno's secret crush on Billy, though I've never figured out the point of that, plot-wise. The 1962 revival moved the song to late Act I, and now it's about Reno's surprise at falling in love with Evelyn. It's so much stronger here, because these feelings are revealed to us now after we've spent time with the smartass Reno for an hour. That's much stronger structurally. When this song opens the show, it gives us a false first impression of Reno; but moved to later in the show, it reveals a deeper layer to Reno.

"I Get a Kick Out of You" has this sinuous Latin line in the low reeds under the vocal intro, which says so much about this very sensual woman, but that line disappears after the intro, and the rest of the song was set, in 1934, to the standard Broadway foxtrot. But in '62 (our version), the main part of the song continues the Latin beat, though still without that reed line. Alongside the Latin syncopation, there are several moments of hemiola (long vocal triplets over an accompaniment in four), that make the beat momentarily ambiguous, just like Reno's feelings.

But what exactly is Reno saying here? She's literally saying that nothing in life gives her particular pleasure or happiness. She is (particularly if we assume Texas Guinan's real life details) a professional cynic and smartass. Texas Guinan, the model for Reno (and for Velma Kelly), greeted her speakeasy guests every night with "Hello, suckers!"

Look at this lyric --
My story is much too sad to be told,
But practically everything
Leaves me totally cold.

Yep, that's the speakeasy hostess alright. And it really is sad. She feels nothing. This isn't the usual musical comedy leading lady. Hope seems more like our leading lady, but she's not; Reno is. She goes on:
The only exception I know is the case
When I'm out on a quiet spree,
Fighting vainly the old ennui,
And I suddenly turn and see
Your fabulous face.

She's racing through life -- racing around this ship -- doing anything to stave off boredom ("the old ennui"). Nothing thrills her. Nothing moves her. Except one thing -- the face of the man she loves. Up until this time, Reno's made a couple off-hand remarks about finding Evelyn cute, but this is Reno dropping the cynicism and honestly looking at her own emotions, maybe for the first time ever.

So why the goofball Sir Evelyn Oakleigh? He finds an undeniable joy in the adventure of life. He's almost childlike in his delight over learning new things. Quite likely, Evelyn is the first man Reno has ever met who's not a cynic. Imagine how different he is from the jaded criminals and bootleggers and chorines who no doubt make up the circle of Reno's friends, none of them trustworthy, none of them ever emotionally open or honest -- or delighted by anything.

Like her underworld circle of friends, Reno has seen it all...
I get no kick from champagne,
Mere alcohol,
Doesn't thrill me at all...

Don't miss the punch of those lines. It's one year after Prohibition is repealed, and America's biggest speakeasy queen (again, if we blend Reno and Texas Guinan) is saying alcohol doesn't really do it for her. So she asks the obvious question -- if literally everything leaves her cold...
So tell me, why should it be true,
That I get a kick out of you?

Each verse takes an addiction (alcohol, drugs, and adrenaline) all of which do nothing for Reno.
Some get a kick from cocaine,
I'm sure that if
I took even one sniff,
It would bore me terrif-
ically, too,
Yet I get a kick out of you.

The bridge expands on the title phrase --
I get a kick every time
I see
You standing there
Before me.
I get a kick though it's clear
To me,
You obviously
Don't adore me.

Notice the rhyme compounding, giving us a sense of momentum. We get the string of see, me, me, -ly, me, but also before me and adore me.  And yet none of the grammar is awkward or strained. It still sounds like Reno's voice.

The last verse follows the established pattern, but this time the music literally takes off with the lyric, and the multiple rhymes give us even more momentum...
ing too high
with some guy
in the sky...

But before the stanza is over, the music returns to earth, because there's no kick to be had there.
...Is my i-
-dea of nothing to do.
But I get a kick out of you.

The mood turns right in the middle of the "i" rhymes (splitting the word "idea").

Remember that passenger airplanes were really new at this point, and only rich folks could afford to fly -- the first passenger jet, the Boeing 247, was introduced one year before Anything Goes debuted. And Lindberg had made his historic trans-Atlantic flight only seven years earlier.

I've always wondered if "some guy in the sky" was a sly Porter reference to God and religion, especially since Reno is a former evangelist. We know Porter loved talking in code -- just look at his bridges in the title song, cataloging fast living ("low bars," "fast cars," etc.) and unconventional sexual tastes ("backstairs," "love affairs with young bears," etc.)...

One of the most interesting aspects of this song is how it changed when it was lifted out of context. In 1934, radio stations wouldn't play a lyric about cocaine, so Porter had to create the ever dangerous "bop type refrain."

But also, almost every pop singer rewrites the rhythm of the title phrase. (I've noticed pop singers also always rewrite the 10/8 bar in "Memory" from Cats. WTF?) Originally, Porter wrote that title phrase to a rhythm that almost no one sings correctly today. Most pop singers -- and therefore, most women playing Reno -- move the word "kick" to the downbeat. Like this:

That's not what Porter wrote. He placed the word "kick" on beat 4, ahead of the downbeat, to give the word "kick" a kick. Once you hear it the right way (which you will in our production), the other way sounds so wrong. This is the right way:

I've written background and analysis essays on so many shows, but as much as I've always loved Anything Goes, I never stopped to ask myself why I love it. Now that I'm working on it, now that I'm doing my best to help our actors find the reality and the humanity in this script and score, along with the dozens of period jokes and cultural references, now I know why I love it. It's endlessly rich and aggressively truthful.

Anything Goes is everything I want in a musical -- subversive, smart, surprising, insightful, often unexpectedly emotional; and despite its over-sized style and energy, there is a real honesty there about human connection and the early effects of branding and celebrity on American culture. So interesting!

The more I explore it, the more deeply I love it.

Long Live the Musical!

Click Here for Tickets!


I discovered two of my favorite musicals, shows that would help shape the artistic shit disturber I am today, when I was fairly young. The first was 1776, not just an incredibly well-written musical, but an actual thriller that keeps you on the edge of your seat, even though you know the ending. The second show was How to Succeed in Business Without Really Trying, the fiercely cynical satire of American Big Business. Both shows are every bit as relevant today as they were when they written.

And both shows came into my life through my brother Rick, who died last week. He wasn't really an artsy like me, but he did play trumpet, he loved music, and he loved musicals. While my oldest brother was always in the chorus for the school musicals, Rick was always first trumpet in the pit. As his taste in musicals wandered outside the family cast albums (Hello, Dolly!, Carousel, Oklahoma!, The Music Man, The Sound of Music, et al.), during his high school years, I was still in grade school as he turned me on to How to Succeed and 1776.

It happened the exact same way both times, when he brought home the original cast album of How to Succeed and then the movie soundtrack for 1776. He'd bring home the LP (!) and start playing it, I would immediately become mesmerized and enthralled, and then I would start playing Rick's LP morning, noon, and night. Eventually, Rick would realize it was hopeless and he would officially give me the record.

I think what so thrilled me about both these shows was that they weren't love stories. Up till then, I had only encountered musicals that were love stories. And as much as I loved all those older shows, these two masterful (and in many ways, opposite) shows threw wide the doors of my musical theatre perception. I loved that almost all of 1776 is political and philosophical debate -- and yet it's still so powerfully emotional. That's when I realized that musicals aren't about love; they're about emotion.

But How to Succeed taught me an opposite lesson (though I wasn't aware of it at the time), that almost all the rules of musical theatre can be subverted, including the idea that musicals are about emotion. In the right hands, a musical can be as cold-hearted as Threepenny, Chicago, or Urinetown and still make great theatre.

Or to put it in terms of New Line's current project, anything goes.

It would be a few years later that I would discover Hair and Godspell and they would open those doors even further.

But Rick brought me to three other shows as well, because he played in the high school pit orchestra for them -- Of Thee I SingGypsy, and Fiddler on the Roof, three more shows that had a powerful impact on me. Of Thee I Sing was every bit as cynical as How to Succeed, but at the same time, it also had a goofy big heart. And I loved that combination; it's a blend that is now fairly common, in shows like Bat Boy, Cry-Baby, Spelling Bee, etc. I wasn't old enough to consciously register it, but I think the appeal to me was that the show worked on both the brain and the heart at the same time. That thrilled me as a budding musical theatre subversive.

And Gypsy. Well, first, Rick was that first trumpet that starts the overture, so I never hear that overture without thinking of Rick. Second, Gypsy was the first time I saw a serious musical comedy. The show used all the devices and conventions of traditional musical comedy, but it told this incredibly complex, serious story. Again, I didn't register it at the time, but Rose is bipolar and much of the show's humor comes from her manic episodes. That's some dark but awesome shit.

And then Fiddler. Mind blown again. I now know, after writing a musical theatre history book, that Fiddler's importance is that it was both an old-school Rodgers & Hammerstein musical, but also a 1960s-70s concept musical -- maybe because Jerry Robbins insisted on an opening statement of purpose, which became "Tradition," which was also incidentally the first show tune I ever learned to play on the piano as a five-year-old. I knew this score from the cast album and sheet music, but seeing it onstage was thrilling, even in a high school production. I was enthralled by the very idea of Tevye chatting with us about the themes of the story, and that may be where I started my love affair with using circles in staging.

What gifts those five shows were! Looking back, I think Rick could see my evolving tastes, and I think he enjoyed helping that evolution. I grew up with the classics, in the form of the family cast albums and our family visits to the Muny. But Rick moved me toward the innovations of the 1960s. When I got to college, my new roommate turned me on to Sondheim, and then I discovered our campus bookstore had the largest cast album section in New England. Score!

But Rick's influence on me came at exactly the right moment, after I had pretty thoroughly explored the classics and was ready to stretch. Rick helped me become the artist I am now, and I think he kinda knew he was doing that, even if I didn't.

And then Rick got married and had kids, and he brought his girls up on all the great musicals, which I admit, made me very happy.

I've had several "wise wizard" figures in my personal Hero Myth story, but as far as my artistic journey, I guess Rick was the first of them.

RIP, dude.

And Long Live the Musical!

Hear the Sweet Beat

It was a rough birth, but a great, weird, long life.

In November 1934, Cole Porter’s Anything Goes hit Broadway like a freight train, starring the powerhouse trio of Ethel Merman, William Gaxton, and the hilariously stoic, trembly-voiced comedian Victor Moore. It wasn’t Porter’s first show – he had already written scores for See America First (1916), Within the Quota (1923), Paris (1928), Wake Up and Dream (1929), The New Yorkers (1930), Gay Divorce (1932), and Nymph Errant (1933) – but Anything Goes was his best. So many of the songs would become American standards, and the show’s success and popularity would never really diminish, particularly after the boost from the 1962 off Broadway revival.

Originally, the show was called Hard to Get, then Bon Voyage, written mainly by Guy Bolton, with jokes by P.G. Wodehouse (pronounced WOOD-house), and it told a wacky tale of a trans-Atlantic crossing aboard a luxury liner, a wedding to be stopped, a disgruntled screenwriter concocting wacky disruptions (including a fake bomb), various romantic obstacles, and of course, mismatched lovers. (The first script was not about a shipwreck as some history books claim.)

The first composer that producer Vinton Freedley envisioned for the project was Jerome Kern, but Kern worked only with Otto Harbach and Oscar Hammerstein II at that time, and he wasn't interested. Freedley also considered George Gershwin, who was enmeshed in the creation of Porgy and Bess. Next on Freedley’s list was Cole Porter.

But then the real life shipwreck of the Morro Castle, killing 132 people, hit the headlines two days before the show went into rehearsal, and Freedley decided making a musical comedy about a fake bomb on board a luxury liner was no longer a good idea. So Freedley introduced the director, Howard Lindsay, to the columnist and press agent Russell Crouse and asked them to write a new book.

Lindsay and Crouse would go on to become one of the most successful writing teams in the American theatre, writing Life With Father and the scripts for Red, Hot, and Blue, Call Me Madam, and The Sound of Music, among other shows. Their 1945 play State of the Union won the Pulitzer Prize.

So the new bookwriters fashioned a new story around Porter’s now completed score (maybe this is why it's so easy to tinker with), reportedly retaining less than a dozen lines from the earlier version, this time about safer romantic hijinks aboard a luxury liner. The ship setting had to remain since sets were already built. In this new version, the steamship S.S. American (as a proxy for America itself) functions like Shakespeare’s woods, a place with no rules, where people find out who they really are and “correct” the mistakes they’ve made in the world of the City, a "free" place where lovers de-couple and re-couple.

The bad boy hero Billy Crocker was named for a college buddy of Porter’s at Yale, who helped finance some of Porter’s early shows. Moonface Martin, aka Reverend Dr. Moon, was originally named Moon Face Mooney, but during the Boston tryout, an ominous message was personally delivered to the theatre from an eccentric mobster in New Jersey who was not pleased to share his name with a musical comedy character.

Anything Goes ran 420 performances, the fourth longest run of the decade, and 261 performances in London in 1935. The New York Times called it “a thundering good show,” and “hilarious and dynamic entertainment.” The New York World-Telegram called it “a triumph,” and said, “You just must see it.” The Boston Post wrote, “It opened fast, it raced along; in liveliness and beauty, wit and humor, it weaved a spell of genuine enjoyment that far exceeds anything the stage has given us in many a season.”

A film version was made in 1936, initially announced with Bing Crosby as Billy, Queenie Smith as Reno LaGrange (!), and W.C. Fields as Moonface. When it was released, Merman was back in her role, with Crosby as Billy, and Charles Ruggles as Moonie. The film included six of Porter’s songs and six new songs by other writers. A shortened TV version was aired on NBC in 1954 with Merman, Frank Sinatra, and Bert Lahr, with some of the original score and other Porter songs added. A 1956 film version was made that had nothing to do with the show except the title and a few songs.

The show was revived off Broadway in 1962 with a revised script by Guy Bolton, moving the entire story onto the ship (cutting the opening bar scene), as well as cutting some lesser songs and adding several others from other Porter scores. It ran 239 performances. Then it hit London again in 1969 but ran only 15 performances. The show returned to Broadway in 1987 for an impressive 804 performances, and London once more in 1989. The 1987 version sported a new script by John Weidman and Timothy Crouse (son of Lindsay Crouse), based on the original and restoring more of the original score, including some previously cut songs. The show was revived again in London in 2002, directed by Trevor Nunn, and it returned to Broadway in 2011 in a version very close to the 1987 version.

Because of all these different versions of the show, there is no single definitive version. The 1934 script probably couldn't be produced today, and the 1934 score did have some less than brilliant songs. "Waltz Down the Aisle" doesn't even approach the skill of "I Get a Kick Out of You."

So maybe it's better that Anything Goes has changed over time. People today see productions of the '62 revival, and they assume the score was always packed with all those hits, but it wasn't. The show we know today really is superior to the original. I can't imagine this show without "Friendship," "De-Lovely," "Let's Misbehave," or "Take Me Back to Manhattan," but none of those songs were in the show in '34.

I guess maybe a constantly shifting score is exactly right for a show called Anything Goes. We say it's a "classic," but really, it's the revival thirty years later that's the classic. And that's fine. Whatever its circuitous path to our stage, it's still a fierce satire that totally nails some of the crazier impulses in our culture today.

And our culture in the 30s. And in the 60s, and 80s...

We've moved into the theatre, and now we just run this wild, wacky show at every rehearsal. We're having so much fun!

Long Live the Musical!

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